Theories of the Background: A Discussion of the Things We Don't Know We Know

Wednesday May 18 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm (Eastern Daylight Time)
Virtual Platform

Session Code: THE2
Session Format: Regular Session
Session Language: English
Research Cluster Affiliation: Social Theory
Session Categories: Regular Session

This session will offer a space for explicit engagement with the ideas, structures, and ways of knowing that often represent the 'background' of everyday life. Many theories have attempted to grasp at this liminal space: lifeworld, habitus, tacit knowledge, prereflective backgrounds, primary frameworks, etc. We investigate how questions of such 'theories of the background' apply (and perhaps ought to be adapted) to the current circumstances of our age. Sociology's inherently interdisciplinary nature represents a strength in this regard, and therefore the presentations included are from across a host of disciplines to help spark new theoretical engagements to answer the questions of today and beyond. Tags: Knowledge, Networks, Social Structure, Theory

Organizer: Reiss Kruger, York University; Chair: Reiss Kruger, York University


George Martin, York University

Between the spheres: The reorientation of lived experience in defining the situation of urban administration

During the COVID pandemic, debates about public health measures in cities have intensified an interest in distinctions between public and private spheres. Addressing this context, this paper discusses the relationship between cultural identity and the nominally public processes of city administration by revisiting the concept of ‘defining the situation’. Building on recent and past work on this issue, it tracks various ways ‘the definition of the situation’ has been used to explain the role of lived experience in decision making. While recognizing that lived experience certainly shapes public deliberation, it also shows an opposite dynamic whereby policy making subtly disrupts what that experience means. I suggest, a deeper understanding of ‘the definition of the situation’ shows ways policymaking recontextualizes lived experience by rendering its ordinariness as something strange or uncanny. In this way, the analysis aims to highlight connections between reassessing established themes of sociological theory and current discussions of culturally-oriented urban policymaking.

Jeffrey Stepnisky, MacEwan University

Atmosphere and Counter-Sphere in the Soviet Gulag

In this presentation I explore the concept of background through an application of the ideas of philosopher Peter Sloterdijk to Gulag memoirs. In his Spheres Trilogy (2011, 2014, 2016) Sloterdijk, writing from a phenomenological perspective, argued that human beings are the kinds of beings that construct and live within spheres atmospheric containers, co-operatively built from material and non-material culture. Spheres are not optional but rather provide the basic, often taken for granted, affective backgrounds that make human being possible in the first place. In this presentation I argue that the Gulag generated spheres/atmospheres that impacted life in the camps. On the one hand, the camps were pervaded by “dark,” “tense,” and “dreadful” atmospheres. These served as the dominant background of the camps and threatened prisoner’s dignity and ontological security. On the other hand, camp prisoners built counter-atmospheres pockets of festivity, calm, and spiritual transcendence that protected against the threats carried by dominant atmospheres and provided space for at least a small amount of self-sustaining world-building. This presentation will explain the relevance of sphere, and atmosphere, to the study of background, and describe the processes associated with the formation of both Gulag atmospheres and counter-spheres. Applicability to social theory more broadly will be considered.   

Dean Curran, University of Calgary

Lifeworld as Critical Theory 'Catch-All'? A Critical Interrogation of Habermas' Account of 'Lifeworld' in his Theory of 'Communicative Action'

In Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action (vol 1 &2) (1981), he brings to culmination a project in social theory that began with Knowledge and Human Interests (1968). Key to this work is his development of a novel conception of rationality, separate from instrumental rationality, communicative rationality, and the tying of this non-instrumental rationality to a theory of action, communicative action, and a domain of social life, the lifeworld, respectively.  Habermas then, in turn ties this account of communicative action to a novel redefinition of what should be the task of a critical theory of society. While there are many important questions that can be asked of this redefining of a critical theory, this paper focuses on certain ambiguities in his account of ‘lifeworld’. In particular, this paper raises questions regarding the tensions between the account of the ‘lifeworld’ as: i. the space of non-purposive action, ii. The space of communicative action based in validity claims, iii. The space of potential consensus grounded in ‘force of the better argument’, iv. The space in social life that is not system, and v. an implicit, unproblematic background for ordinary life. While Habermas does not necessarily explicitly ascribe all of these characteristics to the ‘lifeworld’, as this paper shows, in different aspects of the Theory of Communicative Action, the ‘lifeworld’, is called upon to fulfill these various functions. The paper then proceeds to highlight the challenge in ‘lifeworld’ serving as this ‘catch-all’ concept. The paper then proceeds to evaluate what role the lifeworld can play in a critical theory of society, as well as what limits are placed on a critical theory of society by the lifeworld.

Dean Ray, York University

What makes social research possible? Friction as research method.

When method or theory descend into the sticky materiality of everyday life they produce what Anna Tsing calls friction. By friction, I mean the messiness and entanglements that emerge when our well-worn concepts confront a reality that they do not perfectly represent, when they descend into the sticky materiality of everyday life. Yet, friction recedes into the background. Given the political economy of our discipline, there are significant benefits that come from ignoring it. We disguise our authorship, we suspend our values, we separate method from theory, and we ignore the theories of other groups, castigating them as culture. Our research make the world seem as if there is no discontinuity between the ideal and material, as if our ideas slide perfectly into the world or divine perfectly from them, never confronting or creating resistance. What happens when friction is brought to the forefront? Drawing on the idea of biographical sketches in Indigenous theory, this paper proposes wrenching friction from the background by putting messiness and entanglement front and centre. Friction (its inherent riskiness and resistances) is a productive way that the research context emerges and that we gain self-knowledge. By considering three sources of friction in my own research, this paper proposes friction as method for uncovering the background. 1. Research is authored, yet we delete the author in our work. 2. Method and theory are continuous, yet we artificially parse and separate them. 3. Theory is for everyone, yet our discipline has a very specific idea of what theory is, ignoring the everyday theorizations or the way our theories surface in the lives of our research participants. By considering friction, we are given the opportunity to develop new ways to conceptualize the world around us. Friction is productive. By uncovering friction, this paper proposes three insights that have come from it. 1. We are the author, we must confront our own biographies and our disciplinary baggage when dealing with research contests. 2. All research is narrative, the act of writing unites theory and method. 3. Theory is for everyone, everyone makes theoretical claims and tests these claims through social actions as far flung as everyday interaction or business dealings. Friction makes social research possible.