Voices of MASC Lab: Rachael: Social Change? All Day. Everyday.

During our last few MASC Lab meetings, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing issues of academia and inequity—matters intimately connected to the second of our two “pillars”: Social Change. Before delving any further into this conversation, though, I’d like to further unpack what we mean when we say we are interested in issues of “Media and Social Change.”

Colloquially, we often talk about social change as if the world will stay the same unless we “choose to change it.” On the surface level, the statement makes sense (and sits relatively well with various schools of social theory). The problem, however, is that this commonsense usage slips quickly into the assumption that the status quo is a neutral, inevitable given that neither requires our continual participation nor our consent. The implication is that we can “choose” to “go out” and make change, but that we are otherwise uninvolved. What do those commencement speeches and fancy magnets always say? “Go out into the world and make a difference.” “Choose to make the world a better place.” The tacit assumption is that one may chose to make change but that none of us ever really choose to reproduce the status quo. Some more radical statements suggest that “doing nothing” is not a neutral choice because it is choosing to let the world continue on as is. Yet, even these statements rarely suggest that the status quo itself requires our continual, daily participation and work.

Ethnomethodologists, however, operate on a different theory. For them, “reality” as we know it is always, everywhere, and inevitably in creation by every one of us (albeit with varying degrees of influence and certainly constrained by our material conditions). Our daily interactions, shaped by our taken-for-granted, socially-constructed ideas, produce the categories which organize the social order (ie. categories of intelligence, gender, race, and more which are attached to highly disparate degrees of power). We cannot escape to some imagined world of “neutrality.” There is no not “choosing to go out into the world and make a difference” because we are always in the world and contributing to its shape. Every action contributes to the social order. We may repeatedly reproduce the status quo, but that, too, is a continual, collective decision (although arguably a decision often made because we feel like stasis is inevitable). We do not get to choose “if” we want to “go make change,” we simply get to choose what kind of change we want to make.

What does the ethnomethodological theory of social change mean for the Media and Social Change Lab? What does it mean for our discussion of academia and inequity? In my opinion, the implication is tremendous. If we accept the commonsense idea of social change, then we can sit comfortably in the “ivory tower” and imagine that we may, one day, “choose to go make change.” We might decide to “pick” a research project that “has to do with social inequality” or “decide to include more diverse perspectives” in our work (neither of which are unimportant, of course). But the problem, in my opinion, is that we will not ask: How do we at TC, as an institution and as members within it, contribute to reproducing the status quo even when we aren’t explicitly trying to “make a difference” or “make change”?

For many of us, the “social change” we imagine has a particular formulation- we want to work for social change towards a particular end. Personally, I want to work for and contribute to building a more equitable, democratic social order that protects the dignity and agency of each and every living being. This helps me add to the question I posed above: How do we at TC, as an institution and as members within it, contribute to reproducing the status quo even when we aren’t explicitly trying to “make a difference” or “make change”?  And, how does this actively prevent us from building a more equitable, democratic social order?

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that we, as a MASC Lab group, have been operating on a problematic notion of social change. Like any hegemonic thinking, though, the temptation to escape to the comfortable idea of “neutrality” is beguiling and seems to lurk inconspicuously in our institutional practices and analytical paradigms. It is easy to “slip.” Hopefully, making our taken-for-granted assumptions (like what we mean by “social change”) more explicit can afford a certain degree of accountability- accountability for working towards the particular social order we purport to support, and for remembering that none of our actions- even those isolated within the “ivory tower”- are insignificant or ineffectual in the (daily) work of “social change.” Here’s hoping that eventually, this change will culminate in a more equitable, just social order.

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Center for Multiple Languages and Literacies

at Teachers College, Columbia University

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