On the Future of Face-to-Face Academic Interaction, or Why We Need to Talk about Gemeinschaft

Oh, how I hate Gemeinschaft! But as with so many things one hates, there are some deep things worth cherishing, preferably in some other form. For the benefit of non-sociologists, this German term belongs to a foundational moment in the discipline, namely Ferdinand Toennies’ 1887 Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, which is normally translated as ‘Community and Society’. But this is a weak translation in terms of what’s at stake in the distinction. Toennies was trying to contrast the scope of social life as based on hereditary bonds and on voluntary association – i.e. can you leave your village without losing your rights?  Nowadays we are likely to respond to this in terms of ‘vertical’ versus ‘horizontal’ forms of social organization. But at the time, ‘determined’ versus ‘free’ was more operative. In any case, the distinction is most obviously grounded in the law, Toennies’ original discipline. Weber and other sociologists (often with much the same legal training) followed suit, resulting in the stereotypes we have today of what distinguishes ‘pre-modern’ and ‘modern’ forms of life.

I say ‘stereotypes’ because Toennies packed perhaps a bit too much into this distinction. In particular, I want to focus on the alleged connection between Gemeinschaft and face-to-face interaction. Toennies’ original point was that sheer regular acquaintance with someone can foster many different sorts of social relations, which together stabilize society as a whole. Of course, he was talking about physical co-presence, as when people spend most of their lives in the same place. However, nowadays remote face-to-face interaction is possible via Skype and its undoubtedly improved successors in the future.  From that standpoint, we seem to be heading to the sort of future that Marshall McLuhan projected fifty years ago, whereby we all live in one ‘global village’. In that case, what is the added value of your being physically co-present with someone, especially if you come from far away and will have to use up scarce energy resources to get there?

Thanks to the usual academic narcissism, this question is periodically posed in terms of conference attendance, with the Pharisees amongst us in full flow about how much harm is caused by flying. To be sure, I am the first to admit that the performance of most academic conference speakers does little to enhance whatever value they already provide in their writings, audios and videos. But I am more concerned about wasting people’s time and money than precious environmental resources. In that spirit, we might reserve face-to-face interaction in the full sense of physical co-presence to moments where we want/allow people to act with maximum discretion in a fixed setting, with all the powers and liabilities that that entails. This is the sense of face-to-face that operates in the diplomatic and business spheres – except that those encounters are normally conducted privately and with small numbers present.

The idea here, however, would be for academics to operate in this manner in public, as staged events. In other words, the robust face-to-face character of social life that many sociologists still hanker for in the idea of Gemeinschaft would be restricted to a kind of spontaneously performed theatre, whose degree of indeterminacy would be comparable to that of a sporting event. Those unwilling or unable to operate in that mode can resort to some more formalized mode of self-presentation that reduces the uncertainty of the situation but equally reduces the need for them to be physically present. In that case, Skype and YouTube beckon.

In practice, I have in mind a talk presented as a pitch to an audience whose attendance would be based on some familiarity with the speaker’s likely moves. The pitch itself would be shorter than a full talk, say, only 20 minutes, but the argument would be expected to be both developed and validated in the course of interacting with the audience over a period, say, of the same or double the length. A goal may be advertised in advance, specifying what might count as a success for the speaker – i.e. where agreement might be expected to be reached with the audience on that occasion. As with sporting matches, these events may also be recorded and scrutinized for what went right and wrong. If budding academics were encouraged to aspire to this sort of treatment, they might start spontaneously thinking of themselves as ‘public intellectuals’.


Categories: Committing Sociology, Higher Education, Outflanking Platitudes, Sociological Craft

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