Remembering Dorothy Smith


It is hard to write about Dorothy, our teacher, friend, and comrade, whose influence went far beyond the academia with which she has come to be identified. Speaking about her as a conventional intellectual, as a producer of theory, dedicated to augmenting the discipline of sociology, narrows her scope of vision and eclipses the many-sidedness of her intellect and perception and the depth of what she understood by politics. Of course, she was a formidable intellectual and did all of those things that the professional world attributes to her, but that “academic” work, though not quite what I would call it, could be seen as a by-product of her boundless interest in the world she found herself in for the past ninety-five years. It is the making and the shape of that world she sought to understand. There was a reason for this—that the world did not feel right and definitely needed changing. What, then, was going on in the world as Dorothy grew up from a child to a young woman? What was it like?

In broad terms, it was a world full of struggles of great political and social forces between communism and fascism. For quite some time, it seemed as though fascism would win the future. Against the backdrop of the first world war Germany, England, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and smaller countries, were in its grip. Ultimately, bourgeois democracy pulled back from the brink of monopoly capital’s untrammelled manifestation and suppressed fascism/nazism with the help of the rising communist state, the USSR, and almost immediately turned its enemy. Then cold war was initiated by the so-called free world practically simultaneously with western victory.

In the middle of air raids and sirens, in the rubbles of cities and factories, with the emergence of a vast army of industrial working women who were now enfranchised for their contributions to the first world war efforts, the young Dorothy grew up. An only girl in the family, reading long hours and taking long walks in the surrounding moors of Yorkshire, she tried to make sense of this turbulent world that reached her in direct and tangential ways. Her abiding interest in “What actually happens,” which became the core of her teaching and learning, I am sure, was rooted in this time of her life. So also did her future interest in the peace movement and nuclear disarmament germinate from this. From this vortex and from her growing experiences of life and love as a woman, from her years of secretarial work for the reputed publisher Faber and Faber, where the poet T. S. Eliot featured prominently and which published the works Sylvia Plath, to her immersion in the writings of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, to her strong interest in Marxist thought then current at the London School of Economics where she eventually studied, Dorothy fashioned herself in conscious and unconscious ways. Her personality and politics cannot be really understood without that history in and of which she was: even if she did not then know the full potential of the world view she was acquiring, a way of being and seeing that characterized her, a personality that we came to know, love, and respect as Dorothy was gradually moulded. The full mix of elements in her consciousness also included her experiences of love, marriage, and migration to the United States, her separation from her husband, and her solitude as a single woman and a mother with two boys to raise. The last, the act of mothering, remained of abiding interest to her and became the basis of her research with her student and colleague Alison Griffith. Also, there were the heady days of Berkeley’s student politics, participation in women’s movements, anti-Vietnam war protests, and awareness of the anti-racist struggles of African Americans.

All this marked or made her for the rest of her life. In all these experiences lay her awakening, both intellectual and political. She felt a palpable split between her daily experiences and academic and institutional ones. Her life as a mother and a political activist contradicted each other. Being a student and teacher of sociology and a mother and a political person conveyed different messages to her. Thus she became mindful of a deep rift or what she called a “fissure” which cracked her mental and social space and forced her to live in a perpetual contradiction, in the consciousness of a double life. As she tells us in The Everyday World as Problematic, this realization intensified and, finally, became an intolerable calling for comprehension. It sent her searching for a method of inquiry to investigate the organization of her and others’ daily life and that in professional institutions. She simultaneously needed to explore the terrains people occupied and the opposed consciousness they gave rise to. She needed to know who she was and who others were, with this fissured reality present in her or their minds. Along with this feeling came the imperative of examining the make-up of institutions, such as state bureaucracies, educational institutions, mental hospitals, the system of policing political dissent, and others, which structured capitalism. What she was searching for, therefore, was not for a theory, not theoretical insurance, a guarantee, or a pre-formed conceptual solution to explain the doubleness of the organization of the world she occupied. She did not turn to an intellectual exercise for which reality served as a mere corroboration or an instantiation of its comprehensive power. What she was looking for was an instrument of research, a method of inquiry. This method had to be an adequate one for a productive social inquiry, for navigating the labyrinth of the social in which every individual lives. This would help to explain—because she believed in explanation and analysis—how the personal and the social informed each other, and what the modes of mediation that constitute the social are. Spinning her own Ariadne’s thread of exploration, she embarked on her analytical and critical adventure.

