Academic Meetings, Graduation Season, and a Bit from Rousseau

Meetings are rituals, and rituals need symbols, and decorations. I’ve been to a lot of meetings in my time as an academic where I sat bored and confused, but still fulfilled my function as a decoration, and clap on cue. And to a large extent, that is what such ritual is about: clapping on cue about that to which you are brain dead.

Perhaps Rousseau was thinking of such academic meetings when he wrote in the 19th century “On this showing, the human species is divided into so many herds of cattle, each with its ruler, who keeps guard over them for the purpose of devouring them” (Rousseau).

Which of course starts me thinking about the many times I do indeed act like a herded cow, and so do my fellow academics. The most obvious place I am such a decoration is in May graduation ceremonies. I march into a stadium to a lively tune in an ungainly outfit, and then with the other faculty who all react in unison. March, clap, stand, and sit all in unison moving rhythmically just like the her do cattle waiting to obediently rush down a chute, at the end of which we might, ro all we know, be devoured. We then sit—decorations for the larger ceremony, just like the potted plants on stage. In fact, when I sat on a stage recently in Chico State’s graduation ceremony, there were literal potted plants on either side of the stage, bookending the potted plants in the robes. The redeeming value of the whole thing was the excitement and joy that many of our students and their families felt.

But potted plants are found at many ceremonies besides graduations, and usually take less obvious forms. The most common place for such potted plants—Honoratioren, in Max Weber’s German—are at meetings.

Honoratioren are invited for their notability and prestige, are there to make such rituals work, for the professional who Congress make sure that everyone lines up when they are supposed to, and then mutter “aye” on cue. Weber says Honoratioren manipulated in such ways “voting sheep,” content and sated notables who herded by “leaders” toward a new pasture (or restaurant).[1]

We potted plants are needed by the politicians (peacocks if we keep to our decorative metaphor), to legitimate foregone decisions that preserve the pre-existing social order and its privileges. The person chairing the meeting with such gravity (and plumage) needs us Honoratiorien to make “tough” decisions, even if we don’t really make decisions better than do the other potted plants at the other ends of the stage. We potted plants show up at a meeting, look busy, and ratify what we are supposed to. If you are at a university, you are then rewarded with cheese squares and olives, and then maybe even get a free dinner. Indeed, if you are really honored, you get a nice dinner at a nice restaurant, which might even cost $25.00. Or if you are in a legislative body, or corporate board of directors, the meeting is held in Las Vegas, Hawaii, or some other luxury place where the vanity of the Honoratioren is most easily plied with drink, food, song, and sex.

Being so plied indeed is part of the job of an Honoratioren, where you grimly hold onto an ethic that one hard-bitten politician explained was “If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women, take their money and then vote against them you’ve got no business being up here.”

Oh yes, and then at the end of the meeting, the peacocks tell us how we all made difficult decisions, and are profusely thanked for our critical participation. Because yes indeed, we did not give into the sin of vanity.

The funny thing is that often not even the political peacocks really run the meetings. The ones who often really run the show are the functionaries, clerks, secretaries, and others who organize the meetings, demurely pour the coffee, serve the cookies, and present us with information to “consider.” They pre-package such information in a fashion that means that there is one logical “evidence-based” decision to take; thus there is only one single conclusion for us to mumble “Moo” about. To do otherwise would be, we are told, be quite foolish, and beneath our accumulated dignity as Honoratioren.

The lower-level staff, those who Weber described the “technocratic functionaries” serve the coffee and shove files under our noses, to whom peacocks chairing the meeting effectively defer when asking them to explain, “the numbers.” The numbers inevitably spill out in their calculable and predictable beauty, and the authority of the only evidence-based decision—as determined by the person who compiled the numbers—suddenly tumbles out. The peacock chairing the meeting nods sagely, and we potted plants nod even more sagely as if our opinion mattered. We vote “aye” and then clap. The coffee-pouring technocrats who organize “the files,” and so readily serve up more legitimacy for the, ahem, evidence-based decision-making (we Honoratioren only make decisions with evidence!), smile wanly.

