My Life as an Honored Potted Plant

Meetings are rituals, and rituals need symbols, and decorations, in other words potted plants.  Ie been to a lot of meetings in my time as an academic where I sat bored and confused, but still clap on cue.  The most obvious place I am such a decoration is in May graduation ceremonies.  I sit in a hot black robe in May, with the faculty and react in unison with those around me.  Literally an honored potted plant.

But there are many more places where such potted plants exist—decoration at a meeting where pre-prepared decisions are served up.  Academic Senate meetings come to mind; but so do political conventions, Congress, and annual meetings at churches.  The malaria zone office meetings I sat through when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, were the most difficult—they were in Thai which I only slowly learned, but I still clapped on cue.  What all of these have in common is that I am really but a room decoration—a potted plant.

But we potted plants at meetings are needed by the important people (peacocks if we keep to our park metaphor) to show up and legitimate foregone decisions to preserve the pre-existing social order.  They need us potted plants as Honoratiorien, i.e. the honored elders who think they are invited to the meetings to make real decisions, even if they don’t.  But we are really only there to provide legitimacy for the experts who really pull the levers and push the buttons of the bureaucracy.  We potted plants show up at a meeting, look busy, ratify whatever decisions have been pre-arranged by the organizers, eat cheese squares and olives, and then have dinner.  A nice dinner at a nice restaurant.  Oh yes, and then the peacocks tell us how well we made difficult decision, and are profusely thanked for our critical participation.

The funny thing is that often not even the peacocks really run the meetings.  The ones who really run the show are the functionaries, clerks, secretaries, and others who organize the meetings, and present us with information to “consider.”  Such information comes pre-packaged, and pre-arranged in so there is little real discretion on our part; if done well there is only one single conclusion for us to mumble “aye” on.  Oddly enough, at many such meeting I was at, the lower-level staff who served the coffee and shoved files under our noses, were the real deciders to whom whichever peacock chairing the meeting turned to explain “the numbers.”  The numbers then spill out, the peacock nods sagely, we potted plants nod even more sagely as if our opinion mattered.  We vote “aye” and then clap.

Ultimately, tout the ones running the shows—are the technocrats who organize “the files” that are reflected in the numbers so readily tossed out to provide more legitimacy for the evidence-based decision-making (we Honoratioren only make decisions with evidence!).

But this blog is mostly a way of introducing the German word Honoratioren, which I have plucked out of Max Weber’s essays “Politics as Vocation,” and “Bureaucracy,” which my wife and I are currently translating from German to English.  Honoratioren are the esteemed people of a community to whom others habitually defer, despite the fact that they are really “dilletantes” when it comes to knowing the nuts and bolts of an organization which they are  called on to legitimate.  Where do you find such Honoratioren?  They are from the right families, wealthy business people, performers of past glories, movie stars, sports figures, local nobility—i.e. the “better strata” of a community.  I guess that’s me with all my seniority at the university now; an Honoratioren who gets trips to exotic locales like Los Angeles, where I can dine on cheese squares and fine restaurants.

The most common habitat for Honoratioren are the boards, commissions, and so forth which ostensibly run corporations and government.  They really do not know what they are doing, but as long as their egos are stroked, and vanity appealed to, they lend the air of legitimacy to what really is going on. Weber described them as “voting cows” being led to approve what to legitimate what the technocrats are going to do anyway; Weber’s metaphor is good—but potted plants works, too.

Occasionally Weber writes, such Honoratioren make it into some meaningful office, but then it doesn’t always work out so well—think Governor Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California; two classic Honoratioren who somehow made it across the divide into political offices where power was wielded.  Perhaps they would have been better if they remained potted plants; I’ll let the historians figure out that one!

So what is a good translation for Honoratioren?  The traditional one for Weber translators is “notables.”  But because I was recently at such meetings, passing along my professorial imprimatur over things I knew little about, I’m thinking “potted plant” conveys Weber’s meaning better!  So if you see the German word Honoratioren in our translation some day, just think, “potted plant.”

Professors Need to Write Clearly, but Columnists also Need to Read Carefully

Nicholas Kristof has written an op-ed “Professors we need you,” in the New York Times.  His point is that that professors like me need to write and express ourselves more clearly so all our presumed smartness is accessible to people like Kristof.  Partly I agree.  But partly I don’t.  I also think that people like Kristof and the policy-makers he advocates for need to read more carefully.

This is a sore point with me, especially since I was lectured a couple of times by policy-making types about writing in op-ed length of about 750 words chunks—that is the sort of thing that Kristof is really good at writing.

My muttered response: Oh that’s how decisions about invading Iraq were made by Congress, in 750 word chunks.  I occasionally write in 750 word chunks, and it is a fine way to make one very clever point to adjust a discussion.  It is though a lousy way to make public policy.

But good public policy also requires the reading of books.  Whole books.  Lots of books.  Books which deal with generalities and not just specifics.  Books that help you think, as opposed to op-ed which in 750 words typically appeal to emotion.

The kind that make long complex argument if, for no other reason, that questions of why people go to war (and do many things) are complex.  Sometimes it even helps to use big words and complex sentences, too–maybe then you will think a little more carefully about invading countries, like Iraq.

This type of reading is work–but it pays off in the long run.  Just ask the Germans who did not invade Iraq–my students in Germany complained that my readings were too easy, and “too popular.”  In other words, bye-bye Jared Diamond, hello Eric Wolf.

And see, I just made that point in 350 words, while appealing to emotion by using an anecdote, and an unsupported correlation.

The point of course is that not only do writers need to write clearly like Kristof points out, readers also have a responsibility to wrestle with complex ideas, and maybe even numbers.



Happy #anthrovalentineS Day

I will leave it to the historians of wikipedia to sort out the history of Valentine’s Day. And I will leave the critique to the Huffington Post .

