This Academic Life
  The Sociology of the Discipline
I was at a conference in Amsterdam most of last week, staying in a house at the beach with five other members of the Fellowship (a loose grouping of "critical" scholars interested in social theory and pedagogy -- big round of applause for Elven Archer #37 for organizing this). Busy week for me: two paper presentations (one co-authored piece that I took the lead in presenting, the other a single-authored and unfortunately incomplete paper on Weber and the methodology of the social sciences), one discussant gig on the absolute last panel session of the conference, and in between several "working" dinners and lunches featuring intense discussion of a number of weighty issues. (And yes, we did have some fun too; the trip to Utrecht on the last day was largely recreational, although the discussion on the drive back to Amsterdam was most illuminating.)

If I had to pick one issue that dominated all of our reflections and discussions and arguments, I would have to say that it was the sociology of the discipline. "Critical" scholars in any scientific discipline, I'd wager, are always more interested in this topic than those more centrally located in the social apparatus of knowledge production; the overarching narrative of "science" is that the succession of findings and positions represents some measure of progress, and hence those on top of the prestige hierarchy require no special analysis of how they got their positions: their work has made progress on older work, and this justifies their centrality to the discipline as a whole. But to more critical scholars, the hierarchy of the discipline (and let's not kid ourselves here: every discipline, even those that do not constitute themselves as "scientific" in the same way as mine does, has a hierarchy of journals, presses, universities, and individual scholars, even if that hierarchy is more or less malleable over time) is anything but the result of some kind of classically objective process of neutrally sifting through arguments to eliminate the weaker ones and permit the strongest to survive. Instead, disciplinary hierarchies are constructed in inescapably power-laden ways, ranging from the "gatekeeping" function performed by journal editors and peer reviewers to the outright coercive tactics of unsolicited letters trying to torpedo someone's tenure review process or to prevent them from getting a particular job.

Yes, this stuff happens. We all know it, but we don't usually talk much about it -- at least not in public and while sober. But it was almost the entirety of the hallway and mealtime conversation that was generated by the conference; indeed, it is almost the entirety of the hallway and mealtime conversation generated by virtually every conference I have ever been to. (I suspect that even those in the center of the discipline engage in such discussions from time to time -- not about themselves, of course, but about insurgent movements and how best to contain them. But I am not now, nor are particularly likely to be in the foreseeable future, privy to any of those discussions, so I can only speculate.) In this sense, a conference is largely an opportunity for disciplinary self-reflection, with the manifest content of papers presented standing in a very unclear relationship to the business of the conference (except, of course, for papers and panels directly on the sociology of the discipline.)

So what did I learn from these discussions at this particular conference?

1) "the discipline" is a very ambiguous notion, and how you understand it depends a great deal on local context. I knew this before, but having it presented rather dramatically in the form of wildly divergent evaluations of particular authors and works and occurrences drives the point home in a more profound way. Two specific stories. One night at dinner we were discussing a particular scholar (let's call him Frodo, because much of the Fellowship is convinced that he is on a mission to destroy the One Ring -- which in this instance represents classical objectivity and absolute certainty -- but may or may not have succumbed to the seduction of the power represented by the One Ring as he goes about his dangerous quest) and his impact on the discipline. The Americans involved in the conversation were by and large grateful to Frodo for his efforts to open discursive space for our arguments, and for directly or indirectly helping to support our careers. The Europeans, by contrast, were by and large more interested in criticizing the intellectual coherence of Frodo's work, and were not impressed by the American argument that Frodo's work needs to be understood as a disciplinary intervention rather than as a piece of decontextualized theory. And this divergence, I think, stems ultimately from the fact that Frodo's intervention was not as important to European scholars' careers as it has arguably been for American scholars. So "the discipline" is more localized than we might think at first.

