Communication as Perspective: an interview with Michael Kennedy

face2Michael Kennedy
Brown University

We are at risk of seeing more dimensions of knowledge lose their status as a public good, and rather become more and more a source of power and privilege.”

What follows is an excerpt from an interview with Michael Kennedy conducted by Labinot Kunushevci, graduate student in sociology – University of Prishtina (1/13/2016). Conducted as part of a series of conversations for a volume entitled Communication as Perspective: Interviews with Contemporary Sociologists, in prep, ed. Labinot Kunushevci. Other interviewees include Anthony Giddens, George Ritzer, Patricia Hill Collins, Liah Greenfeld, Hayriye Erbaş, Jasminka Lažnjak, Raewyn Connell, Chua Beng Huat, Barry Wellman, Margaret Abraham, and John Holloway.

Part 1 of 2

Labinot Kunushevci: You have tried to explain the relationship between human and social transformations. From this perspective, what can you tell us about the ways knowledge functions through its own realms or through public mobilizations towards the recreation or reinterpretation of the world?

Michael Kennedy: I would propose that we think of knowledge not only as a quest to understand structures relatively autonomous from our own understanding, or subjective realities that are the consequences of various life experiences, but focus on those mediating knowledgeabilities that shape how we engage the world with more and less consequence for that world’s improvement.

For example, we can think of social movements in these terms. We have a longstanding tradition of social movement studies which, among other approaches, focuses on resource mobilization, political opportunity structures and framing processes, on the one hand, and movements as identity projects, on the other. I appreciate them all, but I would propose a slightly different approach to knowledgeable movements in the following sense: the cultural work that goes into social mobilizations is also about mobilizing knowledge, and not only developing resonant frames, recognizing political opportunities, and figuring how to use virtual and actual resources in shaping change. It’s about figuring how such mobilizations contribute not only to reinterpretations of the world, but to efforts to highlight different kinds of contradictions and dysfunctions, and the place of different kinds of experience and expertise in their address.

In conventional transition culture (whose outline and variations I explored in my second monograph, Cultural Formations of Postcommunism (2002)), knowledge was mobilized around how to build markets and how to develop democratic polities while presuming that the European Union was a destination informing transformation. That meant, then, that a problem facing the European Union and other neoliberally accented projects – the growing alienation of publics from elites across the political spectrum – was built into the transition project. Some scholars recognized the problem at the time, but they only indicated the issue. They did not undertake the next step of figuring how that systemic problem might be addressed in the transformation of subjectivities and consequent political projects. […]

Sociology needs to understand social movements, but not only; those movements must be in communication with knowledge cultures dedicated to addressing real world problems and systemic crises. Empowerment is only one part of the problem; we need to develop policies and practices that effectively address the inequalities that disable our societies, the environmental degradation that promises our planet’s ruin, the social and political relations that make violence seem inevitable; and that sense of prosperity increasingly distant from real economies. That means that our universities cannot be onto themselves. They need autonomy so that they are not the pawns of political interests, but they also need a measure of engagement that mobilizes our best minds in the address of these systemic crises.

So, as we think about the human transformations our sense of learning invites, we ought, simultaneously, think about how to inculcate a sense of intellectual and global responsibility that mobilizes knowledge in service of global public goods.


LK: How can specific cultures, special knowledge, specific regions, maintain their uniqueness, while faced by the globalization process and its cultural homogenization in which the globalization of knowledge itself plays a role?

MK: To prescribe that relationship would, it seems to me, invite the very homogenizing force that worries both you and me. Indeed, because we can carry this conversation out in English means that some of that homogenization is at play. We ought be asking what happens when we talk in English, and rely on the scholarly and everyday references we know in common. We ought ask, and move, a conversation that draws on resources beyond our presumed commonality, so that our commonality moves well beyond the terms enabled by that kind of Anglo-American hegemony. And how does that happen?

I think it means that we move beyond imagining this to be a choice individuals, or even dyads, make. It means thinking in terms of networks, where various nations’ and regions’ nodes are strengthened in the hermeneutics of various knowledge cultures’ global practice. Such knowledge cultural dynamism might flourish without global engagement, but increasing the appreciation and respect by those outside ought to produce greater resources for not only the translation but also that knowledge production taking place first and foremost within a national and regional register.


LK: In the world today there are different educational institutions such as public universities, private colleges and various educational forms. The new social developments are producing effects in many areas by creating dynamic and complex realities. From your perspective in the promotion of global networks of knowledge, on what criteria is the development of education working ideally and how do you see the reforms in education, especially in countries in transition, such as Kosovo?

MK: As you can see in my last book, I fully acknowledge the powerful impetus toward creating various evaluative schema. Indeed, globalization is often synonymous with the production of new hierarchies even as they have various roots. Shanghai Jiao Tong, for example, has developed new criteria by which to rank universities’ accomplishments, and therefore attempt to shape the reform of higher education. Those criteria are, however, less typically shaped with intellectual responsibility and public engagement in mind, and more with ideologies of science in service of the state in the foreground. Thus, as we look at any evaluative mechanism, I would propose we ask this question: to what extent do reforms and measures indicating progress in realizing change increase the culture of critical discourse (a general foundation of intellectual responsibility derived from Alvin Gouldner) within knowledge institutions and within publics engaged by knowledge institutions.

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