Whining about Practitioners

Mark Dawson has touched on a common whine of “practitioners” about academics whose research is not “good” for anything, at least not good for anything they want. This is a common complaint in which so-called practitioners (as if academics don’t “practice” anything), who assert that if it ain’t good for achieving their policy goals they have already concluded are important anyway, it shouldn’t be done.

But, too often the demand for research in policy making circles is what Stephen Jay Gould once criticized as “advocacy masquerading as objectivity.” This is what the craniologists did when they spent their days comparing brain size to “prove” that whites were smarter than all other races. It is what the Bush administration demanded of the CIA in the lead-up to the Iraq War by selectively releasing data in pursuit of a pre-determined policy objective.

The appearance of scientific objectivity is persuasive for many of us. The problem is that real scientific objectivity can falsify conclusions, which is a big reason why public policy makers like keeping academic researchers at arms length. People commissioning reports also tend to insist on quantitative measures because it is more persuasive, even when professional judgment indicates that qualitative assessments are more appropriate.  Numbers are more persuasive in pursuit of the policy objective, so research methods be damned.  This is what happens when policy makers insist on running educational institutions on the basis of test scores.

And then in the end, they shoot the messenger.  This is what happens we hear policy makers whining about the political biases of anthropologists, the difficult of academic language, and the seeming inability of academics to do better than “on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand” recommendations.  Usually they throw in a complaint about Marxism, and Post-modernism without every having studied either.

Anyway, I think it is time that we academics let loose at practitioners, particularly those advising the government, about their techniques, prejudices, and approaches. (Meaning those of you in private sector anthropology are off the hook for now). A short blog like this cannot be comprehensive, but there are several general attitudes among practitioners which I would like to let loose on. These are:

1) Give me an executive summary, I don’t have time to read the whole report.

2) I don’t have time to read books, I get my ideas from op-ed.

3) I am in charge of running the world today, not tomorrow. Don’t fill me up with academic jargon and theories.

4) Career rewards are not for insight and intellectualizing, but for the compliant.

Ok, Poindexter, since you like your answers short and pithy, here is the quick one word answer to each. The first two are the response of the illiterate and lazy. Number three is the answer of the arrogant and clueless. And number four is the response of the cowardly. There’s your executive summary.  If you are tough enough to read further, here is the reasoning behind each.

Give me an executive summary, I don’t have time to read the whole report. You had time for a business lunch, didn’t you? What were you doing on the airplane besides watching a movie? It takes ten minutes to read the executive summary, and another half hour to flip through the rest of the report, and understand what went into the tables and charts. I ask my Chico State undergraduates to read far more than the executive summary because I want to be sure that they make informed independent judgments about the assumptions and methods used to design the study. They can do it, or they don’t pass my test.  why can’t you?

I don’t have time to read books, I get my ideas from op-ed. I like op-ed and blogs too. But you can only get one simple idea across in 750 words. The world is not a simple place, get used to it. I ask my undergraduates to read whole books, and the good students can effectively browse a standard 250 word book in 3-4 hours. (The not-so-literate students are even faster, but that’s another story). This is less time than it takes to fly across the country. In doing so, they must read a lot of stuff that will not be on the exam. But so what? Who knows which insight, fact, or impression will contribute to your thinking next year or the year after. This is one way the quality of wisdom is developed.

I am in charge of running the world today, not tomorrow. Don’t fill me up with academic jargon and theories. Everyone has a theory of how the world works, and you may be able to make your view be really important today. But guess what, it won’t work forever. Remember Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford? They were once running the world, too, and had theories of how that world worked. Everybody has a theory of the world, but I bet you don’t remember theirs. In the Bush administration, this was called neo-conservative dogma, and compassionate conservatism. In the Clinton and Tony Blair administrations it was called, called “The Middle Way,” whatever that means. Academic jargon and social theories are a way of recognizing cultural origins of such folk theories, and questioning their weaknesses. Some of them even have the name Marx attached to them–and he has been dead a lot longer than Gerald Ford. Remember, the reason the governing party was elected in the first place was that the last group ran their world view into the ground, and was thrown out of office. You will make the same mistake, and the arrogance of power being what it is, will inevitably do so. Knowing a little social theory with its jargon will help you predict more precisely when it will happen. Who knows, it may even give you a bit of wisdom that permits a dignified exit, and later role as a senior statesman! Bottom line, read Marx, Weber, Malinowski, and Durkheim.  (Bureaucrats should focus on Weber).