This is necessary because we Honoratioren are the esteemed people of a community to whom others habitually defer, despite the fact that really, we don’t know that much about what we are doing; and are really only “dilletantes” when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the bureaucratic sausage factory where real decisions are made.

Where do you find Honoratioren? Traditionally they are from the right families and include wealthy business people, gentry, and performers of past glories. Today they include movie stars, sports figures, rock stars, and high tech Silicon Valley tycoons—i.e. the “better strata” of a community. I guess it is even me with all my seniority at the university now; a minor Honoratioren who gets trips to exotic conferences in southern California, where I dine on those cheese squares and olives, and then top it off with that $25.00 meal at a fine restaurant (without alcohol!).

But the real habitat for Honoratioren are the boards, commissions, and so forth which ostensibly run corporations and government. Such Honoratioren may indeed be dilletantes, but that is really beside the point. As long as their egos are stroked, and vanity appealed to, they (we?) lend the air of legitimacy to what really is pre-prepared. Weber’s (and Rousseau’s) “herding bovine” metaphor is a good on—and of course raises the question of why do we unanimously vote “aye,” why not instead say “moo?”

 

References

Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, edited and translated by Tony Waters, and Dagmar Waters, Palgrave MacMillan, 2015 (forthcoming).

 

“Politics as Vocation” is One of Bill Clinton’s Very Favorite Books—But Our New Translation Doesn’t Have a Book Blurb!

Tony-Cover of Weber book

Earlier this year, my wife and I published a book Weber’s Rationalism, which included four new translations of Weber’s essays, including “Politics as Vocation.” President Bill Clinton lists on his web-site “Politics as Vocation” as being one 21 of his favorite all-time books, right up there with Yeats Poems, The Imitation of Christ, and his wife Hillary’s book Living History. I am of course intrigued about why one of the master politicians of this era thought so highly of Weber’s essay, and wrote to him via his web site. What would Bill Clinton think about how Weber wrote about the dangerous vanity of politicians, the assumption that politicians are always violent, while admitting that indeed, there are ways for the “true human” to be a good politician—“In Spite of it All!”

So I wrote Clinton at his office in New York to tell him about our new translation, to inquire about the possibility of getting a book blurb—admittedly an audacious request. Such favors, as Weber notes, are primarily for “table companions,” political Honoratioren,” and the other who whirl around the politician basking in power. I knew this well from translating Weber. But still it was a small request, and I hoped for at least a polite “no thanks” from one of his staffers.

Then this week, the reason why I did not get a response to my emails—not even a courteous “no thanks” from a staffer—became more apparent. I do not pay to play. News stories of the last week highlight how much the Clintons ask to speak or consult. I don’t pay, so I guess, so no response. (Actually I do pay sometimes—earlier this year I paid $35 to publish a cartoon!) Anyway, should have listened more closely to the cynical Max Weber inside of me!

But despite it all, I do indeed have some nice book blurbs, two from important Weber scholars, and a third one from an important political scientist. They all highly recommend our translation, and they did so simply as an academic courtesy to the publisher.

Speaking of academic courtesy, here is a commentary that the Chancellor of Germany, Helmut Schmidt, once wrote about Weber’s essay, “Politics as Vocation”—he gave it as a speech to the Kant Congress in 1981 (in German).

A sample chapter from our book Weber’s Rationalism is here.

My Mass Grave Rediscovered!

In 1994-1995 I helped finance and dig a mass grave on the Rwanda-Tanzania border.   This happened because the refugee assistance agency I worked (TCRS) removed bodies from the Kagera River from June 1994-June 1995. Tanzanians were hired to first clean up the bodies that were there from earlier months when the genocide was occurring, and after that to make a “net” to catch any other bodies which might float down the river from whatever source.  The “Body Project” during this time took 917 bodies (or so) out of the river. 311 came out in June-July, 1994, which is when the genocide was still going on. But then 606 more victims came down the river after the genocide was “over” and caught in the net we made. These were fresh bodies who often arrived with their hands tied behind their back, and a bullet in the head. We asked one of the Rwandan border guards from the new government who the floaters might be, and he said they were either victims of the genocide committed by the former government, or perhaps had committed suicide. It was clear from what he said that there was to be no blame for the new government.

