Friday, August 18, 2017

Who and what to know

A while back ago, I was attending a social gathering where people came, discussed for a while, and left. There was no fixed topic of discussion, or other purpose than the sheer getting together and talking. It was a fluid situation.

At one particular moment, those present got to talking about family relations and relatives. There were old folks present (persons in their sixties and upwards) who talked about their relatives and relations in terms of individuals. The reference points went along these lines: he was the one who was married to her, and they had that fancy car, remember? or: remember the old man who lived on that hill back in the days - he had a nephew, who married this other person who ran that store, and so on.

For those listening in on the conversation without knowing (and thus not remembering) these particular facts or persons, this line of describing who's who will remain a work in progress. More information is required about the nature of marriages, cars, hills and other aspects of local historical memory to make sense of it all. It is a situated knowledge about a specific cast of characters, and the only way to really become someone in the know would be to stick around long enough to become situated.

After a while of establishing who's who, someone asked one of the young persons present if they knew the children of those discussed. As it turned out, they did, in a way. They knew of these persons, but had never really interacted in any significant fashion. The most succinct summation of the situation put it thusly: oh yeah, him. He was in B, so I never talked to him.

This is a distinctly different way of relating to social relations. The B in this case refers to an administrative subdivision of school populations - 6A, 6B or 6C. These are all sixth grade, but for purposes of keeping group sizes manageable, divided into three groups. Referring to B as a known fact implies knowing these administrative subdivisions and their social implications, which is a radically different way of organizing who's who than the individual-to-individual approach outlined above.

The old folks present did not know the specific implications of the letter B. But, being old and wise, they picked up the gist that this letter somehow meant that the individuals in question did not know each other, and continued the discussion armed with this new nugget of contextual information.

The difference between young and old in this case is not subtle. In fact, it seems to be taken right out of some introductory textbook on sociology, wherein it describes the gradual expansion of bureaucracy into more and more aspects of our lives. The old ones thought in terms of individuals; the young ones in terms of administrative subdivisions. It was, in a single moment, a crystallization of modernity.

It was a strange moment, and I have pondered it ever since.

No comments:

Post a Comment