“Follow”? “Block”? “Accept”? Anthropologist Ilana Gershon joins us to reflect on breakups in both our intimate and working lives. She tells Alexis and Rosie how hearing her students’ surprising stories of using new media – supposedly a tool for connection – to end romantic entanglements led to her 2010 book “The Breakup 2.0”. She also shares insights from studying hiring in corporate America and describes how, in the febrile “new economy”, the very nature of networking and how we understand our careers have been transformed.
Ilana also celebrates Marilyn Strathern’s influential article “Cutting the Network” for challenging our assumptions about endless and easy connection. She responds to the work of sociologists Richard Sennett and Mark Granovetter, and highlights Teri Silvio’s theory of “animation” as a fruitful way of thinking about our online selves.
Plus: Rosie, Alexis and Ilana share their pop culture picks on this month’s theme, from the hit TV show “Severance” to the phenomenon of “shitposting” on Linkedin.
Guest: Ilana Gershon
Hosts: Rosie Hancock, Alexis Hieu Truong
Executive Producer: Alice Bloch
Sound Engineer: David Crackles
Music: Joe Gardner
Artwork: Erin Aniker
Find more about Uncommon Sense at The Sociological Review.
Ilana, Rosie, Alexis and our producer Alice recommended
From The Sociological Review
By Ilana Gershon
And have a look at the basics of Actor–Network Theory.
Rosie Hancock 0:05
Hi, welcome back to Uncommon Sense from The Sociological Review. I'm Rosie Hancock in Sydney, Australia.
Alexis Hieu Truong 0:11
And I'm Alexis Hieu Truong in Ottawa, Canada. And this is where we take a sideways look at everyday notions we don't normally pause to examine – things like intimacy, taste, the idea of home – and give them sociological twists, seeing them differently, more critically.
Rosie Hancock 0:31
Today we're talking about breakups. I'm guessing that word makes you jump straight to the romantic or – perhaps we should say – unromantic connotations of that term – being dumped, ghosted, consciously uncoupled or whatever. And we're going to go there for a bit (kind of), but really, today's show is going to take that term in a whole different direction, opening up questions to do with connection and disconnection in contemporary life. Because I guess, while we've often been told – especially if you came to sociology as a school kid, around the time we did – that globalisation is bringing us together, shrinking timespace, it's also the case that contemporary capitalism – indeed, neoliberalism – also tears us apart. At least it feels that way.
Alexis Hieu Truong 1:18
Our guest today with whom we're going to talk around this stuff is Ilana Gershon, an anthrop... an anthropologist based at Rice University in Texas. She's interested in how people translate neoliberalism into guidelines for moving through actual real life, in how we use new media to take on complex and messy social tasks like – yep – breakups. She's also written about work, and what she's termed the "quitting economy". Ilana, hi and thanks for joining us.
Ilana Gershon 1:49
Thank you so much for bringing me into this fascinating conversation. And I have to say, I love the fact that as a sociologist you can't quite say "anthropologist". Like, that's a lovely symbol.
Rosie Hancock 2:04
Well, I've been speaking about this, like, divide between the disciplines, Ilana. You know, you are an anthropologist – but you're more than welcome here, I have to say. And, you know, sociology and anthropology do share ground. And, you know, given we're basically talking about relationships today, I'm curious where you think the two meet harmoniously and where the fault lines are? Like, you know, if sociology and anthropology were together in couples therapy, what would they say to each other?
Ilana Gershon 2:33
Oh, I've been thinking about this in a very particular way this week, because I've been teaching some of the people that we share in common in my classes, and I've been thinking about how the guardrails that were built in the early years in terms of sociology and anthropology – so, if we were in couples therapy, kind of our "fathers" and "mothers" and how they were interacting – and I've been thinking about how the guardrails that were built up really had slightly different questions in mind. So, the sociologists were going to nearby neighbourhoods, and looking at questions of stigma and poverty, and asking – why are these particular people facing the problems that they're facing? And anthropologists were trying to go as far away as possible. And noticing that, well, everybody deals with particular problems like birth and death, and trying to figure out how to deal with their in-laws... The answers were completely different. And so, I think of sociologists as tending to answer questions about how large institutional structures are affecting the personal, and kind of, like, when you say "the personal is political" – it's the sociologist who has fabulous answers for this. And the anthropologist is trying to think about how to deal with really radical difference, how to talk about living and working alongside people who believe that gods exist, who believe in witches, who have very different answers to what happens when someone dies, and who also tend to organise their lives very differently. So, I often talk about kind of how important social organisation is. And it's not that social organisation isn't important for sociologists, but anthropologists, Iike, care about it in a very specific way.