We tried to imagine the gymnastics involved with tying your hands behind your back, shooting yourself in the head, and then jumping in the river. Somehow it didn’t compute.

Anyway, we made reports to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who passed the reports up to Geneva, where there was finally some view that perhaps things were not as peaceful as the new Rwandan government asserted. This was important at the time because the international community very much wanted the refugees to return to Rwanda so that they would not have to pay to succor them in the large Tanzanian refugee camps established in 1994.

Which caused us to wonder: Who was sending us these bodies, and what were they trying to say to us and the world? Here is what I wrote in January 1995 after a particularly busy December when 80 new victims came floating down the river:

So who is sending bodies to TCRS’s “body project” so faithfully? Is it the new Rwandan government? A revitalized Interahamwe militia [from the old government]? Both? I still do not know. However, my own conclusion after six months of collecting and burying 700 bodies is that both sides like the polarizing effects that bodies in the river creates among the 400,000 Hutu refugees in nearby Ngara refugee camps. The Hutu militants of course want the population to remain the refugee camps so they can organize a resistance movement. The Rwandan government on the other hand is avoiding the politically untenable consequences of…the millions of Hutus outside Rwanda returning. Seemingly, the bodies in the river serve both parties. Certainly, this would explain the ambivalence both sides have for the continuing appearance of bodies in the Kagera River.

Bob 2

In the strange world I lived in at the time, 917 bodies did not seem all that much—after all the death toll from the genocide and its aftermath is typically estimated at 800,000. At many of these sites in Rwanda, there are today massive memorials, and a national holiday when respects are made there. Forensic anthropologists sometimes go to evaluate how the victims, who were killed by the former Rwandan government. They evaluate how they died, and seek to identify victims, most of whom were from the minority Tutsi group who were the target of the genocide.

TCRS made a memorial too—a monument with words in four languages (English, French, Swahili, and Kinyarwanda) which was dedicated in 1996 just before I left Tanzania, and then forgotten. After all, our memorial was a couple of kilometers inside Tanzania, and the victims probably included a lot of victims from the new (and current) government of Rwanda. So our memorial had weeds grow up around it. No memorial services, and no archaeologists. No on has ever contact me, either, even though I published about it in my 2001 book Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan. As for victims, only one has ever been identified—Ngirabatware son of Rubashurwelere whose Rwandan i.d. was sticking out of his pocket, and given to me in August 1994 still smelling of his death. For what it is worth, he is a Hutu, not Tutsi.

Bob 1

Our memorial was rediscovered in 2009, according to press reports, and there are plans to create a memorial there as well, according to later reports.  So my mass grave was lost and found in a period of 14 years. In the process, though, the memorial has become a “genocide” memorial—which means that the fact that so many of the victims were post-genocide execution victims, and arrived in Tanzania after the genocide ended is forgotten.

As for Ngirabatware, the Hutu victim we buried, I have never heard from his family, despite publishing his name in my book (p. 195).   He was born in 1957 and is from Cyabinbungu prefecture. He had four daughters born between 1980 and 1992. Maybe they are still in Rwanda wondering what happened to their father.

The Three Gifts of Tenure

Scarlet Letter

I will say it up front. Tenure is cool, and the opposite, “contingent” employment, really sucks. I was an adjunct for about two years in the 1990s, and I know from first hand experience that it sucked. Why?

Well there were a couple of reasons. First, was that I was constantly on the job market, since I did not know where my income was coming from the following semester. This is a condition that college teachers share with many workers in the modern economy, on the funny assumption that the more scared you are of catastrophe, the harder you will work.

But scared teachers do not develop their repertoire, either in teaching or research. Delivering a 15 week class takes 3-4 semesters to “get right,” meaning to get the rhythm of what you need to say, how it fits together, what assignments fit in best. And of course the jokes need to be right—and that takes practice, too. Three to four times, and it starts becoming easy—and 10-12 times it becomes boring, as your “lecture” notes yellow and turn stale.

