The concept of achievement has lain at the heart of social theory for a very long time. The archetypal figures of the strategising individual and the maximising man directed their social action in the ways most likely to achieve their goals; approaches inspired by Foucault might see the population as being manipulated in order to achieve particular targets. For some, the drive to achieve is inculcated by specific cultural formations, as in Weber’s analysis of the Protestant Ethic. Still others hold that, whilst the arena in which one seeks to achieve may be culturally variable, the drive to become competent is a (human) universal.

This project is driven by the idea that social theory might be further enriched if we turn the spotlight onto ‘achievement’ itself. Achievement is often presented as a self-evident fact: when a goal or ideal has been accomplished, it has been ‘achieved’. Yet lived experience from around the world suggests that more complicated dynamics are at play. Achievement may not be recognised as such by others; or even by oneself. It might be emotionally unsatisfying to the achiever, whilst providing great delight to those around her/him. Although it is frequently framed as aspirational and exemplary, ‘too much’ achievement might also lead to someone being framed as eccentric, odd, or a pariah. The dynamics of what achievement is are also complex and variable. For some, the key to achievement is being the best and defeating competitors; others are more interested in whether they have achieved in absolute terms – each pattern having significant ramifications for how one conceives of and relates to others.

These complexities are highly significant because one’s drive to achieve is frequently shaped by previous experiences of both achievement and failure. This in turn has implications for the social relationships one instigates, and one’s way of being in the world.  The conference therefore seeks to explore the promise and limits for the human sciences of seeing ‘achievement’ as a situated process of self-formation – a process in which, social, cultural, psychological, biological and affective factors may all have vital roles to play.

The project hopes to establish a dialogue between practitioners from different disciplines, working in different parts of the world, to help us chart, understand and analyse the ‘social life of achievement’. This phrase can evoke many things. It invites us to consider how achievement can refer not just to ‘attainment’, but to broader conceptions of how to live and interact with others: how might particular forms of ‘social life’ themselves represent ‘achievement’. It encourages us to reflect upon the varied trajectories that discourses of ‘achievement’ have taken and are taking in societies around the world. Most strikingly of all, it demands that we think in depth about the forms of social life, and social experience, that encounters with ‘achievement’ – in its multiple guises – might engender. By staging a series of workshops, conference panels, and research projects over the years to come, we hope to develop novel insights into what achievement is, how it is experienced, and the ways in which encounters with it transform human beings and their capacities to become efficacious in the world.

For further information, please contact Dr Nick Long (Department of  Anthropology, London School of Economics and Political Science) at N.J.Long [at] lse.ac.uk