Alexis Hieu Truong 4:43
And given today's theme of "breakups", I'm curious, how do anthropologists typically talk about relationships? Or rather, what kind of relationships are they interested in? For example, political theorists might be typically interested in ideas that have to do with the social contract. What relationships do anthropologists look at? And I'm guessing, like some things that I've heard before, right? So "kinship"... But I feel like it's broader than that?
Ilana Gershon 5:10
Yeah, I think we look at all relationships. Like, you mentioned the social contract. That's the theme of my current book. Like, I am completely fixated on the ways in which assumptions about contracts have been shaping so much about the decisions that people are making around work, especially in the pandemic.
Rosie Hancock 5:29
So, today we're going to move around the theme of "breakups" –you know, a wee bit – thinking about connection and disconnection, really, via reference to a couple of your books. One on work. But the first being 2010's "The breakup 2.0", in which you explored how students use new media to manage relationships to communicate key romantic information, including "it's over". What prompted that research? And how did you go about it?
Ilana Gershon 5:59
Well, I was teaching a class that I teach many times. I was teaching kind of intro to language and culture and thinking about how many cultural assumptions are getting embedded in the ways in which we speak and communicate. And so, on the second day, I always do the same kind of experiment. I know that the students don't know each other very well and I asked them to kind of write down, without talking to anybody else, all the things that go into a first date. And then I know that I had a video clip from Tom Hanks' "Big" to be able to show them that I'm leading into kind of a radical misunderstanding of what a sleepover is. So, I know all this is coming. And I was getting answers that just were, like, so retro. I had answers like "the woman always spents a lot of time getting ready and getting dressed and the man gets to look really casual". And then "the man always pays". And, you know, I was significantly older than my students. And "the man always paid" was not the answer that I would have given in my day. So we were suddenly going backwards. Everybody was assuming that the couple was straight. And then the thing that made me really, really sad was that no one actually dated at the time – like this was before people were using dating apps. So this was an "ideal" type and a kind of imagination of a date that they weren't actually doing themselves. And it was taking me 10 minutes to get them to admit that they didn't actually date and that this was a fantasy that they were telling me about what the ideal types were. On the other hand, it was a really good exercise because everybody had the same answers. And so, I was able to show, "look, you all have these shared assumptions". But one day I looked down and I thought, "oh, I can't say this again". So I said "okay, what makes a bad breakup?" And I got really flat answers. People said it was on Facebook. It was by text. One young man said "I sent my best friend to break up with my girlfriend because she was really psycho". And then every woman in class looked at him really hostiley.
Rosie Hancock 8:19
Uh that's awful!
Ilana Gershon 8:21
Yes. And I thought, like, he just lost any opportunity to hook up with anybody in my class after saying that. And I paused... after he said that I thought, "but that's mediated too". It's really interesting that I'm not getting the answers of "we argued till 6am". Or "they kept my stuff. And, uh, you know, I never was able to get the CD back that I really love". Right? Like, none of these complicated stories that I thought I was asking for, did I actually get. Everybody just said "it's mediated" and that cut off the answers. And so I started thinking about what does it mean that people are now trying to break up using technologies that are all designed for connection. And so, they're often using these technologies that aren't designed to allow easy breakups and have all these open questions because these are all new technologies. Like, I loved asking people "if you are Facebook-official, who ends it after the breakup?" Because Facebook doesn't tell you. Like, no one is telling you what these answers are. But people have to solve these problems.
Rosie Hancock 9:42
Or brutally my ex – when we broke up – deleted every single photo of the two of us together on Instagram. So, it was like our relationship just vanished. That hurt. I broke up, but I was the instigator, but that happened and it was like "oh, ouch!"
