Tag Archives: Savage Minds

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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My Year in Social Media

In some ways, this post is a belated follow-up to my last blogpost about some of my blog statistics:

Almost 30k « Disparate.

In the two years since I published that post, I’ve received over 100 000 visits on this blog and I’ve diversified my social media activities.

Altogether, 2008 has been an important year, for me, in terms of social media. I began the year in Austin, TX and moved back to Quebec in late April. Many things have happened in my personal life and several of them have been tied to my social media activities.

The most important part of my social media life, through 2008 as through any year, is the contact I have with diverse people. I’ve met a rather large number of people in 2008 and some of these people have become quite important in my life. In fact, there are people I have met in 2008 whose impact on my life makes it feel as though we have been friends for quite a while. Many of these contacts have happened through social media or, at least, they have been mediated online. As a “people person,” a social butterfly, a humanist, and a social scientist, I care more about these people I’ve met than about the tools I’ve used.

Obviously, most of the contacts I’ve had through the year were with people I already knew. And my relationship with many of these people has changed quite significantly through the year. As is obvious for anyone who knows me, 2008 has been an important year in my personal life. A period of transition. My guess is that 2009 will be even more important, personally.

But this post is about my social media activities. Especially about (micro)blogging and about social networking, in my case. I also did a couple of things in terms of podcasting and online video, but my main activities online tend to be textual. This might change a bit in 2009, but probably not much. I expect 2009 to be an “incremental evolution” in terms of my social media activities. In fact, I mostly want to intensify my involvement in social media spheres, in continuity with what I’ve been doing in 2008.

So it’s the perfect occasion to think back about 2008.

Perhaps my main highlight of 2008 in terms of social media is Twitter. You can say I’m a late adopter to Twitter. I’ve known about it since it came out and I probably joined Twitter a while ago but I really started using it in preparation for SXSWi and BarCampAustin, in early March of this year. As I wanted to integrate Austin’s geek scene and Twitter clearly had some importance in that scene, I thought I’d “play along.” Also, I didn’t have a badge for SXSWi but I knew I could learn about off-festival events through Twitter. And Twitter has become rather important, for me.

For one thing, it allows me to make a distinction between actual blogposts and short thoughts. I’ve probably been posting fewer blog entries since I became active on Twitter and my blogposts are probably longer, on average, than they were before. In a way, I feel it enhances my blogging experience.

Twitter also allows me to “take notes in public,” a practise I find surprisingly useful. For instance, when I go to some kind of presentation (academic or otherwise) I use Twitter to record my thoughts on both the event and the content. This practise is my version of “liveblogging” and I enjoy it. On several occasions, these liveblogging sessions have been rather helpful. Some “tweeps” (Twitter+peeps) dislike this kind of liveblogging practise and claim that “Twitter isn’t meant for this,” but I’ve had more positive experiences through liveblogging on Twitter than negative ones.

The device which makes all of this liveblogging possible, for me, is the iPod touch I received from a friend in June of this year. It has had important implications for my online life and, to a certain extent, the ‘touch has become my primary computer. The iTunes App Store, which opened its doors in July, has changed the game for me as I was able to get a number of dedicated applications, some of which I use several times a day. I’ve blogged about several things related to the iPod touch and the whole process has changed my perspective on social media in general. Of course, an iPhone would be an even more useful tool for me: SMS, GPS, camera, and ubiquitous Internet are all useful features in connection to social media. But, for now, the iPod touch does the trick. Especially through Twitter and Facebook.

One tool I started using quite frequently through the year is Ping.fm. I use it to post to: Twitter, Identi.ca, Facebook, LinkedIn, Brightkite, Jaiku, FriendFeed, Blogger, and WordPress.com (on another blog). I receive the most feedback on Facebook and Twitter but I occasionally get feedback through the other services (including through Pownce, which was recently sold). One thing I notice through this cross-posting practise is that, on these different services, the same activity has a range of implications. For instance, while I’m mostly active on Twitter, I actually get more out of Facebook postings (status updates, posted items, etc.). And reactions on different services tend to be rather different, as the relationships I have with people who provide that feedback tend to range from indirect acquaintance to “best friend forever.” Given my social science background, I find these differences quite interesting to think about.

