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Academics are practitioners

February 16, 2010

Some midnight thoughts:

* The conventional divide between ‘theorists’ (e.g. media scholars) and ‘practitioners’ (e.g. journalists who teach at academic institutions) that we find in higher education parlance is unhelpful. Both scholars and non-scholars are practitioners, albeit of different kinds. That is, both operate within fields of practice that require long years of learning and secondary socialisation.

* Scholars operate within the field of academia and one or more of its numerous subfields (politics, sociology, chemistry, art, etc.)

* They play different games from those played by non-scholars. Accomplished scholars have acquired and internalised a ‘feel’ for the academic game and acquired symbolic capital (publications, degrees, grants, honours, etc.). They are invested in the ‘illusio’ of the academic game; a belief that this is a game worth playing well (Bourdieu).

* Like any other embodied practice, scholarship can be performed with more or less skill, commitment, and flair. Sometimes scholars may even experience ‘flow’, that ‘mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity’  (Csíkszentmihályi)

* Academics interact with other academic players in field-specific sites, both in regular ‘stations’ (to borrow Giddens’ practice-theoretical term, e.g. conferences, seminars, journals, mailing lists) where ‘normal science’ takes place and – if they’re lucky – irregular ‘arenas’ (V. Turner) of contestation and ‘revolutionary science’ in which the existing paradigm of their field of knowledge is replaced by a new paradigm (Kuhn).

* Fields of practice are highly social – academia is no different from tennis, scuba diving or salsa dancing in this regard. Yes, the sites and types of sociality may vary greatly from one field to the next, but practitioners still relate to one another – and to practitioners from other fields – in thoroughly social milieux.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Andre Bailao permalink
    February 22, 2010 6:12 pm

    Hello John,
    Some of this division between “theorists” and “practitioners” comes from the fact that many believe that scholar researches are disconnected from society. In the common sense, journalists are more in contact with other social contexts and the world-out-there, while scholars think about the world-out-there but keep themselves to the university context, apart from the rest of the society.
    Of course, I do not agree with that completely, but I do think there is a tension inside universities between building bridges towards the rest of the society and erecting walls to protect them against the non-scholar world. Some scholars are practitioners who do not consider discussing anything which is not academic. Some of their work are merely referring to other academic works and discussing only what other scholars are producing and tend to overlook what is being produced by the non-scholar world. That’s quiet common. It’s a question of whether knowledge produced outside university walls should be considered as equally important (but of a different matter) or not. It’s is a question that scholars all around the world should constantly be asking themselves.
    Academia is a social world indeed, but people there are paid for researching what other worlds produce/do. How connected they get is an important issue, we all know that. And I am not just talking of how to do a good ethnography , but also of how to make what those people analyzed by scholars think and do be taken into consideration, and not just talked about.
    Since we are dealing with that they think/do, we should not only produce our own explanations of their thinking and acting but take their own explanations into account. We are all practitioners, but you have to consider that scholars are practitioners that spent some of their time producing knowledge about what other practitioners do – so the division is not so unimportant after all.
    Best regards.

  2. February 23, 2010 11:45 am

    Many thanks for those thoughts, Andre.

    I’m not suggesting that the division between scholars and non-scholars is unimportant: in my view, it is in fact of fundamental importance to how our universities operate. My quarrel is with the terminology (‘theorists’ vs. ‘practitioners’) which lends itself to the tacit understanding of scholars as non-practitioners. I am saying that theorising is as much of a practical activity as fixing a broken boiler or designing a new type of vessel. To reiterate, both scholars and non-scholars are practitioners – i.e. they both operate within specific fields of practice (sociology, art, design, journalism…) characterised by their own logics, laws and power games. The point is that academic fields are certainly different from non-academic fields, but they are all equally practice-based.

    Another interesting type of practitioner commonly found in our universities today is that member of the teaching staff who rarely or never ‘plays’ in his or her own field of origin (sociology, art, journalism, etc.), concentrating instead on playing the organisational game, i.e. on climbing the organisational ladder. We could call these people ‘organisation practitioners’, for their practical endeavours take place largely within the confines of their organisation, not within a *field* of practice such as journalism, chemistry or social anthropology. Of course, the games people play within organisations are markedly different from those played within fields of practice.

