Tag Archives: academic disciplines

Academics and Their Publics

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Academics are misunderstood.

Almost by definition.

Pretty much any academic eventually feels that s/he is misunderstood. Misunderstandings about some core notions in about any academic field are involved in some of the most common pet peeves among academics.

In other words, there’s nothing as transdisciplinary as misunderstanding.

It can happen in the close proximity of a given department (“colleagues in my department misunderstand my work”). It can happen through disciplinary boundaries (“people in that field have always misunderstood our field”). And, it can happen generally: “Nobody gets us.”

It’s not paranoia and it’s probably not self-victimization. But there almost seems to be a form of “onedownmanship” at stake with academics from different disciplines claiming that they’re more misunderstood than others. In fact, I personally get the feeling that ethnographers are more among the most misunderstood people around, but even short discussions with friends in other fields (including mathematics) have helped me get the idea that, basically, we’re all misunderstood at the same “level” but there are variations in the ways we’re misunderstood. For instance, anthropologists in general are mistaken for what they aren’t based on partial understanding by the general population.

An example from my own experience, related to my decision to call myself an “informal ethnographer.” When you tell people you’re an anthropologist, they form an image in their minds which is very likely to be inaccurate. But they do typically have an image in their minds. On the other hand, very few people have any idea about what “ethnography” means, so they’re less likely to form an opinion of what you do from prior knowledge. They may puzzle over the term and try to take a guess as to what “ethnographer” might mean but, in my experience, calling myself an “ethnographer” has been a more efficient way to be understood than calling myself an “anthropologist.”

This may all sound like nitpicking but, from the inside, it’s quite impactful. Linguists are frequently asked about the number of languages they speak. Mathematicians are taken to be number freaks. Psychologists are perceived through the filters of “pop psych.” There are many stereotypes associated with engineers. Etc.

These misunderstandings have an impact on anyone’s work. Not only can it be demoralizing and can it impact one’s sense of self-worth, but it can influence funding decisions as well as the use of research results. These misunderstandings can underminine learning across disciplines. In survey courses, basic misunderstandings can make things very difficult for everyone. At a rather basic level, academics fight misunderstandings more than they fight ignorance.

The  main reason I’m discussing this is that I’ve been given several occasions to think about the interface between the Ivory Tower and the rest of the world. It’s been a major theme in my blogposts about intellectuals, especially the ones in French. Two years ago, for instance, I wrote a post in French about popularizers. A bit more recently, I’ve been blogging about specific instances of misunderstandings associated with popularizers, including Malcolm Gladwell’s approach to expertise. Last year, I did a podcast episode about ethnography and the Ivory Tower. And, just within the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a few things which all seem to me to connect with this same issue: common misunderstandings about academic work. The connections are my own, and may not be so obvious to anyone else. But they’re part of my motivations to blog about this important issue.

In no particular order:

But, of course, I think about many other things. Including (again, in no particular order):

One discussion I remember, which seems to fit, included comments about Germaine Dieterlen by a friend who also did research in West Africa. Can’t remember the specifics but the gist of my friend’s comment was that “you get to respect work by the likes of Germaine Dieterlen once you start doing field research in the region.” In my academic background, appreciation of Germaine Dieterlen’s may not be unconditional, but it doesn’t necessarily rely on extensive work in the field. In other words, while some parts of Dieterlen’s work may be controversial and it’s extremely likely that she “got a lot of things wrong,” her work seems to be taken seriously by several French-speaking africanists I’ve met. And not only do I respect everyone but I would likely praise someone who was able to work in the field for so long. She’s not my heroine (I don’t really have heroes) or my role-model, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me that respect for her wasn’t widespread. If it had seemed that Dieterlen’s work had been misunderstood, my reflex would possibly have been to rehabilitate her.

In fact, there’s  a strong academic tradition of rehabilitating deceased scholars. The first example which comes to mind is a series of articles (PDF, in French) and book chapters by UWO linguistic anthropologist Regna Darnell.about “Benjamin Lee Whorf as a key figure in linguistic anthropology.” Of course, saying that these texts by Darnell constitute a rehabilitation of Whorf reveals a type of evaluation of her work. But that evaluation comes from a third person, not from me. The likely reason for this case coming up to my mind is that the so-called “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” is among the most misunderstood notions from linguistic anthropology. Moreover, both Whorf and Sapir are frequently misunderstood, which can make matters difficulty for many linguistic anthropologists talking with people outside the discipline.

