To read Ricca’s words is an exhilarating experience. She brought extraordinary awareness, insight and depth to how sociologists may use language to acquire and communicate knowledge of the social world. The art and craft of writing, she argued, is a form of mediation whose aim is to expand capacities and competencies in thinking, reasoning and acting about and in society. This was her ambition, fully realised in a life committed to creating a responsible and empathic understanding of the social. In writing, Ricca joins herself as an author who, with research collaborators and unknown readers in mind, strive to shape and convey meaning so that our understanding is altered. Aware of the complexities of conveying experiences of any particular social situation to others, Ricca calls for a new ‘interworld’ language in sociology, in which the sociologist must be prepared to change readers’ hearts and minds, feelings and beliefs, while abiding by the complex standards of truth claims of disciplines. This new language would.
… heighten the impact of conveying original meanings in a form which has been transformed so as to allow them to function in another world. Rather than leaving readers unaffected, exactly as they were before they read anything, it seeks to stretch their capacities for social participation, so that in intellect and imagination, they are able to relinquish embeddedness in their own settings and thus visualise at least part of what it means to inhabit another. (Edmondson, 2000: 191)
Ricca was a transformative multidisciplinary sociologist evidenced by a legacy of publications, research and scholarship, teaching and her profound contributions to the university, national and international professional associations and to sociological knowledge.1 A D.Phil student of Anthony Heath’s at Oxford, Ricca’s book, Rhetoric in Sociology (1984), is an early example of how she fashioned a philosophically informed set of questions in approaching the study of society. Ricca joined University College Galway and the small but growing Department of Political Science and Sociology in 1991.2 Colleagues specialised in research and teaching in Irish politics, culture and society, survey research, ethnography, community and rural development and collective action. Teaching First Year Sociology and Politics, Ricca’s sociological voice reached hundreds of students over many decades, altering fixed understandings of culture, of the taken for granted aspects of social reality, alerting students to the constraints of and opportunities for action in social structures. Enhanced by a deep commitment to interdisciplinarity, social and political theory and research methodologies were her everyday tools, which she refined over and over, demonstrating their explanatory power and effectiveness in teaching, writing and thinking. Students sought her out, not just for doctoral supervision but for time willingly shared in sorting out practical difficulties, personal and professional, and, most of all, for the enjoyment of the intellectual conversations in which she freely engaged with every critical facility, at a moment’s notice. Thinking and analytical inquiry were her passions. Diving into a knotty puzzle with Ricca often began with a question about what a particular theorist might have meant by an argument or a research incident that appeared to defy expected explanations. What might be the possible social meanings of how somebody behaved under pressure or when a difficult choice had to be made? When presenting a sketch of an idea that was tentatively forming for a lecture, conference or article, what did she think of it? She would pause, tilt her head and then look you straight in the eye before the discourse began with rapidity, verve, imagination, as she effortlessly applied astute analysis to the debate. She listened like few other people did, giving the topic her full and exceptional attention, bringing her powerful intellect and empathic mind to the words as they passed over and back, with every aspect scrutinised, every detail drawn out, every argument met with a refined and more convincing counter argument, full of nuance and sociological sense. And, then a pause might follow to allow the words that filled the air to settle, taking shape in the mind, becoming ideas. In lifting a person out of embedded thinking, Ricca empowered others in conversation, inviting us in, to think anew about what we understand and pointing to what we might not yet know. One idea sparked another and a clearer direction for further inquiry appeared to magically manifest so emerged from these conversations and engagement with her research more confident, more able, fully supported and energised in their own work. Her gift was to connect with others, to question and communicate ideas with the excitement and pleasure of seeing the world from a more nuanced sociological perspective. She interrogated priorities, examined the social construction of meaning in use, helping to develop arguments illuminated in unexpected ways and with everyday examples. Curious why people think or behave the way they do in the everyday, she would often ask ‘what do you do when …’ and the conversation would take off again – with excitement, fun, curiosity and great seriousness.
Anne Byrne is based in the School of Political Science and Sociology, College of Arts, National University of Ireland, Galway