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GIF Minutes for September 3, 2004

Prepared by Roland Stahl

GIF study group, 9.3.2004

The GIF study group will meet as follows this semester:

- Tuesday, October 5 , 9-11am at the GSSWSR
(Reading : Paul Grobstein. "Writing Descartes: I Am, and I Can Think, Therefore ... ".)

- Tuesday, November 2, 9-11am at the GSSWSR
(Reading : Arthur I. Miller "Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time and the Beauty That Causes Havoc")

- Tuesday, November 30, 9-11am at the GSSWSR
(Reading : Corey Shdaimah, Roland Stahl. "Social scientists and the public sphere"; Max Weber. "Science as a vocation".)

For today's discussion we read the following articles:

Nancy Fraser and Linda Gordon, "A Geneology of 'Dependency': Tracing a Keyword of the U.S. Welfare State." Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the "Postsocialist" Condition. New York : Routledge, 1997. 121-149. Rpt. of article appearing originally in Signs : 19, 2 (1994): 309f.

Yvonne Zylan. Comment on Fraser and Gordon. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 21, 2 (Winter 1995): 515-531.

Nancy Fraser. Reply to Zylan. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 21, 2 (Winter 1995): 531-536.


The first part of our discussion about the Fraser and Gordon piece circled around the usefulness in political terms of the kind of discourse analysis that FG do.

Corey started the discussion. She argued that we had been talking about individual change a lot lately and that she thought that the FG piece focused more on changing discourses and structures rather than changing individual. The FG piece is meant to empower folks in terms of the use of language and the ability to imagine change beyond just individual change. Tom agreed that words play an important role in politics. He referred to a David Brooks piece in the NYT last week in which Brooks argues that the center piece of contemporary politics is the ability to define collective reality or narratives.

Paul found Gordon's piece unconvincing. He thought that FG discussed how 'words change over time' but they don't develop alternative policies. They are just "fussing around with words". Corey read FG differently, they to make apparent certain uses of words like dependency which in turn limit political choices. To understand how certain words are used is important because words impact social policy making. Paul disagreed that politics is about words. He was more interested in the relationship between individuals and the cultural realm rather than the cultural world as such. In terms of the article, Michael argued that there is often a confluence of metaphors such as dependency and that we need to carefully analyze the discourses that construct in order to be able to resist certain discourses that negatively effect progressive development is e.g. social policy. Corey agreed and argued that a lot of people buy into metaphors such as dependency, often in contradictory ways as shown in her interviews with poverty lawyers and their clients. If people learn about these discourses they will see themselves less as the exception to the rule. Rather they come to see themselves as being determined by certain discourses.

Paul and Tom argued that the kind of academic analysis that GF engage in always excluding the people that we are actually concerned with. Roland saw no problem with this. He argued that this type of work is not concerned with the poor immediately but with the academics and maybe politicians who's decisions affect policies for (or against) the poor. Not so for Paul. He argued that in order to have a long-term impact on the fate of the poor we always need to go back to the people that we actually care about.

At this point the debate shifted to slightly more general questions. In order to get at the "what's the use of discourse analysis and does it actually impact social change" question we engaged in a debate about the theory of human and social change. Tom argued that he thinks that for cultural stories to change we needed some colossal historical catastrophe. Paul agreed and explained the impact of meteorite strikes on the development of life on earth as a metaphor for social change. Roland wasn't sure whether he found this metaphor helpful because the application of biological metaphors to human behavior and social changes seems to leave open the problem of free will. Paul thought that free will has a place in explanations of social development but a rather small one. Michael then picked up on Tom's remark about catastrophes. He argued that in contemporary discourses the media plays a major role. E.g. after 9.11 news stories were created, but according to Paul they did not take root but merely lead to the shoring up of existing stories. We all agreed that social change depends on the creation new stories. The question remained whether new stories follow social changes as post-fact explications or whether we need new stories as blue prints for social change.

Roland Stahl, 9/9/2004

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