What is an intellectual community?

I’ve been throwing around the term ‘intellectual community’ a lot recently without offering a definition. It is something which most, if not all, academics have had some experience of. In fact it often figures amongst the motivations for an academic career, even if the reality of the contemporary university fails to live up to the promise. If we look at the term itself we find ‘community’ as the primary referent with ‘intellectual’ as the qualifier. In this sense, we could suggest that an ‘intellectual community’ is a community assembled around intellectual concerns. Though the nebulous character of ‘intellectual’ and ‘community’ means this doesn’t take us very far.

For this reason it might be helpful to look at the types of things we are talking about when we use the term ‘intellectual community’: research groups, research networks, study groups, theoretical schools, research projects etc. These are quite different entities even if they have common characteristics, varying in terms their wider organisational functions (e.g. the role of research groups in coordinating departmental research strategy), the organisations they are connected to (e.g. study groups organised under the umbrella of a learned society) and the funding available to them (e.g. research projects having internal or external funding). The extent to which they feel like communities is likely to vary even within a category, as can be seen in the difference between departmental research group which reflect intellectual interests from the bottom-up versus those which are shaped from the top-down in order to give some semblance of order to what is in reality an intellectual cacophony.

What they have in common is bringing people together around intellectual issues of shared concern. The reasons for this coming together vary immensely, from the logistical requirements of a grant through to the strange half-life of a study group which none of its convenors really have enough time for. But there is a commitment to interaction (synchronously/asynchronously, digitally-mediated/face-to-face) in which intellectual matters (empirical, theoretical, methodological) are a primary concern. There is a familiar repertoire of forms which this interaction can take (seminars, symposia, workshops, conferences) which have been for the most part straightforwardly replicated for digital mediation. This sketch of an ontology of intellectual community already presents us with some crucial elements: commitment to interaction, mode of interaction, intellectual motivations and organisational repertoire. But it remains at the level of typology rather than getting to the essence of intellectual community itself.

For a long time my default resource for conceptualising community has been the relational sociology of Pierpaolo Donati and Margaret Archer. For them what’s at stake when we come together (and stay together) are the relational goods we produce through our interaction and the worth we each come to find in them. Through this lens intellectual community is a matter not just of a shared commitment to questions, approaches or findings but the emergent goods (and their associated experiences) which open up through acting on this commitment in a sustained way. For example a sense of solidarity in a shared pursuit of ideas, the intellectual excitement achievable through work on ‘our’ project or the intellectual intimacy which can be experienced with those who share our reference points and understand our habits of thought.

This helps us see the dimensions of intellectual community described above (intellectual motivations, organisational repertoires etc) in terms of a deeper relational reality which accounts for why these communities come to matter to us or fail to. It opens up questions about how the wider structural embedding of these communities influences their ability to be sites where relational goods are generated e.g. does it change how you feel about a conference if you’re organising it because your employer expects to see evidence of external engagement with relevant communities? Furthermore, it suggests we might try to design organisational forms which better serve the underlying motivations of the intellectual community. This means addressing questions like:

  • What are we trying to achieve?
  • What unites us? What divides us?
  • What do we enjoy about our meetings? What don’t we enjoy?
  • What has been effective? What has been ineffective?

I’ve been thinking about these questions throughout my academic career. It occurred to me recently how unusual the number of intellectual communities (10-20 depending on how you count them) I’ve been involved in organising has been. It’s something I’m drawn towards yet find myself continually frustrated by simply because it’s very difficult to get intellectual communities working in non-routines ways which involved a lived engagement with questions like this, as opposed to a comforting repetition of what we have done before. The reasons for this are for another post but in essence I think the tendency towards intensification of labour in academic life squeezes out the time and energy which is necessary for this form of collective reflexivity. But this in turn means that we don’t try, or attempts we make become warm but fleeting occasions at the end of particularly enjoyable meetings before we return to our separate working lives within the accelerated academy. It’s a problem and it’s one which I fully intend to spend the next period of my career trying to solve.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.