Ilana Gershon 10:01
It's interesting because I heard the opposite story, where one person responded to the breakup by deleting every photograph other than the couple – to kind of say "I would still like to get back together with you, we still were a thing" – and not allowing any other signs of his life on visible. So, it can go every way.
Alexis Hieu Truong 10:24
Actually, I need to share, like, a personal experience and maybe I can get your advice on this Ilana, but I don't know if you remember – you talked about retro stuff – like, ICQ, MIRC? Like, before MSN, before MySpace, like 20 years or so ago, when I was in my teens, I actually broke up a relationship on that digital – and wasn't it a programme, I guess? – online. And I was like, "oh, wow, this this went really well, actually". And my friends at the time was like, "wow, I can't believe you did that, that's so inappropriate". And like we... actually I guess we didn't even break up on the phone during those those days, right? We have to break up in face to face and yeah, that, that's...
Rosie Hancock 11:06
So bad Alexis!
Alexis Hieu Truong 11:07
That was really bad. Like, really big faux pas. I didn't even know, I thought it was fine, but yeah.
Ilana Gershon 11:13
The thing that, as an anthropologist, I'm committed to – and this is not what I do in my regular life – but as an anthropologist, I'm not there to judge whether that was bad or not. What I'm interested in is how do other people respond to you? Did you get pushback from your friends about it? Why did they think that was a problem? Like, it's not my job to be the ethicist in this moment. It's my job to understand why and how do people think mediated breakups are actually a problem? Because, let's face it, there's so many other things about breakups that are really horrible. Why are people focusing on this?
Rosie Hancock 11:54
Yes, it's so interesting. I guess what I'm hearing is that people are using new media for disconnection rather than only connection. But that the rules around that were – at the time of your study, and actually, maybe, maybe they still are – still being negotiated? So, you did do a follow up study a few years later, once things like Twitter and Instagram and dating apps had really taken off. And, I mean, I would assume that a lot had changed, but had it?
Ilana Gershon 12:22
Can I back up a little bit?
Rosie Hancock 12:23
Ilana Gershon 12:24
So, you had asked me, how did I do this research? And one of the things to know about how anthropologists do the research that they do, is that at the end of every interview, they normally say, "do you know anybody else I should talk to?" We borrow the term from sociologists and call it "snowball sampling" – because we can't be bothered to come up with our own terms for methods. And it turns out that breakups don't allow for snowball sampling. I would ask people at the end of every interview, "do you have anybody you can suggest?", and no one wanted to volunteer anybody. So, I ended up talking to people who weren't in the same friendship group. And the other thing that you learn about doing all these interviews over time is that, if you've done around 30 or 40 interviews, you kind of know the answers to expect. And what surprised me about my breakup interviews was – I was always shocked. Now, I learned to develop a poker face, and not actually say what I was feeling in the middle of an interview – which is "what! you do what?" – but that was my constant inclination. And I had to think why – by my 50th, or 60th interview – was I still being so completely shocked? And I realised that because I couldn't do such snowball sampling, I was talking to people who weren't chatting with each other and coming to agreement about how to deal with the particular problems that all these new media technologies were offering them. Like, every communicative channel does something slightly different. And that "slightly different" poses a problem for when you're disconnecting. And people would ask their friends. Like, breakups don't happen just between two individuals, breakups happen with people getting advice and getting a lot of input into how to manage it – or criticism when they've done it badly. And so, I got really curious, if I went back 10 years later and started asking people the same questions would widespread norms have had been established? What we ended up discovering was that people were really focusing on the aspects of the technology that all these technologies have in common. So, how do you connect and how do you end, and how do you send back-channels – because a lot of these technologies have kind of back-channel ways, like direct messages instead of the open public Twitter account. And that's where people began having etiquette around and norms built around, not the technologies, not the individual technologies themselves.
Rosie Hancock 15:22
Yeah. Wow. So it sounds a bit like, in a way, despite all of these amazing functionalities from these new technologies, we are still on those basic communication questions. But I mean, separately, we should also note that not everyone's equally positioned or welcomed when it comes to using new media or presenting themselves online. Things like ableism, sexism, prejudice all play a role. And that's something raised by a Sociological Review magazine piece by Christian J. Harrison, called "Becoming Ourselves Online". And we're going to put that in our show notes, along with work from Francesca Sobande on the digital lives of Black women.
