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Experiencing (In)Competence: A Symposium in Honor of Elinor Ochs, Co-Sponsored with the Department of Anthropology

February 15, 2018 - February 16, 2018


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As humans, we are constantly thrown into unfamiliar contexts, wrought in a fluid world.  At the same time, we orient to a sense of normalcy, anchored in hexis. In the midst of this tension, we may discover our own and others’ (In)Competence. (In)Competence is an experiential condition of social action, social life, and social order in motion. Central to this experiential condition is the sense that (In)Competence is imminent:  one can become (In)Competent at any moment. 

(In)Competence may be framed as an attribute of an individualized performance.  Yet, (In)Competence may also be framed as lodged, to borrow from C. Goodwin, in an ecology of human and material resources that afford or restrict (In)Competence.  Incompetence, once recognized, sets in motion a range of possible ethical confrontations to a social imperative to become competent. This imperative holds even in the midst of political structures that frame subjects as unworthy or incapable of attaining competence.  The ethical confrontation leaves open the questions of what constitutes competence, how is competence gauged, how do we become aware of competence as a potential of our horizon, who gets to be competent, and how.

How do we recognize and experience (In)Competence in ourselves and others? In a Goffmanian spirit, do we catch ourselves performing without competence, embarrassed, ashamed, or fearful, even without others noticing?  How do familiars and strangers — along a hierarchy – mark one another as (In)Competent? And how do these (In)Competent-implicative engagements inform and discipline self-making?

The symposium addresses these questions in recognition of their operation within historical regimes and epistemes of (In)Competence.  (In)Competence is imbricated in ever evolving (re)calibration and (re)standardization (of, for example, knowledge, expertise, purity, aesthetics, and health) and commodified within economies of value.  Moreover, (In)Competence entails forms of labor – with costs and sacrifices – as it is created to stay abreast or ahead of the marketplace.



February 15, 2018
February 16, 2018


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