Monday, April 22, 2013

Bricolage

"If you don't have the right equipment for the job, you just have to make it yourself."
–MacGyver


Well, this might be the most difficult blog post for me to write yet.  My office-mate from graduate school and one of my closest friends, Dave Conz, died last week.  When something like that happens you end up thinking a lot about the person's life and what it meant, to you and to others.  Dave offered so much to this world.  He had a doctorate in sociology, a master's degree in humanities, and a bachelor's degree in aerospace studies.  He was a pilot, a motorcycle mechanic, a hobby farmer, a dancer, a welder, a drummer, a skateboarder.  He spoke German.  He made biodiesel and beer from scratch.  And so much more.  Perhaps his biggest contribution intellectually was identifying the constraints and opportunities in modern society to combine a bunch of random ideas and things together to create something extraordinary (per the MacGyver quote above- one of Dave's favorites).  In a lot of ways this is what we are trying to do with the Applied Social Science program- getting students to the point where they combine all the random things they learn in a meaningful and consequential way.  Sociologists (and others) call this "bricolage", and while there is considerable scholarship on this topic I want to take some time ruminating on it in my own way.

Dave taught a course at Arizona State University called The Cultural and Chemical History of Beer.  This was an interdisciplinary capstone course for undergraduates.  It pushed them to take something ubiquitous in the college atmosphere and really understand it in a deep and meaningful way from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.  Many students even made their own beer off campus as part of the course.  It was a popular course, and it even helped galvanize the home brewing movement in Arizona and beyond.  In the end, students learned how to make something themselves.  However, there were a lot of other serendipitous things they picked up along the way, some of which Dave actually discussed in a great article for Slate.

Among the things students discovered is how much useful knowledge is available on any given topic, and how to filter that knowledge.  We sometimes come across information that is crap and embrace it.  We also come across information that is awesome but ignore it out of a feeling that it is irrelevant.  Dave tried to take students through the process of filtering such information in a more productive manner.  One of the main things he focused on was not throwing anything out.  Keep that random thing in the storage banks of your mind (or computer, or garage, etc.).  It will become useful at some unpredictable point in the future.  This is especially true the more that you try to combine those random things for practical ends; you just need to be engaged in this bricolage practice.  Often.  The more you do so the more you will find that the world will open up to you.  So how do you get there?  And what the hell do I mean "the world will open up to you"?

Well, first of all let's consider how creativity occurs.  Randall Collins explored this very question in a seminal book in sociology called "Sociology of Philosophies".  [This was actually partially based off of a little novel Collins wrote in the late 70's called "The Case of the Philosopher's Ring" (highly recommended, fun reading)].  In the Sociology of Philosophies, Collins tracked the creativity of some of the greatest philosophers of all time.  He found they all needed just a couple of things to be creative: emotional energy and cultural capital.

For a really brief synopsis, emotional energy is that positive, euphoric feeling you sometimes get from hanging out with other people.  My colleague, John Parkercommented about this idea on an earlier blog post of mine.  Cultural capital are certain things you say or do that resonate with another person, and you use those gestures to facilitate exchange with them.  Some types of cultural capital are used by elites in society to maintain their position (e.g. they drink wine in a certain way, use proper table manners, shine their shoes, etc.).  However, if you think of all gestures as different types of cultural capital you can imagine that it is quite valuable to build up a variety of this stuff.  If you are able to draw on a wide range of norms and values from many different contexts you will have a repertoire of things to use for future bricolage.  This, of course, is only really going to be a creative, transformational outcome if you combine that cultural capital with the energy you get from hanging out with others in an positive social encounter.


So what does this mean for us?  Well, we have written a variety of blog posts on the usefulness of liberal arts training for career flexibility and livelihood stability in the 21st century, as well as the importance of happy hour with friends.  But I guess the key is not just hanging out with people or taking "liberal arts" courses.  The key is also to embrace all the random things you come across, and to frequently and consciously practice bricolage.  The more you do so the more meaningful your job and your leisure time will become.  Beyond that- and here's what I was getting at with "the world will open up to you"- your experience of the human condition be fuller and deeper, and you'll be shocked how often you will be the "go to" person for leadership and problem solving.  Kind of like "MacGyver" (Dave's favorite show of all time).

It is my hope that we integrate bricolage into the Applied Social Science major more overtly at UW-Stout.  I know I will do so in my own classes and research, partially in homage to my friend and partially for its own value.  Maybe a class dedicated to this to complement students' APSS research methods courses?  Perhaps if we could build emotional energy into the experience of learning in that course as well?  Maybe the course needs to have frequent cook-offs and box car derbies?

In any case, I encourage you all to think about this bricolage practice and integrate it into your life in a meaningful way.  I guess you could call this my attempt to promote Dave's legacy, but that's because it is a legacy worth following.  Perhaps start with beer and see where you can go from there?  We do live and work in Wisconsin, after all. :)

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