Alexis Hieu Truong 16:05
Ilana, kind of bouncing back on the idea of your mother or your father, like your grandparents kind of getting onto your account and not looking really cool. The students you talked to insisted that Facebook could threaten their relationships, at some points. That they actually chose to deactivate their accounts so as to keep those bonds, sometimes. You suggested that the platform basically encouraged people to bring a neoliberal logic to that part of their lives – and that it made them into selves that they didn't want to be. Can you explain that and how it overlaps with another idea, you bring up – that of representing a "manageable self".
Ilana Gershon 16:48
So, I have to say that this was another quirk of the kind of fieldwork that I was doing, which is I never knew what story I was going to get. I find the interviews I was doing for the breakup interviews like riding a bucking bronco – someone would come in, all I would know was they thought they had a good story to tell me about how they use new media when they were breaking up with each other. And for around two months, I was getting the same kind of story. Young women, women in their 20s were coming in to chat with me and tell me about how they had quit Facebook recently, because it was turning them into a self they didn't want to be. And a lot of what was going on was that the ways in which Facebook managed information for them, turned them into detectives that they were unhappy about – that they were constantly trying to determine the signals that were being laid out on Facebook, and read how stable their relationships were. But what I also began to realise was that the kind of their idea of how information was circulating and how under determined it was, was a little bit like kind of the ways in which information signals in the marketplace are fairly underdetermined. And they come together to create a momentary value for something. And that people were really beginning to experience Facebook as encouraging them to bring an idea of themselves as a business, into their daily lives, right? Into their romantic lives that they didn't want. And what I mean by that is that people start thinking of themselves as a bundle of skills and assets and qualities and experiences that they have to consciously manage, and then continually enhance. And by enhancing, it would be worrying about how many friends you had on Facebook and trying to enhance that number so that you were growing the number of alliances that you have all the time. That people were beginning to see their personas as something that they had to manage in the same way that people metaphorically are managing businesses. And that... that is what I think the neoliberal self is.
Alexis Hieu Truong 19:18
So, what you've shared, like, with mentioning these words – like "management", "presentation" – it kind of reminds us of the sociologist Erving Goffman and his books from the late 50s or 60s, like, "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life" or "Stigma" – has that informed your work?
Ilana Gershon 19:36
That is the bane of my existence – or was the bane of my existence at the time that I was writing this. So, Erving Goffman thinks about this very much as an issue of performance. And he has – at his heart of his idea of this – is that everyone is an actor in their lives and he brings in all these ideas of stagecraft into his understanding of how one occupies roles. But what I saw wasn't that kind of performance as much as what I saw was – people were animating their personas in as though it was an animated character. Like, if you think of animated characters, animated characters are fairly underdetermined and you have a lot of people participating in constructing the characters that everybody is very aware of. Like, in a theatre performance, you know there's a costume designer, you know that there's a set designer, but what you really care about is how the actor is occupying the character and the gap between the actor and the character. But you don't actually worry about the gap between the voice actor and Charlie Brown. Like, that's not the question – you know that the animated character is a combination of all sorts of actors. And in much the same way what was going on on Facebook was slipping rapidly between the ways in which people were all contributing into all your Facebook friends. Or kind of, on Instagram... Everybody is contributing to creating the profile in the way that it is, right? And whether or not it is a reflection of who you are. Goffman talks about this as well – in like two pages – in "Forms of Talk". Like, he has a slippery moment in which he talks about the figure. And I prefer that Goffman to the other Goffman – which was what everybody who I was reading at the time that I was writing this... everybody else mentioned the different Goffman than what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to think about this in terms of animation. And the person who really helped me think about this in terms of animation is Teri Silvio. So, Teri Silvio has this kind of wonderful theory about how animation is becoming the dominant way in which we're thinking about things, and in response and in dialogue with the ways in which we used to think about performance.
Rosie Hancock 22:07
Okay, we've been talking about breakups in private relationships. But let's move now to your work on work, which totally ties into what we're talking about in terms of the neoliberal self. So, after you looked at breakups, you looked at hiring in corporate America. And as part of that you've written about the new economy, and how it creates certain imperatives and behaviours – including quitting in a kind of horizontal networking, like, with your peers rather than your superiors at work.
