Thursday, November 09, 2006

Indeterminate Identities

Author's Note: This essay was inspired by Bourdieu's Homo Academicus.

A person who faithfully observes the practices of a particular field or collective assumes the identities associated with that field. There are some fields or collectives however whose place in the bigger scheme of things (the social space, as it were) is yet to be established which makes the identity of the occupants of that field indeterminate.

This is apparent from my location in the academe in terms of the choice of courses of our students. Our students choose courses for which the identities which they will assume after graduation are well-defined within the context of a larger social space. They avoid courses which are loaded with indeterminacy.

The ability to assume a generally acknowledged label is of utmost important. Students must be able to say, "When I graduate I will be a computer scientist or a businessman or a lawyer or a doctor, etc".

At the very least, the field must have a clear place in the larger social space and this is why some disciplines fail to attract students. What is the place of a philosopher or a sociologist, for example, in the larger scheme of things?

Some fields, like mine (Development Studies) suffer from the most indeterminacy. The label is not generally recognized and the place of the field in the larger social space is not established. Our students don't even have a convenient handle to work with unlike students of Economics who can be economists or students of physics who can be physicists. What would you call a development studies graduate? (One student even suggested changing the name of the course to development science so that they could be called development scientists)

In choosing a course, students choose an identity and in doing so, they choose their place in society. Courses for which both identity and place in society are clear are more likely to attract students while those for which either element is missing will be hard-pressed to bring students in.

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