Pierre Bourdieu

Bourdieu's field

Yesterday afternoon, I saw Fincher’s The Social Network with fingers-crossed that Sorkin’s bantery dialogue wouldn’t cause me to cringe like a bad number on Glee. I’ll blog about the film on rhizomicon this weekend, but the film reminded me of several aspects of the sociology of online spaces I’ve been mulling over. The film depicted Harvard in 2003 where a hierarchical social order existed in the face-to-face realm. Mark Zuckerberg ran with the idea of taking the collegiate de Certeauean everyday, in all of its mundane glory…online

Facebook is perhaps the perfect Web 2.0 app. User-driven content, interactive information sharing within social networks, etc. etc. Facebook allows users to create multidimensional fielded networks, using Bourdieu’s concept of field/champs. Here’s a summary from an Economist article from last year on the sociology of Facebook, based on how people use the site.

Not surprisingly, we tend to interact with a finite number of other people in our social networks. I’m thinking that as we move into Web 3.0, there will be pressure towards…a diversity of ties. We will be able to interact with others not on the basis of extant contacts and networks, but on other dimensions that may even be latent, e.g., a penchant for music in 3/4 time or a love of books with socialist themes.

Last.fm genre visualization, using Tulip & Pajek

Last.fm allows users to find others that have similar musical tastes, find similar bands to those with profiles, and friend others. Here’s an analysis {in French} of a Last.fm network [Google translation] with great interactive visualizations. Each artist on Last.fm has users who like and listen to them. The data is being ported to other sites, such as Songkick, that uses feeds to populate a database of live shows. I think it’s a powerful concept to be able to find like-minded others who might be right next door or around the globe.

Web 3.0 or the semantic web won’t destroy Web 2.0, but will shift focus from user-driven content to the utilization of users’ data. This will push social networking away from user-defined networks and I feel it will foster more tie diversity, not necessarily in terms of demographics, although this is a possibility, but in terms of geography and psychographics. Will Facebook be able to adapt to a scenario of users’ forging multiplex ties based on data or will it get bogged down with user expectations of what the site means to them and those clinginging to the notion of privacy?

Butler Library, Columbia University, 20 August 2005, by Kenneth M. Kambara

Recently, in the Chronicle of Higher Education {I sometimes refer to it as the “chronic of high ed” on Twitter, cue rimshot  }, there have been articles on the dearth of jobs for academics in the humanities. “Thomas Benton’s” “The Big Lie was countered with James Mullholland’s “Neither a Trap nor a Lie“.

I won’t weigh in on the discussion about the state of academic careers in the humanities, as the above articles and comments have done that for me. My focus is on the structural issues of this situation. Moreover, I think many should heed what is going on here, as it’s a case of too many applicants searching for too-few jobs. Unless the job losses from the Big Recession are replaced, I’m afraid many middle-class wage earners will be facing the same situation, resulting in employees being at a disadvantage in the power dynamics of the labour market.

The humanities offer a rich corpus of knowledge that can be used to address issues of the day. I recall heading to lectures by Jacques Derrida on forgiveness at the UC-Irvine Critical Theory Institute, as well as talks by scholars such as W. J. T. Mitchell on images and Anne Friedberg on the metaphor of the window. Universities see value in offering courses in the humanities, but in the business of higher education, the model results in an oversupply of labour. In a gross simplification, humanities {and social science} graduate students are taken on to teach discussion sections as cheap labour that results in more doctorate degree holders than the market will bear. Even if graduate students are warned of the job market, nobody expect’s the Spanish inquisition. Universities seeking to maximize efficiencies not only draw upon graduate students, but also well-qualified adjuncts at discounted wages. The humanities, in my opinion, often suffer from a public relations problem. In a sense, they can be the ivoriest of the ivory tower, often communicating in a dense linguistic code that causes lay audiences to scratch their heads. Phallogocentrism? Huh? While I’m not advocating that the humanities need to be applied in nature, I feel there is a need for their staking of a claim for relevance.

Is there a need for a rethinking and a restructuring of academe? Are departments creating silos of knowledge based on fields? Should curricula be reconceptualized?