Today I want to publicly thank @DonnaLanclos , an anthropologist who works in a library, for storifying the results of the twitter hashtag #anthrovalentines .

My favorite tweet, and a savvy nod to the intersection of public and private interest in fieldwork, is this one:

@EthnoGraffiti  I would do anything for love, but I won’t do multi-sited ethnography #anthrovalentines

And thank you everyone who contributed to the hashtag. I LOL’ed.

In praise of Stephen Jay Gould and The Mismeasure of Man

Last March, Michael Scroggins posted about “Gene Promoters: On Chagnon and Diamond,” pointing out that the connection between race, genetics, and social deterimination was rearing its head again.  He was writing in response to a blog in Discovery Magazine by Razib Khan “Against the Cultural Anthropologists” in which Khan wished that cultural anthropology could be voted off the academic island.

The result was a spirited back and forth between supporters of Razib, and Michael over the month or so in which by and large I took the side of Michael.  In the spirited back and forth, both sides tossed out their favorite philosophers of science.  We found out that by and large we have been reading different things, and that when we do read the same things, we tend to have different views, often depending on our disciplinary background.

One of my favorites discussing the relationships between race/genetics and intelligence is Stephen Jay Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man, which was published in 1981. Gould’s central point is that science itself is a cultural product, and therefore cannot be “objective” when measuring things.  In Gould’s case, the cultural product is i. q. tests which are used to stratify individuals in a fashion which reinforces the pre-exsiting status quo.  And of course in  the case of American i.q. testing, what was reproduced was the pre-existing status quo which stratified people by race, immigrant status, language ability, etc.

At that point, I was assured by commenters that Gould was thoroughly debunked by critics in subsequent decades, especially by a student who pointed out that Gould was sloppy (at best) with cranial data which did not support his thesis.  This was reported in the New York Times in 2011, as described here.

And then in the excitement of a couple of hundred blog postings, I had to admit: I hadn’t read Gould in sometime—and promised myself I would have a look later with a more jaundiced eye.

I did this last week, and I must say that even if the cranial data were “mismeasured” or worse faked, it does not change much Gould’s conclusion about the persistent misuse of psychometrics to reproduce a pre-existing social order, in this case that of American forms of racial stratification.  In other words, Gould could have left out the example, and the conclusion about the embeddedness of science itself in culture is not refuted—and this is Gould’s most basic point, not whether the skulls were mishandled.

In contrast, when I critiqued the mishandling of genetic data in the evaluation of the Mlabri hunter-gatherers social origins in Thailand, there was a change in the conclusion (though admittedly the authors disagree with me).

My net conclusion remains that I think that the natural sciences have much to learn from the social sciences about culturally embedded assumptions.  Science is not immutable—as you learn in Science 101, all scientific theory is subject to challenge, and will eventually be cast aside.  Dare I say it, this too will happen to even the powerful theory of evolution.  And if you want to know when and how that will happen, I would recommend reading Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, as well as Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  No scientific theory can last forever.  Indeed, for those things we believe will last forever, Durkheim has another word it—religion.

I also found that I need to read much more in the genetic sciences in order to write critique that goes beyond the occasional blog post.  So well, where does that leave me? Razib brought up the work of Luigi Cavalli-Sforza whose use of genetic and linguistic data I was quite impressed with some years ago.  I see that Cavalli-Sforza has co-authored a new book  Genetics of Human Population which looks interesting.  I will look forward to seeing if he is able to develop his story while also at least implicitly acknowledging that as a science, genetics is also a cultural product.

Human Terrain System, Again

The Human Terrain System is under critique again, and this time not from the AAA, but from a pro-military Congressman who finds that the program was rife with waste, fraud, and abuse.  As the Army Times reports, Congressman Duncan Hunter reports “It’s shocking that this program, with its controversy and highly questionable need, could be extended.”  Apparently Human Terrain contractors burned through $726 million in the name of providing actionable social science to the military.

So, in the end Congressman Hunter and the AAA end up on the same side of the Human Terrain issue.  End result, is likely to be the elimination of the program, the end of battlefield consultation with social scientists.  In fact, junior military officers can go back to doing their own cultural analysis, which is what the AAA has always preferred, I guess.  For that matter Congressman Hunter,  a former military officer who served in Iraq, is quite the expert on Middle Eastern culture. Indeed the Congressman does pretty well on his own when it comes to deep understanding of the Middle East, as reported in the Defense News in 2013:

Echoing other congressional Republicans and conservative pundits, Hunter said the White House and other Security Council nations erred in inking a preliminary Iran deal that allows Tehran to enrich any uranium. Hunter said Iranian officials are “not trustworthy,” then said all Middle Easterners — due to their “culture” — cannot be trusted at the negotiating table.

“It is part of the Middle East culture” to “do anything you can … to get the best deal,” Hunter said.

Asked by a C-SPAN host if he believes all Middle Easterners are liars, Hunter did not directly discount the notion.

As for the $726 million for Human Terrain System across several years, the mind of course boggles that such chump change in the military budget would attract the attention of Congressman Hunter.  What’s $726 million spent on Social Science, in a world of billion dollar bombers?

On the other hand the same amount boggles the mind of anyone trying to put together a university budget  funding the study of culture, but that’s another story.

Either way, it is nice to see the American Anthropology Association and Congressman Hunter on the same page when it comes to eliminating the Human Terrain System.  Perhaps at the next AAA, he can be offered his own panel on why the Human Terrain Teams were such a bad idea in the first place.

In my mind irony is among the things that Social Sciences do best, even when social scientists themselves are the focus of the sharpened pen.  The good news is that irony is free.  The bad news is that anthropologists need to eat, too.