At the start of this week’s meeting, we were feeling quite overwhelmed by the influx of our many ideas. As Liberal Arts students, the topics we covered in our discussion last week were diverse and it seemed like there were limitless tangents to our tangents. We were faced with an interdisciplinary dilemma: how to tame and focus the multi-faceted approach we have honed during our Liberal Arts degrees. Thankfully, last week we had already decided to use Putin as our case study, so that was something we already had in the bag.
We began our meeting by setting an agenda: by the end of our meeting we wanted to have come up with the title of our research project and also to have found (at least) three research sources. One of the first decisions we made was to keep the title of our research project focused but also slightly open-ended so that we could develop and answer sub-questions relevant to our individual disciplines. One way of doing this was to not make our title a direct question, but rather a one-sentence introduction to the topic we are going to explore in our research project. We also decided very early on that we were going to use a Survey Monkey to gauge public opinion on Putin and also to gain an insight into how much free will people think they possess.
We picked up where we left off at the previous week, in which we decided our research project would entail the investigation of the development of the image of a charismatic leader through the use of media in a post-truth era. We decided this was too long-winded. I wonder why. In addition, from looking at other students’ posts on the Translation Across Disciplines blog, we realised that politicians’ use of media to create an image in a post-truth era was a very hot topic.
Thus, we decided to take a slightly different approach with our research project, namely, a more sociological one. Our research title is a sociological investigation of group interactions, specifically, on how the figure of the charismatic leader comes to rise in a group, and we will use Putin as a case study to explore this process. Some of the sub-questions we intend to answer are the following:
- To what extent do we have agency and free will in forming our own opinions and shaping our own decisions?
- To what extent is the image of a charismatic leader created by society or by the leader?
This is not an exhaustive list of what we are aiming to explore in our research project and we still have some fine-tuning to do. However, something clicked upon making the decision to take a sociological approach (thank you Gladys for the idea!). Sociology was a discipline we had not explored much in our academic journeys and the prospect of applying our interdisciplinary skillsets to another new discipline was very exciting (and daunting!). We thought this was particularly fitting because it would be undergoing the ultimate test: Translating the knowledge and skills gleaned from our disciplines Across to a new Discipline.
Gladys has had the most experience dabbling in Sociology and introduced Erving Goffman’s idea of the performance of our everyday selves on a stage. Goffman’s idea is that an individual is performing an ‘idealised image’ of themselves in their social interactions. This notion of the ‘idealised image’ is particularly reminiscent of the carefully curated image that a charismatic leader constructs to feed to the public. The physical and virtual performativity of this image is what we want to develop in our research essay.
Goffman’s principle that we are all actors on a ‘social stage’ creating impressions of ourselves for the benefit of an audience (and consequently, a benefit to ourselves) brought us back to Michel Foucault’s Panopticon which we covered last year in Space, Power, Agency. The notion that we are constantly being watched through surveillance and this permanent visibility is a trap that undermines our agency echoes Goffman’s belief that we are performing ourselves for the benefit of others. This performance of self ceases to exist when there are not others around to perform for, so who are we when we are by ourselves? Does the very basis and existence of our individual identities rest upon an audience? If this is true, how much are we perpetuating or even creating the falsified images that charismatic leaders are feeding us? Does this mean we possess free will, but only of a certain kind? Is that still free will? Who really are these charismatic leaders once they are stripped of these idealised images? These were very chilling questions indeed that we seek to explore in our research.
Our discussion on Goffman and Foucault’s Panopticon brought us to more questions regarding free will and the public sphere. Aidana introduced us to Jürgen Habermas’ idea of the bourgeois ‘public sphere’, which is the place where the decisions about a society are made. However, not everyone has membership in this public sphere. This raises questions of to what extent are we members of the public sphere or just spectators watching events unfold before us. Habermas also argues that social media is a tool that enables manipulation and generates a public sphere where there is none. This furthers the idea that this ghostly and elusive algorithmic monster manufactures contrived images that are shoved down our throats. Again, this begs the question of how much are we are perpetuating the infringement on our own agency. It also brings into question in what ways does Putin control the public sphere and its membership and who are the chosen gatekeepers?
These questions regarding whether we have free will in our own lives is a huge debate in Philosophy, and the social media craze adds another dimension to this issue. Do social media outlets such as Facebook use unethical methods in order to invade our privacy to sell our personal information? However, despite the fact that most of us are aware of this digital surveillance, we still happily live our lives online. Is it really unethical if we are aware of these shady activities?
On the flipside, the studies of charismatic leaders in New Religious Movements (also more commonly referred to as ‘cults’) fervently work to dismantle the assumption that we lack agency in the face of charismatic leaders. Roy Wallis explains the social construction of charisma and how often it is a mutually beneficial relationship wherein the image of the charismatic leader is in a very precarious position that is completely dependent on people’s belief in the idealised image of the leader. This seemingly puts the ball back into our (the public’s) court because a charismatic leader’s charisma only exists if there are people who believe in its existence.
These are just some of the many musings we had during the brain dump that was our meeting. The sources we have picked are the following:
- Erving Goffman’s ‘The Representation of Self in Everyday’
- Jürgen Habermas’ ‘The Public Sphere: An Encyclopaedia Article’
- Michel Foucault’s ‘Discipline and Punishment’
- Roy Wallis’ ‘The Social Construction of Charisma’
Aidana has also created a Google Doc for us to brainstorm and also compile more sources.
In next week’s meeting, we aim to write up the questions for our Survey Money, further develop our ideas and also find other materials (such as sources) for our research. We will also be reflecting on the different methodologies that will be employed in our research.