This Academic Life
  Recognition is central
Several months ago I had agreed to produce a chapter for a "handbook." Handbooks in the social sciences are a rather odd institution, serving mainly as reading sources for graduate student syllabi as well as for scholars hoping to gain quick familiarity with a literature or approach with which they are not already familiar. Handbooks also serve an important function in terms of the sociology of disciplinary knowledge, in that they consolidate a kind of official line on issues, functioning in a way similar to the textbooks characteristic of the physical sciences (brilliantly analyzed by Thomas Kuhn, among others). It's a little odd for me, as a junior scholar, to be contributing to something like this, but the handbook in question is kind of a heterodox compilation to begin with, so there is some sense to it.

Even within this heterodox compilation, though, my position is somewhat extreme. My piece calls into question the fairly widespread social scientific practice of comparing across precisely delineated events to produce cross-case generalizations, and instead radicalizes the focus on mechanisms and processes to argue that we should be concentrating on "eventing" -- the practice(s) by which some set of occurrences is made meaningful as an "event" in the first place. Social construction all the way down, in other words, at least analytically.

But the point is that my chapter is a little extreme even for this collection. So I was deeply gratified when the editors of the volume -- both quite senior scholars -- informed me that they found the piece "sparkling" and "dazzling," and wanted me to simply play up the fact that mine is a heterodox take. That I can do.

The lesson here, I think, is that academic standing is highly recognition-dependent. I like my position and feel that it is defensible, but having senior scholars acknowledge that (even if they don't buy the content of the position entirely) feels extremely nice. It's not that I would change my position if senior people didn't approve, but that having some of them in my corner personally (if not entirely substantively) reassures me that I can actually do this and be taken seriously. It must be very hard to be an academic without that kind of recognition and support. Part of the whole game involves bolstering those scholars who you find interesting, largely by citing them and then when you are more senior by including them in projects like this handbook; the image of disconnected thinkers puzzling away at their computers is quite misleading. Hence, I feel like I am beginning to "arrive" in some sense. It's a good feeling.

There is undoubtedly something to the Hegelian argument that mutual recognition is central to sociality, and is transcendentally presupposed even (and perhaps especially) in civil conflicts with opponents. But I don't think that much in particular follows from this in ethical or moral terms. Senior scholars including me in a handbook and granting me a measure of recognition is an exercise of discursive power in an effort to shape the discipline and the knowledge that it sustains. It's a powerful tool, but in no way devoid of strategy: they recognize not my "inherent worth" or the pure rational force of my argument (after all, they don't actually agree with the substance of my position on all particulars), but in a sense acknowledge that my contribution is useful to the larger project in which they are involved. And I'm perfectly fine with that.

(Note that I am not necessarily attributing instrumental motives to senior scholars or anyone else here; the point is not that this is a deliberate calculation, but that the intersubjective intention of the act is through and through strategic. Motive might correspond to intention in this case, but it need not. And how would you ever know, anyway?)

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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