The opposite process is also common: the “slaughtering” of “sacred cows.” (First heard about sacred cows through an article by ethnomusicologist Marcia Herndon.) In some significant ways, any scholar (alive or not) can be the object of not only critiques and criticisms but a kind of off-handed dismissal. Though this often happens within an academic context, the effects are especially lasting outside of academia. In other words, any scholar’s name is likely to be “sullied,” at one point or another. Typically, there seems to be a correlation between the popularity of a scholar and the likelihood of her/his reputation being significantly tarnished at some point in time. While there may still be people who treat Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Socrates, Einstein, or Rousseau as near divinities, there are people who will avoid any discussion about anything they’ve done or said. One way to put it is that they’re all misunderstood. Another way to put it is that their main insights have seeped through “common knowledge” but that their individual reputations have decreased.

Perhaps the most difficult case to discuss is that of Marx (Karl, not Harpo). Textbooks in introductory sociology typically have him as a key figure in the discipline and it seems clear that his insight on social issues was fundamental in social sciences. But, outside of some key academic contexts, his name is associated with a large series of social events about which people tend to have rather negative reactions. Even more so than for Paul de Man or  Martin Heidegger, Marx’s work is entangled in public opinion about his ideas. Haven’t checked for examples but I’m quite sure that Marx’s work is banned in a number of academic contexts. However, even some of Marx’s most ardent opponents are likely to agree with several aspects of Marx’s work and it’s sometimes funny how Marxian some anti-Marxists may be.

But I digress…

Typically, the “slaughtering of sacred cows” relates to disciplinary boundaries instead of social ones. At least, there’s a significant difference between your discipline’s own “sacred cows” and what you perceive another discipline’s “sacred cows” to be. Within a discipline, the process of dismissing a prior scholar’s work is almost œdipean (speaking of Freud). But dismissal of another discipline’s key figures is tantamount to a rejection of that other discipline. It’s one thing for a physicist to show that Newton was an alchemist. It’d be another thing entirely for a social scientist to deconstruct James Watson’s comments about race or for a theologian to argue with Darwin. Though discussions may have to do with individuals, the effects of the latter can widen gaps between scholarly disciplines.

And speaking of disciplinarity, there’s a whole set of issues having to do with discussions “outside of someone’s area of expertise.” On one side, comments made by academics about issues outside of their individual areas of expertise can be very tricky and can occasionally contribute to core misunderstandings. The fear of “talking through one’s hat” is quite significant, in no small part because a scholar’s prestige and esteem may greatly decrease as a result of some blatantly inaccurate statements (although some award-winning scholars seem not to be overly impacted by such issues).

On the other side, scholars who have to impart expert knowledge to people outside of their discipline  often have to “water down” or “boil down” their ideas and, in effect, oversimplifying these issues and concepts. Partly because of status (prestige and esteem), lowering standards is also very tricky. In some ways, this second situation may be more interesting. And it seems unavoidable.

How can you prevent misunderstandings when people may not have the necessary background to understand what you’re saying?

This question may reveal a rather specific attitude: “it’s their fault if they don’t understand.” Such an attitude may even be widespread. Seems to me, it’s not rare to hear someone gloating about other people “getting it wrong,” with the suggestion that “we got it right.”  As part of negotiations surrounding expert status, such an attitude could even be a pretty rational approach. If you’re trying to position yourself as an expert and don’t suffer from an “impostor syndrome,” you can easily get the impression that non-specialists have it all wrong and that only experts like you can get to the truth. Yes, I’m being somewhat sarcastic and caricatural, here. Academics aren’t frequently that dismissive of other people’s difficulties understanding what seem like simple concepts. But, in the gap between academics and the general population a special type of intellectual snobbery can sometimes be found.

Obviously, I have a lot more to say about misunderstood academics. For instance, I wanted to address specific issues related to each of the links above. I also had pet peeves about widespread use of concepts and issues like “communities” and “Eskimo words for snow” about which I sometimes need to vent. And I originally wanted this post to be about “cultural awareness,” which ends up being a core aspect of my work. I even had what I might consider a “neat” bit about public opinion. Not to mention my whole discussion of academic obfuscation (remind me about “we-ness and distinction”).

