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By Amanda Harvey-Sanchez, Amanda Sumanasekera, and Yiran Li.

This blog post as part of a series by the students of the University of Toronto Anthropology course ANT473 and ANT6200 Ethnographic Practicum: The University, taught by Prof. Tania Li at the University of Toronto in 2018. Click here for the syllabus.

Abstract

Amanda S, Amanda H-S, and Yiran have found that a common theme in their research sites is the acquisition of different forms of capital. While economic capital is more commonly discussed in everyday discourse, we have found that social, cultural, and symbolic capital are at the forefront in each of our research sites, which are all communities with restrictive forms of membership. We argue that these forms of capital are more easily constructed and contested and can thereby become resources in the overall pursuit of privilege.

Social Capital/Networks

Social capital, as defined by Bourdieu (1986) refers to the networks than an individual can draw upon, as well as their membership within particular groups. For our interlocutors, membership in their respective groups emerge as conduits towards cultivating social capital, which can later be drawn upon for the purposes of social mobility.  For Chinese students, a Chinese student club is where one reaps the benefit of “knowing people”/. “Ren shi ren”. The term is not only about seeking friendship, but facilitates having a Mandarin-based group to share information, to know people who are “competitive” or “interesting”, which will benefit personal development and career seeking.

In likeness, joining the sorority, produces a moment of incorporation wherein girls are able to access the ways in which “creating women of excellence” and the core value of “lifetime servitude” intersect to provide both social and cultural capital. The connections made in these spaces of sorority, of Massey, or of Chinese student club maintain an added dimension perhaps distinct from those friendships and connections formed in other University of Toronto spaces. It is not simply about knowing people, it is about knowing the right people. In Amanda H-S’s research, many of her interlocutors expressed the benefits of accessing social capital at Massey College. Indeed, one of the catch-phrases the college uses to promote itself is that it facilitates a “meeting of minds”. Massey is where talented scholars from varying disciplines come together to share intellectual discussion. For Junior Fellows especially, this can have huge benefits as they become connected with Senior Fellows in their field, many of whom may hold other forms of capital or power that can subsequently “open doors”. Thus, capital has a way of accumulating upon itself.

Connections are strategically forged with efficiency and production of capital in mind. For sorority girls, extensive alumnae networks are  available to them as a resource. Alumnae are not only a resource available to them locally. They are told of global networks of women available to them in other chapters of the same house. For official events like initiation, the board sends both local and U.S. alumnae to oversee events and mentor girls in shared disciplines. These women volunteer in some cases, having been a part of the sorority in decades past, or else they are employed by the sorority to travel to different houses in the country and in the U.S. as their job. Consider the language “legacy”, “big”, “little”, “grandlittle etc.,which serves as markers of identity, intelligible only to those in the Greek community. These terms seemingly mark a laughable parody of kinship. Yet, they serve to mark the networks girls forge for themselves, where, in likeness to the strength of ties of blood, women now have access to girls who have graduated, who are in their field of study, or who are obligated to look after and mentor them, and open doors for them, by virtue of sisterhood.

The connections made in these spaces of sorority, of Massey, or of Chinese student club maintain an added dimension perhaps distinct from those friendships and connections formed in other University of Toronto spaces. It is not simply about knowing people, it is about knowing the right people. One of Yiran’s interlocuters, a student club executive says, “I got several part-time jobs because the employers had heard of the club” and “it was the network I built through the club activities which provided me the access to the hiring information”. Capital grows, making its cultivation all the more appealing, but the catch is that you need some to get some. Having some minimal level of social capital is often a prerequisite condition to gaining initial access to the sorority and Massey College. Capital is both a requirement to be initiated, with the potential for growth, and conduit which facilitates the acquisition of additional or enhanced forms of capital upon initiation into these specialized communities.

Embodied Cultural Capital: On Playing the Game

Both the sorority and Massey college constitute what Bourdieu terms as “structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures”. Simply put, they are structures of power which not only function by virtue of assembling individuals, but by simultaneously producing habitus, a set of durable dispositions, or an internalized set of practices among those who\ comprise it (Bourdieu, 1977, p 72)  Indeed this disciplining capacity of structures of power, like Foucault’s Panopticon, regulates through the bodies of those within a given structure. It originates from no identifiable authority, but is maintained by those who comprise the same structure and to whom the same habitus is not only sensible, but of course natural (Bourdieu, 1977; Foucault, 2018).