A second gift of tenure is the capacity to develop a research program—you can only do this if you have a reasonable confidence of continued income. Research programs, whether they are your own, or your graduate students, take several years to manage and develop. Books? About five years. Articles, a little less.  Such projects do not fit in well to semester-to-semester contracts.

And the third gift of tenure is that it puts you on an equal footing with your “boss.” This is important because, well, not all bosses, are that great at supervising teachers, whether they are tenured or not—just ask the adjuncts who are indeed supervised by Department Chairs elected by the tenured faculty.

This part of the gift of tenure has two different causes. First is the fact that teaching is inherently difficult to supervise—a supervisor cannot really “supervise” more than a fraction of their work, nor can they use a clock, or other mechanism to monitor anything of significance in the classroom. This is something that those who supervise teaching should know, but often do not acknowledge.  Or rather they invent proxies like “Student Evaluation of Teaching,” which ask students about their experience, or ask you what you have printed on your syllabus, as if that is really what happens in class.

The second part of the “chair” problem is that the chairs and deans who hire adjunct faculty are not necessarily very good managers of adjuncts—they are hired by tenured faculty to serve (not manage) tenured faculty. Supervising adjuncts is for them just a side gig—the real action is with those who elected them, i.e. the tenure track faculty. As a result many are not necessarily very good at managing “contingent employees.” What does it mean to be lousy at supervising adjuncts?

–Not let the adjunct know what they will be teaching or take away an assigned class and give it to a tenured person at last minute

–Say or do anything which lets contingent employees believe that they might not have a job next semester/year.

–Change up preps unexpectedly–or change class sizes erratically

–Use anecdotal student gossip to write reviews, whether it comes in hushed tones in the office, through written reviews, informal discussion with tenured faculty, or ratemyprofessor.com.

–Publish a job ad with the classes taught by contingent employees in them.

–Otherwise keep the adjunct off-balance regarding their professional status.

And then of course there is the problem of pay, which like it or not is central what we do. The stories of adjuncts on welfare are of course legion. Not every campus does it, but paying $2,000-$3000 per class for a full-time adjunct (with ten courses being a full-load) is a recipe for penury, short-term employment, and high employee turnover. And what can I say? Quick turnover of teachers is harmful to teaching quality—and in the university world, “quick” means every 5-6 years. After all, how can you prepare a “full quiver” of classes in a shorter time? Student success suffers from teachers who are not treated as highly skilled professionals, and have a tougher time developing as a professional as a result.

And this says nothing of a research program which oddly enough, some adjuncts still put together on the side.

My Appreciation for Tenure

I’ve been on tenure track since 1998, and had tenure since 2003.  This has indeed been a blessing, particularly when I compare my working conditions to my adjunct colleagues who are under constant threat of lay-off. What has it permitted me to do?

Accept new course preps, and explore new fields without fear of short-term failure, which in the adjunct world means a few students complaining to a dean or chair about you. Sometimes this happened, mostly it didn’t—but even when it does, I can be confident that the comments will not be taken out of context.

Re-establish the Asian Studies major, for which I was a “voluntary advisor” for three years. This is something I am enormously proud of—and would not have done without the freedom of tenure protections.  I was also able to participate in “General Education Reform” in a fashion which I hoped reflected abstract academic goals for student achievement, rather than the narrow “butts in seats” metrics of standard university administration by “full-time equivalent students (FTES).”

Publish six books, an write a number of articles, one of which received a comeuppance letter from the politically connected United States Ambassador to Tanzania. Because I was tenure track, I got an “attaboy” from my Chair at the time. Imagine if I had been contingent—I would have been afraid that such a high government official could get me fired, or at least put in the pathway of “I’m sorry it looks like there are no classes for you next semester.”