For this, as she tells us, she turned to multiple sources: Marx’s method, the sociology of capitalism and everyday life, Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology, the writings of Alfred Schutz and George Herbert Mead, among others, and because of her early interest with experience, some strands of phenomenology. In this regard, what she told me in a private conversation should be repeated. She told me that the things she learned from non-Marxist sociological sources were not falling into place properly for her until she made herself thoroughly conversant with Marx and found a linking theme or thread. Her main texts were The Holy Family and The German Ideology, not only the introduction to the section on Feuerbach, but all its parts, including the more conventional ones. Having done that for a time one day in her shower, where she could get away from others, she realized how Marx’s critique of ideology might give her clues for understanding how contradiction itself, instead of being an obstacle, could be an entry point into “what actually happens,” an analytical resource. Recognition of the roots of contradictions and how they activate one another might help her formulate a different epistemology than the one she had found in conventional non-Marxist ones and, for that matter, in Marxist political economy. In fact, this other critical or anti-ideological epistemology of Marx could direct her to make use of texts written from other sociological perspectives. Still standing by the importance of the social subject’s experience in the creation of a truly critical method of inquiry into social organization, she continued to develop her ideas and her project. At no point did she waver in her confidence regarding experience as the crucial entry point to social existence, nor did she abandon her own and others’ subject-agent status, but elaborated instead on their formation, the shape they took.

Considering experience in terms of both personal and social, in immediate and mediated ways, she could create a new sociology. Her method established a two-way relationship between the personal and the social, the local and the extra-local, thereby abolishing any rigid bifurcation in concrete reality. At first, she thought, it would be sociology for women and, then, in a later, more developed stage, for “people.” Her foundational stage she named “social organization of knowledge” in distinction from “sociology of knowledge.” For this, a feminist reading of Marx proved invaluable, and she turned to the different trends of old and new feminisms that continued to develop. After charting this path for some distance, simply and yet penetratingly in Feminism and Marxism, and in other early texts, such as “K is Mentally Ill,” she invited her readers to join her in the work of grasping and writing the social without bypassing an individual’s experience in a daily and institutional sense. This is why her epistemology, as for all political organizers and participants in social movements, shows the researcher’s involvement and urgency. Her stance is never of passive contemplation or objectivist neutrality. The knower and what is sought to be known are implicated, and the knowledge gained is not alien to each other. Because she was not primarily devoted to her institutional and intellectual success, but rather to the creation of knowledge that would save our sanity (K is not mentally ill) and be truly useful for a politics of fundamental social change, she could be free of constraints in what she said. All moved toward discovery, and nothing prefabricated would be used. In this journey, furthermore, you did not know where or how you might find yourself in chasing the clues that make for and renew the social, the womb of our experience. Instead of being driven by a theory or a reified concept, your working process and findings would shape your research.

Needless to say that Dorothy’s new and critical, at times polemical, approach to the sociology of knowledge created a fair bit of misunderstanding and confusion in the world of established sociology. More so as it defined itself contra the great tradition of Mannheim and Weber and their followers. Her idea of women’s standpoint, again misunderstood as a fixed spatial location, created another set of confusion as it was taken to literally privilege all ideas and experiences of an undifferentiated category called “women.” It was claimed that she gave cardinal importance to a specific social location and gendered being in an unquestioned acceptance of an idea born of women’s consciousness and identified them as denizens of “below,” irrespective of other relational implications. This made a one-dimensional total subaltern of all women. This position misrepresents her real viewpoint. As a matter of fact, in her radical reversal of the conventional relationship between forms of consciousness and reality, that concept comprehends reality, a sub-discipline of the sociology of knowledge morphed into the social organization of knowledge. This detached knowledge from an idealist interpretation and differentiated among different kinds of production and use of ideas. Dorothy’s epistemological method, which bent Marx’s critique of ideology for a deeper understanding of the social, was all her own. It had only a partial and superficial resemblance to that of Althusser or Foucault, who subjected the existing subject-agent to structure or ideology, thereby also losing the specificity of the concept of ideology, which is only one among a whole slew of practices and their content, and, thus, rendering the social into a homogeneous one-dimensional space. This social, whose dynamic, complex, and elusive formations and expressions Dorothy detected, involves necessarily a multidimensionality with formative contradictions and coherences becoming a concert of samenesses and differences. They do not cohabit our life-sphere parallelly or linearly, but inter-incarnate each other.

