Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Good Manners and Right Conduct

Teenagers have a tendency to rebel against accepted practice because they realize that the social sense of what is appropriate and inappropriate practice is socially constructed and that nothing is taboo in and of themselves but is only taboo because society says so. Furthermore, they feel that this definition of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate practice is an exercise of social domination, social power or social control and this realization leads to their active resistance.

The problem is that these teenagers are correct on all counts. The sense of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate practice is socially constructed and they do constitute exercises in social domination (at the very least, the domination of the society over an individual, not necessarily the domination of a particular group or individual over other individuals).

The problem is compounded by the fact that the reason why we engage in certain practices and not others does not usually flow from any logic and society would not perish if the practices were changed but we engage in these practices anyway because we "know" that this is how things are done.

Good manners, for example, are simply based on social convention or are derived from some ancient historical practice that has no contemporary relevance. The handshake (which used to be a medieval symbol that knights were unarmed; that's why we shake with our right hands) or the tipping of one's hat (or a salute for that matter which replicates a knight's raising of his visor to show his face to an approaching knight) has no contemporary logic aside from the fact that these are how things are done.

Everytime we have formal academic gatherings at the University, the faculty are hard pressed to remember if the tassle on the cap should be on the left or on the right until a colleague said that in medieval times, left was the side of royalty.

It is good when there are such explanations (which often lead teenagers to ask if practices should change now that circumstances are different) but most people do not know these explanations and most practices do not have explanations. That is why when teenagers ask why certain practices are considered inappropriate and they unmask the fact that these standards have no logical basis, an exasperated adult might just end up saying "because that's the way things are" or in Tagalog, "ah basta".

What teenagers need to know is that the practice of good manners and right conduct is not done in and for itself but is an affirmation of one's membership in a particular society by following that society's social conventions.

Next Post: Thursday, November 2.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


Practice can take on a double meaning. The first meaning of the word pertains to the way things are done. One enters into a new situation or setting, for example, and wonder, "What is the practice here?" The second sense in which we use practice is that of training before an actual performance or event (ex. basketball practice vs. actual basketball game). In Tagalog we say, "Practice lang ito" to make it clear that the act is not yet the real thing.

When we enter into a new situation, we learn the practices through observation and eventually learn to embody them through constant repitition. Unlike theater or sports performances, however, most of the practices in life are indistinguishable from actual performance and the repitition is done unconsciously.

Almost all of the time (except during those times when we do role-playing during organizational development trainings), we do not train to live nor train before actual situations. We just act once the situation or the stimuli is presented to us and because of our sense of the appropriate practice given particular stimuli or situations, we "know" (we just know) what we need to do and we do it oftentimes without conscious deliberation.

A lot of our training happened when we were children but our parents were not fulltime coaches (nor were most of them aware that they were coaches. Sometimes we learn from them from their reactions to our action but more often than not, we learn from them by merely observing them and their practices. In that sense, they are unconscious teachers and we are unconscious learners.

And when we behave as they do, we do not practice behavior in the sense of training. We just behave. We may not engage in competent practice but we engage in practice in real time, as it were), nonetheless (as opposed to time for practice). Most of the time, there is no distinction between the backstage and the actual performance. If we are beginners, we may make mistakes but with constant repitition in real time, we become adept at the correct practice. Sometimes our behavior effects a favorable or an unfavorable response from others but most of the time, people do not react to what we are doing (because for them, what we are doing is the most natural thing in the world; it is part of their taken-for-granted).

And so we engage in particular sets of practices because our behavior is not noticed and therefore acceptable or because we have been told to engage in such practices and avoid their opposites. Over time, we repeat these practices and pretty soon, they become part of our taken-for-granteds and we pass these on to the next generation.

Next Post: Monday, October 30.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Confidence, Part II

Aside from confidence as mastery of skill, there is also confidence in relating with other people. When we say a person is growing in confidence, we usually mean that person is better able to relate with others. Sometimes we say that person is coming out of his shell.

The opposite of this type of confidence is shyness not skillessness.

I think that increasing social confidence is a by-product of (unconsciously) coming in tune with the social sense of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate practices and a corporealized acceptance of that sense of appropriate and inappropriate practices (i.e. an acceptance that is manifested in deportment, practices and choice of strategies).

