Social Magic

By Craig Martin

Each semester in my introductory course I teach Pierre Bourdieu’s little essay, “Rites of Institution” in Language and Symbolic Power (1991). One of Bourdieu’s claims is that with rites of institution, identities are assigned to subjects—and with such identities comes social powers that individuals would not otherwise have had. He goes so far as to say that this is an act of “social magic.”

To illustrate the point in class, right before getting to our discussion of that passage I sternly look at a member of the class as if she had been caught texting or sleeping—hopefully a student that will be a good sport and who won’t hold a grudge—and say with an irritated and authoritative tone: “Britney, please go out into the hall. I’ll be out to talk with you in a minute.” As soon as she leaves, I ask the class, “Do you think Britney would have left if James, sitting behind her, asked her to leave? Of course not. Why did she listen to me then?” The obvious answer is because I’m a “professor,” or that I carry an identity in the classroom with privileges that students don’t have. As Bourdieu suggests, this is an act of “social magic”; because of the identity I carry, it is almost as if I have a magic wand I can use to control student behavior.

(Of course I have to apologize to Britney. Every once in awhile I choose the wrong student, one who refuses to leave or who, as it turns out, starts crying. Social magic has its limits.)

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2 Responses to Social Magic

  1. Randi Warne says:

    Do you analyze the gendered dynamics of this interchange (i.e., explore the gendered dimensions of social magic)? *That* would make for an interesting discussion.

    e.g., when is a woman who is a professor a “real” professor? I still get called Mrs. Warne by first years. I presume some of that has to do with my now silvering locks, but I also hear the occasional “Miss! Miss!” as well.

    Nothing in our social world is ungendered, most especially relations of authority and power.

  2. Craig Martin says:

    I do talk about gendered dynamics, but never have with respect to this specific interchange. However, during this segment of our course, gender difference and white privilege come up constantly. Next time, however, I will definitely point out the gender dynamic. I bet the student would still go outside if I were identified as a woman, but I bet the affective response would be different. Rather than “oh crap what did I do?” the affective response might be “what a bitch.”

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