One thing I’ve noticed on Twitter is that my “ranking among tweeps” has increased very significantly. On Twinfluence, my rank has gone as high as the 86th percentile (though it recently went down to the 79th percentile) while, on Twitter Grader, my “Twitter grade” is now at a rather unbelievable 98.1%. I don’t tend to care much about “measures of influence” but I find these ratings quite interesting. One reason is that they rely on relatively sophisticated concepts from social sciences. Another reason is that I’m intrigued by what causes increases in my ranking on those services. In this case, I think the measures give me way too much credit at this point but I also think that my “influence” is found outside of Twitter.

One “sphere of influence” which remained important for me through 2008 is Facebook. While Facebook had a more central role in my life through 2007, it now represents a stable part of my social media involvement. One thing which tends to happen is that first contacts happen through Twitter (I often use it as the equivalent of a business card during event) and Facebook represents a second step in the relationship. In a way, this distinction foregrounds the obvious concept of “intimacy” in social media. Twitter is public, ties are weak. Facebook is intimate, ties are stronger. On the other hand, there seems to be much more clustering among my tweeps than among my Facebook contacts, in part because my connection to local geek scenes in Austin and Montreal happens primarily through Twitter.

Through Facebook I was able to organize a fun little brunch with a few friends from elementary school. Though this brunch may not have been the most important event of 2008, for me, I’ve learnt a lot about the power of social media through contacting these friends, meeting them, and thinking about the whole affair.

In a way, Twitter and Facebook have helped me expand my social media activities in diverse directions. But most of the important events in my social media life in 2008 have been happening offline. Several of these events were unconferences and informal events happening around conferences.

My two favourite events of the year, in terms of social media, were BarCampAustin and PodCamp Montreal. Participating in (and observing) both events has had some rather profound implications in my social media life. These two unconferences were somewhat different but both were probably as useful, to me. One regret I have is that it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to attend BarCampAustinIV now that I’ve left Austin.

Other events have happened throughout 2008 which I find important in terms of social media. These include regular meetings like Yulblog, Yulbiz, and PodMtl. There are many other events which aren’t necessarily tied to social media but that I find interesting from a social media perspective. The recent Infopresse360 conference on innovation (with Malcolm Gladwell as keynote speaker) and a rather large number of informal meetups with people I’ve known through social media would qualify.

Despite the diversification of my social media life through 2008, blogging remains my most important social media activity. I now consider myself a full-fledged blogger and I think that my blog is representative of something about me.

Simply put, I’m proud to be a blogger. 

In 2008, a few things have happened through my blog which, I think, are rather significant. One is that someone who found me through Google contacted me directly about a contract in private-sector ethnography. As I’m currently going through professional reorientation, I take this contract to be rather significant. It’s actually possible that the Google result this person noticed wasn’t directly about my blog (the ranking of my diverse online profiles tends to shift around fairly regularly) but I still associate online profiles with blogging.

A set of blog-related occurences which I find significant has to do with the fact that my blog has been at the centre of a number of discussions with diverse people including podcasters and other social media people. My guess is that some of these discussions may lead to some interesting things for me in 2009.

Through 2008, this blog has become more anthropological. For several reasons, I wish to maintain it as a disparate blog, a blog about disparate topics. But it still participates in my gaining some recognition as an anthroblogger. One reason is that anthrobloggers are now more closely connected than before. Recently, anthroblogger Daniel Lende has sent a call for nominations for the best of the anthro blogosphere which he then posted as both a “round up” and a series of prizes. Before that, Savage Minds had organized an “awards ceremony” for an academic conference. And, perhaps the most important dimension of my ow blog being recognized in the anthroblogosphere, I have been discussing a number of things with Concordia-based anthrobloggers Owen Wiltshire and Maximilian Forte.

Still, anthropology isn’t the most prominent topic on this blog. In fact, my anthro-related posts tend to receive relatively little attention, outside of discussions with colleagues.

