Tag Archives: kinship systems

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.”

Gender and Culture

A friend sent me a link to the following video:

JC Penney: Beware of the Doghouse | Creativity Online.

In that video, a man is “sent to the doghouse” (a kind of prison for insensitive men) because he offered a vacuum cleaner to his wife. It’s part of a marketing campaign through which men are expected to buy diamonds to their wives and girlfriends.

The campaign is quite elaborate and the main website for the campaign makes interesting uses of social media.

For instance, that site makes use of Facebook Connect as a way to tap viewers’ online social network. FC is a relatively new feature (the general release was last week) and few sites have been putting it to the test. In this campaign’s case, a woman can use her Facebook account to connect to her husband or boyfriend and either send him a warning about his insensitivity to her needs (of diamonds) or “put him in the doghouse.” From a social media perspective, it can accurately be described as “neat.”

The site also uses Share This to facilitate the video‘s diffusion  through various social media services, from WordPress.com to Diigo. This tends to be an effective strategy to encourage “viral marketing.” (And, yes, I fully realize that I actively contribute to this campaign’s “viral spread.”)

The campaign could be a case study in social marketing.

But, this time, I’m mostly thinking about gender.

Simply put, I think that this campaign would fare rather badly in Quebec because of its use of culturally inappropriate gender stereotypes.

As I write this post, I receive feedback from Swedish ethnomusicologist Maria Ljungdahl who shares some insight about gender stereotypes. As Maria says, the stereotypes in this ad are “global.” But my sense is that these “global stereotypes” are not that compatible with local culture, at least among Québécois (French-speaking Quebeckers).

See, as a Québécois born and raised as a (male) feminist, I tend to be quite gender-conscious. I might even say that my gender awareness may be somewhat above the Québécois average and gender relationships are frequently used in definitions of Québécois identity.

In Québécois media, advertising campaigns portraying men as naïve and subservient have frequently been discussed. Ten or so years ago, these portrayals were a hot topic (searches for Brault & Martineau, Tim Hortons, and Un gars, une fille should eventually lead to appropriate evidence). Current advertising campaigns seem to me more subtle in terms of male figures, but careful analysis would be warranted as discussions of those portrayals are more infrequent than they have been in the past.

That video and campaign are, to me, very US-specific. Because I spent a significant amount of time in Indiana, Massachusetts, and Texas, my initial reaction while watching the video had more to do with being glad that it wasn’t the typical macrobrewery-style sexist ad. This reaction also has to do with the context for my watching that video as I was unclear as to the gender perspective of the friend who sent me the link (a male homebrewer from the MidWest currently living in Texas).

By the end of the video, however, I reverted to my Québécois sensibility. I also reacted to the obvious commercialism, partly because one of my students has been working on engagement rings in our material culture course.

But my main issue was with the presumed insensitivity of men.

Granted, part of this is personal. I define myself as a “sweet and tendre man” and I’m quite happy about my degree of sensitivity, which may in fact be slightly higher than average, even among Québécois. But my hunch is that this presumption of male insensitivity may not have very positive effects on the perception of such a campaign. Québécois watching this video may not groan but they may not find it that funny either.

There’s a generational component involved and, partly because of a discussion of writing styles in a generational perspective, I have been thinking about “generations” as a useful model for explaining cultural diversity to non-ethnographers.

See, such perceived generational groups as “Baby Boomers” and “Generation X” need not be defined as monolithic, monadic, bounded entities and they have none of the problems associated with notions of “ethnicity” in the general public. “Generations” aren’t “faraway tribes” nor do they imply complete isolation. Some people may tend to use “generational” labels in such terms that they appear clearly defined (“Baby Boomers are those individuals born between such and such years”). And there is some confusion between this use of “historical generations” and what the concept of “generation” means in, say, the study of kinship systems. But it’s still relatively easy to get people to think about generations in cultural terms: they’re not “different cultures” but they still seem to be “culturally different.”

