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Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Of-Campus Politics

In the social media universe, the American Sociological Association has come in for a round of mockery and a certain amount of despair because of its presidential theme for the 2024 annual meeting: "Intersectional Solidarities: Building Communities of Hope, Justice, and Joy." The description reads, in part:

The 2024 theme emphasizes sociology as a form of liberatory praxis: an effort to not only understand structural inequities, but to intervene in socio-political struggles....The 2024 program theme focuses on how we can use our understanding of intersectional inequalities and solidarities to help build a better world. Sociologists in a wide range of settings are motivated by the potential to make a difference. This theme calls on sociologists in all of our roles—as students, teachers, advisors, mentors, leaders, applied researchers, academic researchers inside and outside of sociology departments, community-engaged researchers, and public sociologists—to consider how to use sociology to create more just communities and societies....This theme also reflects the “pleasure turn” in sociology, to consider how sociology can contribute to a positive, transformative vision of society....[S]ociology can contribute to a living world, one where solidarity, healing, and growth exist, building communities of hope, justice, and joy.

And so on, with all the expected invocations of jargon and then some. 

It's true, of course, that academics are accustomed to ignoring presidential themes for annual disciplinary conferences. For example, my schedule for the new year already includes ignoring the presidential theme for the 2024 AALS annual meeting, "Defending Democracy," regardless of whether it's a propos. Nevertheless, I confess that I tend to get slightly queasy when I see exuberant or even dutiful academic uses of the word "praxis." That's true partly because the word has become a popular cliché,* but also because it raises questions about, among other things, the academic role; the proper remit of disciplines and scholarship; ideology and politics; interventions that fall outside of one's real expertise and/or show insufficient regard for unanticipated consequences; and popular and political blowback when academics draw wider attention to their potentially idiosyncratic views.

But a little digging offers a different and more comforting way of looking at things. If one examines the CV and personal website of the ASA president responsible for the praxis-based meeting theme, what does one find? The bulk of that person's articles and "public engagement" involve things like op-eds in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Higher Ed Online, work on "inclusive department climates in STEM fields," and things like studies of "faculty work activity dashboards" and methodical scrutiny of faculty evaluations for signs of "neoliberal logics." I don't mean to mock these topics. That's not all this person works on or has been involved in at the level of "praxis," and in any event issues such as faculty diversity and inclusion are very real and need to be addressed. The fact remains, however, that most of the ASA president's "interventions" appear to take place squarely within the campus gates.  

There is a deeper, fundamental truth about the academy here. It should offer some reassurance to those who worry at all about "praxis" and some deflationary effect to those who enthuse about it. The corollary of the corollary of Sayre's Law still governs faculty conduct, albeit under different guises. Most faculty activism, scholarly or otherwise, is neither on-campus nor off-campus, but of-campus. For all the high-blown talk about changing the world, most "praxis" and "engagement" still amounts to the modern-day equivalent of the age-old activity of arguing about faculty parking spaces.  

* Here's the Google n-gram evidence. (And may I say I'm delighted to see such a revival of interest in Latin and ancient Greek!) In law, a Westlaw search of the law review database found 31 articles using the word "praxis" in 1985, 51 in 1990, and 171 in 2000. The average settled around 170 per year until about 2020, which saw a jump up to 209, followed by 250 in 2021 and 276 in 2022. It's no "centering" (68 articles in 1990, 545 in 2022), but it's up there.  

Posted by Paul Horwitz on December 26, 2023 at 11:19 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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