Ilana Gershon 22:37
So, one of the things that happens when you start asking questions about what is neoliberal logic, and what does it mean to be neoliberal, is you start being faced with trying to figure out how to make something historically specific, and how to think about the ways in which... How to sort when something is just standard capitalism, or when something is a new version of how capitalism works. And this was something that I became obsessed with at a particular point – because everybody around me was talking about neoliberalism, but I could never tell what that actually meant. Like, they would say neoliberalism in every conference presentation and in every... Like, 70% of the articles that were being published in anthropology had "neoliberalism" in the title. And I would look at that and think, "well, this sounds just like regular capitalism". So, what I wanted to do was figure out a way to think more specifically and more rigorously about what was neoliberal and what was not. And one of the things that kept coming up in my fieldwork, when I was starting to try to think about these questions, was that people kept telling me, "well, companies in the 80s, started to really not want to encourage their employees to live with company loyalty" – that company loyalty was a burden, that maintaining loyalty was a problem. And they wanted to switch and make sure that they could have people in the company cycling in and out at a faster pace. And this is something a lot of people talk about all the time. But this meant that people had to change the ways in which they understood how knowledge was stored in companies. And they also had to think differently about the ways in which they would have a career. And so, people began to start thinking about connecting to each other emotionally in terms of feeling passion for their work. And they also began to start thinking about the ways in which they were constructing a career differently. And so, when I began interviewing people about, like, what their life was like in their workplaces, they would started talking about going from job to job; and that if they stayed at a job for too long recruiters would start being suspicious about them and start thinking that they might be a bit too old fashioned and not able to "manage the new requirements" of the workplace. And so, that, in order to have a career, you had to switch on a regular basis from company to company – or at least seriously switch your job roles in a company – in order to stay employable. And when that happens, all of a sudden, what networking becomes, becomes very different, right?
Alexis Hieu Truong 25:42
And these kinds of imperatives, norms, processes that you're talking about, is this the case in all kinds of work, or some more than others? So, I'm assuming it's more applicable, let's say, to media or consultancy. Then, something relatively secure – like some parts of academia with tenure track – are those extremely insecure and fragmented – like maybe being a delivery driver working shifts on checkouts and stuff like that?
Ilana Gershon 26:12
Yeah, no, I think that's right. I mean, I think we're on a continuum. But what's happened is, this isn't a new continuum. It isn't like in 1910 – there wasn't precariat work. But what's happened is how people understand precariat work, and what contracts mean and short term contracts mean, has shifted, right? And different jobs have different ways of dealing with this new emphasis on the importance of being willing to have a career that is not connected to the company that you're at – but a career that you put together individually with a string of jobs. There's just kind of shift in emphasis and a shift in career strategy. But I think, what has happened in general is, under neoliberalism, the thumb has pushed down on the short-term contract, and there has been more of value in being able to shift from job to job. While before, there was more value in seeming loyal.
Rosie Hancock 27:17
So, in a way, what's interesting is that both your work on breakups and on professional life – in one way – point to disconnection as having a pretty powerful pool. So, using new media to break up – even if those technologies were meant to keep us together – or as we've just been talking about being moved to constantly quit your job as the only way to know your value. But, you know, at the same time, I kind of want to talk about this idea that you write about that, you know, connection and networks still really matter. And in fact, one of your key points on work is that, in this new economy, we have to network – not with our elders, but with our peers – because everyone's moving around so much that you know, they'll be the people who vouch for you or not when you inevitably move someplace else.
Ilana Gershon 28:04
Yes. So, in this way, I was really inspired by Richard Sennett – I do read sociologists. And Richard Sennett made the point about neoliberal, kind of the change in capitalism, saying, what we used to have was the people who we performed for, the people who were evaluating us, were our managers who were staying stable in a company. But now, if managers are leaving, after three or four years – if there's a constant churn in who is going to be at a company – then the people who are going to be evaluating you and supporting you, and understanding that you are a good worker, may not be the people at the company that you're at, they may have left for another company. But at the same time, you have – as I was discovering, in my research on how hiring worked in corporate America – you have pressure to be, as I said, constantly moving and constantly finding new jobs. So, you have this pressure to be evaluated and to make ties by the people who might be able to help you get a job in another place, to be able to switch. And so, I think, if you were being properly strategic, there's a pressure to try to now be kind to everyone – because you never know when someone in two years or three years is going to be in a position to be able to help you. There's more of a danger for being an "asshole" in the workplace right now.