In short, my employment guarantee gives me the freedom to experiment without fear to my livelihood. Do some of my colleagues take advantage of this? Probably—but the fact of the matter is that the freedom my tenure gives me exists only in such a context. If I didn’t have an employment guarantee I would be back to sending out my c.v. every semester and keeping my head low in hopes that I could put together a living, rather than developing a scholarly career.

I’m Sorry, Next Semester We Do Not Have Any Classes For You!

The opposite of tenure, lack of employment security, though actually drags the institution of higher education down further. To understand this, I need only listen to the whispered fears of my adjunct colleagues. They fear trying new things, requesting professional courtesies I take for granted, requesting justified raises, attending conferences, taking on new preps, or pushing back when more students are pushed at them.  Indeed the ability of administrators to push more students at the adjuncts is why they typically teach teach larger sections than their tenured colleagues. Adjuncts are also hesitant about expressing themselves frankly in meetings. Many fear becoming involved in the union not because of what the union does, but because they fear administrators will deliver the dreaded and vague message, “next semester we do not have any classes for you.”

This post is an adaptation of “I’m Sorry, Next Semester We Do Not Have Any Classes for You!” which was posted in January 2015 here at Ethnography.com.

Max Weber was a funny guy!

That’s right, Max Weber, the dour looking social theorist on the cover of you social theory text made jokes. How do I know this? Well, my wife and I just published a new book Weber’s Rationalism: New Translations on Politics, Bureaucracy, and Social Stratification, and this post is an essay about why you should read it!

      In particular, Weber’s classic essay “Politics as Vocation” has real zingers in it.

Tony-Cover of Weber book

Some examples of the wit and sarcasm of Max:

      Vanity is a very widely spread trait and probably nobody is entirely free of it.

 

Certainly, among scholars and academic circles it is kind of an occupational disease.

Nevertheless, especially for a scholar, vanity is distasteful when it expresses itself, but it is relatively harmless because it does not disrupt the functioning of academic organizations. This is completely different in a politician for whom the pursuit of power is a means unto itself. (pp 181-182).

But Weber was not going to only take potshots at academics, he also had some fine words for politicians as well, writing as he was during the German Revolution of 1918-1919. Specifically he said:

 But there is one remark I would like to make: At this time and day of pure excitement and passion—even though not all excitement is caused by true convictions—politicians on an outrageous scale run wild with slogans like:

 

‘It is the world, it is dumb, stupid and mean! It is not me! I am not responsible for the consequences. The consequences are the responsibility of others for whom I work. But I will eradicate their stupidity, arrogance, and nastiness!’

 

To put it bluntly, I ask myself firstly, are such people truly serious about any ethical and moral convictions? I am convinced that in nine out of ten cases, they are windbags puffed up with hot air about themselves. They are not in touch with reality, and they do not feel the burden they need to shoulder—they just intoxicate themselves with romantic sensations. (p. 196)

And then he really lets politicians have it when he writes the following about the characters who turn to that profession:

Politics is made with the head, not with the other parts of body, nor the soul. (p. 181)

I know, you are probably wondering what is so funny about that last one?  What does he mean when he advises politicians to not make politics with either the soul or “other” parts of the body?  What exactly is the “other” part of the body used to “make politics?”  Anyway,  I don’t think Weber was thinking of hands and feet! Politicians in those days too had fleshly temptations, and giving into them could only lead to poor political decisions, as generation after generation of politicians continually re-discover!

Admittedly, the humor in our new translations is nestled among Weber’s more serious gems of insight which are couched in in more lofty prose.   But wit and wisdom go together, and in our translations and the pages of accompanying editorial material, which we wrote, there are plenty of both.

How prescient? President Bill Clinton said that “Politics as Vocation” was one of the 21 best books he had ever read—it is in the same list with his wife Hillary’s auto-biography!

And there is more humor in “Politics as Vocation,” including endearing comments by Weber about men who blame their wives for their own affairs, and random potshots at political nemeses among the revolutionary politicians of 1919 Germany like Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebkencht, and Kurt Eisner,  and even snarky remarks about politicians in the United States and Russia.  But you need to get the book to read about these!

