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.

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