3:1— Post-Disciplinarity or “Committing Sociology” — Post 2 of 3

Fields of Illusion

It happened to me just a few months ago. I’d had the experience last year too; an engaged second year undergraduate had been the source of my discomfort some time ago. I am certain it happens in introductory classes on a recurrent basis at the start of each academic year. It probably happened to you at some point as well. “What do sociologists do?” A simple question. An honest question. The problem lies in the repertoire of possible responses to such an inquiry. On the spot and in the eager gaze of a hundred students, I relied on how I’d seen other profs approach this prickly question lately. The students let me speak of the supposed instrumental value of sociology, things like landing a job in government or at a not-for-profit. I highlighted transferable skills that they could put to use outside of academia like reading, writing and critical thinking. They leaned back and forth as I spoke of the importance of research, the link to policy, the virtue of knowledge, the importance of understanding root causes and historical ties between academia and activism. I may have overplayed my hand by the time I was interrupted. “But what do you do?” I had completely misunderstood the question. Collective pause. The emphasis was on doing. What sociologists do?

Lately there has been somewhat of a disjointed set of claims to be doing something: doing/undoing gender; doing/undoing race; doing/undoing ethics; doing/undoing culture; constructing/deconstructing; even one of STS’s ‘sacred cows’, Latour, has famously engaged in reassembling, a moniker for doing. What can all this doing do? Ventures of this kind, particularly when focused on categories of classification or taken-for-granted concepts, can be fruitful and (perhaps this is a page from the ‘social-sciences-as-reflexivity’ playbook) we ought to be engaged as reflexive researchers. But, as H.S. Becker reminds us: sometimes it’s a matter of context.

While departments are increasingly under measurement pressures imported from public administration and business models, the esteemed entrepreneur is said to be capable of harvesting external funding, albeit increasingly from non-traditional sources, to make-up for purloined research money. Alongside dwindling funding is a call to increase research outputs. Here, the traditional types of ‘products’- publications- are most praise worthy, while there exists a hardened reluctance from the administrative vantage point that alternative forms of dissemination, such as zines or social media, can have just as much, if not more, impact and readership. This atmosphere of doing more with less breeds a risk adverse culture towards inquiry where one is hesitant to spend the necessary amounts of time devoted to a single large project or undertake creative forms of research. So it isn’t all that surprising that there has been a rush to doing, a rush to claim importance through tangibles. However, more and more simply calling whatever it is doing isn’t enough. When some of us say we are doing, we are thinking, analyzing, debating, critiquing or challenging. Most often, rightly so. Harper’s comments on committing sociology point to this sensibility, I think.

What this culminates to, from where I sit, is that the university is being positioned as the de facto institution to train its members, its community and its students in how to be resilient. The aspired resilient subject accepts conditions of existence and internalizes strategies and tactics to navigate a given field. Rather than an impetus to change one’s environment, the resilient subject ideally copes and seeks-out contingency plans. The resilient subject is envisioned as capable of withstanding shocks and rebounding from catastrophe amidst uncertainty. The resilient subject is resourceful and instrumental in her perceived daily actions. It is this instrumentalist story that I was led to recite to a classroom of students. It is this focus on instrumentalism that Harper was recalling: don’t think too hard or ask intangible questions. Don’t be political. I remain unsure exactly what it means to commit sociology, but if I had to guess I’d say it’s something like a vocation, a commitment. That commitment is a political one. Maybe it needs to be recognized as such?

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3:1 — Post-Disciplinarity or “Committing Sociology” — Pre-Posting Post

keep-calm-and-commit-sociology-4*

We are continuing the 3:1 format into 2015. We are kicking off the New Year with a series of posts on Post-Disciplinarity or “Committing Sociology.” It might be a stretch to treat Post-Disciplinarity and Committing Sociology as synonyms, but we could not resist, and our panel of three scholars have some unique perspectives on the topic worth reviewing. This time, none of the blog administrators are going to contribute to this week’s 3:1 and instead we have a completely new group of scholars responding to, reflecting upon, and criticizing the notion of and instances of “committing sociology.”

This week contributors — who we are grateful to and eager to hear from — include:

Monday — 1 of 3 — Michael Lait: You might know him from his solid review of Lemke’s Biopolitics, Michael is a student at Carleton UniversitySociology and Anthropology working under rock n’ roll state theorist Bruce Curtis. Michael’s current work is about controversy: his “research maps the political situation of Gatineau Park, a 361km² semi-wilderness area located near the Canadian cities of Ottawa, Hull, and Gatineau. … [and, in particular,] how controversies have been mediated by the Park’s publics by way of formal and informal negotiations with the NCC as well as other institutional and government bodies.” He’ll fit right in around here.

Wednesday — 2 of 3 — Phillip Primeau: Phillip is also a graduate student in the same program as Michael at Carleton UniversitySociology and Anthropology. His research interests makes for a fine stable of topics: “Governmentality studies, historical sociology, moral regulation, state formation, municipal governance, community capacity building and resilience training.” He also, I have come to find, makes some killer Prezi presentations.

Friday — 3 of 3 — Aaron Henry: Like Michael and Phillip, Aaron is of the great program at Carleton UniversitySociology and Anthropology. Like me, Aaron is into states and state theory. He has a cool paper about how privacy figures into discussions/controversies regarding security and pacification that is worth reading. He works with Bruce too, but Justin Paulson appears to be his main advisor (I know Paulson only by reputation and a book he co-edit Capitalism and Confrontation).
Welcome aboard, gents!

* Image from: http://sd.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk/i/keep-calm-and-commit-sociology-4.png