Besides the rip-roaring oratory of Weber’s “Politics as Vocation, first delivered in the lecture hall of the University of Munich in 1919, in our book there are also new fresh translations of Weber’s classic essays “Class, Status, Party;” “Discipline and Charisma;” and “Bureaucracy.” All four translations are new, fresh, and littered with footnotes to help you understand both Weber’s wisdom and humor!

Now for those of you convinced this is worth $90+ , you can have your copy of our new book delivered by Amazon.com either by the post office, or wirelessly to your Kindle. If you don’t have an extra $90+, you can tell your library that they cannot do without this book. Here is a convenient link from our publisher to recommend the book.  Please click on this link and tell your library that they should indeed buy a copy so you can quickly check out the wit and wisdom of St. Max.

A pre-publication version of Chapter 1 is here.

Happy reading!

 

Campbell’s Law, Planned Social Change, Vietnam War Deaths, and Condom Distributions in Refugee Camps

Donald T. Campbell was a psychologist in the 1970s. During this time, the belief emerged that society was a social engineering project that could be planned and evaluated.  The general idea was  that if you collected enough data, you could plan and control social change in a way that led to desired results.  Economists from USAID believed this about economic development, military planners in Vietnam believed it, and Sociologists in the War on Poverty believed it.  But by 1976, Campbell wasn’t so sure…

The generation of social scientists Campbell critiqued ran around measuring poverty, illiteracy, disease, Communism, and other bad things.  Thus in the 1970s you had Wars on Poverty, Smallpox, Illiteracy, Drugs, and so forth.  There were also violent wars in Vietnam (for the Americans), and in Afghanistan (for the Russians).  When I lived in Tanzania in the 1980s, the Tanzanian government had wars on Poverty, Ignorance, and Disease, all funded by international donors living out this paradigm.  Planners in Washington, New York, Dar Es Salaam, and elsewhere calculated with statistical precision what was needed for victory in their “war,” and allocated government money to produce the desired victory.  Their decisions were “data driven” and “evidence based,”  to borrow two words common in policy making circles today.

Campbell was involved in such projects himself.  He was so much part of them that he wrote an unfortunately obscure paper, “Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change” which reflects on the psychology of planners.  More interesting for this blog, though, is the fact that what he was really doing was taking the ethnographic temperature of number-assessed planners.   Campbell’s Law is as follows:

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

In Vietnam, Campbell pointed out, the quantitative social indicator was “enemy killed.”  Thus, he noted, this measure was corrupted as dead civilians were re-defined as “enemy,” and occasionally villages were invaded in the hope that at the unit would have kill-metric which could be rewarded.  Two examples added by other social scientists including the following: Cardiac surgeons declined to operate on seriously ill because such patients were more likely to die (duh).  They did this because the state began issuing “scorecards” rooted in survival rates.  So, since the very sick were the most likely to die in surgery (or on their own), the doctors declined to operate on the seriously sick, and preserved their high survival rates.  Another example of Campbell’s Law comes from airline schedules.  Airlines began to be scored on the basis of “on-time arrivals” in the 1980s.  They responded by simply increasing estimated flight times, thereby driving up their “on-time” rates—anytime you arrive early at a destination, thank Campbell’s Law; tailwinds probably did not have much to do with it!

Citing “Campbell’s Law” when critiquing the United States’ “No Child Left Behind Act” is something of a fad in education circles today.  This is because high stakes testing for science and math drives decision-making about student promotion, teacher retention, and school closures.  Thus, you get extensive test prep of students in reading and math, with resultant dilution of subjects like history, science, music and the arts which are not tested for.  And of course, the ultimate vindication of Campbell’s Law are the cheating scandals by schools and teachers concerned only about “succeeding” on test day.

Campbell’s law also applies well to other bureaucratic endeavors, especially those of applied social scientists.  My own experience is in Tanzania where projects to assist refugees or villagers were created with quantitative goals and objectives to satisfy donors, independent of what was needed or wanted by the villagers (or refugees) they were assisting.  My favorite version of Campbell’s Law was the many broken diesel-powered water projects that littered western Tanzania in the 1980s and 1990s.  Indeed a book called Watering White Elephants was written about this phenomenon.  Many of these were funded with the bureaucratic “Health for All by the year 2000” goal of WHO in mind. Quantitative reports showing that the goals of the project in terms of villagers served, villages with pumps, etc., were met.