Here, we talk of capital. This life sphere is not, according to Dorothy, an Archimedean form, but rather a Copernican one, without a centre and a periphery. The social organization of capital is capitalist everywhere: its smallest unit, the commodity, as Marx points out, holds in its genomic structure its fleshed-out social form. The social organization of knowledge reveals that complex social relations and their attendant kinds of consciousness saturate capital’s life sphere and are marked by constitutive and reactive differentiations. This life sphere’s dynamics are productive, motivated and activated by practices and ideas whose deployment and meaning content always vary. Measured by their revelatory power of exploring and exposing, of occluding and expressing, the scope and nature of the social, the deployment and meaning of an idea and practice, can be critical or ideological. This open-ended guideline leaves the researcher to her own motivations for undertaking an inquiry and the critical method she put together. But she must measure the research findings and the conclusions she draws from them against the subject’s experience and the social organization within which they occur. This last imperative might be considered suspect by the scientificism of sociology. It might be objected that experiences are phenomenal, subjective, and, therefore, imprecise and unable to yield a reliable (read, objective) knowledge. In this view, putting an emphasis on starting with what is at hand, that is, the local situatedness of the subject, provides further hindrances. There is always a chance that it may work out in this way, but it is also true that for some experiences to be at all possible or events named as such, there have to be certain socio-historical and conceptual conditions which are present. More importantly, any experience makes sense to us because it has been experienced and named so and understood as of that, by others. As Marx said, language is a shared practical consciousness that makes sense to us because it makes sense to others.

Since this project of an ever-widening scope, an investigation without boundary, distinguishes her work, I always thought of Dorothy as a detective of the social. Her work constructs a case for the crime of capital and argues against the criminals who perpetrate its systematic exploitation. The harm that capitalism causes with its social form constructed with ironclad inter-locking institutions, which are fueled by our lives and needs, require systematic exposure so that we may know what confronts us and may have a clear view of this mediated body, a socially organized ruling apparatus which is put together with concepts and categories. This search does not need theoretical pre-emptive closed proposals and their assertions and certitudes, but simply a method of inquiry grounded in life and experience which can identify those very grounds. Such a method of knowledge production cannot be bound by either positivism or idealism, which are, after all, the two sides of the same coin. About theorizing, Dorothy might have said what Marx said about “mere” interpretations, and theory can become a “mere” substitution for an explanation and analysis when it takes a hegemonic position over reality. Then this is mere intellectual prowess, a gesture which can not pass as a mode of investigation, made possible by a given moment of history and social division of labour between mental and manual labour. If theory can maintain its tentative, modest nature, as found in the sciences, it can help in building a problematic. Any other claim exceeds its provision. In a rebuttal to Althusser, E. P. Thompson once said, “Theory is our expectation from life, but life often does not meet it.” I think Dorothy would have agreed with this.

People with their everyday life, joys, and sorrows were never an abstraction for Dorothy. She not only thought of them but felt them. That does not mean that she erased their differences, their uniqueness of being, but she felt that they could be understood, as could be the world we live in—a mysterious but not a mystical thing. And in her process of understanding, the world would not be robbed of its fleshliness and people of their sensuousness and experiences. Instead of being lost among others, we would find ourselves in our full individuation among them, in relation to them. Our experiences would open doors to the social as we tried to understand how they came to be. In fact, we would learn to see them as experiences and be able to name what they were experiences of. That’s how the women’s movement of our time, of Dorothy’s time, came to the conclusion that the personal is political, that the microcosm of our daily lives reflects the macrocosm of the way the social is organized.

The methodological development of Dorothy’s social organization came from a general awareness that the social in capitalist societies and the state differed from earlier ones. As feudalism was waning, another way of life, culture, and economy came to replace it. The moment was roughly marked as the seventeenth century in Britain, but expanded over Europe. This change was the development of capitalism with a panoply of institutions that mediated its reproduction in a stable and long-term way. The state under capitalism is the chief institutional complex from which and in relation to which all others developed or were inspired. Life as a whole was brought into its purview, to be administered: the state became definitive of basic life activities and the practices and ideas of the social were elaborated through life under growing capitalism. They were largely referential to the organizing principles of various institutions and the predictable relations with which they hegemonized the daily lives of people. This understanding of the new social as institutional prompted Dorothy to devise a new ethnography, not of social groups in communitarian and traditional or ad hoc interpersonal terms. This new ethnography is her other singular contribution. It’s now a branch of sociology that has come to stay. Simply Institutional Ethnography, otherwise, IE.

It should be clearer by now that studying Dorothy Smith’s works is a must for activists and scholars who are keen on “what actually happens.” We must understand the now so we can build the future—in other words, the future begins in every now.

For the rest, my time with Dorothy stays with me as a major milepost in my life. Life is like that. We meet someone at a bend in the road, and that encounter is life-changing. *