This post is my response to a post by Soci Womyn and to the comments posted by fellow bloggers at: http://sociwomyn.blogspot.com/2007/01/gentleperson-scholar.html#comments. Check out the original debate and my response that follows.
Oh dear, my mind is spinning! Soci Womyn, your blog post hits close to home, as well as the ensuing comments by Mark and Paul.
I am reminded of when my sociological imagination began to bud as an undergraduate student. The world I trusted and had faith in started to collapse around me – and in response, I began to test out my new-found critical thinking skills on those around me. Not because I wanted to “peacock” (a term I use to describe unnecessary showcasing of one’s skills, knowledge, and abilities at the expense of others), but because the world I once found comfort and solace in was now foreign. I was inspired by this concept called the “social construction of reality” and intrigued that something called “the social” was happening in and around me. It was like I had found religion and was compelled to spread the word, except my mantra was, “Uhmm, hey, have you heard of this thing called social structure.” Arguments and debates with my roommate and his girlfriend, who coincidentally was also my best friend from high school, became commonplace. My roommate was a bit of a jokester so these debates had a fun-loving comical air to them. By contrast, conversations with my best friend, who was working while going to school full-time, were more argumentative in an emotionally-laden way.
I remember vividly one dinner time discussion, the topic being the upcoming provincial election. For the first time ever we were able to exercise our democratic right to vote and we took this new-found responsibility seriously. As an outcrop of finding the “social” was my development of a left of centre political point of view. During our debate that night, my friend aptly pointed out my position of privilege as a doctor’s daughter who wore a gold necklace around her neck and did not have to work long hours while struggling to meet the requirements imposed by a full-time course load.
I learned a few valuable lessons from this incident – after recovering from the initial shock of not speaking to this friend afterwards for two whole weeks. First, not everyone is going to find the sociological worldview as valuable as I do. Moreover, you have to be cognizant of what you preach and the extent to which your actions measure up to what your mouth espouses. With that being said, I take seriously we are all “walking contradictions” in our everyday lives; it is not always easy to practice what you preach. Yet, there are consequences for the value of what you say if you fail to verbalize self-awareness of your own positionality and privilege in relation to this, even in spite of the fact we all come from different social locations. In my close personal relationships, I am often an open-book. If I am asked to give advice, I feel compelled to contextualize it, and explain under what circumstances in my own life I learned this piece of so-called wisdom.
What I take away as important from the preceding discussion concerning the “gentlemanly” scholarly stance – is a plea for us as sociologists to pontificate seriously the question, “What kind of sociologist do we want to be?” This question not only needs to be considered within the walls of the ivory tower when we deliberate which theories and methodologies we align ourselves with, and consider the consequences each will have on our topic and for those we study, but outside the walls of academia as well, like Paul suggests, in our communications with close friends, family, acquaintances and the like.
We need to be cognizant that although we may take seriously the stakes of the academic “game,” other people do not. Rather, they are caught up in and busy playing their own games. Bourdieu reminds us with his concept of “illusio” the need to recognize that people’s actions reflect what stakes people feel compelled to take seriously, and conversely, what stakes they are unable to take seriously. Of interest to Bourdieu was what he called the “scholastic disposition,” which was his attempt to remind present day scholars of the exceptional historical and social conditions that make possible a particular mode of scholastic reason characterized by self-evidence and naturalness. In his critique of scholastic reason and on his way towards envisioning a way out of present day thought policing necessitated by taking seriously the stakes of the intellectual game, Bourdieu questions whether a philosopher can be a philosopher, if they do not play by the rules of the game?
A similar lesson is learned from the works of Foucault. Foucault sought to understand the process through which individuals come to think of themselves as particular kinds of subjects. That is, he sought to make us think about the ways in which we are constituted as particular kinds of subjects, so that we can make informed decisions about the kind of work we want to do on our bodies, or about the kinds of subjects we want to be.
Bourdieu’s intent in fleshing out the historically and institutionally specified nature of the scholastic disposition is not to humiliate and debase the works of the philosopher or of philosophy, but to find some way to free academics from the constraints and limitations imposed upon them by being situated within this particular social space. By calling attention to the nature of our scholastic disposition, that being the conventions and norms implicit in our lives as academics, we might be able shake up “the system of barriers that the philosophical system has set up to block awareness of the scholastic illusion” (Bourdieu, 1997: 30).
If we continue to play the game as it stands, even while pontificating to the best of our abilities what type of sociologist we want to be, we are going to be “walking contradictions” in our academic lives. I’m content being a walking contradiction, that is, playing the game, and taking seriously the stakes of the game, while all the while trying to the best of my ability as a doctoral student to figure out how to play the game differently – that is, rattle up and reveal the system of barriers. The road less traveled, such as that offered up by a new theoretical standpoint such as actor-network theory, I hope will allow me to be a somewhat content “walking contradiction” sociologist. Wish me luck in my endeavour!