Since I conceive of this post as a follow-up on posts about statistics, I’ve gone through some of my stats here on Disparate.  Upgrades to  Wordpress.com also allow me to get a more detailed picture of what has been happening on this blog.

Through 2008, I’ve received over 55 131 hits on this blog, about 11% more than in 2007 for an average of 151 hits a day (I actually thought it was more but there are some days during which I receive relatively few hits, especially during weekends). The month I received the most hits was February 2007 with 5 967 hits but February and March 2008 were relatively close. The day I received the most hits was October 28, 2008, with 310 hits. This was the day after Myriade opened.

These numbers aren’t so significant. For one thing, hits don’t imply that people have read anything on my blog. Since all of my blogs are ad-free, I haven’t tried to increase traffic to this blog. But it’s still interesting to notice a few things.

The most obvious thing is that hits to rather silly posts are much more frequent than hits to posts I actually care about.

For instance, my six blogposts with the most hits:

Title Hits  
Facebook Celebs and Fakes 5 782 More stats
emachines Power Supply 4 800 More stats
Recording at 44.1 kHz, 16b with iPod 5G? 2 834 More stats
Blogspot v. WordPress.com, Blogger v. Wo 2 571 More stats
GERD and Stress 2 377 More stats
University Rankings and Diversity 2 219 More stats

And for 2008:

Title Hits  
Facebook Celebs and Fakes 3 984 More stats
emachines Power Supply 2 265 More stats
AT&T Yahoo Pro DSL to Belkin WiFi 1 527 More stats
GERD and Stress 1 430 More stats
Blogspot v. WordPress.com, Blogger v. Wo 1 151 More stats
University Rankings and Diversity 995 More stats

The Facebook post I wrote very quickly in July 2007. It was a quick reaction to something I had heard. Obviously, the post’s title  is the single reason for that post’s popularity. I get an average of 11 hits a day on that post for 4 001 hits in 2008. If I wanted to increase traffic, I’d post as many of these as possible.

The emachines post is my first post on this new blog (but I did import posts from my previous blog), back in January 2006. It seems to have helped a few people and gets regular traffic (six hits a day, in 2008). It’s not my most thoughtful post but it has its place. It’s still funny to notice that traffic to this blogpost increases even though one would assume it’s less relevant.

Rather unsurprisingly, my post about then-upcoming recording capabilities on the iPod 5G, from March 2006, is getting very few hits. But, for a while, it did get a number of hits (six a day in 2006) and I was a bit puzzled by that.

The AT&T post is my most popular post written in 2008. It was a simple troubleshooting session, like the aforementioned emachines post. These posts might be useful for some people and I occasionally get feedback from people about them. Another practical post regularly getting a few hits is about an inflatable mattress with built-in pump which came without clear instructions.

My post about blogging platform was in fact a repost of a comment I made on somebody else’s blog entry (though the original seems to be lost). From what I can see, it was most popular from June, 2007 through May, 2008. Since it was first posted, WordPress.com has been updated quite a bit and Blogger/Blogspot seems to have pretty much stalled. My comment/blogpost on the issue is fairly straightforward and it has put me in touch with some other bloggers.

The other two blogposts getting the most hits in 2008 are closer to things about which I care. Both entries were written in mid-2006 and are still relevant. The rankings post is short on content, but it serves as an “anchor” for some things I like to discuss in terms of educational institutions. The GERD post is among my most personal posts on this blog, especially in English. It’s one of the posts for which I received the most feedback. My perspective on the issue hasn’t changed much in the meantime.


Euro-American?

Rex, over at anthro blog Savage Minds, was questioning (or just asking about) people’s use of “Euro-American” as a label for different groups of people. He was concerned about ethnic and/or “racial” connotations.

Savage Minds: Notes and Queries in Anthropology — A Group Blog » No but seriously: Euro-American?

Looks like I did use “Euro-American” here. On purpose, no less. 

So… What do I mean by “Euro-American,” you ask? Well, it depends on context. And as I like to talk about context and terminological precision, I wrote a lengthy comments on Rex’s blogpost. Here’s an edited version. (The original version is on Savage Minds.)

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