Again, Andy in the Devil Wears Prada is a perfect example of a person growing in confidence (in the fashion industry) after her decision to internalize (and externalize the internalization of) the practices and strategies of tha industry. In doing so, she became less confident of being able to relate with her old friends as she began to lose touch with their sense of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate practices, strategies and values.

The internalization of a collective's sense of appropriate and inappropriate practices, strategies and values can be tough especially for an outsider coming in (i.e. entering a new culture). An extreme form is the physical hazing of fraternity or sorority plebes to demonstrate their loyalty and the intellectual hazing of a law student.

But the demands can be much more than endurance of physical pain during moments of initiation. In some collectives (fashion, entertainment), correct strategies dictate appropriate body types and complexions forcing those who want to be in to go through all sorts of regimens to help keep in shape and to look young and beautiful. (Papaya soaps, whitening lotions,) Diet and exercise help but the cosmetic surgery industry is also booming because of the need to manifest an appropriate body type and external manifestation. Some clients of cosmetic surgeons say that cosmetic surgery makes them feel better about themselves and though they may deny it, feeling good is a by-product of an appropriate bodily manifestation.

It requires a buying in to particular beliefs of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate practices, strategies and values in order to gain confidence as a member of a particular collective.

Next post: Friday, October 27

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Confidence, Part I

There are at least two types of confidence. One is confidence based on mastery of skills (discussed here in Part I) and the second, which is more important (the subject of Part II) is the confidence in relating with other people.

Confidence based on mastery of skills can only be attained through constant practice. Ask any musician, sports person, or any other occupant of any other field and the good ones will tell you that their skill was developed through intense immersion in their activity and constant practice.

I learned early on for example, that the secret to being good in math was constant practice. In studying for long tests, I would answer questions from textbooks which provide answers (to every other question) at the back so I could check whether or not I got the right answer even if answering those questions was not required.(I once got lucky and did drills on a higher level textbook and lo and behold, my teacher got all his questions from the textbook. Thus, two long tests with perfect scores).

Drills in math give a student a feel for the mathematical game, training that student in types of questions that are asked and the type of thinking required for a particular type of question. I hear that the trick to doing well in the GRE is the same. Practice.

The same is true for any other field. Pianists or other musicians for that matter become good or great by constantly playing the piano until such time that their fingers know what to do (they can play with their eyes closed). I am especially respectful of violinists because unlike pianists or guitarists, there are no real guides regarding where their fingers should go. They either know it or they don't.

An athlete must constantly train and practice before an actual game or event until participation in the event itself becomes second nature to him. When he is out on the field, he will know what to do. He is one wth the field or as basketball and golf coaches would say, "Be the Ball".

But an even more valuable form of practice is not the practice before the event but the practice inherent in the event itself. The experience of competition, most especially the experience when the stakes of the competition are high (ex. a championship) is also important because an athlete must also get used to the crowd as well as the pressure of the moment, factors which will be absent from the practice venue.

I remember a scene in Glory where white officers were training a newly formed company of black soldiers during the American Civil War. A particularly good black solider was showing off his marksmanship but the officer challenged him to display his talent while the officer fired rounds around the marksman to simulate battle conditions. While this is better training, nothing beats the training derived from constant exposure to actual warfare.

There is no better way to gain confidence except through constant practice and immersion in actual activity.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Reproduction of Social Practice: Why Members of a Collective Tend to Do the Same Things, Part II

The example of beauty contests discussed in Part I may have given the impression that homology of practice can be accounted for by conscious training. The point of that essay is not so much that homology is a practice of conscious training but that it is a product of a common sense of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate practices and strategies and a common sense of the stakes worth competing for. Conscious training, however, is for the most part, not the usual case and this was demonstrated in the earlier essay on deportment.

We learn what is considered appropriate and inappropriate behavior through a largely unconscious process that begins from our infancy. Now that I have a three year old daughter, I see this very clearly in the way she reflects my habits back to me. Everytime I pick her up from play school, I ask her, "How was your day?" and lately, everytime I come home from work, she has taken to askign me the same question. Friends also tell me that my child's deportment around strangers is similar to my deportment towards most people. The was we look at people is the same and our bearing is very similar. My child learns by mimicking and I think for the most part, that is how we learn.

Sometimes we learn when others tell us what to do or what not to do but this is nowhere near the scrutinizing gaze of the professional coach of a beauty contestant. The remarks made to teach us are mostly casual, non-premeditated remarks in response to a situation. We "catch" our child sneezing without covering her mouth, for example, and casually tell her to cover her mouth the next time she sneezes. We probably weren't paying attention to the child at the moment she sneezed just as a professional coach would probably be observing his charge at every moment in time.

