The only time I had been in Sudbury before it became likely that I would move here was three or four years ago for a conference called Sociology for Changing the World. It was designed to bring together academics and activists, and it was centred around approaches to sociology of which I -- as an autodidact with minimal background in sociological theory at the time -- had never heard: institutional ethnography (IE) and political activist ethnography (PAE).
Last week, after living in Sudbury for close to a year and being politically involved in the community with one of the editors/writers for much of that time, I was lucky enough to attend a book launch for a book that came out of the conference and shares its name. Well, I kind of attended -- my partner was out of town so I was with L, and his patience didn't allow for chats longer than a few minutes each with the editors and a couple of other people before we headed out. But it did allow me to get my hands on a copy of the book.
Though the conference was interesting, and being forced by weather to spend an extra night in Sudbury with a number of luminaries in the field was educational in different ways, the biggest impact of the event on me was not so much individual presentations as buying a copy of Dorothy Smith's Writing the Social from the book table. Smith is a renowned feminist sociologist who taught for many years at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and the originator of institiutional ethnography. I devoured that book. What I understood, what I really internalized, and what I have retained from that encounter with text are all uneven, of course; that's always true. But if you look at the ways of seeing the world that I confronted for the first time in that reading and then look over the writing on this site over the last two years, there are certainly plenty of places, both acknowledged and not, where the influence of Smith's ideas has peeked through. These ideas resonated with bits and pieces of things I had already thought, questions that concerned me, gaps that needed filled -- again, in ways partial and fragmented, but with some significance. I think I liked the fact that her approach is materialist but seriously addresses real flaws in more traditional liberal and Marxist ways of dealing with the world; that it addresses issues of the different scales over which things happen in the world in a way that feels like it makes sense rather than just being arbitrary; that its emphasis is on learning about the world in order to change it from how it actually is rather than on categorizing the world based on how it was long ago or how it is to those in charge or how we might like it to be; and that, for all its materialism, it places great emphasis as well on texts and how they shape our lives.
Sociology for Changing the World has given me a chance to encounter these ideas again and to do so in a more accessible form. I think I understand this way of seeing the world the better for it.
This approach is based on the idea that the social world is brought into being by human beings doing, that it is human beings acting and interacting in countless local sites that produces anything of larger scale that we might label "society", and it is in this interactive production of the social that individuals -- thereby recognized as inherently social, not abstractly atmoized as in liberalism -- are constituted. An important consequences of this way of understanding the world is that it explicitly avoids the tendency of many other ways of seeing the world to reify (or "thingify") abstractions like "society" or particular "systems" or "structures", a process that often leads to those abstractions being treated like active agents in and of themselves independent of the human beings whose actions constitute them.
This approach is deliberately materialist in how it seeks to understand the world, and rejects philosophical idealism. It argues that most (Western intellectualized) ways of knowing place concepts at centre stage, and the world of real experience gets erased or fragmented or regimented and, ultimately, regulated. Idealistic knowledge can mask the standpoint from which that knowledge is created, and the power to dominate others that is assigned to that standpoint. It can trap us in dead-ends in our efforts to change the world.
Dorothy Smith started down this path by noting how common it was to find disjunctures between the everyday experiences of women and the ways in which male-dominated sociology explained the world. This has been expanded to many other ways in which oppressions are experienced as disjunctures between how the world is experienced by oppressed people in everyday/everynight lived situations and how it is explained in academic, popular, and/or state-based discourse.
You start with a standpoint. Not, the book emphasizes, standpoint as has been elaborated by some feminist theorists, in which the objective epistemology of positivism is replaced by a purely subjective epistemology, but rather it suggests an epistemology that is reflexive -- knowledge is produced socially in local interactions. If you look at experience from a particular standpoint across multiple local, specific sites, then you will find patterns in that experience, and it is those patterns that give a clue as to how human beings are regulated and organized translocally. This organization and regulation is, in the present day, mostly accomplished through texts. Texts, like copyright laws or welfare regulations, get activated by people doing things at local sites. It should be emphasized that they get activated in certain ways that might not be evident just by looking at the texts themselves but that can only be understood by looking at people's experiences. In activating those texts, the people participating in the ruling regime in question -- welfare case workers, for example -- have their actions shaped and thereby shape the experiences of those who share a given standpoint in similar ways, such as a single white woman with children on welfare. By looking at the ways in which experiences are organized similarly across different specific, local sites, and seeking explanations in the texts that coordinate behaviour translocally, you can begin to map out a picture of how human lives are regulated, of how "ruling regimes" function, of the map of social relations, of how power flows in very real and concrete ways. It treats oppressed people not as an object to be researched but as subjects whose standpoints provide the orientation for research, and it is the ruling regimes which shape people's lives that we should be seeking to understand.