Alexis Hieu Truong 29:38
So, how does this all build on or challenge Mark Granovetters' thinking from the 70s on "The Strength of Weak Ties", that thinking includes the idea that "weak ties" allow people who aren't that strong connected to each other to access new info, and that can lead to things including a new job... Like, what are we seeing that is new?
Ilana Gershon 30:01
So, I got very lucky. I was doing research when I was studying hiring on a question that had been asked in the 1970s. So, Mark Granovetter's idea about how "weak ties" are going to help you is actually based on a study about how people get jobs. And what he was really interested in was how did someone move from one job to another. And at the time that he was doing this research in the 1970s, the major pain point in the job search is finding out that the job exists. The media ecology at the time was such that people didn't always know that there was a new job out there that they could apply for – they would find out by "help wanted" signs and windows, by newspaper ads, and by word of mouth. And they would find out by running into people that they kind of knew – but not terribly well – that there was a new job that they might want. And that was the "weak tie" that he was discovering; turned out to be the useful information for people. But when I was doing my research, the media ecology had completely changed. The problem wasn't finding out that the job existed, the problem became how to make sure that your resume is noticed when there is a flood of resumes – when too many people can apply from all over the country or all over the world for the job that you want. And in those moments, because the pain point in the hiring ritual had changed, what became important about networking changed as well. And so, it became really important not to have a "weak tie" or a "strong tie", but to have a "workplace tie" – to have someone who could say, "I vouch that this person is actually a competent worker and can get along with people". Because, you know, let's face it, resumes and job interviews – all the forms that we have, all the things that I think of as genres in your job application – are actually too narrow and too crappy to let you know the real answer to this basic thing. But having someone around who can say, "oh, I worked with this person, and I'd love to have a beer with them after work and they can do their job" – that's incredibly valuable information that you don't get from looking at a resume.
Rosie Hancock 32:27
There is a way in which some of this sounds pretty nice. Like, maybe you don't have to agonise over a really awkward invite for a drink from some guy in your office who's more senior than you and 30 years older. But at the same time, what you're describing – this networking with your peers, and this dynamism and readiness to quit – is basically precarity, yes? Something that you know, as sociologists, we love to talk about.
Ilana Gershon 32:52
Rosemary, I'm not saying anything that kind. I think now you "have to be anxious" about every invite...
Rosie Hancock 32:58
Ilana Gershon 32:59
Because you never know...
Rosie Hancock 33:00
Ilana Gershon 33:04
But, the other thing to say about this is that sometimes having an "asshole" hate you, means other people know that they're an "asshole", and that may be a plus. Right? Like, it's not always that being liked by everyone is supported, sometimes being disliked by the right person is going to really help you out.
Alice Bloch 33:33
Hi, I'm Alice, and I've produced Uncommon Sense from The Sociological Review. This is where we meet a new guest every month, and together we take an everyday concept – so, something like "bodies", or "listening", or "emotion", things we all kind of think we know about – and we work to see that thing differently, more critically. Today, we're not actually with a sociologist, we're with Ilana Gershon – from the closely related discipline of anthropology – and we're talking about breakups. Head to the podcast page at thesociologicalreview.org to read more about our guest and to find reading lists to share. And given today's theme of connection and disconnection, do take just a few seconds to tap "follow" in the app that you're using to hear this. It helps us to keep making Uncommon Sense for you. Back to Rosie.
Rosie Hancock 34:23
So, this is the bit where we normally take on a trope or buzzword and look at it a bit more critically. So, in our show on cities we looked at the assumption that urban life is mean and lonely, and in our show on intimacy we looked at the assumption that modern life is increasingly contactless. In fact, if you're enjoying this episode, that's worth a listen, along with Julia Carter's great piece for The Sociological Review on the sociology of love – and all that is going to be in our show notes. Anyway, today we're going to do something slightly different and look at something that has inspired our guest to think differently about networks and disconnection, and our assumptions about these.
