Updated: Jan 16
What can we learn from what’s not there?
ℍappy 2021! Like many others, I have been thinking about possible resolutions to carry into the new year. Most resolutions I hear about seem to occupy a place of growth — new habits to start, or (if you are savvy on how to sustainably change) tweaking existing habits into something more desirable. Which makes sense — especially in the context of late capitalism, we are primed to believe that growth is always good. However, I would like to reconsider an idea that periodically resurfaces in our culture: negative information can provide powerful insights. This information can come in the form of things we have explicitly rejected (to give an extremely topical example, sedition), or it can come in a more subtle form — people, things, or ideas that haven’t necessarily been negated but are simply absent.
I was reminded of this idea in a novel I recently read: there was a murder with no evidence left behind, and the detectives had to rely completely on negative information to (not) solve the case. Those passages made me recall Pierre Bourdieu’s commentary on sociological methodology. (That name might sound familiar to some readers. I wrote about another aspect of his work — the role belief plays when we ascribe value to cultural works — in a previous post.) His research utilized massive surveys of the French people, their culture and their lifestyles. He observed that socially similar groups of people left similar types of questions unanswered. He theorized that there were certain segments of the po