    • February 23, 2010 11:52 am

      PS – the big challenge a lot of us academics face today is how to reconcile the often conflicting demands of our fields and organisations.

  3. Andre Bailao permalink
    February 23, 2010 12:37 pm

    Hey John,

    I actually agree with you, but the paragraph in which I stated that somehow got deleted from my post! I wanted to say in the first place that I also think it is important to perceive scholars as practitioners of their own kind. And, at the same time, while seeing their work as a practice too, instead of some bizarre mind bubble (as if scholars didn’t learn, train, fail and live in a social environmental as everybody else), that should not be used as an excuse to shut their minds to the “outter world”. The terminology of the division should indeed be rethought, as you well put it, but sometimes the critics made to the scholar world are not without reason!
    Keep on writing!
    kind regards

  4. March 10, 2011 9:02 am

    Hello John (and all).

    It’s late and my mind is a little fogged, and so I’m unclear as to why you regard the distinction between academics and practitioners unhelpful. As you note, both are practitioners within their own field of practice. But I wonder if we’re talking about different things. The notions of practitioners and academics, as initially used by you–and perhaps by many others–has a common-or-garden meaning that many would recognise as distinguishing actors from two distinct fields of practice (say, academia and business). And I think that is what you say.

    My reading of the ‘unhelpfulness’ is that within a particular, say, sub-field of academia, the word practitioner has a more somewhat different/distinct meaning than the more common-or-garden usage above. In other words, the ‘problem’ is the way in which we overload meanings onto words, rather than anything else. Within the sub-field, I would suggest that one can usually distinguish between the meaning of the word ‘practitioner’ (as one who is a non-academic versus the notion of an actor operating in some field).

    Within the strategy-as-practice literature, there is sometimes a clear articulation that at times fields intersect/interact with one another and it is useful to distinguish between say, the academic, the manager, the external consultant, the consumer, and so on.

    Now, I don’t know which field has the strongest claim to the meaning of ‘practitioner’, but much of the time I’m able to distinguish the meaning of the word through its usage/context/etc.

    Have I read what you meant correctly?

  5. March 14, 2011 10:16 am

    Hi Peter

    I wrote these notes over a year ago but I’ll try to respond to your thoughtful comments.

    I suppose my point was not that “the distinction between academics and practitioners [is] unhelpful” but rather it was that the term ‘practitioner’ misleads us into assuming that scholars are not practitioners – which they are, albeit of a very different stripe. I was trying to suggest that perhaps we need different terms in order to gain a more a practice-theoretical understanding of the work of scholars.

    With hindsight I may be creating a problem where there is none, i.e. as you point out people are guided by the context of an utterance.

    Perhaps what can be rescued from this muddle is the statement that “Academics are practitioners”, followed by a field and practice-theoretical account of their work, a la Bourdieu?

    Got to go now, but hope to come back to this at some point…

    • March 14, 2011 8:43 pm

      Hello John,

      Yes, I think you are on to something there. It seems to make sense that when we are talking of practitioners we do need to be clearer about locating them, as you suggest by some statement as to their “field and practice-theoretical account of their work”. Much of the time we might infer this from the context, but that isn’t always the case.

      I’m somewhat enamoured by the strategy-as-practice. Within that perspective there has been (since quite early on) a view that folk such as academics, consultants, and others are practitioners within the ‘field’ of strategising practices. As a result, when talking about practitioners of strategy, all those in the field (be they managers, academics, or whatever) are (hopefully) considered.

      This makes me thing that–as fields may overlap–we might also usefully distinguish the centrality of practitioners in their field. I’ve found Unruh (1979) a useful framework in that regard. The notion of outsiders, tourists, regulars, and insiders helps me locate practitoners. In my experience some young academics when working in the management field are more like tourists than regulars (let alone insiders) and I suspect that few academics end up being insiders within the field of management practice.

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