Alexis Hieu Truong 35:03
Ilana, you've brought along a piece by the anthropologist Marilyn Strathern called "Cutting the Network". The title sounds pretty contemporary, but actually, it's from 1996. Can you tell us a bit more about her before we hear about her work?
Ilana Gershon 35:19
Marilyn Strathern is one of the most original thinkers in anthropology. She's just fabulous. But when you're a really original thinker, sometimes the words and the concepts that we have available to us are complicated and problematic. And she writes in such a way that you think you know what every single word that she is using normally means, but she puts it together in a way that's just completely new and innovative, and makes reading her not the easiest thing to do in the world. She was the William Weiss professor at Cambridge, and is now Dame Marilyn Strathern.
Rosie Hancock 36:08
Ilana Gershon 36:09
And is the kind of woman that people make portraits of.
Rosie Hancock 36:13
So, you use this piece of hers to think about disconnection in your own work, which might surprise some people because Strathern's ideas here are based on work in places like Papua New Guinea – which is hardly Indiana or Houston. What is she setting up with this piece, who is she talking against in "Cutting the Network"?
Ilana Gershon 36:31
She's a very diplomatic woman, who is very hard pressed to say anything clearly unkind. And yet, she got very cross with actor-network theorists – people like Bruno Latour or John Law – who were talking about how the world is filled with networks; that every person and every animal and every object in the world was a condensed version of a network, which sounded very similar to Marilyn Strathern, about like the ways in which people in Papua New Guinea think. Because in Papua New Guinea, a baby is not a baby that needs to be educated; a baby is a dense form of relationships already born, and that, as they grow up, you begin to discover which of the relationships they want to activate and which ones they want to foreground in different contexts. And that's very parallel to the ways in which these sociologists of science were thinking. And yet, people in Papua New Guinea know that they have a problem – that these actor-network theorists weren't thinking about – which is, they are always having to prune the network to decide what to do when death happens, or to decide what to do when they need to disentangle relationships – when they actually have social obligations that force them to cut ties and not grow ties. And so, part of what she was doing was she was arguing in this article that people can't think just about networks as things that are easily and endlessly having to multiply. For me, she was pointing out that this, kind of, what designers want when they're making Facebook or Instagram – this kind of endless form of networking and connection – is actually a social problem for people. And that what people really have to do is cut and figure out how to cut well.
Alexis Hieu Truong 38:50
So, it seems she's essentially challenging our assumptions about networks, then. I mean, can we go so far as to say that the piece makes us rethink things like the very social media – indeed, like, social networks – that we talked about at the start of the show? So, perhaps, like, we were never really wired to use that kind of new media, to simply grow and grow and grow are connections – that we as societies, as humans, don't work that way?
Ilana Gershon 39:17
I hopefully don't work that way. I mean, part of what she's also arguing is that networks aren't the same all over. And that, what she is telling back to this actor-network theorists is that anthropologists are actually particularly good at thinking about the ways in which networks are very specific – and that different kinds of networks need to be understood on their own terms. And so, you can't just assume that a network is a generic category, and that they all function in the same way.
Rosie Hancock 39:56
And how does this feed back into your thinking on the quitting economy?
Ilana Gershon 40:01
Dame Marilyn Strathern really had inspired me to try to become the dame of disconnection myself. And what she offered me as a caution is to think all the time about when is disconnection something that people are managing and thinking about consciously, and when are they using it strategically? I have to say, also, when I first began doing my research on hiring, I thought I was doing research on hiring and firing. And I kept interviewing people about firing and discovering that the legal anxieties that companies have around firing, make for really boring stories.
Rosie Hancock 40:01
Ilana Gershon 40:01
So that I wasn't getting really rich and interesting discussions about what happened in the moment of firing. And that the movie "Up in the Air" was the best thing about firing that I was able to see – and that I wasn't getting anything like that in my field work. But that quitting stories were really interesting, because people really had to strategise around quitting. They had to make sure that they quit in such a way that they stayed in good relationships with people. And that the disentangling part of relationships that Marilyn Strathern talks about in "Cutting the Network" was really present in quitting and not as much in firing
Alexis Hieu Truong 40:11
As the future "Dame of Disconnection", may I please ask to be able to call you if I ever needed to seek your counsel?
