I recently had a conversation about my doctoral research with an acquaintance I met at a dinner dance who asked, ‘what are you doing it in, what are you doing it for?’ Not an unreasonable response. I began my reply by saying that it was in the sociology of education and whilst I was conjuring up an answer to the latter question (it changes from day to day), they retorted in a jocular fashion, ‘the sociology of vegetation? You’re researching vegetables?’ The acquaintance laughed, a little uneasily. Perhaps they had misheard me.
My sense of humour is reasonably well honed but at that particular moment I was not in a frame of mind to see the joke; on them or on me. I hadn’t wanted to be there in the first place. Rather than finding the retort comical, I took it at best to be idiotic and at worst, mocking. I raised my eyebrows and civilly withdrew from the conversation. There was no other exchange on the matter until the end of the evening when we said cheerio and my hapless acquaintance wished me luck with, ‘the vegetable thing’.
How should I have reacted? Maybe I should have given an equally jocular riposte. Moments earlier they had told me about their counselling course and, thinking about the state of my vegetable patch at home, I could have suggested that my parsnips would benefit from some talking therapy. Rather lame, I admit.
So, what is the research about? It’s about community in higher education.
When invited to talk about community, those participating in my doctoral research (all academics) chose to focus primarily on their experience inside the university; that is, on the academic community.
In the ‘80s, Cohen concluded that people construct community symbolically, ‘making it a resource and repository of meaning, and a referent of their identity.’ (Cohen 1985 p118); I invited the research participants to draw upon their repository, to describe their idea and experience of community and also to picture it in some symbolic form. Some began by approaching the question as an intellectual exercise. This was unsurprising. However, as the exchange went on and as we explored values and a sense of belonging, more idiosyncratic thoughts and stories emerged. These stories revealed deeply held values which manifested themselves, not only in their day-to-day academic practice, but also in responses to situations when they felt threatened or excluded by the academic community, or by their institution.
All have a stake in the game of higher education; all believe in the game. They are complicit players in what Bourdieu describes as the, ‘prolonged cohabitation of a socially very homogeneous group’, linked by a ‘cullusio in the illusio’ (Bourdieu 2004 p7). Higher education not only provides their livelihood but, more fundamentally, connects with their values and serves their need to do what they do; research, teach and, in many (but not all) cases, make the world a better place:
‘To the outsider the game may appear insignificant but to the players it becomes the meaning of their life, mystifying the underlying conditions of domination that make the game possible.’ (Burawoy 2010 p24)
Whilst I would question Bourdieu’s description of the academic community as homogeneous, particularly in a contemporary context, I find the notion of ‘complicit players’ worthy of consideration. We are all potentially complicit.
In July 2012, I attended an excellent SRHE (Society for Research into Higher Education) symposium on ‘Structuring Knowledge: new visions of higher education’, where Ron Barnett made an entreaty for the play of the imagination, and for others to enter a dialogic community, and to see their world as he sees it – as a relational entity. At the same session, Gert Biesta reflected on a need for a more accurate account of what is going on in higher education. He called for a ‘non-epistemological’ approach, one that allows for the telling of different stories other than the story of knowledge – stories about what it means to be an academic or a researcher. And whilst in response, Michael Young called for a differentiated epistemology rather than none all (because then, ‘all we are left with is meaning making’), he did acknowledge a need for ‘community’ and for people to feel a part of something; a point that many of those present endorsed.
So, whatever your role in higher education or the vegetable patch; academic, student, administrator, volunteer, collaborator, dean, enthusiast…
what does (academic) community mean to you?
If you need a prompt, click here for a cut-out kit for you to assemble, ‘Communi-Tea Party at the Academy’
Bourdieu, P. (2004) Sketch for a Self Analysis, Polity Press
Burawoy, M. (2010) Conversations with Pierre Bourdieu: the Johannesburg Moment
Cohen, A.P. (1985) The Symbolic Construction of Community, Taylor & Francis