Second story. The co-authored paper that I presented is a remapping exercise, an effort to reorganize axes of debate so as to open space for different kinds of conversations than those that are currently going on. Our sense of what kinds of conversations are going on, of course, is American-centric, having to do with American journals and the issues that make their way into the American academy understood more broadly. Surprise, surprise: non-American scholars, or those based outside of the United States and hence not as directly dependent on the American disciplinary structure for their professional success, see other conversations as the important ones and thus tend to perceive more space for different kinds of work. They thus understand our intervention as unnecessary, by and large, since the relevant movement to the conversations that we would like to see has already happened -- it is just happening in journals and other locations that are far removed from the American scene.

Hence: the intervention might indeed be necessary in one context, but not in another. This gets complicated by the fact that the American context tends to dominate the others, so I'd suggest that even the Europeans would benefit from our intervention in particular ways. But I can see how it might not be seen as anything like an urgent priority.

2) this differential sense of "the discipline" also extends to individuals, even those based within the same national context. Again, not a new revelation, but one made much more concrete by agonizing conversations about Frodo, and about job searches, and horror stories about "blind" peer review processes, etc. A senior figure who acts as a patron for one of us (for Boromir, in this case -- yes, we pretty much all have LotR names too, because we're all big fantasy/SF geeks, and proud of it too) is regarded by others of us as incoherent and unproductive. When one entered the discipline also plays a role; Frodo's intervention was important for scholars who tried to get jobs in the late 1990s, but maybe not so important for those who were established earlier. And how one evaluates Frodo has a lot to do with one's view of the discipline, and one's view of what would have happened in the discipline absent that intervention.

Simply referring to "the discipline," as we all do, does not mean that we are referring to the same thing. There are some family resemblances between my view of the discipline and, say, Boromir's (who somewhat disingenuously claims not be concerned with the discipline, but when you engage him in conversation you discover that he has obviously spent a lot of time thinking deeply about these issues). I would submit that it takes real effort not to operate with a view of the discipline, and not to spend time thinking about the sociology of knowledge in one's discipline; I know people who try to go on pretending that knowledge is produced in a decontextual manner, and that they can simply think their own thoughts in the privacy of their own office or their own classroom or in their own little circle of intimates, and ignore the way that the discipline shapes even the most private of reflections. Not in a totalizing way, of course, but in a rather profound way all the same.

Let me be a little more specific here. By "the discipline" I mean a particular configuration of social relations and network connections between scholars, journals, and universities/institutes/think tanks (there are a few that are important to my discipline). Such a configuration is composed, as all such configurations are according to my relational analytic, of the ongoing practices by which cultural resources are deployed, (re)imagined, and utilized. The content of those resources is the intellectual content of the papers and articles and books that we produce, together with the standards for evaluating scholarship which sometimes don't show up in our work explicitly. So to speak of "the discipline" at any one point in time is to take a snapshot of those social arrangements, emphasizing certain connections rather than others, in standard ideal-typical fashion; when we do this as practitioners we are arresting social processes in order to achieve some goal, and when we do it as analysts we are tracing that arrestation in a grounded empirical manner.

What follows? Well, for one thing, it makes no sense to say that "the discipline" causes anything or generates any outcomes. One could make the "structural selectivity" argument, and claim that the structure of the discipline at any one point in time affects the knowledge that can be legitimately produced (i.e. find its way into print in one of the major journals, and start to shape the general debate), but this reification of the patterns of social relations in question ignores the ongoing (re)production of those social relations in practice, and thus eliminates the possibility that the discipline might be reconfigured by any particular intervention into it. (This is the same argument as the claim that capitalism generates capitalist policies, or that the anarchic structure of the international system generates policies that sustain anarchy, and it's just as tautological if pressed to extremes.) "Structures" don't do anything, but practices do.

