Misrecognition March 4, 2009

Misrecognition is one of those important terms in anthropology that is so useful that you almost can’t help thinking about it all the time. Two of its most important proponents are Pierre Bourdieu and Catherine Bell who use it to explain ritual, or more precisely, ritualized practices.

In the classical example of misrecognition, gift giving functions at more than one level. Discursively, gift giving is seen as generous and self-sacrificing. In practice, it is also a way of establishing hierarchy, indebtedness, and social standing. Those who give gifts use them as a sort of symbolic capital in arranging relationships and establishing lines of authority. Gift giving only works, however, when it is thought about in terms of generosity, even though everyone knows, and learns to act accordingly, what it means when a gift is given. It fails when explicitly interpreted as establishing hierarchies or indebtedness,. Misrecognition is the term used to describe this phenomenon of describing a practice using one set of terms, but acting in accordance with another set. Yet, the ritualized action only works on the precondition of misrecognition; otherwise it fails.

Misrecognition is not subject to the critique of the anthropologist outsider decoding the insiders’ true motives because it is not based on knowledge available only to the outsider. Rather, it is a description of what the insider already knows and does in relationship to ritualized practices like gift-giving. Everyone knows that great offense can be taken if the receiver of the gift fails to respond properly, such as sending a thank you note or failing to reciprocate a dinner invitation.

So, outside of gift-giving, what rituals or ritualized practices are based on misrecognition in Mormonism? One example might be the discourses around “callings” and “service.” The discourses around asking people to serve in a calling are based around self-sacrifice, but they also are way of distributing social and symbolic capital. What others can you think of?

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