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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Greetings, with a broad introduction

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Over the next month, I will share research from my book in progress, New Metaphors for Global Living. This research, through the hermeneutic potential of the life sciences and the theoretical insights of science, technology and society studies (STS) and new materialism, gestures toward an idea of connectedness of diverse bodies that broadens understandings of relationality, both as bodies in states, and as states in the international community. Specifically, I borrow genomic and immunological theory, as understood by new scientific research, to argue that heterogeneity is the condition of possibility for the production of new subjectivities and communities.  This is applied through metaphorical frames like the body politic and biomimicry.

A specific and central aim of this research is to apply sustained critical pressure to the individual and the state as currently defined in International Relations.  To aid in this critique, I create an analytical structure able to identify and celebrate plurality without erasing internal diversity, or coding the external as strange and dangerous to a perceived unity within.  I propose a pair of novel metaphorical framings to build a different conception of humanity’s myriad ties to world: Lively vessels and contaminated states provide new metaphors named for the processes that intertwine multiple bodies into composite ones.   These metaphorical conceits recognize that human agency is part of an assemblage of multiple actors, and called attention to the nonhuman beings that aid in keeping the human body, and its biosphere, alive.

International Relations joins in the dialogue between bodies and science by bringing the latter half its title to bear on the discussion: “relations” trumps the “inter-national” through the body politic as a nested set of permeable bodies rather than hard-shelled nation-states competing in anarchical conditions ruled by fear and exclusion. These metaphorical techniques, aided by STS and new materialism, create a language to discuss the processes that intertwine multiple bodies, both the social and the political.  It is crucial to rethink the politics that follow from these entanglements. The question then becomes: What kind of life is possible—what kind of body politic is neededif we think about “nestedness” and symbiosis rather than exclusion, competition, and purity?