Not your kind of people – 22 August

The everyday rhythm of British academic life is bound up with shifting contexts. At least from my perspective. Much of this is perhaps about negotiating the age-old British preoccupation with class. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued this is about shifting your performance of yourself to fit in with the context you currently occupy – to achieve what he called ‘cultural capital’. In my case, this causes me to pay attention to a few things on a regular basis – accent, clothes and (for want of a better phrase) talking points. As anthropologist Erving Goffman suggested, we are all, perhaps, attempting to avoid social stigma*.

Unlike some other parts of the UK, the Bristolian accent is not well-loved and often derided as connoting a broad West-country stereotype of a foolish farmer. Either that or the sneering caricature of working class Bristolian – Vicky Pollard, performed in “Little Britain” by a Bristol university graduate (the stigma of class, see?). In the barbers or dropping my children at nursery it is acceptable, perhaps even desirable, to allow or accentuate my regional accent. Doing so denotes something like belonging – trying to avoid the stigma of being an ‘outsider’. I can only imagine that it must surely be more complicated, and more fraught, when the perceived differences are somehow thought to be greater – such as being seen as ‘foreign’. We all attempt to mask our differences to ‘pass’.

Transitioning to campus, for me, means feeling like it is necessary to straighten out vowels and ensure crisp consonants. Many of our students perform a very particular version of ‘standard English’ that I cannot really mimic, but I think probably subconsciously attempt it. In the last year or so I have tried to allow myself to relax into my ‘normal’ accent at work. Perversely it actually takes some conscious effort. The subconscious cues for fitting in, for negotiating class context, and for performing what I perhaps have internalised as a ‘professional persona’ has always meant, I think, dropping the Bristolian. It can be uncomfortable. Those cues for stigma, as Goffman argued, are strong.

Clothing, as a system of signification and stigma, is another complicated thing to negotiate. You might want to appear professional, or trendy, or both. Many of my fellow travellers on trains are in a form of ‘casualised’ business clothing. Depending on your discipline, or department, academics can try to appear non-conformist, trendy or professional and business-like, or any point between. Sometimes you can sort of guess in which department a colleague works by virtue of their dress. Likewise, you can currently pick out a certain class of ‘professional services’ manager at my university because they all seem to wear very blue suits. Again, this concerns the negotiation of social stigma and attempting to ‘pass’. Wearing the right sort of clothes, sporting the right brands (or none), is bound up with signalling fitting in. I don’t envy our students for whom this is a social minefield.

Getting ‘too old’ (or feeling it) for some of the more mystifying cycles of trends has felt liberating for me – even though I more-or-less avoided (intentionally or not) ever being ‘trendy’. However, there is something about performing authority that is bound up in how we dress. Rather than ‘fit in’ with the students this is about ‘fitting in’ with the context – being ‘the academic’, ‘the teacher’. I have a jacket on a peg in my office that I sometimes feel I should wear for teaching, especially for the large first year lectures. I am sure that many colleagues feel the same. I am also sure that some of the feelings about performing status and so on are much sharper for colleagues who are not male or white. It is, sadly, clear from student surveys that if you fit the apparent stereotype of a middle aged white male professor you have a much higher chance of receiving positive feedback.

Those of us that are broadly ‘social scientists’ sometimes face the challenge of ‘passing’ in new contexts as part fieldwork. We must enter and inhabit different contexts that may be unfamiliar, attempt to build a rapport with people that have different rituals of identity and elicit data about aspects of their lives for our research. In some respects then, the preparation for ‘the field’ is a way of working out how you might ‘pass’ in a new context. How you signal to your research participants that you fit in, at least enough for them to participate in a productive way. This is perhaps why I, still, feel that I am not that good at field work. ‘Passing’ is hard work.

I have come to understand that I am not very good at the negotiation of moving between contexts. Sometimes I/we get stuck in-between. It is sometimes not enough to look or sound like you ‘pass’. For example, you might need to find ways of talking about football with your neighbour over the fence and rugby or lacrosse with your students. You might be sympathising with friends because none of you can afford a family holiday this year while trying to show enthusiasm for your students’ latest ski trip. More established or older colleagues may fulfil the David Lodge style stereotype of accosting you with tales of taking their family to the South of France for two to three weeks. Early career and younger colleagues may elicit sympathy for their striving to save every penny for a deposit for a house or simply trying to pay the rent.

In many respects, for me, the context and expectations of academia and the kinds of lifestyle academics can lead has changed. Many of us still aspire to (and even achieve) the solidly middle class trappings of home ownership, holidays abroad, attending conferences, going on overseas sabbatical visits and so on. However, the funds to do this have diminished, if they were ever there. When reading academic reminiscences in journals about how one well-known professor met another whilst on sabbatical or at a far-flung conference and then was able to invite them to visit their own institution it feels like another world. Like many workers in all sorts of contexts, some academics now face attempting to ‘pass’ in a context that perhaps feels distinctly out of reach.

The performances of ‘fitting in’ can feel like you are left in-between – that you no longer ‘belong’ in one place or another. As many ex-pats and migrants have suggested, when you leave the context of ‘home’ and attempt to fit into another you can appear or feel like you do not ‘authentically’ pass in either. The subtle observations from your friends at ‘home’ that you have somehow changed might be matched by not quite feeling like you are wholly accepted in your new context either. While the stakes are undoubtedly much lower, there are ways in which travelling between the context of ‘university’ and ‘home’ leaves you in a social (perhaps class) limbo.

With perhaps the most significant British geography conference of the year next week, like many, my mind turns to how to fit in there. Remembering the sorts of current institutional and disciplinary preoccupations that will form the topics of gossip, worrying over how best to present yourself – dress smart? mask the accent? – and wondering how to ensure that you ‘pass’ in the socialising that is the glue that holds together a conference and, perhaps, a career. My approach is to attempt to be generous – to try to be inclusive, to listen, to compliment – many of us must feel in the same boat and so to modestly attempt to create your own little context of welcoming others seems to me to be the most fitting response to the anxieties of stigma.

If you’re going to the RGS-IBG conference in Cardiff next week (last week of August 2018) I hope it goes well. Please do feel free to say “hi”, it would be lovely to talk to you.

* Some discussion of Bourdieu’s and Goffman’s respective work and how this ties to these themes is on the Sociology Lens blog here:

Not your kind of people – Garbage

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