I just flicked through Kent M. Keith’s The Paradoxical Commandments and the common thread in my musings for the past few days came to me. What I have been pondering, on a number of levels, is the issue of expectations and especially expectations of others.

We live in a social world where we have expectations of what is polite/ rude, right/ wrong, funny/bad taste, and worthwhile/ wasteful. An individual can hold different expectations for different people or in different settings, but most commonly existing expectations are transferred onto new situations. It is one of the things that makes travelling interesting and gives people something to post on Facebook. Cheese that is orange instead of yellow, cheese twisties which are yellow instead of orange, blowing your nose into the street instead of into a tissue and hissing at somebody instead of yelling out.

But how fair is it to have or not have expectations of another person? When it comes to ideology, expectations are fundamental (I am thinking of Althusser’s work here). It then follows, when I do not have any expectations of somebody I would probably have never met if it was not for a work or volunteer role, am I really treating them with respect or am I saying that they are so different that they are not called into the same social order as I am? I know people who have been violent, are less ready to look at something from another view point, and who are down right racist. I understand how, through their life experiences, this has become part of them, yet should I also be expecting something else? Is it any different when the person has an acquired brain injury, or is this just a slippery slope down to some sort of paternalism? Am I already excessively paternalistic?

My first impression is that The Paradoxical Commandments can hold the promise of bringing the person who lives by them any happiness because it shifts the legitimate source of affirmation from that which cannot be controlled (outcomes and positive recognition), to that which can be controlled by the individual (processes). This is not something I am completely criticising, as my post about Law and Order SVU indicates, I am quite a stickler for procedural justice. I also seek to minimise the role played by the potential for recognition in my decision making and remind myself to be grateful for positive outcomes rather than becoming proud.

So much of what happens in society is us shepherding along the lines of expectation. Not all exceptions are criticised, some are praised, but I think they are only praised when the exception fits within certain higher level expectations. Perhaps the Paradoxical Commandments which feature in the book are not so radical because they are highly individual? In this way they fit in with the higher level expectation, the expectation that cost-benefits are assessed on the bases of what they afford the individual doing the assessment.

Is it a completely good thing to be so procedural and not have expectations of others? I am quite good at not having exceptions, but without expectations there is very little in the way of engagement. I was told as a bit of constructive criticism that I do not ‘engage with people emotionally’, and I have since taken to trotting it out in a light hearted way as my disclaimer line. If I do not have expectations of others then I am living in a radically relativistic way. While I am quite a fan of relativism, there is a point at which everything is viewed as so different and so discrete that there is no lesson to be learnt from anything else. Being closed to learning from others does not seem like a very interesting way to live.

In choosing such an ethnographic approach in looking at representations in communities labelled as poor for my next project, I hope to be setting up an opportunity for me to step outside my comfort zone. This challenge is not so much a case of opening myself up for ridicule, although I will (a well off university student thinking they can just pop in and do my little study), taking an academic risk (what if I do not end up with anything to write a PhD thesis about?), or taking a personal risk (will my relationships with others last a PhD?). My challenge will be getting to know people in the community to a degree that there are expectations and then being able to live with and learn through the outcomes.


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