Ilana Gershon 41:37
Absolutely. I am there for anyone who is trying to think through how to quit in an elegant way.
Alexis Hieu Truong 41:44
Okay, well, it's almost time to go. But before we do this, this is where we have a quick whip around to grab everyone's tip of something not academic that speaks to today's theme. No, you're not allowed to say "The Social Network" maybe, or Joy Division's "Love Will Tear As Apart".
Rosie Hancock 42:03
Ilana, we'll let you think on it, but I'm going to jump in with my kind of recommendation. It's something that I learned about recently – and please excuse the language – but it's the apparent phenomenon of "shitposting" on LinkedIn – which I read about in Vice magazine. It's basically where people write fake posts showing off about their highly productive working routine, or place these kind of hustle culture-esque posts that ridicule all of the serious work norms on LinkedIn. So like, it could be just a completely implausible morning routine that takes 14 hours to get through. And I'm wondering whether this might signal a shift in some kind of positive direction. Like, maybe we've reached peak hustle – maybe Gen Z, and future generations will laugh at us for being so observed on these platforms... Ilana, can I ask you now what your pop culture tip is?
Ilana Gershon 42:17
I have been thinking a lot about the television show "Severance" for two reasons. One, because it takes the work/life balance and makes it into a parody – like "shitposting" – and kind of takes it into a kind of whole new realm where who you are as a human being is completely erased when you go to work, and you have a completely new personality, which has odd resonances with who you used to be beforehand. But I think about this all the time, because before neoliberalism, people didn't worry about work/life balance, right? When you had a metaphor that you were owned yourself as though you were property, then you rented yourself to the employer and you got yourself back at the end of the day – you didn't have to worry about balancing the kind of amount of time that you were spending at home doing work and what you were doing in the workplace. But with neoliberalism making you use as a dominant metaphor that you own your self as though you are a business, all of a sudden work/life balance becomes a problem, and "Severance" parodies this in this lovely way. But the other thing I think about all the time with "Severance" is that there is a character who wants to quit and is not allowed to quit. Because the person who she is – not at work – will not allow that to happen.
Rosie Hancock 44:29
Yeah, right. I haven't seen "Severance" but I've definitely seen it on my streaming, you know, app. So, this is a good prompt to maybe try and check it out. Alexis, your tip for today? You also wanted to talk about TV, yeah?
Alexis Hieu Truong 44:01
Exactly. But I'm going to take it in a bit of another direction and, making a link to our last episode on taste, I want to suggest a reality TV show in Quebec called “Occupation Double” – that's been running since the early 2000s – where participants go to find, we are told, "love and adventure", right? But, I guess, any reality dating show would do. So, I'm suggesting this because I feel like these shows touch on the number of points you've raised, giving us kind of new tools to think about them. So, for example, how we look for authenticity in people, even if we kind of know that they're playing a sort of game and might be building their brand on the show, right? Or how it's more than presentation of self, where what you do also gets edited in various ways within the shows for the final product. Or how all of that gets debated in social media, and ultimately, how most people just get dumped – literally and figuratively – on the public stage no less.
Rosie Hancock 45:51
Well, those are three really diverse points there and I'm very impressed that no one mentioned Fleetwood Mac – which is surely the ultimate band for the theme of breakups. But we do have a piece that mentions them in our show notes. But, Ilana, I'm afraid this is the time for us to disconnect. Thanks for being with us today. It's been really fascinating.
Ilana Gershon 46:14
It has been quite an honour. Thank you.
Alexis Hieu Truong 46:16
Thank you very much! And that's it for this month. We're all out of time, but you can catch today's reading list – including our pick of pieces from The Sociological Review – over at the podcast page at thesociologicalreview.org. Or just scroll our episode notes in the app you're using to enjoy this.
Rosie Hancock 46:38
We'll be back with you next month in a special collaboration with Karis Campion at the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre, where she'll be taking a look at the idea of solidarity.
Alexis Hieu Truong 46:46
Thanks to our guest, Ilana Gershon, our sound engineer was Dave Crackles and our producer was Alice Bloch. It's over and out for us, or should I say BRB?
Rosie Hancock 46:58
Oh Alexis... Bye!
Alexis Hieu Truong 47:06