Tag Archives: anthropologists

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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Son of an Anthropologist

Since Barack Obama’s electoral victory, I’ve been saying jokingly that since Barack’s mother (Ann Dunham) was an anthropologist, anthropology has won.

Not a very funny joke and not a joke which seems to carry something very deep. After all, talking about a politician’s mother’s disciplinary affiliations sounds about as absurd as assigning foreign policy experience to somebody who’s been living relatively close to a foreign country.

But I feel there is, in fact, something deeper about Obama’s connection to anthropology. And I say this as a son of an occupational therapist and a Piaget-trained pedagogue.

There’s a difference between experience, expertise, training, and what we call “enculturation,” in anthropology. Put simply, enculturation is the seamless way through which each of us learns how to behave in specific cultural contexts. Typical examples include things like gestures or some deeply-held beliefs. It’s a fairly simple concept to grasp but it has many implications, including in the endless nature/nurture debates, which are an oft-forgotten but still fundamental part of anthropology.

So the anthropological side of Obama I’m alluding to isn’t training as an anthropologist, expertise in the minutiae of current anthropological theory, or experience in the field. But it’s a little “nugget of anthropological awareness.” An attention to diversity which makes him sound, at times, like an anthropologist. Much has been made of Obama’s genes. But his mother also played a major role in his enculturation and Obama has been on the record in terms of his mother’s influence on his political ideas. I would claim that Obama’s “anthropology-ness” runs somehow deeper than even he might realize.

And it’s not so difficult to discuss.

In educational fields, it’s fairly common to talk about second-generation students, at least in terms of university education. The notion, especially in sociological circles in the U.S., is that children of people with a university background get some type of “headstart” in terms of their university career. One reason can simply be that parents with university degrees might value university training more than parents who didn’t obtain such degrees. There’s also a class argument, which runs very well in discussions about fairness and equity. But there might also be something about this kind of informal learning which can prepare people to be accepted as university students. There’s even something to be said about the basic behaviour of the typical university student and how conducive it might be for success in university contexts.

I’ve certainly felt something like this. I was “predestined” to university since: both of my parents and both of my step-brothers had obtained university degrees, my father was teaching in universities as part-time faculty, my mother’s first husband was a university professor, and most of my family’s friends were academia-savvy. Even through elementary and secondary education, I was perceived to be studious even though I only studied a handful of times before entering university. When I did enter university, I finally felt that I belonged. And things were relatively easy for me. The fact that I didn’t have to learn how to behave as a student had something to do with it.

Something similar is clearly at stake in terms of performing arts, where it may be confused with “talent.” The reason that Hollywood has seen so many multi-generational families of actors simply cannot be found in some “innate abilty to act.” In music, the proportion of musicians coming from “musical families” clearly has some social basis but it also has to do with informal training. Research on expertise, at least as it’s described to the outside world, seems to lead to similar ideas. Even without getting direct experience, children may “pick up” certain skills by virtue of being raised in an environment which gives prominence to those skills. Cognitively, it makes a lot of sense. Especially if we think about skill transfers.

A teacher might readily recognize something like “raw skills from enculturation.” I haven’t had many anthropology students whose parents were anthropologists but there’s something about people who already have an anthropological “background” before entering the field which is easy to spot. It doesn’t necessarily make things easier for these students, in the long run. Given the fact that the discipline changes continuously and that it’s already quite broad, “raw skills” in anthropology may even be a hindrance, at times. But something has “clicked,” for those who already have an anthropological background.

The “click” to which I’m referring relates to habits of thinking which tend to happen after some abduction- or epiphany-style moment of realization/conceptualization. In terms of educational theory, this “click” is surely linked to a “position” in Perry’s Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development, But I usually talk about it as “the moment at which everything starts to maken sense, in terms of basic anthropological issues and concepts.” It can’t be forced and it doesn’t seem to relate that directly to the way anthropology is taught. As I tend to say, “learning happens despite teachers.” This kind of learning moment is certainly a case in point.

Because anthropological approaches tend to be quite distinct from approaches typically used in other disciplines, this “clicking moment” is especially prominent in introductory courses in cultural anthropology. It often happens at different moments during the semester, for diverse students. There are some students for whom it never occurs. And there are students who enter such courses after the “click” had already happened.

To be honest, I simply assume that this “anthro click” has happened to Barack Obama a while ago and that if he did take introductory courses in cultural anthropology, things probably seemed to make sense to him without much effort. Not that it implies anything about grades he would have received, how much material he would have retained, or how pleasant he would have thought the course to be. But I can just imagine a young Obama in some kind of ANTH 101 course thinking that much of us is just common sense.

I certainly assume that GBN member (and well-known anthropologist) Mary Catherine Bateson experienced the click way before entering the field. The reason I’m singling her out is that she’s the daughter of two very prominent figures in cultural anthropology: Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. Mead and Bateson constituted one of the best-known anthropological couples in the history of the discipline: some discussions they’ve had are a matter of disciplinary discussion (I remember one about the use of a tripod in field recordings). Also, Mead was specifically concerned with enculturation and probably thought about informal learning as she raised her daughter (apparently, Dr. Benjamin Spock was Margaret Mead’s pediatrician). Plus, Mary Catherine Bateson herself participated in her father’s work, even as a child. I don’t know how things went for her when she first entered the field of anthropology but it seems that she received her BA from Radcliffe at age 21 and her PhD from Harvard three years later. I know things were quite fast, in those days, but I’d still venture the guess that Bateson was among the younger people to receive a PhD in anthropology. What I’m wondering, though, is how she felt about her family background. She probably wrote about this in some of her books but I haven’t read them, yet.

Much of the reason I’m writing about this probably relates to the fact that I’ve once been told that I was relatively normal for the son of a psychologist. But I was also thinking about both Bateson and Obama for different reasons, so I took the opportunity to write about the both of them in the same post.

Besides, this is precisely the kind of blogpost I enjoy writing on a RERO basis.


Took a While

The latest episode of Télé-Québec’s Les Francs Tireurs had a segment on international humatarian aid. (Especially of the Euro-American CICR and Reporters sans frontières style.) Maybe there are more (I don’t to watch much television) but this one was the first television report which had a thoughtful and insightful discussion of the negative impacts of humanitarian aid.

Of course, several parts of the discussion were probably edited out (hosts on the show are sometimes explicit about the “need” for editing) and it did sound at times like discussions that most anthropology students have had at one point or another (usually pretty early on in their training) but it was quite refreshing, especially when compared to the usual news reports on how bad the situation is supposed to be anywhere else in the world (i.e., any place where people live a different lifestyle).

What’s funny is that the two main participants in the show were quite honest about the biases of Quebec society in terms of humanitarian aid. This is a society (my own upbringing) in which people pride themselves to be “open-minded” (often meaning “more open-minded that you“). Yet people take humanitarian aid as a sacred principle, not to be criticised. Some aid workers in Africa and elsewhere seem to think that their mission (the religious connotations were discussed on the television show) is to help Others become more like them. Pretty charitable when you see your own habits as the only appropriate way to live, but pretty damaging when you transform knowledgeable human beings into the object of pity.