Monday, July 19, 2004

Disinterested Destination

At some point during my undergraduate days, a guest speaker came to one of our classes. For the life of me, I can’t imagine what class it was. Regardless, the speaker that I remember was a planner. He provided some sage advice: “Planners are generalists. They keep expanding their field and their knowledge about any particular thing gets thinner and thinner. They end up knowing nothing about everything. Engineers, however, have to specialize until they end up knowing everything about nothing. We both end up knowing the same thing: nothing.”

For some reason, my recent readings (Bourdieu, 1990, 1998; Dretske, 1999; Giddens, 1984) have put brought this anecdote back to me. Perhaps it’s because I’m very aware of a process where I’m gradually learning everything there is to know about a very narrow topic. In my mind, I imagine that there will two brief moments over the next few years where I’ll know more about a particular topic than anyone else in the world. Immediately after my comps I’ll have developed a unique take on the world of information science that nobody else could possible have. As soon as I finish writing, however, I’m sure that it will all just begin to ebb away. Not long after, my dissertation will give me the opportunity to (briefly) be the world’s leading expert on a very esoteric topic.

I could read Giddens or Bourdieu into these thoughts. My doctoral training, for example, provides the structure that I require to co-ordinate the time and space required to create my ideas. Furthermore, that same structure will afford me the ability to justify (to myself and others hopefully) the importance of my takes on these topics. I feel like I’m moving toward something. As noted by Bourdieu, I’m playing the game and will hopefully be where I need to be when the ball lands.

While the disciplinary structure itself may enable me to justify my thoughts and ideas I’m very aware that they will only remain stable for a very brief moment in the maelstroms of academic rhetoric and my own cognitive processes. And that brief moment will require a whole pile of work to create the local structure necessary for my ideas to stand up. It’s a foregone conclusion, however, that the wax and feathers of research methodologies and academic discourse that enables the ideas to fly also begin to decay as they approach the sun. Like Icarus, my efforts are—in a way—already doomed.

So what am I going to do in that very brief moment when they stand? I’m not sure that I have so thoroughly swallowed the cultural norms of the academy that I’m blind to the epistemological rot it produces. I feel the need to use these anticipated moments of insight to produce something other than just a soon-to-be-forgotten manuscript.

Bourdieu (1998) provides perhaps the best description for how I’m feeling:

“Although I do not see the hidden sides of a cube, they are quasi present, they are ‘presented’ in a relationship of belief which is that which we accord to something we perceive. They are not aimed for in a project, as equally possible or impossible; they are there, with the doxic modality of that which is directly perceived.

In fact, these pre-perceptive anticipations, a sort of practical induction based on previous experience, are not given to a pure subject, a universal transcendental consciousness. They are the fact of the habitus as a feel for the game.” (Pg. 80)

I’m moving toward something and I’m not sure what it is. Sure, I’m using a whole lot of information but all those models on information seeking behaviour (see Wilson, 1999) suddenly seem pretty shallow.


Bourdieu, P. (1990). From rules to strategies. In In other words : essays towards a reflexive sociology (pp. 59-75). Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1998). Is a disinterested act possible? In Practical reason : on the theory of action (pp. 75-91). Cambridge: Polity Press.

Dretske, F. I. (1999). Machines, Plants, and Animals : The Origins of Agency. Erkenntnis, 51, 19-31.

Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society : outline of the theory of structuration. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]: Polity Press.

Wilson, T. D. (1999). Models in information behaviour research. Journal of Documentation, 55(3), 249-270.


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