Practices are homologous in a society largely because the persons through whom we are socialized already engage in homologous practices and share a sense of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate practices which we tend to reproduce.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

World Peace: Or Why Members of a Collective Tend to Do the Same Things, Part I

People in a given collective and most especially those who are members of the same field have an amazing tendency to behave the same way. This can be accounted for by the fact that people within these collectives and most especially those within the same field generally have a shared sense of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate practice, what constitutes good and bad or right and wrong strategy in pursuit of stakes that are generally accepted to be worth striving for. Those who behave differently most probably do not have a sense of appropriate or inappropriate practice, do not have a sense of what constitutes right ot wrong strategy or do not believe that the stakes involved are worth fighting for. Given their behavior, they will, of course, not be expected to get very far within that field.


International beauty pageants are a prime example of this homology of practice. The contestants have very similar deportments. They stand the same way, they walk the same way, they have broad smiles (unlike models in photo shoots who sometimes are not encouraged to smile), their tone of voice is the same. Their responses to questions are similar (partly because the questions tend to be similar) and the running joke is that if a contestant does not know what to say, the correct default answer (with a corresponding exclamatory tone of voice) is “World Peace!” Of course now that these beauty contests are being accused of being sexist and that they constitute abuse of women's bodies, most contestants now talk about the value and strength of women while wearing their two-piece swim suits in front of an audience of millions of people and in a fully airconditioned hall.


This homology of practice of beauty contestants is a product of a shared sense of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate practices and good and bad strategy in pursuit of the title. This sense is drilled into them by watching the practices of previous contestants (especially winning contestants) and it is also drilled into them by professional beauty contestant coaches who provide rigorous training for these contestants in the proper deportment and the proper practices. The goal of the training is for the contestant to engage in the correct practices and to carry herself in the right way as if it were second nature to her. The contestant must have such a keen sense of the right practice, especially in answering questions (because for everything else, there is really very little room for creativity), to the point that she can come up with an answer that is appropriate and yet original. Maybe this is why beauty contests always end with a question and answer portion. The winning candidate is not necessarily the most beautiful contestant but the contestant for whom the proper practices come naturally and who has such a keen sense of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate practice that she can come up with something intelligent within the bounds of acceptable practice.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Petty Fights

The stakes involved in particular fields are almost always unique to that field or at the very least are valued differently in that field compared to others. Money, for example, is important in the academe as it is in the corporate world (after all, professors do have to eat) but the value of money tends to be downplayed in the academe compared, for example, to the importance of prestige for a professor, even if that prestige does not translate into monetary gain. One can think especially of esteemed professors in theology and philosophy who would most likely not end up as consultants to anybody in business or even in the development world (and therefore not earn as much money).

This difference in stakes and the difference in valuation of stakes makes certain games within certain fields seem strange and sometimes downright petty. I've heard esteemed professors debate about the definition of sustainable development and others have debated about whether or not social exclusion is a better concept to describe poverty compared to deprivation. For an outsider, especially somebody who lives in the "real world", all these are debates about trivial things and there is a feeling that energies could be used for something more "productive". Listening to the debates, one might think that the academics are all talking about the same thing but are just using different languages.

But for academics, these debates are real and represent struggles worth engaging in and concepts worth fighting for. The debate about social exclusion and deprivation can be framed for example as a debate between sociology (which is more inclined to accept social exclusion as the new form of poverty) and economics (which is more inclined to accept deprivation as the best description of poverty). In other words, for academics, the debate is really about which discourse is superior or privileged and in turn, which academic, who is an expert in this or that discourse, is the real expert.

On the other hand, an academic looking at businessmen may think that what they are doing is petty. In the 1970s there was a slogan, "Why sell soap? Build people". We academics are amazed at the countless hours people put into figuring out how to sell more soap or even "non-essential" commodities like skin whitening lotions.

Every field has its own stakes and to a large extent, it is the players in the field who truly appreciate the stakes that are being played for. Outsiders looking in may think that the stakes being played for are petty but fail to realize that when others look at the stakes they themselves are playing for, their stakes look as petty as the stakes that they criticize.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Social Trajectories

People within particular fields have a sense of the social trajectories of those who occupy the field. These trajectories indicate the directionality of a person within a given track and the expected distance that a person is expected to reach along that track.