Career rewards are not for insight and intellectual, but for the compliant. This is true in all the big government bureaucracies, and the reason why you get so many jaded and cynical civil servants. They have traded security for intellectual compliance, and cowardice in the face of political pressure to produce particular results is one result. I mentioned the Bush administration’s misuse of data to invade Iraq above because it is in the news now–think of all the compliant bureaucrats who went along with this. But other fields also demand such intellectual compliance.

So for all you jaded practitioners out there. No more movies on cross-country flights, and cancel a few of those business lunches in order to read the whole report. Question that theory of the world you have, and use that civil service protection to deliver a little bad news to the boss of the day, even if he/she doesn’t want to hear it. And, remember, wisdom and good policy comes from critical thought, reading, and social theory!

6 thoughts on “Whining about Practitioners

  1. Tony, I sympathize, truly, but the criticism that academics have an equal responsibility to communicate complex ideas more effectively is a valid point.

    Those who benefit from or rely on serious research outcomes have legitimate time pressures to deal with – it’s not as simple as suggesting that they cut short the power lunch, or skip the in flight movie, to pay closer attention to detail. We academics have the luxury of reading, researching, and writing in depth. Others don’t – or at least, frequently don’t.

    I agree in general with your criticism, but I wonder if what you recommend is really the happy median.

  2. Hi Mike,
    You make good points. But, I still reserve the right of the polemicist to point out that skipping a few lunches in order to read a book can be a good use of limited time! This does not mean that academics do not have a responsibility to write clearly and accessibly, as you advocate.
    I also feel that when it comes to polemics, the academics are more often on the receiving end than the practitioners. See e.g. Mark’s complaints about the left leaning biases of academics on ethnography.com earlier this month. My post is meant to even the score, at least a little bit. If we have a responsibility to write clearly, practitioners have a responsibility to read responsibly.
    Much of this frustration comes from my own years as both a practitioner and academic in Tanzania and elsewhere, in which I encountered high level embassy and UN officials who had no familiarity or interest in the most basic scholarly research about that country. I would ask their views about some of the most important books about refugee work, or Tanzanian history. Typically they did not have one, and the often they had not heard of anything that had not been written on the New York Times editorial page, Newsweek, or maybe Foreign Affairs.


  3. Some important issues, especially in the intro. But I can’t help but sense frustration, here, instead of the desire to strike a polyvocal conversation. I’m theory-oriented enough to be “on your side,” but I also think that peace can be made more easily if we treat practitioners and applied ethnographers as human beings, worthy of our consideration. A bit “meta,” maybe, but worth a try.
    A worldview isn’t a prison but the common “mindset” on each side is somewhat incompatible with the other. To be perfectly honest, I often struggle with the fact that activists and policy advocates with an anthro background care more about issues than about knowledge. In fact, they sometimes seem to forgo some basic tenets of anthropology for the sake of a “cause.” Difficult for me to grok this. But I’m biased toward understanding, not toward a deeply held set of ethical principles.
    I just wish I could better understand these people, some of whom are dear friends.

    Still, your blogpost contains some important points which are too rarely discussed, including the whole “the ends justify the means” stance with the accompanying “marketing is effective” claim.
    One of the most recent mentions of anthro in popular press was precisely about this. Not that I disagree with the goal or even with the method. But I notice the difference in “mindset.”

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