"…man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning".
(Geertz, 1973, p.5).
I am a dyed-in-the-wool Sci-Fi fan, a particular kind of fringe Trekkie. Yes, the original series was excellent, and yes, The Next Generation was a masterclass in contemporary Sci-Fi. But Picard, whose second season airs this week, is the best series within the Star Trek franchise. Don't ask me to prove It, I just know it's true.
I am terrified of squid. They seem like such odd creatures, three hearts, eight legs, and God knows how many suction cups (alas, I'm sure somebody other than God knows, people do research this type of thing). They would make a terrible pet! Don't ask me to explain why I think that; I just know it's true.
I am a political junkie. I follow US politics daily, whether reviewing the latest polling from 538, reading op-ed pieces from the Washington Post or listening to the latest podcast episode from Politicology or The Lincoln Project. I think Jamie Raskin is America's most extraordinary political asset. Please, again, don't ask me to explain why; I just know it's true.
I came to academia with an entire world of 'knowings', views and values that were developed throughout my life. I believed that eating meat was morally wrong. I found the idea of discrimination repugnant. These truths I took to be self-evident; they were part of my conceptions of what was natural, normal and common-sense (words I have learned never to use within an academic setting unless to critique them). By the time I had written my first assignment, as part of my undergraduate sociology class, I had outlined my views on various topics, including my early challenges with mental health. I advocated for what I regrettably called 'a better world'. I failed the assignment.
I took this quite personally; surely, the points I made were valid? And yes, they were. I maintain that they still are. But I discovered that the issue was not with what I had said, it with was the way I had said it. The problem was not that the views were misguided, they simply pointed to my own biases and highlighted that I had not fully engaged with the scholarly material needed to support an argument or position suitable for an academic readership. The sweeping generalisations, the inherent bias along with the advocacy laden language, the use of my preconceived 'knowings' as some type of legitimate evidence. I did what no good academic should do – I presented my personal opinion as fact.
This issue of 'just knowing it's true' was not limited to academia. It was not something that I reconciled during my undergrad. My emotions regarding various topics have often informed how I act in heated situations, especially in the context of civil rights.
The Irish constitution states that any amendments need to be put to a public vote - a referendum. In 2015 one such referendum was called to decide the question of same-sex marriage. I was campaigning for a Yes vote along with various civil rights groups and other organisations. When the debate proper started in April 2015, the arguments being put forward by the No side were well-rehearsed. These groups were religious in orientation and association. However, given the complete decline of the Catholic church within Irish society, they made sure to make no explicit reference to church teachings. I felt that their arguments were poor, but that they were well-developed. On the other hand, I argued from the perspective of feelings, 'just knowings.' Even the idea of putting civil rights to a public vote was so exhausting. It was here that I and others who supported the amendment learned an early lesson and, as such, adapted our approach. Feelings were ineffective within the context of a direct debate. The inclusive views and opinions that seemed so self-evident undermined my ability to adequately engage with the debate in an evidence-informed, scientific manner. My 'knowings' were not enough to convince people at those early debates during those vital opportunities for possible public persuasion.
Back to the Uni!
So, what of these 'knowings,' and how can we avoid relying on our personal views alone in supporting the arguments we make in our coursework assignments? For me, the goal was to deconstruct my assumptions and try to determine how I had come to believe the things I did in the first place. As Mills (2000) argues, you cannot separate the person from their historical context. Values are not inherent things. They, like all elements of our social and cultural lives, are learned. Such reflective practice is not always a comfortable process. It challenges us to do something which we rarely wish to do, to surrender the certainties we hold, or plausibility structures (Berger, 1969) under which we live, and to critically embrace what may be uncomfortable reflections about our preconceived values. Such an exercise often invites us to develop what Swidler (2001; 1986) refers to as our cultural toolkits – our databases of inherent 'knowings' which we deploy in everyday life. Here, critical thinking can be used as a type of cognitive catalyst that, while it may cause us discomfort, hopefully seeds our personal growth.
Emotive and Critical Knowings
Might it then be the case that our personal views, feelings, and private lived experiences have no place within academia, within our written work and our submissions? Is academic enquiry to be seen as purely formal and somewhat rigid? Is there no place of emotional 'knowings'? Certainly not. Researchers have long looked to understand the personal and subjective aspects of human life, the lived experience of others. Within the field of cultural sociology, the goal is to better understand the motivation behind an individual's actions, to test for a correlation between what people think and what they do. This is the foundational seed of the qualitative tradition, built on what we might call a theoretical subjective focus or cognitive cement, i.e., the fields of phenomenology, symbolic interactionism and, to a limited extent, grounded theory.
Within Sociology, Max Weber was a foundational figure in this regard, coining the term Verstehen (understanding). Researchers who have adopted Weber's approach in their research often point to the fact (something I certainly misunderstood during my time as a undergrad student who occasionally turned up to three classes a week) that people often hold contradictory ideas in their heads – in other words, that they often act in ways that are at odds with their thinking. This has been well documented in politics, where people frequently seem to vote against their interests. In the case of my example regarding Ireland's 2015 referendum on same-sex marriage, it was often the case that feelings and emotions did indeed reach people and helped to inform their vote. The issue was - as with that first submission as an undergrad student - that the ways we engage with evidence and the use of our 'knowings' or evidence in our daily lives vary. Again, the key is understanding which type of 'evidence' is called for, which 'knowing' key fits the right situational and context-dependent lock.
Life after Death, I mean, Graduation
Of course, within our everyday lives, we rarely have time to marinate in academic journals or scholarly titles. After a weary day, I am more likely to eat a book than read one. I might be tempted by an audiobook, but it would probably be on something to do with making vegan quiche or how to protect oneself from a squid attack on land. However, when we have the time or when a particular topic we care deeply about propels us into a type of DEFCON 1 for activism, a critical engagement with scholarly literature can be a worthwhile endeavour. The academic skills that students develop during their time here at Arden are time-rich and deeply transferable. These skills can provide you with an advanced critical thinking playbook, a means to inform an evidence-based focus, and a more conscious attempt to arrive at a more intuitive place of personal opinion. They can allow you to be sceptical, in the greatest sense of the word, to look at the familiar and make it strange. These skills can enable us to untangle our own personal webs of meaning. For me, this critical engagement with my 'preconceived knowings' repeatedly bears fruit. It reminding me, at least sometimes, to never believe something just because someone told me it was true.
Don't believe me? That's the spirit!
Berger, P., (1969). The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion: New York: Anchor Books.
Geertz, C., (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books.
Mills, C., M., (2000). The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.
Swidler, A., (2001). Talk of Love. How Culture Matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Swidler, A. (1986) Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies. American Sociological Review, [online]. 51 (2), pp. 273-286. Available from: https://webarchiv.ethz.ch/soms/teaching/OppFall09/SwidlerCultureInAction.pdf (Accessed 01 March 2022)
Weber, M., (1992). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Routledge.
Weber, M., (1993). The Sociology of Religion. Boston: Beacon Press.Critical Thinking