Case in point: at this conference a colleague offered her discussant comments on two sociology-of-the-discipline papers, and commented that the narrowing of theoretical discourse in the field had a lot to do with the narrow-minded people running a particular, top-ranked journal that often sets the standard for "good" work. A member of that journal's editorial advisory board, who was sitting in the audience, berated my colleague, calling her professionally unethical and generally presenting a more decontextualized view of knowledge production -- i.e. the dominant self-legitimating narrative of those in the discipline's center at this point in time. This policing -- or what a senior colleague who has been a great inspiration for the Fellowship (is he Elrond? Gandalf? I forget) calls "the disciplining of the discipline" -- is the thing that has effects, and does so in particular situations rather than in general.

The point here is that to speak of "the discipline" is to engage in an active process of construction, by which particular aspects of the mass of stuff that we all experience in our daily lives as academics gets separated out and held up as important. And the sort of work that one produces depends, I think, in large measure on how one's own conception of "the discipline" and one's role within it interacts with the conceptions held and promulgated by others. This is not an "ideational" claim; I am not saying that simply thinking about the discipline in a certain way can change the fate of one's article at a major "gatekeeping" journal. Social relations are intersubjective rather than subjective or classically objective, so they can be discovered by individuals as though they were simply part of the environment, even though we remain internal to those relations and may in fact be contributing to their (re)production without being aware of this. And there is no possible final account of "the discipline" or even of particular parts of it; there is only local consensus formed either through conversation about the issue or through more or less authoritative deployments (for instance, in intro field survey courses in graduate school -- even though these typically leave the sociology of the discipline by the wayside).

But even in the absence of consensus, discussions about the discipline help us to locate ourselves, and also help us to target our interventions at some part of the overall patterns of social relations that surrounds us -- and out of which knowledge is produced. This is important, IMHO, because the dominant discussions in the discipline -- the ones that show up in the pages of major journals, and dominate the intellectual/substantive component of major conferences -- are, whether we like it or not, the primary orientation for our thinking. We are in our particular disciplines for a reason, and that discipline has a specific history and a set of contexts into and out of which one can legitimately speak. In order to publish, or to appear on conference programs, one needs to work through some of those spaces. And if the dominant conversations shift too far away from your work, you run the risk of no longer having any way to reach an audience -- and also the risk that space for your work will be all but eliminated, leaving you a forgotten relic unable to have conversations with anyone else in the discipline, because they no longer have the conceptual and analytical tools to understand what you are saying. There's the fate worse than death: complete isolation.

This is why talk about the discipline, and the sociology of the discipline, strikes me as an important product of conferences. Perhaps the most important part. If one ignores the discipline, one gets passed by, or maybe directly policed.

3) at this conference I also discovered that not everyone thinks about panel presentations as part of a status game, or as something that could in principle be scored competitively. I have always understood panels as opportunities to score points, make a name for oneself, cut a figure in the room and maybe leave a lasting impression, and I have always thought that one did this largely by engaging and arguing with the arguments offered by others on the panel or in the audience. At no time have I really considered a panel an opportunity to have a conversation with anyone -- it's configured in a way that makes this very problematic as long as "the panel" is ongoing. (One can also use a panel as an opportunity to locate people with whom one would like to have a longer, more leisurely conversation afterwards, but this seems to me a strangely inefficient way of connecting people. Why not skip the panel and go straight to the discussion?) Panels as instruments for producing prestige makes sense to me; I grasp those rules and can generally play that game. Panels as point-scoring? Same logic. And the distance between point-scoring and offering arguments that engage the other's work is very little, I think; engagement does involve scoring points, finding salient agreements and disagreements, and so forth. Such an engagement might be started in a panel setting, but in my experience that happens rarely.

