One of my favourite social theorists* is Dorothy Smith, a remarkable Canadian woman who is now in her 90s. Last year I read Stanley’s (2018) biography of her which described life experiences that shaped Smith’s work. Smith’s social theory (Institutional Ethnography) provides a way to see what is really going on in the world, and how it happens the way that it does, so that you can do something to change it. I reflected with another PhD candidate how fortunate Smith was to have had the experiences she did, and he pointed out that she probably didn’t feel lucky about them at the time!
Another writer I discovered during my time as a PhD candidate was bell hooks, an African American woman, teacher and feminist activist. She writes that we live in an imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. Smith also described similar ideas, calling them relations of ruling. Humans are social beings, we all live in relationships with one another, and collectively we have co-constructed complex social relations, like governments. The “business-as-usual” default mode of our society gives preference to particular people and particular belief systems. Hence, we live in a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, along with a bunch of other -isms (like heterosexism, ableism, ageism, and fattism).
I’m particularly noticing how we default back to the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy when decisions are made in a time pressured way as people respond to the unfolding challenge of CoVid19. One of the beliefs that comes along with capitalism is that there is an actual thing called an economy. I am seeing political decisions being made to protect “the economy” even though these decisions are sometimes at odds with the protection of human health. People of colour are reporting heightened levels of disrespect. It is largely being assumed that women will be the ones to pick up the load with caring for children, the elderly, and the sick, with little social and financial support.
2020 is going to be a watershed year. Future you will look back on your actions at this time (who knows, someone might write a biography about you one day). It doesn’t currently feel like we should be grateful for this opportunity. Individually and collectively, we face important decisions about whether to continue to participate in and reproduce our existing social systems, or whether we use this as a chance to reform our societies. Thinking at a whole of society level feels too big, too hard, but our societies are constructed entirely by the actions of individual people.
I want to encourage you to think about the world you want to live in, the person you want to be, and get really clear in your own head about what this looks like. As you make daily decisions both small (where to shop and how much to buy) or large (who gets the ventilator or the surgery), check in with your vision and ask if your choices are aligned with that. Now is the time to be and to become the person that you want to be proud of when all this is behind us.
Stanley, L. (2018). Dorothy E. Smith, Feminist Sociology & Institutional Ethnography. X Press.
*Past me would have laughed nervously if you asked me whether I had a favourite social theorist. I didn’t even know what one was. We are all capable of learning and doing new things.