Friday, 31 October 2008

Pony and Wolf

I am back in the saddle this week, the write-up saddle, that is. It's been quite slow to get the old pony (a mountain pony, as my friend says) cantering again after a week or so grazing apparently (dealing with intense family stuff).

I am in the middle of a paragraph and am clearly using this blog as escapism. But I am writing about 'ritual ordeal' which draws on the 'humiliation' literature that seems scarily relevant to my life as a DPhil student. The literature mainly comes from sociologists and psychologists interested in various phenomena, from socialization to genocide.

Scholars tend to agree that humiliation - an interaction between two or more people or countries which involves the use of scorn, ridicule, contempt and degrading treatment - is an effective mechanism to ensure the internalization or outward display of various behaviours, norms and values. Typical examples of institutions who use such mechanisms are professions (the military being the most obvious), prisons, schools and the family.

The family is an interesting one. One writer, Dr Donald C. Klein, makes the connection between the conditionality of parental acceptance and approval - a prosocial tool to shape the child into an adult - and the actute and continued sensitivity of humans (and therefore societies) to humiliation and then, in many cases, to any form of criticism.

He cites Mark Twain's The United States of Lyncherdom:

"Each man is afraid of his neighbor's disapproval- a thing which, to the general run of the human race, is more dreaded than wolves and death."
Disapproval is something we fear, but at the same time with which we are familiar. Easy love and acceptance are then often perceived as ambiguous, reckless, uncomfortable, suspicious and/or stupid. At the end of his piece, Klein wonders whether there is another way of socializing children into adults.

In the middle of reading this literature, my supervisor informed me that she was going to be "very hard on me" until I submit my thesis. I am in a strange phase of life where negative stimulus still works very, very well to a certain point (and I am in many ways grateful for the push), but I tend to prefer and am trying to rely more and more on positive encouragement, and less cloudy, fearful motivations (from myself and others).

Nonetheless, it's tough to break old habits and, I've got to say, I am often and still not very far from the humiliation model. Let me know if you have any healthier alternatives for me...I will pass them on to Dr Klein as well!


ihatemornings said...

I love the way you can take a series of thoughts from inside your head and channel them into an interesting and beautiful slice of internet. If that's what writing a PhD looks like from the inside, I want one. ;o)

John Flood said...

Try reading Garfinkel's piece on degradation ceremonies (Conditions of Successful Degradation Ceremonies)--one of the most instructive on humiliation and assignment of stigma. Goffman still is the best here in my view.

One thing about writing up PhDs is that students often think this is the end point. It isn't. It is a mere staging post. It's better to think of the book you are writing which will garner you a degree along the way.

The other aspect is that the half life of these projects is substantially longer than most think. Your participation in conferences and seminars is predicated on what you've been doing. You may change course but you will always be tied to this particular piece of work and its penumbra. After all it is the salient piece that created your personality as a scholar. In other words, you never quite escape it. (I wonder if this is why the Germans have the Habilitation--a second chance at recreating yourself intellectually...)

Good luck with the writing though.

droid said...

Disapproval is genuine. I rather like it.
Praise is not only suspicious but difficult to go anywhere with. Plus it can make you proud and arrogant. All round it sucks.

Ah shure hope yer ma is feeling a lidl bedder bah now.

John Flood said...

Thanks Miss Monkey Mind--I hope to see you there.

Something a little strange about the times the comments here were made. I'm sure I didn't make mine at 6:20 in the morning! Have you got your time zone set to Sydney? Just curious.