This was the base for political activist ethnography, an elaboration by George Smith (no relation to Dorothy). It takes the insights of institutional ethnography and applies them more directly to moments of collective resistance. It asks what we can learn through our interactions and confrontations with ruling regimes in order to understand and change them through social movement activity. George Smith's classic example was the struggles of the Right to Privacy Committe against the police raids on gay bathhouses in Toronto in the early '80s. By starting from the experiences of the men who were arrested and of those who were working to support them, it was possible to make deliberate effot to understand the texts and activation practices which lead to this oppressive outcome in ways grounded in what was actually happening, rather than knee-jerk answers proposed by many activists who initially fell into explanations like "homophobic cops" or "evil Tories" that were to blame. Both of those things, which function as labels but not materially grounded explanations for events, may have been operative, but by mapping out the relations of ruling it was possible to orient the resistance towards making changes that might actually shift the everday/everynight experiences of gay men in Toronto.
Sociology for Changing the World does a number of things. It introduces some of the key concepts of these approaches to developing knowledge about the world (in a more complete and coherent manner than I have done above). Some of the essays advance the ideas of political activist ethnography by talking about direct action as a tool for research about ruling regimes, the kinds of research that a movement in support of poor communities might wish to do, and a start on talking about how this approach might be used in combination with ideas from autonomist Marxism to map out relations of ruling and social relations of struggle at a global level. Other essays are concrete examples of how these approaches to sociology can and have been used to understand the world, from a look at the ways in which gender is regulated from the standpoint of F-to-M transexuals in Quebec, to the ways in which relations of ruling have shaped the experiences of workers in the Canadian garment industry. The book concludes by asking some questions and providing some initial thoughts on issues relevant to future directions that these streams of sociology might take, and the ways in which social movements might take up research practices to make themselves more effective in changing the world.
There are a number of things in the work that I think are worth commenting on. For one thing, at a theoretical level, I am unsure about the particular theorization of standpoint in institutional ethnography. I'm not sure if I just don't understand it well enough or if there really are things that I think are important in a politically useful approach to standpoint that it omits. Institutional ethnography seems to claim that people who do not personally occupy a particular standpoint can still participate in the development of knowledge based in that standpoint, and can base their actions in knowledge developed from other standpoints. To a certain extent, the idea of being an ally, which I see as politically central, is based on an understanding something like this -- basing one's political actions on knowledge developed in a standpoint which you do not occupy. But some of the ways that standpoint is articulated in this book might go farther than I think is warranted in talking about the role that someone who does not personally occupy that standpoint can go. I think this is important given some of Sherene Razack's observations about how our history of experience of oppression and privilege (i.e. specificities in how our everyday/everynight realities are shaped by ruling relations, to use language from IE/PAE) impact in very basic ways on how we can know the world. An example she uses is the very different ways that a story about an experience of racism shared orally in a local space gets activated by people of colour who are listening versus white people who are listening. I'm just not sure that the understanding of standpoint in institutional ethnography really deals with the fact that, for example, I, as a white man, will not only experience different things in my everyday than a white woman or a woman or man of colour, but my ability to see and relate to some experiences grounded in one of those standpoints will be different than that of another person who shares that standpoint.
I am also not clear on the ways in which institutional ethnography deals or fails to deal with other sources of social regulation. In particular, I know that there are situations in which my behaviour is not regulated directly by a particular ruling regime -- i.e. an "institution" brought into being by people in diverse local settings who are behaving in ways set by regulatory texts -- but rather by more nebulous stories and narratives and practices in the culture that have shaped my gut level commonsense and the ground from which I am able to make deliberate choices. There are ways in which I know I have practiced and experienced gender and sexuality that are related to larger cultural narratives and not governed by specific written texts, for example. How are such everyday realities related to the ways in which institutional ethnography and political activist ethnography work and allow us to understand the workings of power?
