Degrees of separation

Degrees of separation

It has become a truism that just six degrees of separation exist between any one person and any other person – when the connections are traced out, a chain of statements of connection can be made that will link any two people in a maximum of six steps.

As many as that! Whenever I’ve tried it out at slightly boozy events as a kind of party game, the connections have been established in less than six. At the start of the academic year in the UK, there was little going on in my head apart from dealing with rightfully bewildered students unable to make sense of bureaucratic procedures. When stood blankly at the photocopier, I decided to try ‘the separation thing’ out again and to see if I could connect anything I encountered to South Africa and its history. So this is not about connecting persons so much as connecting places and circumstances.

The easy option is to fix the answer. The first thought that came to my mind as I stood photocopying was my office door. Shown above is a photograph of the door, which positively shouts things South African at passers-by. There is an Olive Schreiner photograph and one of her letters, the cover of the book of her letters I and Andrea Salter edited, photographs of children and dwellings and an advertisement for a traditional healer. Just one step and look, and the connection is made. But of course it’s a fix, a con.

Good researchers don’t blatantly fix the results of an investigation in this way! A more taxing example comes via this photograph of the photocopier room on the sixth floor of the building where my office is. I initially thought of the degrees of separation truism when stood there at the photocopier, so it provides a better test to try it out. Ignoring my own presence and activities, what is there in the room that might be relevant?

It is a rather barren room, apart from the noticeboard. What is on the noticeboard concerns the legalities of using photocopiers, how to avoid email scams, an advertisement for a focus group, where in the building the water-cooler dispensers are located, and a poster about ‘redevelopment’ of an area in Edinburgh. But what took the eye was the ‘Humanitarian MeToo Event’ poster. This is concerned with events at which participants will discuss how NGOs protected their reputations and donation base by covering up information about the sexual exploitation of women and children by male aid workers. A crucially important topic worldwide, it also has relevance concerning the NGO presence in South Africa. Indeed, whispers about such exploitation have been going on there for a time, and it has taken the bravery of whistle-blowers to bring it to the surface.

As this indicates, the connection established here is indirect unless ‘I’ as an interpretive presence intervene with knowledge gained from other contexts. And try as I might, I have been unable to see anything else in the room that would establish connection in a more direct way. But I shall continue to think about it.

Last updated:  29 September 2018


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