Sociology Across Disciplines: Thoughts from a Kinesiologist by Bryan Clift

 In August 2009, I arrived at University of Maryland for the fall semester in the Department of Kinesiology. You ask, “What is a Kinesiologist (whatever that is) doing in a Sociology newsletter?” The shortest answer is that I have been asked! The short answer is that within Kinesiology there exists only recently a program called Physical Cultural Studies (henceforth PCS) that communicates in some ways with Sociology. For those unfamiliar, PCS is organized by a cultural studies approach toward conceptualizing and contextualizing the (in)active body (see A longer answer is owed in part to historically contingent political affairs within disciplinary knowledges and specifically the multifarious tensions between Culture Studies and Sociology. But I digress… As a student of the relatively new PCS project, I am attracted and encouraged to take courses across campus. With few pre-determined courses and considerable flexibility I chose courses based on theoretical and methodological foci. In addition to required Kinesiology courses, I have taken courses in: American Studies, Women’s Studies, English, Education, and Sociology. You might say I have no “home,” which is both enlivening and discomforting. To date, I have taken three courses in Sociology: Postmodern Social Theory and Spaces and Places with Dr. Ritzer, and Contemporary Social Theory with Dr. Collins. Importantly, my discussion about my experiences is as much about the content of coursework as it is those who participate in it—the instructors and students.

It isn’t easy locating someone as well versed in Social Theory as Dr. Ritzer. As someone coming from across campus and a discipline in which canonical readings differ from but overlap with those in Sociology, Dr. Ritzer’s knowledge base is a rich resource for learning about and developing theoretically informed ideas related to my own interests. In his courses we read selections theorizing across, within, and outside of sociology drawing upon disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, history, political science, and geography. Guided by his penchant for unpacking and communicating the complexities of Theory, some of which can be a challenge to work through (e.g. Bourdieu or Baudrillard), Dr. Ritzer encouraged not only the critique of frameworks ranging from Marx to those attached a post- moniker, but also their relevance today. Consistently, our classes discussed how various concepts may or may not be mobilized for our own interests within contemporary society. In articulating contemporary social phenomena using a critical lens, we were challenged to anchor our thoughts to theoretical lineages.

In Contemporary Social Theory with Dr. Collins, together we read a selection of “canonical” works in Sociology (e.g. Pierre Bourdieu, Michael Burawoy, Jurgen Habermas, Max Horkheimer, and C. Wright Mills). Right from day one Dr. Collins prompted those of us in the classroom with one overarching theme: “Who is in the Sociology canon, who is not, and why?” Bringing into this Sociology classroom the works of Gloria Anzaldua, Kimberle Crenshaw, William E. B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, Stuart Hall, Donna Haraway, Aihwa Ong, and Edward Said, to name a few, Dr. Collins’s explicit intent to challenge the Sociology canon and the People in the classroom was and is an imperative necessary for anyone doing critical inquiry. Throughout the content of the course, the processes within the classroom, and our individual and collective intellectual revolutions, each of us were encouraged to continue the critical examination of not just texts and who wrote them, but also why, for what purposes, and for whom. Paradoxically, I might say that those who embraced Sociology as a contested terrain as encountered with Dr. Collins have been, apologies in advance, “Collinized.”

It remains unclear what is and is not knowledge within Sociology. Broadly defined as the study of human society, Sociology theoretically encapsulates all socio-cultural approaches across a number of disciplines. And yet, numerous sociological works that do not stem from people housed in Sociology are absorbed into Sociology while other sociological works remain on a periphery. What is sociological does not neatly dovetail with what is considered Sociology. This lack of clarity is as enlivening as it is problematic. Around the negotiations of what counts the porous boundaries of sociology delimit the field while opening spaces for imaginative thought. A decided position of relinquished control between certainty and skepticism wherein one locates and positions oneself reserved yet bare to the sources and positionalities of knowledge while wary of the power of categorization remains a privileged, often uncomfortable, contested, and wonderful space of occupancy. Undoubtedly, this is one message I have taken with me as I walk through sociological, critical, and qualitative terrain.

Specific to my research interests, I am currently working on two publications based on an ethnographic project I conducted over nine months located in Baltimore, MD. One of those pieces seeks to explicate how individual and collective participant understandings in a program called Back On My Feet ( (re)configures tensions among personal growth, social responsibility, health and well-being, and citizen governance. For its part, my coursework in sociology has provided different frameworks and ideas—namely Stuart Hall, David Harvey, and Michel Foucault—for understanding, conceptualizing, and contextualizing the articulations of individual and collective experiences within broader structural processes.

Bryan is a 3rd year graduate student in Physical Cultural Studies.


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