[Perhaps relevant aside: part of our discussion about this issue involved the fact that Strider and I, in particular, are very demanding in our rules of engagement. Neither of us tends to suffer fools gladly, so to speak, and we tend not to be very charitable when offering a question or comment to an established figure in the discipline -- if they're established, they ought to a) be able to defend their arguments and b) want to do so in a relatively sophisticated way. If they are so little invested in their arguments that they don't care to defend them, why did they articulate them in the first place? Not that I am suggesting that authors have some kind of privileged relationship to their arguments, or that they ought to feel personally attacked when someone criticizes the argument; rather, it's the opposite: one offers arguments so that one can be critiqued and engaged. Substance -- whether empirical or theoretical -- is a vehicle for the really important stuff, which is the kind of spiritual connexion that engenders intersubjective worlding and the contingent blending of souls. The prerequisite is that the substance has to be of high enough quality that the interlocutors don't get hung up on the technical details of the argument, since that stops the flow and terminates the connexion. That's how it works for me, at any rate: interlocutors have to be coherent enough that the process can flow on unimpeded. I can't get past that, and I see no reason to try, unless one is talking to one's students. More on that below.]

But some members of the Fellowship made the argument last night (and well into the morning) that panels were instead opportunities to connect to what a speaker is trying to say, and then to help her or him to clarify that and make the argument tighter. Panel as pedagogy, essentially: treat one's interlocutors in the panel setting as generously as one would treat one's students. I am somewhat sympathetic to this point of view, especially if one is addressing the work of younger scholars while occupying the discussant role. But as an audience-member confronted with an utterly incoherent combination of claims, this demands an extraordinary amount of patience and charity. (Boromir argued that it was actually self-serving too, inasmuch as there is always something worth hearing -- something that you need to hear -- in every argument. I am not convinced of this, having sat through many panels where the approximate level of interesting content was quite near absolute zero, either because of total incoherence or because of the conflation of science and politics to the point where a rant becomes a piece of scholarship. Call me crazy, but I do not see the value in either incoherent mishmashes or political screeds. I see neither scholarly value nor moral value there, and hence I see little or nothing to engage with productively.)

I am not that patient in a panel setting unless I'm discussing a younger scholar's work, and virtually never as an audience member asking a question, although I can be and usually am that patient in the classroom. But that has to do, IMHO, with a certain pattern of authority relations that are implicated in the classroom setting; I can dismantle aspects of my professorial authority only inasmuch as I can never escape that subject-position fully because I keep re-occupying it at the conclusion of every class session. I think that there are significant differences between the classroom and a panel, or between a mentor-mentee relationship and the reader-author relationship that is mediated by a piece of writing. Panels, I think, aren't for pedagogy. Neither are articles. Books, maybe -- some books. But written work is largely about research, which I understand as the systematic application of value-premises, and panels are about status, performance, and argument between putative equals. So why do I need to be patient and charitable? You made your claim; here's my criticism; now respond in kind, or go home.

For me, at any rate, a conference should be organized around the intellectual content of the papers presented. Engaging with that content, and having meaningful exchanges about it, is the point of the conference. But this rarely, if ever, happens during a panel session, because of the posturing and status-generation. A second aspect of a conference is to throw people together in close proximity to the center of the discipline, thus more or less engendering or encouraging conversations about the sociology of the discipline. (Not that any of this is deliberate, I think, except in the case of a really well-organized conference in which research communities have threads of panels to follow through the program, and ample opportunity to eat and drink and snack together between sessions.) And a third function is to, in effect, find students and interlocutors in places other than one's home institution: grad students in other programs, colleagues going down the same pathway, and so forth.

So this all comes back to engagement with one another, and to the formation and strengthening and modification of the social contexts out of which knowledge is produced. The sociology of the discipline is a useful tool for advancing this goal, I think, but it's a means rather than an end. Done well, it can remove obstacles to connexion, and promote the kind of self-reflection that loosens things up and gets spirit flowing again. But ultimately, we social scientists generate connexions by engaging in conversations about stuff, whether that stuff be empirical or conceptual/theoretical. Privileging the sociology of the discipline, or at least giving it increased prominence, might further these kinds of conversations, but I'd hate for it to become all that we ever talked about. That strikes me as its own kind of trap, and its own kind of dead end. Without conceptual and empirical work, what would we have to be self-reflexive about?

Also, we had a decent talk about what "postcolonial anger" was. I still don't think it's important to an evaluation of po-co work, but that's a different entry altogether.

[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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