I’m sure these questions will resonate with many and strike fear into the hearts of others. Hence, these questions are ones that can be readily addressed by organizational sociology. Academe is one of the last feudal systems. This doesn’t mean that all universities are terrible places, but that context is everything, as they are structures with power relations and resource allocations that are highly idiosyncratic. Moreover, they are businesses with cost and profit centres. While Bourdieuean {huh? what?} analysis that incorporates::

  1. Field. Social space where individuals and groups vie for dominance
  2. Habitus. The social norms and rules affecting behaviours
  3. Capital. Economic, symbolic, knowledge, and relational resources used by individuals and groups.

could illuminate institutional dynamics, I’m afraid it will also illuminate how difficult change will be without a radical discontinuity, e.g., financial exigency. There also is the question of values, as well as what is valued.

I’m actually in favour of a life of the mind and I see the value in humanistic inquiry to society and in an everyday sense. I feel how the humanities are currently situated within universities is often problematic, in that there’s a social reproduction of humanistic fields that, in my opinion, limit how the humanities can impact society. I hope for more cross-disciplinary modes of inquiry that span how fields are currently defined. While some may balk at this, I’m also for the humanities {and social sciences} as being more popularized, but which institutions would take this on.

Twitterversion:: Thoughts on the life of the mind & the role of the humanities. #ThickCulture @Prof_K

Song:: Ministry-“So What”

Logan Pass-Glacier National Park US, 17 July 2006
Logan Pass-Glacier National Park US, 17 July 2006

In the classroom and with conversations with researchers, I’ve discussed the idea that the environment is a luxury, in light of more pressing matters, such as food, jobs, etc. So, if we have a negative by-product of an activity {an externality such as pollution}, it creates a social cost that may be unfairly borne by others.  A key question is how to allocate such social costs, in light of competing interests?  What if these social costs in the form of taxes harm employers to the point where jobs are threatened?  Which should prevail?

The problem is that the value of the environment is not straightforward, as they often relate to a quality of life that is embedded in particulars, not universals.  When I lived in southern California, life without a car outside of Los Angeles would have been challenging.  My housing choices would be limited, possibly affecting my quality of life.  As it turned out, my decisions were independent of my environmental impact.  I had a 20 mile commute, albeit in a hybrid, but my choices affected everyone’s quality of life in terms of pollution, as well as the amounts of global greenhouse gasses.  Should policy affect choices like this?

In our everyday lives, we all have a set of practices that we take for granted.  In Pierre Bourdieu’s parlance, this would be habitus.  These practices are tied to environmental outcomes, whether we’re aware of them or not.  We only seem to be aware of them through consciousness or cost.

I don’t think the environment is a luxury that should take a back seat in an economic downturn, as it holds sacred the current mode of production and the current practices tied to it.  Of course, this could be disruptive, but should something that’s disruptive be avoided because of the uncertainty it generates?

Let’s assume the environment is a luxury when it comes to sustainable foods.  Organics should be toast in a recession, considered to be an overpriced luxury for most consumers.  In the UK, a Guardian article notes that consumers are less willing to spend on ethically-produced products {e.g., fairtrade} and organics, but are still want quality and are willing to pay a price-premium for locally-grown produce.  This shows how complicated markets can be, how consumers’ preferences shift, and creates implications for local production and land-use in Britain, creating challenges and opportunities for sustainable agriculture.  Habitus.

Policy can “incentivize” innovation, by enforcing standards such as those mandating increased fuel efficiency {CAFE standards in the US; CAFC guidelines in Canada}, state emissions testing, and the sale of lower-emissions vehicles.  Such approaches often are mired within institutional battlegrounds, places where economic sociology offer great insights.  While environmental policies enforcing change are disruptive and force auto manufacturers to move towards a different mode of production, the end societal results can be positive.  I agree with Alexandra Shimo of Macleans that the recession is bad for the environment, as oil prices fall, the incentives for the development of alternatives to fossil fuels wane.

So, is the environment a luxury?  Well, it may well be akin to the diamond-water paradox.  Why are diamonds so expensive relative to water, where the latter we need to live.  Scarcity.  If we just allow the market to dictate decision-making, we unfortunately will only value the environment when we perceive it as growing scarce.  Will that be too late?

Twitterversion:: Some argue that environmentalism and sustainability is a luxury, as when push comes to shove, pragmatics dictate pressing concerns prevail. @Prof_K

Song:: Honey Honey (BBC Sessions) – Feist on the Green Owl compilationlyrics

Video:: Talking Heads- “Nothing But Flowers” w/ Johnny Marr & Kirsty MacColl