Don’t let my silence here over these past months fool you. I’ve been quietly but steadily at work on the mission (or commission) mentioned in July.
I’m compelled to write now after having just returned from an international conference sponsored by the University of Warsaw Sociology Department and the Norbert Elias Foundation. There I had the honor of delivering one of the keynote addresses.
I’m not much of a traveler these days, but I couldn’t resist this opportunity to meet in person scholars I’ve known by name and publications only (excepting a few with whom I’d corresponded via email). I am so glad I said yes. It was exhilarating to be surrounded by so many brilliant people from around the world.
I was reminded that, despite the convenience of online interaction, there is just no substitute for connecting with people in real life. And personally, I found it satisfying beyond measure to be with so many who “get” my work, which is often not the case in American sociological circles.
On the Dangers of Refusing Reality
The aim of the conference was to bring social-scientific understanding of long-term processes to bear on shifts in the fantasy–reality continuum, especially to questions of why, in an age of science and reason are people increasingly relying on fantasy in their attempts to make sense of things.
My talk addressed this theme directly.
Its main thesis was in keeping with Elias’ basic argument about the dangers humans create for themselves. Namely that:
“for the time being, the course of humanity in dealing with disasters brought about by humans themselves, appears to have been arrested in a condition not unlike that which, for thousands of years, also prevailed in the case of dangers resulting from non-human nature”Involvement and Detachment, 1987:viii
Until humans developed the capacity to investigate non-human nature in ways that produced a more reality-congruent understanding, we relied on fantastical explanations and were at the mercy of those mysterious forces.
Similarly, without a more accurate picture of how human social processes work, we are left confused about their causes and largely helpless to minimize or eliminate the harms we cause through them. Sociology’s task, Elias argued, is to make those processes more accessible to human understanding and therefore increase, to some degree at least, our control over them.
While the discipline made some strides in this direction, it has thus far provided neither a reliable means for understanding long-term human social processes (aka social change) nor an accurate picture of the web of interdependencies in which we’re all embedded. Though most of us can sense in our own lives the pushes and pulls reverberating throughout it, the web itself remains mostly invisible to us.
Why This Matters
At a time when:
- massive societal transformation is being called for, the absence of a reliable theory of social change is of grave consequence.
- vast stocks of relevant knowledge could be applied to combating our unfolding interrelated crises, our inability to communicate across disciplines and effectively collaborate to use the knowledge at our disposal is a tragedy.
- people sense that something has gone wrong but can’t make out the real source of the trouble, we are more vulnerable to faulty explanations and less capable of seeing the situation clearly.
- humanity’s interdependence has intensified, making our actions even more consequential, the dangers of not recognizing this interdependence are greater than ever.
We can do better. The theoretical framework I discussed in my talk–derived from Elias’ work and introduced in my first book Beyond the Knowledge Crisis–can help address all of these concerns.
Despite my nerves, the talk went fine. The audience was incredibly gracious and many interesting conversations ensued. (Still, I found myself thinking about the Q and A and what I wished I would have said–or said better. Ximing F. and Emma T., I hope to follow up with you in an email soon!)
I take many things away from this experience (besides the mementos I was able to fit in my suitcase).
One is gratitude. I am indebted to those in Eliasian circles who have accomplished such excellent scholarship (against the current of the mainstream) all these years. Their work has been an invaluable source of inspiration. I’m also grateful to everyone in Warsaw who put this stellar event together. I learned a great deal about the city and Poland’s fascinating history.
Another is new friendships. As much as I enjoy written scholarly exchanges, our conversations came alive in new ways while sharing in real time–over coffee, delicious samplings of Polish food and drink, and ventures together in our host city.
Finally, I carry with me the energy that was so generously shared. I return to my work (including a new book) with renewed vigor, fresh eyes, and a novel sense of belonging.
May the human connections being forged and re-forged through the activities of this special network continue to facilitate our growing understanding of human connections themselves.