But this is probably long enough and the timing is right for me to do something else.

I’ll end with an unverified anecdote that I like. This anecdote speaks to snobbery toward academics.

[It’s one of those anecdotes which was mentioned in a course I took a long time ago. Even if it’s completely fallacious, it’s still inspiring, like a tale, cautionary or otherwise.]

As the story goes (at least, what I remember of it), some ethnographers had been doing fieldwork  in an Australian cultural context and were focusing their research on a complex kinship system known in this context. Through collaboration with “key informants,” the ethnographers eventually succeeded in understanding some key aspects of this kinship system.

As should be expected, these kinship-focused ethnographers wrote accounts of this kinship system at the end of their field research and became known as specialists of this system.

After a while, the fieldworkers went back to the field and met with the same people who had described this kinship system during the initial field trip. Through these discussions with their “key informants,” the ethnographers end up hearing about a radically different kinship system from the one about which they had learnt, written, and taught.

The local informants then told the ethnographers: “We would have told you earlier about this but we didn’t think you were able to understand it.”

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Ethnographic Disciplines

Just because this might be useful in the future…
I perceive a number of academic disciplines to be “ethnographic” in the sense that they use the conceptual and epistemic apparatus of “ethnography.” (“Ethnography” taken here as an epistemological position in human research, not as “the description of a people” in either literary or methodological uses.)

I don’t mean by this that practitioners are all expected to undertake ethnographic field research or that their methods are exclusively ethnographic. I specifically wish to point out that ethnography is not an “exclusive prerogative” of anthropology. And I perceive important connections between these disciplines.

In no particular order:

  • Ethnohistory
  • Ethnolinguistics (partly associated with Linguistic Anthropology)
  • Folkloristics
  • Ethnomusicology
  • Ethnocinematography (partly associated with Visual Anthropology)
  • Ethnology (Cultural Anthropology)

The following disciplines (the “micros”), while not ethnographic per se, often have ethnographic components at the present time.

  • Microhistory
  • Microsociology
  • Microeconomics

Health research and market research also make frequent use of ethnographic methods, these days (especially through “qualitative data analysis” software). But I’m not clear on how dedicated these researchers are to the epistemological bases for ethnography.

It may all sound very idiosyncratic. But I still think it works, as a way to provide working definitions for disciplines and approaches.

Thoughts, comments, suggestions, questions?


Less Than 30 Minutes

Nice!

At 20:27 (EST) on Saturday, November 17, 2007, I post a blog entry on the archaic/rare French term «queruleuse» (one equivalent of “querulous”). At 20:54 (EST) of the same day, Google is already linking my main blog page as the first page containing the term “queruleuse” and as the fourth page containing the term “querulente.” At that point in time, the only other result for “queruleuse” was to a Google Book. Interestingly enough, a search in Google Book directly lists other Google Books containing that term, including different versions of the same passage. These other books do not currently show up on the main Google search for that term. And blogs containing links to this blog are now (over two hours after my «queruleuse» post) showing above the Google Book in search results.

Now, there’s nothing very extraordinary, here. The term «queruleuse» is probably not the proper version of the term. In fact, «querulente» seems a bit more common. Also, “querulous” and “querulent” both exist in English, and their definitions seem fairly similar to the concept to which «queruleuse» was supposed to refer. So, no magic, here.

But I do find it very interesting that it takes Google less than a half hour for Google to update its database to show my main page as the first result for a term which exists in its own Google Books database.

I guess the reason I find it so interesting is that I have thought a bit about SEO, Search Engine Optimization. I usually don’t care about such issues but a couple of things made me think about Google’s PageRank specifically.

One was that someone recently left a comment on this very blog (my main blog, among several), asking how long it took me to get a PageRank of 5. I don’t know the answer but it seems to me that my PageRank hasn’t varied since pretty much the beginning. I don’t use the Google Toolbar in my main browser so I don’t really know. But when I did look at the PR indicator on this blog, it seemed to be pretty much always at the midway point and I assumed it was just normal. What’s funny is that, after attending a couple Yulblog meetings more than a year ago, someone mentioned my PageRank, trying to interpret why it was so high. I checked that Yulblogger’s blog recently and it has a PR of 6, IIRC. Maybe even 7. (Pretty much an A-List blogger, IMHO.)

