''An intellectual gives voice to people who have no voice''

Sociologist Aleksandrina Vanke about who can be called an intellectual today and why the knowledge that they produce is important to society

''An intellectual gives voice to people who have no voice'' Photo: provided by Aleksandrina Vanke

In the view of most people, the intellectuals is the class of ''carriers'' of ethical norms and principles of justice, which arose in Russia in the 19th century. What has changed in them in the 21st century? Who is the intellectual today? What do they produce, and whether they can influence the situation in society? These and other questions were answered by sociologist Aleksandrina Vanke in the interview with Realnoe Vremya.

''The task of the intellectual is to break down the stereotypes through which the dominance of a particular group of people is maintained''

What are the approaches to assessing the role of the intellectual in society?

The intellectual tradition is more typical for Western societies, European and American. Classical approaches to the definition of the intellectual come from France. There are different types. Michel Foucault, a philosopher, distinguished two types of the intellectual. The first — 'universal', on the type of Jean-Paul Sartre, who is the herald of truth and tells the truth. The second type of intellectual, to whom Foucault attributed himself — 'specific', they do not aim to enlighten the population or to speak on behalf of the people, but work in certain fields and produce specific knowledge, for example about institutions. In particular, Foucault studied prisons, psychiatry, sexual relations, family.

According to Foucault, the task of the intellectual is not to impose any point of view on people. Since there is no truth as such, in his view, it is constructed by different social groups. The task of the intellectual is to produce critical knowledge. And when it reaches a wider circle of people, they have more opportunities for reasonable choice. That is, if we expose the mechanism of work of power institutions, people have a chance to understand how it works, and thus make a political choice in favour of one or the other. It's the skeptical version of the intellectual.

Michel Foucault distinguished two types of the intellectual: 'universal', who is the herald of truth, and 'specific', who does not aim to educate the population. Photo: gefter.ru

The approach of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to intellectuals in some ways coincides with Foucault's approach. At the initial stage of his work, he was a scientist who produced knowledge only for a narrow circle of specialists, for the academy, university. Then Bourdieu said that the intellectual should be autonomous, he should produce critical knowledge, but the recipient of this knowledge is the scientific community. Therefore, Bourdieu's works of this period use complex language. At a later stage, closer to the 1990's, Bourdieu becomes a 'universal' intellectual, participates in social protests, interacts with social movements. He writes a number of works where he opposes neoliberalism, flexible forms of employment, exploitation, and criticizes those who work in television and journalism. He says that there is the figure of collective intellectual — the group of people who produce critical knowledge that serves against how the ruling class imposes certain notions about the society through symbolic violence. That is, the task of the intellectual — to question the ordinary meaning and break down the stereotypes through which dominance is maintained.

Bourdieu himself came from a family of workers, but became a well-known sociologist, made an academic career. But at the same time, he is quite skeptical about the masses. His idea is that most people do not notice how symbolic violence occurs, how they are imposed some ideas, ideology.

There are probably also other ideas about the intellectual?

There is a classification of the thinker and philosopher, Marxist Antonio Gramsci. He was a member of the Italian Communist Party, spent a long time in prison, there he wrote a number of works where he tells about intellectuals, although in his works he calls it the intelligentsia. His works were translated into Russian in the middle of the 20th century. Gramsci also distinguishes two types of intellectuals, calling them 'organic' and 'traditional'. He says that organic intellectuals appear at a new stage of social relations and exist in every social class. They are not a separate group. These are mainly pioneers and innovators, often from urban bourgeoisie, who occupy the position of leaders and their actions change the way of life. The other type is traditional. They think themselves ostensibly separate from all rest classes, but this, according to Gramsci, is an illusion. These include natives from the peasant environment, clergy, doctors, teachers, representatives of petty bourgeoisie. Gramsci considered himself a traditional intellectual.

He also has the concept of a new intellectual who should interact with the masses. It's such an enlightened project. New intellectuals should prepare ordinary people for new cultural forms.

Gramsci is also known for developing the concept of 'hegemony', meaning dominant patterns of behaviour and culture. And he says that organic intellectuals are the conductors of hegemony, in other words, justify the existence of the ruling class. In his view, intellectuals should unite and produce critical knowledge.

Scientist Michael Burawoy says there are four types of sociologists (read — intellectuals). Photo: 0-stranger.livejournal.com

There's also a social scientist such as Michael Burawoy. He says there are four types of sociologists (read — intellectuals). The first is 'professional'. This is the the same Bourdieu at the initial stage of his formation, when knowledge is produced only for the scientific community. The second type of intellectuals is 'critical', they criticize what was produced by experts. This is also Bourdieu, but at another stage, when he criticizes other intellectuals who compete with him at that time.

The third type — intellectuals who work in applied sphere, such as survey agencies that are associated with market and businesses. The fourth type of intellectual is 'public'. On the one hand, they have theoretical knowledge, professionalism, critical potential, on the other hand — they interact with a wide audience. Burawoy believes that the task of the public intellectual is to convey the knowledge that we have produced in the framework of research to different audiences, including those that we have studied. For example, to a wider range of urban and educated audiences, as well as to powerless groups: social and environmental movements, ethnic and sexual minorities, women, workers, migrants and so on.

