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Is there such a thing as a personal field?

July 23, 2010

We’ve all heard by now of personal (or ego-centred) networks and of social fields (say, the field of acupuncture in Oslo, or the field of sociology in France), but what about personal fields, i.e. an individual’s very own domain of practice? Google Scholar draws a blank on this notion.

Does this notion make any sense? Or is it a contradiction in terms, in that fields are by definition collectivities in which variously positioned human agents compete and cooperate over the same rewards and prizes (Martin 2003).

Just thinking aloud.


Martin, J. L. (2003) ‘What Is Field Theory?’, American Journal of Sociology 109: 1-49.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 23, 2010 12:51 pm

    Strikes me that fields are by definition arenas of collective practices, defined by common goals, rewards, and so on.

    An individual may operate in many fields, and thus have a personalised repertoire of field-derived practices, and be able to deploy them in unique manners. As heteronomous actors, they may even be able to benefit from their personal articulation of those practices in ways that others within the field are not able to. But the field needs more than one person.

    I suppose an individual can be the genesis of a new field, say a charismatic leader of some type. But there needs to be others to align themselves with the ‘rules’ before it is a field.

    OK, next question is can a dyadic field exist then? Technically I suppose, but it seems a bit strange. Maybe some Simmel could help…

  2. July 23, 2010 9:07 pm

    Are we saying, therefore, that there exist egocentric (= personal) as well as whole networks but only whole fields and NO egocentric fields?

  3. July 23, 2010 9:33 pm

    …that there exists one-to-many as well as many-to-many communication but only many-to-many fields and NO one-to-many fields? How does one-to-many communication occur in the absence of a field (or domain)?

  4. July 24, 2010 11:04 am

    Well a network is not the same as a field I think. A field may be traceable via the detection of a network, but the ‘network’ is primarily a description of connections between nodes. The egocentric network is observed by taking the individual as a starting point; another network may be described by linking all journalists, for example. They are different perspectives of (potentially) overlapping interpersonal, or inter-actant, connections.

    There may be emergent properties of the network, but those are better explained in terms of field, discourse, ideology, or whatever abstract concepts one may want to use.

    OK disclaimer here, I am also just thinking aloud 🙂

    It seems to me that a ‘one-to-many’ field is not a field of one person, but a field of many people – otherwise it would be one-to-oneself field. Therefore one-to-many communication does not occur in the absence of a field. Perhaps the field is overwhelmingly dominated by one person (e.g. a cult leader, Hitler and Nazism?), but there is still more than one person involved.

    Does that make sense? It’s an interesting question, I’m not sure if I’m missing something or not.

  5. July 24, 2010 10:44 pm

    1. Agreed, networks are very different from fields. According to the now defunct site Carnal Sociology:

    “Fields are systems of objective relations that are constituted by various species of capital. Positions in a field are related to one another, not directly through interactions or connections, but in terms of exterior relations of difference, especially in regards to efficient forms of power (capital). The difference between a field and a social network is especially important to keep in mind. A field is defined by differential relations between properties while networks are defined by actual connections. Thus people who have very little interaction with one another can be grouped very close together in social space”.

    2. I am not suggesting that personal fields (should they turn out to exist, which remains to be seen!) consist of only one person, rather that they are egocentric – as well ego-dependent (when ego dies, so does her personal field). By contrast, fields as normally understood by Bourdieu, Wacquant and other field theorists, are non-egocentric; in other words, they are sociocentric – there is no single individual at the centre. So I am establishing an analogy between egocentric networks and egocentric fields, yet without conflating the two.

    3. To take up your Hitler example. What was the logic and the distribution of species of capital within Hitler’s personal field? What kinds of struggles for these prized, field-specific rewards took place during the lifetime of this field (i.e. during Hitler’s own lifetime)?

  6. July 26, 2010 7:59 am

    OK now I understand your point – sociocentric vs. egocentric.

    The reason I thought of Hitler was because of the ‘Fuhrerprinzip’ – i.e. that he was meant to be the fount of all the proper rules, goals, etc. The establishment of the SS might have been an accomplishment in that respect, a paramilitary force loyal directly to him, in principle. Though of course at the same time, the SS became a somewhat autonomous force, under Himmler; and eventually Himmler did try to negotiate with the Allies, behind Hitler’s back, if I’m not mistaken.

    So, it seems to me that a field by definition has to be sociocentric, in that it depends on commonly accepted practices and so on. The rewards of particular practices are dependent upon reciprocal exchanges of meaning; e.g. Hitler says it’s good to be anti-Semitic; in speaking to Nazi party member X, I offer an anti-Semitic explanation for the parlous economy, X then reciprocates and allocates capital to me (so to speak).

    I agree that a putative egocentric field has to be ego-dependent, but is the opposite necessarily true? The sociocentrism relates to the relative equilibrium brought about by coinciding practices, goals, etc; and if one is to argue for egocentrism as the equivalent of this from another perspective, we lose the relative aspect, the reciprocal sharing. Though perhaps in a very small scale social context, where all relationships are mediated by the ego (a small cult, for example; or a family), then maybe it would work.

    Perhaps ego-dependent is more to the point? Although Nazism survived Hitler, it’s clear that a whole more historically contingent field collapsed once he died (or perhaps once his power had obviously lapsed). In this context, the ego does not frame all the relationships within the field – but that particular field, like an egocentric network, cannot survive the passing of the ego, and channels towards certain types of capital no longer exist. Thus, once Hitler died, being in the bunker was not very useful anymore.

    OK that’s all I can think of, hope it makes sense. It’s not something I ever considered before and I’ve never seen it discussed elsewhere.

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