The other thing which made me think about PageRank is a discussion about it on a recent episode of the This Week in Tech (TWiT) “netcast” (or “podcast,” as everybody else would call it). On that episode, Chaos Manor author Jerry Pournelle mused about PageRank and its inability to provide a true measure of just about anything. Though most people would agree that PageRank is a less than ideal measure for popularity, influence, or even relevance, Pournelle’s point was made more strongly than “consensus opinion among bloggers.” I tend to agree with Pournelle. 😉

Of course, some people probably think that I’m a sore loser and that the reason I make claims about the irrelevance of PageRank is that I’d like to get higher in a blogosphere’s hierarchy. But, honestly, I had no idea that PR5 might be a decent rank until this commenter asked me about. Even when the aforementioned Yulblogger talked about it, I didn’t understand that it was supposed to be a rather significant number. I just thought this blogger was teasing (despite not being a teaser).

Answering the commenter’s question as to when my PR reached 5, I talked about the rarity of my name. Basically, I can always rely on my name being available on almost any service. Things might change if a distant cousin gets really famous really soon, of course… ;-) In fact, I’m wondering if talking about this on my blog might push someone to use my name for some service just to tease/annoy me. I guess there could even be more serious consequences. But, in the meantime, I’m having fun with my name’s rarity. And I’m assuming this rarity is a factor in my PageRank.

Problem is, this isn’t my only blog with my name in the domain. One of the others is on Google’s very own Blogger platform. So I’m guessing other factors contribute to this (my main) blog’s PageRank.

One factor is likely to be my absurdly long list of categories. Reason for this long list is that I was originally using them as tags, linked to Technorati tags. Actually, I recently shortened this list significantly by transforming many categories into tags. It’s funny that the PageRank-interested commenter replied to this very same post about categories and tags since I was then positing that the modification to my categories list would decrease the number of visits to this blog. Though it’s hard for me to assess an actual causal link, I do get significantly less visits since that time. And I probably do get a few more comments than before (which is exactly what I wanted). AFAICT, WordPress.com tags still work as Technorati tags so I have no idea how the change could have had an impact. Come to think of it, the impact probably is spurious.

A related factor is my absurdly long blogroll. I don’t “do it on purpose,” I just add pretty much any blog I come across. In fact, I’ve been adding most blogs authored by MyBlogLog visitors to this blog (those you see on the right, here). Kind of as a courtesy to them for having visited my blog. And I do the same thing with blogs managed by people who comment on this blog. I even do it with blogs by pretty much any Yulblogger I’ve come across, somehow. All of this is meant as a way to collect links to a wide diversity of blogs, using arbitrary selection criteria. Just because I can.

Actually, early on (before I grokked the concept of what a blogroll was really supposed to be), I started using the “Link This” bookmarklet to collect links whether they were to actual blogs or simply main pages. I wasn’t really using any Social Networking Service (SNS) at that point in time (though I had used some SNS several years prior) and I was thinking of these lists of people pretty much the same way many now conceive of SNS. Nowadays, I use Facebook as my main SNS (though I have accounts on other SNS, including MySpace). So this use of links/blogrolls has been superseded by actual SNS.

What has not been superseded and may in fact be another factor for my PageRank is the fact that I tend to keep links of much of the stuff I read. After looking at a wide variety of “social bookmarking systems,” I recently settled on Spurl (my Spurl RSS). And it’s not really that Spurl is my “favourite social bookmarking system evah.” But Spurl is the one system which fits the most in (or least disrupts) my workflow right now. In fact, I keep thinking about “social bookmarking systems” and I have lots of ideas about the ideal one. I know I’ll be posting some of these ideas someday, but many of these ideas are a bit hard to describe in writing.

At any rate, my tendency to keep links on just about anything I read might contribute to my PageRank as Google’s PageRank does measure the number of outgoing links. On the other hand, the fact that I put my Spurl feed on my main page probably doesn’t have much of an impact on my PageRank since I started doing this a while after I started this blog and I’m pretty sure my PageRank remained the same. (I’m pretty sure Google search only looks at the actual blog entries, not the complete blog site. But you never know…)

Now, another tendency I have may also be a factor. I tend to link to my own blog entries. Yeah, I know, many bloggers see this as self-serving and lame. But I do it as a matter of convenience and “thought management.” It helps me situate some of my “streams of thought” and I like the idea of backtracking my blog entries. Actually, it’s all part of a series of habits after I started blogging, 2.5 years ago. And since I basically blog for fun, I don’t really care if people think my habits are lame.