Going back to gender… The JC Penney marketing campaign visibly lumps together people of different ages. The notion seems to be that doghouse-worthy male insensitivity isn’t age-specific or related to inexperience. The one man who was able to leave the doghouse based on his purchase of diamonds is relatively “age-neutral” as he doesn’t really seem to represent a given age. Because this attempt at crossing age divisions seems so obvious, I would assume that it came in the context of perceived differences in gender relationships. Using the logic of those who perceive the second part of the 20th Century as a period of social emancipation, one might presume that younger men are less insensitive than older men (who were “brought up” in a cultural context which was “still sexist”). If there are wide differences in the degree of sensitivity of men of different ages, a campaign aiming at a broad age range needs to diminish the importance of these differences. “The joke needs to be funny to men of all ages.”

The Quebec context is, I think, different. While we do perceive the second part of the 20th Century (and, especially, the 1970s) as a period of social emancipation (known as the “Quiet Revolution” or «Révolution Tranquille»), the degree of sensitivity to gender issues appears to be relatively level, across the population. At a certain point in time, one might have argued that older men were still insensitive (at the same time as divorcées in their forties might have been regarded as very assertive) but it seems difficult to make such a distinction in the current context.

All this to say that the JC Penney commercial is culturally inappropriate for Québécois society? Not quite. Though the example I used was this JC Penney campaign, I’m thinking about broader contexts for Québécois identity (for a variety of personal reasons, including the fact that I have been back in Québec for several months, now).

My claim is…

Ethnographic field research would go a long way to unearth culturally appropriate categories which might eventually help marketers cater to Québécois.

Of course, the agency which produced that JC Penney ad (Saatchi & Saatchi) was targeting the US market (JC Penney doesn’t have locations in Quebec) and I received the link through a friend in the US. But it was an interesting opportunity for me to think and write about a few issues related to the cultural specificity of gender stereotypes.

News, Anthropology, Polygamy

This is one for which I need help.

Is there a serious debate, in the U.S., on the issue of polygamy?

Don’t really have access to U.S. television news. Been getting information through many other methods (many of them online). But this one is about television news in the U.S. and it could be interesting.

The latest Borowitz Report (Andy Borowitz’s spoofs, called “shockers”) is about polygamy:

CNN Switches to All-Polygamy Format

One thing about the Borowitz Report is that it often brings my attention to something in the actual news. Then, it’s easy for me to look it up on diverse news services and to dig up more details by going to diverse sources. Because it’s a spoof, the Borowitz Report doesn’t impose its conclusions on me. And it’s usually timely enough that it’s possible for me to read the deeper analysis instead of being caught up in all the knee-jerk reactions.

But, in this case, it’s about television news and mainstream media. My guess is that CNN ran a few stories on Warren Jeffs and such. And there are obviously some entrenched opinions on both sides. But given the fact that kinship systems, including marriage practises, are among the core areas of cultural anthropology, are there people (anthropologists and non-anthropologists) who are discussing polygamy in a broad way? In fact, are people talking about marriage in diverse contexts? Isn’t there anyone talking about the social basis of marriage?

For some reason, in the U.S., many people seem to assume that marriage has to do mostly with love, sexuality, or religion. And people there often think of polygamy as a way for a man to have sexual intercourse with many women. Perhaps because of Hugh Heffner’s life story. But isn’t Warren Beatty proof that you don’t need to be married to have sexual relationships with many different women?

Because of this association of marriage with sexuality, it’s often difficult to get people to discuss the social issues associated with polygyny and other kinship systems. For instance, the actual power afforded women in a polygynous household. Or the economic basis of marriage systems.
The debate over polygamy has been brewing for a while here in Canada and probably in the U.S. (where it’s connected with religion). But I’ve yet to see a serious attempt to discuss it in a thoughtful fashion.

Can anyone prove me wrong?