For the refugees I worked with in Tanzania between 1994 and 1996, a good example was the numerical goal established for birth control in the Rwandan refugee camps.  This was right after the Rwanda genocide, and the UN was concerned about the exploding birth rates, and the costs that would be incurred by their child health programs.  The result was a bright idea: Condoms all around!  In `1995-1996, four million condoms were distributed in record time by a USAID program, a quantitative  result trumpeted at NGO meetings I attended (Quick: 4 million condoms spread across 450,000 refugees means that USAID is assuming what about the frequency of refugee sex???).

The visiting anthropologist hired to evaluate the program though pointed to the corruption of the condom distribution program.  The condoms, she found were not used to prevent births, which continued to rise quickly, even nine months (or more) after the big distribution.  Rather the condoms became a marker for young men to display their prowess.  The young men cut off the end of the condom and wore it as a bracelet to represent conquests.  Campbell’s Law wins again!

Indeed, there is a ethnographic field worker’s version of Campbell’s Law which was written by the development economist Teodor Shanin in 1966 at the height of the Cold War.  Central planners in Moscow, Washington, and Beijing were running around the world applying the econometric models (Washington), or assumptions about central state planning (Moscow and Beijing) to Third World projects.  The result was Campbell’s Law writ large, as the planners with their emphasis on production targets, development plans, and so forth created goals which implementers adjusted their programs to match.  The result was that in places like the Congo, Vietnam,and  Afghanistan, all the great powers were ultimately frustrated.  Echoing Campbell’s law, Shanin wrote about the corruption of the quantitative social indictors in the following way:

Day by day, the peasants make the economists sigh, the politicians sweat, and the strategists swear, defeating their plans and prophecies all over the world—Moscow and Washington, Peking and Delhi, Cuba and Algeria, the Congo and Vietnam”  Shanin (1966).

Which in the end points to the strengths of the ethnographic method, since after all Campbell’s Law applies to quantitative measures, not qualitative.  As long as ethnographers are the harmless fuzzballs on the wall, they are able to write about processes, interactions, relationships, and so forth that quantitative measures typically miss.  After all, Campbell’s Law itself is ultimately an ethnographic conclusion about the nature of quantitative methods. Ethnographic method may not be grand, or easily adapted to manage large bureaucratic projects, but in its insight, it can be used to describe the limitations of more quantitative projects.

Reposted from Ethnography.com (2010).

“Notes on the Murders of Thirty of My Neighbors”

Writer Jim Myers wondered why 30 of his neighbors were murdered just one mile east of the United States Capitol building during the 1990s. In an investigation of the conditions that led to such a high toll, he found that there was a wide range of circumstances, including, “drive-by killings, run-by killings, sneak up killings, gunfights and battles, car chases…drug killings, vengeance killings, the killing of witnesses to other crimes, accidental killings, and killings that enforce values we can only vaguely fathom.” The killings occurred in a context in which handguns were common, and an illegal drug economy thrived.

By personalizing the victims and perpetrators in The Atlantic in March 2000, Myers provides a nuanced picture of a community where fear, youthful bravado, and distrust of broader law enforcement leads to fighting, confrontations, killings, and woundings. Notably, the characteristics he describes are not only those of the ones holding the guns or peddling the drugs. Rather there is a generalized fear in the community, the anticipation of the unknown by large numbers of people, that provides the context for the killing.

The “epidemic” of thirty killings Myers wrote about occurred in Police Service Area 109 of Washington, DC, an area only 11 blocks wide, between 1992 and 1998. Twenty-six of the thirty victims were black, and one of the whites was a police officer. Three of the killings were by police officers. Many of the victims and shooters had attended Payne Elementary School, which despite its proximity to the iconic U. S. Capitol building, was one of the most segregated schools in the country. Out of 332 students in 1999, 330 were black, and none were white. Over two-thirds of the 30 killings occurred within 1,000 feet of the school. Four of the victims had been members of the same basketball team.

