Sociability on the spectrum between academic virtue and vice

by Anne Por, PhD candidate at Scholarly Vices: A Longue Durée History

It is widely agreed that it is good to be social. Social people supposedly create a good working atmosphere, and it is clearly beneficial to have a good network. Vacancies generally list requirements dealing with social conduct and applicants are expected to elaborate on their social competences. Grants are awarded to those who are seen as capable of promoting and raising interest in their research throughout the academic community as well as among the wider public. Sociability played an important role in the development of early modern cultures of knowledge.

However, uncritically promoting sociability has its drawbacks as well. When judging and selecting scholars on their ability to build a network, to promote their research and on their audacity to reach out to others, there will naturally be fewer candidates left to choose from. As a result, such requirements might limit the range of their personalities and thinking styles. Generally, in overly encouraging sociability, one risks confusing essential, functional sociability with unnecessary, individual social capital. ‘Everyday sociability’ and ‘scholarly sociability’ are often hard to distinguish and easily mixed up.

The neurodiversity movement, which has gained visibility in the last couple of years, advocates for the depathologization of certain psychological conditions like autism spectrum disorder. Environments rather than individuals should be changed. In a similar manner but with regard to academia in specific, we could question if being able to behave according to certain social norms is merely a necessary evil or an unnecessary and exclusionary practice that potentially hinders our search for knowledge. In line with existing stereotypes, those with high-functioning autism (formerly and still generally known as Asperger syndrome) currently appear to be a better fit for the exact and natural sciences than for the humanities and social sciences. The question is if this is only because of inherent qualities or because the current academic culture in the humanities and social sciences fosters unnecessary high expectations of the sociability of its researchers. Is it merely the subject matter concerned or are certain academic communities perhaps more forgiving when it comes to out-of-norm behaviour? I think that we should question why differences in sociability (regarding everyday sociability in particular) are often regarded as deficits. Is it because of a fear for a lack of social comfort at work, a genuine concern for the divergent person who might be and feel excluded, or reasonable doubts about intellectual consequences?

I believe that academics should try not to be tempted let alone feel entitled to surround themselves with colleagues who primarily make their working days go smooth and interactions pleasurable. Arguably, lack of diversity is an obstacle to our search after knowledge and understanding, even more so with regard to the more subjective studies dealing with humans and humanity.

In conclusion, while sociability is an essential part of knowledge production and communication in academia, an uncurbed appreciation for sociability likely excludes those whose minds could make crucial contributions, i.e. by widening the range of interpretations. Sociability is an important academic virtue when regarded as a means to an end, but one that quickly turns vicious when allowed to become an end in itself. Should not the academic community – in search of knowledge outside of easily-reached social agreement – be a forerunner in properly acknowledging this?