playing seriously


Kudos should certainly go to Fabio for attempting to bring some order to the chaos that is managing to get through grad school (if you haven’t check out Grad School Rulz soon to be compiled into an edited volume by Blackwell). Academic success in scientific fields is certainly a mysterious thing. We all have seen equally talented (in comparison to ourselves) friends flounder while some less than talented friends go on to becoming fairly prominent members of academia. Certainly one thing that appears to be the case when it comes to predicting success out of grad school is that raw “brains” is not the explanation (this leads some of us to head scratching fits of “what’s going on here then?”). Instead, successful academics appear to have a certain je ne se quois, an “attitude” or “aptitude” that makes academia their “calling.” Others don’t seem to have this required ethos, and those are the really bright people that end up dropping out after their third year.

I propose that one important component of success in science is the ability to not be serious about the “right” things and to be serious about seemingly unimportant things. This ability is not equally distributed: some people seem unable to not be serious about serious things. Other people are almost constitutively incapable of being serious about non-serious things; they are the ones who “don’t get” the scientific game and who think that getting into a (serious) shouting match over whether Simmel’s contributions have been justifiably neglected or whether Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism is incoherent is the weirdest spectacle on the planet. My sense is that if you are one of those latter people and you are still in grad school, if you are “too cool” to take mere ideas seriously, you probably should be thinking about another day job.

This idea, like all ideas in academia is not original:

We should take Plato’s reflections on skhole seriously and even his famous expression, so often commented upon…”to play seriously.” The scholastic point of view is inseparable from the scholastic situation, a socially instituted situation in which one can defy or ignore the common alternative between playing…joking, and being serious…by playing seriously and taking ludic things seriously, busying oneself with problems that serious, and truly busy people ignore–actively or passively. Homo scholasticus or homo academicus is someone who can play seriously because his or her state…assures her the means to do so, that is, the free time, outside the urgency of a practical situation…and, finally but most importantly the disposition….to invest and invest oneself in the futile stakes, at least in the eyes of serious people, which are generated in scholastic worlds. (Bourdieu, Pierre. 1998. “The Scholastic Point of View.” Pp. 127-140 in Practical Reason. Stanford: University of Stanford Press).

This is no joke, and it may have some serious consequences, including explaining the inability of (seriously) politically committed scholars to crack the scientific field as well as the loss of minority scholars in the upper-echelons of the discipline (something we talked about before). Because the social conditions of production of the disposition to play seriously are not equally distributed in social space, academia may, against its best intentions, continue to reproduce certain forms of privilege.

Can you play seriously?


Written by Omar

May 30, 2007 at 6:46 pm

6 Responses

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  1. What – are you saying that my correction to the 3rd translation of the 46th footnote of Weber’s 1921 Die rationalen und soziologischen Grundlagen der Musik (Rational and Sociological Foundations of Music) is not important?


    Fabio Rojas

    May 30, 2007 at 8:35 pm

  2. Very Interesting!!

    However, I am not sure if should be crying or laughing. That is, I am one of those folks who “get” the (serious) shouting matches about, e.g., the neglect of Simmel, the need for more methodological individualism in sociology, and Marx’s commodity fetishism. Nevertheless, I find myself guffawing at prospective scholars who do not “get,” e.g., the (serious) debate that the ideal-typical charismatic leader for Weber was a response to the organizational limitations of bureaucracy.
    This may mean that I have the “make-up” to play seriously.

    But does the attitude for “playing seriously” lead to elitism? As, for example, a fellow grad student and me laughing at another student for not taking our (serious) debate about Weber’s charismatic leader “seriously.” I want to be serious about the not-so-serious, although I do not want to become a snob (another salient characteristic of many academics).


    Brian Pitt

    May 30, 2007 at 8:39 pm

  3. Blogging is evidence that all of us take this game pretty seriously. Lately I’ve started noticing some scary similarities between “serious” academics and the nerds who populate a vinyl record store (for whom I hold the greatest admiration!). As academics, we just make our play more legitimate by presenting at conferences and publishing in journals.



    May 30, 2007 at 8:55 pm

  4. Brayden, a line from “High Fidelity:” It’s not who you are, it’s what you like!


    Fabio Rojas

    May 30, 2007 at 8:56 pm

  5. Brian,
    Some version of snobbery is certainly an inevitable outcome. Sociologists (should) have an advantage in that they have the tools to be able diagnose the social sources of such snobbery and not fall prey to the “natural attitude” of most scholars in which the really bizarre world of academia is seen as normal and the real world as weird (when objectively is exactly the opposite: academia is “the real world reversed”). That kind of snobbery is precisely one of the mechanisms in the field that serves to draw boundaries between insiders and outsiders and within the population of insiders between core and peripheral actors. Sociologists and other members of the humanities are in a pickle, since here egalitarian ideologies coexist uneasily with the objective position of the scientific field in the larger social field (dominant but no quite) and within scientific fields with the relative stratification of scholars vis a vis one another (thus you get the awkward situation of dominant scholars who occupy pinnacles of the stratification system of science calling for the end of all stratification).



    May 30, 2007 at 9:55 pm

  6. a line from “High Fidelity:”

    Top five most underrated theory books.

    Next: top five most overrated.



    May 31, 2007 at 4:37 am

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