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Pratim Sengupta and Ariel Ducey on Symbolic Violence and the Complex Art of Modeling Pain.

'La Famiglia'. Painting by Hildegard Unterweger

By Yana Mommadova

On June 2nd, a team of scholars from the University of Calgary presented their research on the ongoing struggles with symbolic violence that continuously affect marginalized communities, especially in the world of technology. The team was composed of scholars with diverse research interests who also come from different academic disciplines, thus illustrating the power of interdisciplinary collaboration. Professors Pratim Sengupta (Learning Sciences) and Ariel Ducey (Sociology), and doctoral student Santanu Dutta (Learning Sciences) explored the concept of symbolic violence by illustrating how this subtle, yet powerful force operates in various social fields, including education and medicine. The talk concluded with the scholars reflecting on their own work, the degree of misrecognition of different epistemologies that may be prevalent in academia, and the ways in which scholarly work can be utilized to combat symbolic violence in higher education and beyond.  

The talk opened with a discussion of the shocking discovery of a mass grave in the Canadian province of British Columbia. The mass grave, uncovered near a residential school building, contained bodies of 215 undocumented children and, as Sengupta noted, was a stark reminder of violence perpetuated by state institutions against indigenous communities. This violence, which took place many decades ago, echoes today in the form of symbolic violence. At the heart of symbolic violence, lies the demand for conformity to supposedly universal standards of “normal,” whether these are educational standards or medical practices. These standards, however, do not take into account the experiences of marginalized communities. As a result, marginalized populations and their unique epistemologies get sidelined in the development of universal standards, procedures, and practices in many fields. This process culminates in techno-centrism, a value system which codifies ostensibly bias-free and, hence, universally applicable methods of knowing and doing.

In educational settings, Professor Sengupta offered the example of silence around the topic of slavery, a tactic that is all too common in many public schools. Such silence, combined with racial segregation in many cities, make it incredibly difficult to articulate the experiences of those who been directly affected by the socio-economic consequences of slavery. Symbolic violence also takes place in relation to immigrants who come from the Global South and face numerous competing demands to—on one hand—stay true to their culture and—on the other—to conform to the national ideals and values of their host countries in the Global North.

Professor Ducey then offered a different example of symbolic violence. In her study of medical practices in the field of pelvic floor surgeries, Professor Ducey and her colleagues found that measurement tools and instruments that were routinely used to examine female anatomy for certain complex procedures were rooted in techno-centric conceptions of what is considered “normal.” Thus, the complaints and concerns of female patients were, oftentimes, dismissed as groundless or lacking solid evidence. Consequently, patients’ embodied experiences of operational safety and pain did not enter the discussions among surgeons and other authorities, thus perpetuating both direct and symbolic violence. 

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, here.

For further questions or for more information, please contact Yana Mommadova at mommadova[dot]y[at]northeastern[dot]edu

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