And I'm not sure I understand the ways in which the materialist versus idealist distinction that is important to institutional ethnography actually works in practice. I would need to think it through more clearly to really articulate what I mean, but I have a sense that there may be theoretical limits to this distinction. As well, there definitely seem to be limits in practice. Certainly in things that I have read by Dorothy Smith herself, for example, and a few others, there is a very through application of the ontology and epistemology of institutional ethnography in a way that permeates their writing. But a number of the essays in this collection seemed to use some of the ideas of IE but to remain very vested in particular frameworks that still seem steeped in philosophical idealism. Is this a problem? Is it inevitable? Is pointing it out just another unhelpful way of encouraging the creation of a "party line"? Where exactly do the boundaries lie?
Probably the most disappointing part of the book is that the area that I find most exciting, the explicit embedding of such research into social movement practice, largely remains to be explored in practical ways. The reprinted classic from George Smith, "Political Activist as Ethnographer", presents fascinating material that is both methodological and concrete, and was clearly grounded in actual organizing by an actual social movement. All four original essays that were oriented more towards concrete application were good, useful, and interesting, but none felt as if they did as much as I might like to see in carrying out the diverse visions described in the three original essays oriented more towards visioning of methodology. Two of the former four were very firmly grounded in the approach that is the focus of the book but the other two seemed to make somewhat more partial use of it, and even those first two, perhaps more because of the expectations of academic writing than the actual circumstances of their production, felt a little more distant from the everyday of struggle than I would ideally hope to see. Though it is important to add that I think even the more academic articulation of this approach has the potential to be of great use to movements.
Perhaps the most interesting stretch of the book for me came in the lengthy afteword by the four editors, in the section attempting to "explode" the insider/outsider binary, both as locations for social change activity and as starting points for research. I won't try to summarize the discussion here, but it certainly provided clarity for me, given that I have long had a certain attachment to "outside" as the "best" location from which to engage in the change that needs to happen, an everyday reality that I recognized as "inside" to varying degrees, and an intellectual dislike of the entire dichotomy that I was not able to really articulate. Part of the summation of this section reads:
Political activist ethnography provides us with a means to move beyond the limitations of both abstract 'moral' exteriority and abstract 'realistic' interiority. Political activist ethnography re-affirms that another world is possible, not from a position of exteriority, but from the inside out. It is rooted in struggles currently going on within and against 'the system.' The debate between the 'lunatic radical' and the 'reformist pig,' the debate where both are right and both are wrong, therefore finds its resolution in a mode of investigation that enables us to envision forms of counter-power as practical social accomplishments -- whether it is thousands of people marching on Yonge Street in Toronto to protest the bath raids, people converting an abandoned building into housing for the homeless or the successful blockading of the WTO meeting in Seattle. Counter-power, in this instance, does not take exteriority as its precondition but rather locates its source in social relations, organization and struggles....It is through our own practices, relations and struggles that capitalist social relations are produced, and we have the social capacities to transform them. We are both within and against this 'system.'
Though it may not be evident from this quote, I also found this discussion useful because it felt like it had analogies with some anti-oppression analysis and the advice it gives to folks with privilege: the point is not to try and deny or renounce the place you occupy in terms of your privilege (particularly privilege that is not simplistically about having dollars in the bank) but rather to recognize where you are (and can be, for privilege tends to bring some level of mobility) located within a 'system' that you cannot escape and to begin your efforts to create change from a very grounded understanding of that location.
How these ideas might relate to my future work, I'm not so sure. Certainly I am interested in how this ontology and epistemology might be applied to the study of history, given that my present work is related to social movement history. I have read and reviewed one book that starts to explore this by doing it -- in fact, it was written by one of the editors of Sociology for Changing the World. But that book is just one initial foray, I think, and I would need to do a lot more thinking and writing and reading before I could make my own arguments with any confidence. Certainly my own project provides certain symbollic resonances with how IE/PAE might be applied to history, because it does attempt to enter history through the standpoints of interview participants from diverse locations, but I don't think it quite fits the bill. Perhaps a more focused use of the oral history technique, which would allow for an exploration of the relations of ruling and struggle in one specific movement in a more thorough manner than the more survey-oriented approach of my project, might be one way.
And of course I'm not convinced that I am going to want to stick with a focus on history after this particular project is complete. In any event, I do know I will be sticking with social movements, and I suspect I will, in different ways at different times, be engaged with research and writing related to them, so I think it is likely that bits and pieces of this approach to understanding the world will continue to pop up in what I do.
[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]