Interested Descriptions

Picture 2The way that descriptions, encoded in definitions, tacitly reproduce theories, sets of interests, and ways of prioritizing, paying attention & ignoring, is pretty evident in the commonsense definition of ritual that many of us walk around with — and, sadly, which many scholars adopt and use as well. Or maybe I should say that it is pretty evident once one compares it to another sort of description, as found in a different sort of definition. For example, just consider if the above definitions instead read:

ritual (n.): repetitive behavioral means whereby members of groups become convinced that collectivities exist in some tangible manner.

ritual (adj.): of, relating to, or done as a form of ideological indoctrination.

Failing to see that the first set of definitions carry as much baggage as do the second — though it is different baggage, of course, normalizing different interests — is a shortcoming of much scholarship.

2 Replies to “Interested Descriptions”

  1. Why value one set of assumptions over another? This is a genuine, open question (i.e., why the “sadly”?). To hone in further, why is your set of ideological assumptions and assertions preferable to those whose views cause you sadness?

    Also, who says that descriptions do not necessarily entail definitions, which are themselves based on sets of assumptions, theories, ideologies and the like? My students learn about this stuff in first year cultural studies – and gender-critical work necessitates this as well.

    Please tell me what I am missing.

  2. Strikes me that there is a difference between our efforts in academia to analyze the day-to-day lives of the people we study who are, generally, not interested in analyzing their lives in quite the same way. I therefore don’t have any trouble distinguishing a first from a second order discourse, or an analytic from a folk or commonsense discourse. Commonsense tells us the earth is flat, after all but that hardly limits the way of talking about it and scholars bring a different set of tools to its analysis. “Sadly,” then, simply represents my disappointment that so many scholars simply adopt, uncritically, the commonsense language/understandings of their own folk world (e.g., how history, selves, and groups work, etc.) and use them as if they are analytic, cross-culturally applicable tools. Seems to me to be terribly inadequate for scholarship and one which merely normalizes the already dominant folk assumptions of their day.

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