The role of a public sociologist is to tell about the problems in society of these social groups. They should address the problems of inequality and show the difficulties faced by people who are deprived of resources and power. Also, the public sociologist interacts with students. Burawoy himself teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and considers students one of his primary audiences.

''The intellectual is not engaged in moralizing''

Here the question arises: what language should the intellectual speak in order to be comprehended?

The public intellectual should look for forms, genres that would allow to convey the basic ideas of their research, theories, approaches, so that this knowledge works practically, so that people can use it to improve their lives. It is quite difficult to find a form of expression. We have produced knowledge, but how to make it improve the lives of the same workers, residents of industrial areas, migrants, refugees?

Much is in the hands of people themselves. A public intellectual can give tools without imposing his or her point of view. And then people themselves decide how they will use this knowledge.

For example?

For example, sociologists interact with social movements. When I was in graduate school in 2011-2013, there was the movement 'For Fair Elections' in Russia. And I became a member of an independent research initiative, we took interviews at civil and pro-government rallies. We did not claim to be telling the truth, did not impose our vision of what the future of this movement should be. We just tried to understand why these people came, made brochures with quotes of interviews and distributed at the same meetings.

The second example is if you work as a volunteer, interact with migrants. I worked as a volunteer at the integration centre for migrant and refugee children in Moscow. Together with volunteers, we tried to give children the tools with which to gain knowledge about the city. They have a different body experience, they may not know, for example, how to use public transport.

The task of the intellectual is to interact with students, to form their tastes, so that they work for the formation of a more just society. Photo: Dmitry Reznov

Another example is students. The task of the intellectual is to interact with students, to form their tastes, so that they work for the formation of a more just society. The intellectual is not a herald of truth, they do not tell what to do and how, but they are participants in the social process and help other participants to reach consensus. There are different groups in society, and the intellectual stitches these spaces, acts as a cultural intermediary, transfers knowledge from one world to another, and this is the function of the intellectual — to produce critical knowledge and transfer it from the world of the academy to other worlds. In this case, the knowledge itself is not produced in an ivory tower, but in interaction with people. It is important for a public intellectual to interact with different communities, to understand how they live, what problems they have, to give them a voice. There are groups that have no voice. For example, the same Russian workers. Who are the workers in modern Russian society? Or the same workers, what do they care? Or single mothers. The task of the sociologist is to give voice to people who have no resources and no voice.

That is, the function of the intellectual is a scrupulous professional study of different areas of life, the production of critical knowledge, as well as the transfer of this knowledge from the academic environment to the wider environment.

You have repeated several times that an intellectual does not know what truth is and does not impose it. However, in Russian literature there is the fairly stable idea of the intellectual, who considers it his or her duty to lead an exemplary life, to show the rest of the people a moral example. It turns out that today the intellectual does not assume such a function?

An intellectual should not impose a way of life. The only thing an intellectual can do is to understand why a particular social group or community has their own lifestyle, how it happens, how space and environment influence the formation of a particular way of life. For example, if you live in a communal apartment, how does it affect you? There is social inequality, economic, territorial, which sets the difference in perception of the world and how we live this life. Therefore, the task of the intellectual is to study the way of life, not to impose it.

So they do not know what's good and what's bad?

They do not moralize. They tell how different ''good'' and ''bad'' are constructed in different societies and in different historical periods. They tell that the truth is relative, that it is also a construct. And what was true in the eighteenth century will not be true today. Foucault was just studying how truth was produced in different historical periods. Foucault refuses to claim that there is the truth, he might say, ''I study the conditions of the production of truth, the practices and the actions that make us believe that this is the truth.'' It is the same with Bourdieu, who speaks of symbolic domination, that if something is imposed on us as common sense, in fact, it is not the truth.

Left-wing specific intellectuals, including Bourdieu and Foucault, oppose the circles of the universal intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre. Photo: 24smi.org

This is the task of the intellectual — to criticize the way something is imposed on us as common sense. There are many different circles of intellectuals, and between them, for example in France in the '60s, there is a serious struggle. Left-wing specific intellectuals, including Bourdieu and Foucault, oppose the circles of the universal intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre. Nevertheless, they all act in the same field. Bourdieu hates Sartre, Foucault crosses paths with Sartre at rallies, and they all criticize and complement each other.

Graphic picture by Victoria Lomasko. Photo: artguide.com

Do people from the sphere of contemporary art also belong to intellectuals?

They're also present there. But this field operates on different principles. It is more interesting for me to observe how the fields of science and art intersect, at their junction many curious things are born. For example, Victoria Lomasko, a contemporary artist, who depicts the lives of ordinary people in Russia, those who go to rallies, lives in the province, representatives of different minorities. She makes graphic drawings in the form of cartoons. Her work has become popular in the West, she has recently exhibited in London. Her work is incredibly sociological. It shows the daily lives of people we won't see on TV. These are those who do not speak for themselves, but in her drawings they say, she also makes bubbles, in which there are phrases of depicted people. This is a very interesting version of the synthesis of sociological knowledge and art.

By Natalia Fedorova