Social Theory and Naughty Kids

As a social anthropologist and a parent, I’m constantly exploiting the backdrop of my domestic life as data for social theory and theorization. Here’s a recent example that involves disobedient children and exhausted parents.

The other day my two-year-old was, to put it simply, not doing what I asked her to. It was the end of a long day of double-duty parenting and research, as a full-time stay-at-home dad who is supposedly writing a dissertation. Which is to say that I had already overseen breakfast and school preparation by the older girls, made and cleaned up after lunch and dinner, done a load of laundry, maintained the inbox, and made several remarkable pages of progress in writing during nap time. By the evening, I was tired and observed from a chair the toddler’s destruction of my momentarily ordered apartment environs. Luckily for me, my child’s resistance to my commands quickly morphed into an opportune illustration of how power and authority work in the (read: my) real world.

After repeating my request several times to no avail, I reverted to an old disciplinary technique that I’m certain millennial parents across the board are familiar with: the countdown. Here’s how the strategy played out that night:

Parent: “If you don’t [do X or Y or Z] right now, I’m going to count to three.” [1]

Child: “No, Daddy, I cccaaaaaaaannnnnttt.” 

Parent: “You better do [do X or Y or Z] NOW.”

Child: “Nooooooooo, Daaaaaaadddddy.”

Parent: “OK, I’m counting. ONE . . .” [Child’s face flushes with worry.]

Parent: “TWO . . .” [Child scurries to {do X or Y or Z}.] 

That, dear readers, is the performance of authority, power, resistance, and legitimization on a very small and simple scale [2]. Here we have a parental authority, authorized by legal systems, kinship norms, sociocultural convention, and force of habit, making a demand of a subject, in this case, the child. The child resists. She stamps her feet. She flails on the floor. She whines. The authority leverages the situation with threat of force: the 1-2-3 Count. The threat of impending discipline, the specter of censure. The child, fearing imagined repercussions, responds in line with the parent’s demands. Her obedience thus legitimates the power and authority of the parent, regardless of how fragile, elusive, and fabricated it was in that moment of resistance. In other words, I had no clue how I would have disciplined her had I reached the dreaded “THREE.” In fact, I was in that moment of exhaustion dreading with all of my being the use of any sort of non-linguistic disciplinary technique (i.e., removal of the child to the designated time-out location) that would  have required me to leave the comfort of the chair. I was imagining, willing, calling forth, even hoping for her obedience. The parent’s obligations to the child. The child’s obligations to the parent. Fragile, fluid, multi-sited power, extended linguistically through a verbal command, at first challenged and resisted, but then under threat of action and censure legitimated and reified at the last moment by an act of resigned obedience.

Unfortunately, this is a theorization of an interchange with a two-year-old. My elementary school children no longer recognize my weakly constructed authoritative appeals to threat of censure. The 1-2-3 Count lost its authoritative weight, for children more cognizant of their ability to resist and strategize their own powers, a long time ago.

[1] X or Y or Z = picking up a toy off the floor, getting off the table, sharing a toy with a sibling, etc. Such configurations vary per day (and sometimes per hour). 

[2] For more systematic, larger scale, and empirically-based theories of power, authority, resistance, authorization, language, rhetoric, and legitimacy, please do consult James Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Bruce Lincoln’s Authority: Construction and Corrosion, Max Weber’s On Charisma and Institution Building, Seven Lukes’s Power: A Radical View, and Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice and Language and Symbolic Power, among other important works. 

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Serpents, Novelty, and Academic Fetish

Novelty draws academics. This is no controversial claim. We cluster around the odd, the uncanny, and the strange. We gather around scenes of violence and ecstasy, field-notebooks in hand, scribbling furiously.  Academics peddle novelty. Without novelty, historical accounts blur into the monotonous progression of historical minutiae, just damn things following after other damn things. Without novelty, anthropological accounts suffer the same fate. Without the strange and uncanny—the disconcerting—ethnographies of everyday life cycle into myopic drudgery. Everyday life, as beautiful as scholars such as Robert Orsi paint it, can be terribly dull.

There is good reason for the emphasis of the novel, of course. “Religion is not nice,” comments J. Z. Smith. “It has been responsible for more death and suffering than any other human activity.” In the laboratory that is religions in America, religious peoples are increasingly exposed to religious peoples. At downtown famers’ markets or on public transportation, especially in urban centers or university towns, one can witness an eclectic blending of cultures only possible in a globalizing world. We are met, face to face, with difference. And difference, while it retains its identity, is novel. Often in American history, groups of people have responded to the novel in similar ways: xenophobic violence.

A form of violence also shrouds a frequent symbol of novelty in contemporary America: the serpent. Snakes, actually, are minor characters in a plot whose protagonists wield the slender bodies of the former, furiously, in scenes of religio-social ecstasy and embodied ferment. Although Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain forever changed the way I think about ethnographic research, it provokes more questions than it answers. What’s the job of the scholar of religion? Where does ethnography end and journalism begin? Where does the line between writing about interesting things and the fetishizing those very things begin and end?

Smith provides some insight. He writes in his provocative essay, “The Devil in Mr. Jones,” that scholars must make intelligible. Scholars can work toward this goal by elucidating mythologies, ideologies, soteriologies, and sociologies. We must extract from the data in front of us its exoticism; we must override its novelty. No “human datum [is] beyond the pale of reason and understanding,” Smith writes of Enlightenment thought, implying that such a modernist endeavor is a more worthy option to “the refusal of the academy” to engage in interpretation.

I’m still thinking about Seth Perry’s recent post, “Adiaphora,” in The Martin Marty Center’s Sightings blog. Perry reflects on journalistic accounts of snake handler Randall Wolford’s death by snake bite, concluding that “we are obligated to respect a faith like this, but not to laud it.” Such discourse, I’m convinced, reinforces novelty and perpetuates intelligibility. “Nothing human is foreign to me,” says Smith, but comments such as Perry’s do nothing to make humanness ordinary or to reduce phenomena to “the known and the knowable.” Perry doesn’t seem to understand what he’s missing, even though it’s there in his post: snake-handlers have facebook pages. Snake-handlers are Americans. They have loved ones. Snake-handlers are human beings.  Respect, lauding, empathy: these concepts seem to me irrelevant, or at best, redundant. They’re mute points. Understand the phenomenon, says Smith. Explain it. Make it human. Use whatever means possible to make it known and knowable.

The issue as I see it is that novelty becomes a protective buffer, a defensive screen, of sorts, by which academics put distance between themselves and the subject matter. I won’t comment on the value of said distance; I’m an ethnographer by method, so you might be able to guess my position when it comes to first-hand, on-the-ground, fieldwork. But, drawing on Bourdieuian theory, I would advise fellow ethnographers and historians that this defensive mechanism is also an advertising ploy, a journalistic tactic. Our task, in Bourdieu’s words, is to “reveal that which is hidden.” Producing novelty does the opposite: it obscures. It hides.

And, of course, the million-dollar, pragmatic question: How? How do we get beyond novelty in our writing and research? How do we actually do it?

What are your thoughts?