This sense of trajectories is very much alive in language. It would probably include phrases like dead-end job, he's going nowhere (walang patutunguhan, hanggang diyan ka lang), most likely to succeed, moving up in the world, promising individual, he's going to go places, malayo ang mararating niya etc.

Following socially sanctioned tracks and directionalities certainly helps a person to be satisfactorily assessed in terms of trajectories. Refusing to follow particular tracks or directionalities results in unfavorable assessments and even sanctions.

In the Philippine academic setting, for example, the minimum requirement for permanency is a masteral degree. After obtaining a masteral degree (and assuming three years of full-time service), it becomes very difficult to fire a person. Technically speaking, that person can rest on his laurels, be an instructor for life and exude indifference toward the reindeer games of the academe. That person, however, unless he has some other source of cultural capital, would not be expected to go very far (and would probably be assessed as going nowhere) and would be under intense pressure to proceed to a PhD.

Aside from the minimum requirements for being allowed to stay on the track, there are also (fast-track) strategies for increasing the possibility of moving higher up in the ladder. Within the Philippine academic setting, for example, it matters where you get your graduate degrees. Obtaining a graduate degree from a (socially-acceptable) local university is good but obtaining a graduate degree from a foreign university is much, much better. This foreign credentialing also helps in terms of where an academic is able to publish. Foreign (ISSI) publications are literally and figuratively worlds apart from local publications.

And then are numerous other strategies that could be employed to improve one's trajectory. Developing social capital with the Department Chair or other administrators or well-connected faculty members is certainly one strategy for obtaining favorable recommendations to prestigious universities. Demonstrating an ability to do research (especially published research) is also a good strategy.

Every field, whether it be the academe or business or art, is a game with stakes worth playing for and tracks to follow to attain those stakes worth playing for. Those who obtain the stakes at play are those who have a good "feel for the game", who have a keen sense of what is a good strategy and what is a bad strategy and who play the game accordingly.

Monday, October 02, 2006

You're on the Right Track

I was watching a documentary about the Hong Kong Port Authority and was amazed at how an open expanse of water, traversed by numerous ships, was configured into nautical highways (which are only defined in the control towers' radar screen) with sea traffic controllers guiding the ships, much like air traffic controllers guiding airplanes. There were no buoys to mark where you should make a turn, much less visible lanes to direct the path of the ship.

I think that life is a lot like that, maybe minus the full-time traffic controllers. The paths or lanes are pre-defined by society, not by conscious acts of defining the right track but simply by an act of social habit which reproduces existing tracks. There are no manuals in life for getting from here to there but those within particular fields have a sense of what those tracks are. To some extent, these tracks are reflected in the sequential series of rewards associated with following the right track.

In the academe, for example, the track is well-defined. Bachelor's degree, master's degree, Everything But Dissertation, Ph.D. Progress along each step is rewarded with both increasing economic remuneration and increasing cultural capital. In the middle of it all there are the rituals of attending academic conferences, conducting research, publication, presentations at academic conferences, being appointed to administrative positions or elected to positions in professional organizations.

The tracks we follow, much like the track that is followed by those in the academe, are all socially constructed and are socially reinforced. They are socially reinforced by those who follow the track (whether obediently or grudgingly) and they are socially reinforced when we encourage or bully others to follow the track (ex. by making them start their M.A. or PhD, or by making them finish their thesis or dissertation). Sometimes people are fired because they do not follow the track or take too long to finish the track. This is a not too subtle reminder to others to stay on track and keep the pace.

In all this activity, the tracks themselves become part of our taken-for-granted. It is assumed that an academic, no matter how brilliant, needs to secure at least an M.A. and at the very least make an effort to securing at least a Ph.D. One can make a conscious decision about where to take graduate studies but the fact that graduate studies needs to be taken is taken-for-granted.

The conferment of a graduate degree may have very little to do with a person's actual competence, especially in teaching. There are some teachers without M.As who are simply brilliant teachers and there are some teachers with PhDs and post-docs who do not know how to teach. (Thankfully there are those who have PhDs and are brilliant teachers) One particularly (and universally acknowledged) brilliant teacher I know who has not yet finished his PhD comprehensives lamented to me once, "Can't I just teach?" But within the field, actual competence matters less than getting past the various pre-designated posts along the socially sanctioned track.