The collectivity that is ‘I’

After reading Norbert Elias’ What is Sociology and having taught the subject for 36 years myself, I’m struck by what it takes to make a person(ality) and reminded of the complexity of the task.  As the symbolic interactionists among us are quick to point out, we, as individuals, are a product of our interactions with ‘others.’  Charles Horton Cooley even refers to the ‘looking glass’ self in emphasizing the notion that our person(alities) are socially created.  Thinking about it for even a moment makes that fact clear.  What language would you speak if you weren’t ‘created’ socially?  What kinds of things would you believe?  So, given that we have a certain bio-genetic reality which is  itself socially created (what is the sexual act if it’s not a social one?), we are ‘constructed’ in our interactions with others.  ‘Others’ here must be taken quite broadly to include not just people close to us, but also people (and I would also include other species of animal and even ‘things’ very broadly determined) far removed from us in time (grandparents, relatives, etc.) and space (neighbours, local people, etc.).  In fact, ‘others are no less socially created than we are, of course. Our person(alities) are virtually collective realities that wouldn’t exist outside of the collectivity or collectivities.  So, we probably shouldn’t refer to ourselves as ‘I’ but as ‘we.’ Of course the Queen does that when she refers to herself using the royal ‘we.’  She does it because she represents the state and so she includes all citizens of the Commonwealth when she refers to herself in the third person.  If I were to use ‘we’ to refer to myself, I would include all the people, including myself, in all of our interactions and interweavings, who had a hand in ‘raising’ me and making me what I am.  Which would mean that if I were diagnosed with bipolar disorder or any of the other thousands of ‘disorders’ that are found in the DSM-5, the psychiatric bible of disorders, I would have to say that ‘we’ have bipolar disorder.  Sounds strange, doesn’t it?  But what other conclusion can I reach?  This is the conclusion R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz (both psychiatrists) came to with regards to schizophenia and they were soundly criticized for it and symbolically beaten up by their ‘colleagues’ for even suggesting such a heresy.

And heresy it is.  The reason that this is such a heretical idea is that we have clung to the idea for a long time now that we, as individuals, are the agents of our own destiny.  We have individual ‘free will,’ not collective free will.  [I’ll switch to I now for emphasis.]  I am responsible for my own actions.  That way if I work hard and get rich, I can say it was all my doing, and if I fail, I must feel the shame of it all by myself.  Others can do the same when they think about me.  They can judge me as a success or failure and they can (without a doubt) attribute that to my own actions.  If I commit a crime, it’s my responsibility and not a collective one.  After all we don’t send families to jail for the crimes of one family member, we send just that one person to jail.  This is an ideology, a way that we justify and explain ourselves to ourselves and to others, based in the early days of the capitalist mode of production when the ‘individual’ was created, a crucial state of being for entering into contractual agreements.  Fernand Braudel argues this in his awesome three volume tome on early capitalism as does George Duby in his introduction to A History of Private Life, a book he edited that was published in 1988.  Others too have taken up the challenge of putting our individuality fetish into a social, historical and political context.  C. B. Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, published in 1962, traces our love affair with individualism to Locke and Hobbes (I would throw in Descartes too) but anchors his views in a clearly dialectical framework, with material life still leading ideas in the end.

I could go on for a long time on this topic.  In fact, I want to turn this discussion to Durkheim and Collins in my next post.  They argue (along with many others) that God is a symbol for society.  So, when we say that we are created by God, we are really saying that we are created by society.  Let’s see where that takes us.

Teaching Sociology

This morning around 6 I woke up and in that wonderful half-sleep just before I get up and feel the pain in my back wrenching me back to reality I thought about how many times I started the college term in the Fall of every year for the past 36 years with the same lecture.  It’s about how I teach sociology and how my students learn and don’t learn.  I teach sociology, but right now I want to focus on the teaching part of what  I do and not the sociology part.  I’ve also taught 1st year (freshman) French, Canadian HIstory, Anthropology and Sociology, but over the last 25 years or so, pretty much exclusively Sociology.  So I know that my teaching style is consistent across various subjects.  I teach using humour (at least I think I’m funny at least some of the time) and a highly critical approach to things.  After teaching for so long I know that some of my students, at least, appreciate my teaching style.  Funny thing is, I don’t think I can teach people how to teach like I do.  It’s not a teachable skill.  It’s a skill that comes from a confluence of life happenings, genetics, upbringing and experience. To know when to chide a student or make a joke or criticize the textbook is something I’ve learned over the years.  Most of the time, it works.  I don’t use notes when I teach.  Teaching for me is a dialogue between me, the text writers and my students.  I don’t think I could learn that at teacher’s college.  It depends on my personality as much as my knowledge.  It helps that I love what I do, that I have a deep connection to what I know and study and that I have respect for my students and their struggles.  Every year, with a new set of fresh students, I tell them that every one of them has the intelligence to make it through my course and do well.

But, I tell them, there are many reasons they might not do well.  Personal troubles are at the top of the list.  Disputes with family, friends and/or lovers can really sap energy and impair concentration.  Struggles with beliefs, with what’s right or wrong, good and bad although sometimes essential for learning can leave one confused and disoriented just at a time when there is a real need for concentrated activity in studying and listening in class.  Overwhelming concern with what others’ expectations are, whether articulated or not, push away the need to work on course material.  Worry about work, finances, children, husbands, wives, parents and health all contribute to poor academic performance.  This is fodder for another blog post in the near future, but for now, I just want to convey the reality that success in school is not just a result of hard work, nor is it the achievement of one person, the student.  Success in school and university is the result of the efforts of many individuals and institutions.  The sad reality is that we don’t, as a society, care much who succeeds and who ‘fails’ at school.  We need people to do both.  It’s somewhat of a contradiction that in a society so focussed in individuality and individualism we cannot care for the single person.  No wonder people feel abandoned, frightened and angry.  We just don’t give a shit about them.

That’s what I tell my students.