Habitus, in the case of both sorority and Massey College, take the shape of a form of an embodied form of cultural capital which can be mobilized by girls in the chapter and academics  at Massey college. In the case of Massey, embodied cultural capital is practiced and cultivated into a “Massey habitus” which can be applied in other similar situations to the benefit of the actor in question. For instance, one Junior Fellow at Massey noted that living at Massey is what prepared him for an interview for a prestigious post-doc, where he was expected to “wine and dine” with world-renowned scholars. For sorority women, a formalized and professional environment is created for women to practice within with an added dimension of being able to learn a form of femininity that translates into cultural capital. Formation of the Massey habitus and the sorority habitus, by these two structures, this form of embodied cultural capital, is valuable to the extent that it can be called into being and applied elsewhere for the purposes of social mobility and academic and professional success.

The sorority is a unit of production. It appears to recruit members who possess many social networks, who are economically advantaged, who are outgoing and who embody the values outlined in the Chapter’s mission (Leadership, Honour, Labour, etc). Yet, members who lack in any regard can not only reap the benefits of sharing in the perception that one possesses these traits, but can learn to perform it. For meeting, members must adopt business casual attire, don pins, and for official meetings, address other members of the chapter in structured conversations that resemble a boardroom, if not a courtroom, if not a political office. “Madame President, may I address the chapter?” “I put forward a challenge to the slate” … Violate the tradition, the formality, the feminized dress, the Christian underpinnings of rites and passages, or the other forms of historically constituted capital, and so see your behaviour policed or your voice dismissed. This parody, engaged in and by girls, teaches them to “play the game” as it were. While Amanda S does not see the sorority as producing a naturalized habitus in a deterministic sense, playing the game involves the learning of processes through discourse, through the body and through the other members of the community who unconsciously and consciously police performance (Foucault, 2018). These dispositions can then be mobilized to pursue privilege and occupy these structures of power.

Both the sorority and Massey college constitute what Bourdieu terms as “structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures”. Simply put, they are structures of power which not only function by virtue of assembling individuals, but by simultaneously producing habitus, a set of durable dispositions, or an internalized set of practices among those who\ comprise it (Bourdieu, 1977, p 72)  Indeed this disciplining capacity of structures of power, like Foucault’s Panopticon, regulates through the bodies of those within a given structure. It originates from no identifiable authority, but is maintained by those who comprise the same structure and to whom the same habitus is not only sensible, but of course natural (Bourdieu, 1977; Foucault, 2018).

Part of the logic of Bourdieu’s structure is that they too “structure structures” as it were (Bourdieu, 1977, pp 72-76). Structures of power do not exist independently of one another. Indeed, why is it the case that all three researchers, focusing upon individuals occupying a privileged form of community find so many parallels in the logics of those structures? The sorority was constituted in a white, christian tradition, enabling access to economically advantaged individuals and “legacies”.  These women are not taught to change the game. Female empowerment and leadership is a narrative which saturates most “official activity”, yet , it does not purport to change the landscape of gender inequality, or the privilege of some women over others in the structures the women “ought to”occupy upon graduation. Girls are not taught to throw off the chains of the patriarchy or reject neoliberalism. Rather, they must wear nude heels, attend academic and networking seminars, and accept that cultural capital is signified in these ways and produces privilege. In this vein, Chinese students do not attempt to combat the forms of separation between domestic and local students or the failures of the university to provide meaninful and accessible opportunities for them. Rather, they consent to their incorporation in an alternative set of paid and unpaid services which ought to produce productive individuals. Similarly Massey College produces individuals who will occupy privileged positions and structures.  The sorority produces lawyers, women in commerce, and women who will constitute the very structures which structure other structures of power. They will play the game, not dismantle it.

References

Bourdieu, P. (1977). STRUCTURES AND THE HABITUS. In R. Nice (Trans.), Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology, pp. 72-95). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Foucault, M. (2008) Panopticism from Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison Michel Foucault . Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts  2 (1) pp. 1-12

 

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