Sheesh! All this for a silly integer about which I tend not to think. But I do enjoy thinking about what brings people to specific blogs. I don’t see blog statistics on any of my other blogs and I get few enough comments or trackbacks to not get much data on other factors. So it’s not like I can use my blogs as a basis for a quantitative study of “blog influence” or “search engine relevance.”

One dimension which would interesting to explore, in relation to PageRank, is the network of citations in academic texts. We all know that Brin and Page got their PageRank idea from the academic world and the academic world is currently looking at PageRank-like measures of “citation impact” (“CitationRank” would be a cool name). I tend to care very little about the quantitative evaluation of even “citation impact” in academia, but I really am intrigued by the network analysis of citations between academic references. One fun thing there is that there seems to be a high clustering coefficient among academic papers in some research fields. In some cases, the coefficient itself could reveal something interesting but the very concept of “academic small worlds” may be important to consider. Especially since these “worlds” might integrate as apparently-coherent (and consistent) worldviews.

Groupthink, anyone? 😉


“Let’s Wilson It”

Was listening to the podcast version of CBC’s Quirks and Quirks science program. The latest episode has some interesting segments, two of which are with men called D. Wilson. Just a coincidence, I’m sure, but it’s kind of funny. Especially since one of those Wilsons’ homepage mentions another Wilson: E.O. Wilson (who gave a TEDtalk recently).

Hence my cryptic title. Kind of a way to put things together in an apparently arbitrary fashion. Fun!

With these science shows, I guess attitude is everything. The first Wilson interview was with biological anthropologist Daniel H. Wilson, a roboticist whose Where’s My Jetpack? book sounds like a fascinating look at mid-20th C. futurism in the current context. Apart from the content of that interview, I truly enjoyed DHW’s cheeriness. While listening to him, I thought about blogging just about that. He sounds like a humanist, a technology enthusiast, and a critical thinker all wrapped into one person. IOW, he just sounded like an interesting and well-rounded person. Neat! I’m somewhat jealous of the fact that he makes a living writing non-fiction books, but who knows where life will be leading me in the next few years. 😉
The second Wilson interview was with David Sloan Wilson about his book Evolution for Everyone. Now, as a culturalist, I had some apprehensions when I heard the description of the book by the Q&Q host. In ethnographic disciplines, we’re extremely wary of the application of ideas from biological evolution to cultural phenomena. Many of us have a knee-jerk reaction to evolutionary claims on culture. Not because we want to protect culture. But because we typically find those theories reductive and simplistic. Add to this wariness the intricacies of the nurture/nature debate on the disciplinary level and you’re likely to get tensions between evolutionary biologists and culturalists on those issues. IOW, I was prepared for the worst but I thought I should listen to the interview anyway.

And I’m glad I did. Not that there was a lot of new ideas in what DSW said. But he sounded open-minded enough that his explanations didn’t rub too hard against my skin. In fact, I found a few things about which I can easily agree with him, including the fact that people should pay attention to both genetics and culture. Interestingly enough, DSW’s harsher words were directed at his colleagues in biological fields, especially Richard Dawkins.

Those idea with which I most readily agreed in the DSW interview were quite similar to what I got from music and cognition researcher Ian Cross. Simply put, biologically-savvy people seem to agree with us (culturalists) that human culture is adaptive. Where we differ has more to do with issues of causality and determinism than with the basic phenomena. It makes it easy to “set aside our differences” and talk about the actual relationships between culture and adaptation without reacting viscerally.

As is often the case with more biologically-oriented scholars, David Sloan Wilson’s concept of culture sounds fairly limited in scope or even sophistication. In the interview, he mentioned music and other things listed by the Q&Q host and then mostly talked about religion. It would have been useful if DSW had defined his concept of culture anthropologically but I’m not surprised that he didn’t do so on a science show. The reason I care is that I’m thinking about using this segment in some future cultural anthropology courses and I don’t want students to think that culture is limited to what we usually call “superstructure.”

Ah, well…