Myers begins his story by drawing a contrast between the highly publicized killing spree by two teenagers at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, with what happened in his Washington, DC neighborhood. In the case of Columbine, 13 middle class students were killed in a single day. The incident received international publicity, and politicians from the President on down publicly bemoaned the cultural situation leading to the deaths. In contrast, eighteen of the thirty deaths Myers tracked were unsolved at the time he wrote his article. While several had not even received an article in the local newspaper, the murder of a white police officer received widespread publicity including a mention in one of President Clinton’s speeches bemoaning street violence.

On the micro level, Myers’ descriptions of killing in Washington, DC illustrate well the role of youth, impulsiveness, gangs, bravado, guns, and alcohol in setting the context for killing. Most of the killings were of young males by other young males, on the street. The killings often involved dares and affronts to male machismo; one assault, would lead to a dare, and another assault. The person hurt might or might not have been the cause of the initial assault, thus creating a further grievance, and a widening circle of potential enemies. For example, police “solved administratively” the 1992 death of Theodore Fulwood—they stopped their investigation without officially identifying his killers because the police believed the killers themselves had been murdered. Because Fulwood was the brother of a former police chief, the Washington Post pursued the story and found out that Rowmann Dildy and his cousin Thaddeus Latta were believed to be the gunmen, and had killed Fulwood after an “altercation…over a drug transaction.” Dildy was killed in April 1993. Latta was murdered in 1995 in the same neighborhood, and his murder is also unsolved. What is left in the neighborhood is a sense of fear, suspicion, and distrust. No one knows who has killed, and who might kill next.

So in addition to the issues of youth and impulsiveness, Myers’ story was also about a neighborhood, or a portion of a neighborhood, where people sought a sense of both safety and justice. Around the area of Payne School, the police could not deliver this sense, because they were perceived as being both untrustworthy, and ineffective. Young males in the neighborhood believed that police contact resulted in harassment, and did not view them as all-powerful allies in the settlement of grievances. Potential witnesses were afraid to speak to the police and become witnesses, both because they might have had something to hide, or simply because they feared retaliation on the streets. The unsolved death of one 54 year old woman was attributed to the fact that she herself witnessed a killing; the power and legitimacy of the law becomes tattered in such a context, and potential witnesses would not come forward. Such killings reinforced fears of retaliation, and made even the appearance of cooperation with the police more difficult.

Myers found out that a number of the “unsolved killings” had in fact been “administratively closed” because the police were convinced that the killer himself was killed, and the case therefore no longer worth pursuing. In this context, the police gave up investigations without telling the aggrieved families. Administratively solving crimes without public disclosure protected the rights of the innocent, but also raised a separate question for the family about the legitimacy of police decision-making. And herein lies a lesson about the tension between privacy rights, the need to know and “find closure,” and justice. Justice, in part, was the need for not only the family, but also the neighborhood to know and understand that blame was assigned, and justice provided. But it is also about protecting the reputations of deceased people who themselves have been victims.

For the community, in traditional terms, assigning blame is called justice; in pop psychology it is called closure. It is something that happened in Columbine where the killers who committed suicide had blame clearly and effectively assigned to them. But, somehow, in the more amorphous world of an impoverished Washington, DC neighborhood, such an assignment of blame did not occur, and the cause of justice suffered as a consequence. Families of Columbine’s victims traumatized as they were, were at least able to achieve “closure.” As Myers (and Durkheim) note, this is an important part in reconstructing society after the trauma of such a crime. But this never happened in Washington DC, where the privacy rights of the dead “killers” were respected. Was one result that, with a lack of “closure,” angry people took justice into their own hands, and killed again?

Further Reading

Myers, Jim, “Notes on the Murder of Thirty of my NeighborsThe Atlantic Monthly, March 2000. Pages 72-86.

Excerpted from When Killing is a Crime by Tony Waters.  Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007.