Privilege, Honor, and Meetings


Cheese Squares, Olives, and Power without Responsibility. Gentry, Blue Blood, and Privilege. Max Weber’s ideas about Honoratioren, Voting Cows, and Power.

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. The most obvious place I am such a decoration is in May graduation ceremonies. I march into a stadium to a lively tune, and then sit in a hot black robe with the other faculty who all react in unison. March, clap, stand, and sit all in unison. We then sit—decorations for the larger ceremony, just like potted plants. In fact, when I sat on a stage last May at 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 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. In academia, Academic Senate meetings come to mind as places where esteemed faculty arrive, stand, clap, vote “aye,” and are confused (at least that was my experience when I was on Faculty Senate some years ago). Moving further afield, there are the boisterous political conventions Weber himself writes about where Honoratioren arrive to enthusiastically legitimate decisions already made behind closed doors. Student councils, annual meetings at churches, and corporate boards of directors also have such rituals. For that matter, as again Weber himself points out, there is Congress and other Parliamentary bodies, all places where honored and confused Honoratioren come to listen, vote aye, clap, provide legitimacy for pre-prepared, and finally return gloriously to their homes flattered but confused.


Honoratioren invited for their notability and prestige, ratify decisions about which they may have little understanding. Indeed, to make such rituals work, the professional “party whips” in places like Congress make sure that everyone lines up when they are supposed to, and then mutter “aye” on cue. Weber calls Honoratioren manipulated in such ways “voting cows,” content and sated notables who are herded by “leaders” toward a new pasture (or restaurant).[1] Weber wrote in “Politics as Vocation,” that 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 either end 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.


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. 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, pour the coffe, 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. Oddly, at such meeting, the lower-level staff, those who Weber described the “technocratic functionaries” who served the coffee and shove files under our noses, are sometimes the real “deciders” 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. But really, this essay is mostly a way of introducing the German word Honoratioren, which I plucked out of Max Weber’s essays “Politics as Vocation” and “Bureaucracy,” which my wife and I are currently re-translating from German to English. Honoratioren are the esteemed people of a community to whom others habitually defer, despite the fact that really, as Weber points they out, don’t know that much what they are doing; and are really “dilletantes” when it comes to knowing the nuts and bolts of the organization they legitimate with their sage advice. 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, as Weber points out 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 “voting cow” metaphor is good—and of course raises the question of why do we unanimously vote “aye,” why not instead say “moo?” So what is the best translation for Honoratioren? The traditional one for Weber translators is “notables.” But, 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.” And, “Moo!”   Reference: Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, edited and translated by Tony Waters, and Dagmar Waters, Palgrave MacMillan, 2015 (forthcoming).   [1] Or just maybe, as Rousseau once wrote, they may even be led to the slaughterhouse! But that is going too far for now.

Nicholas Wade Writes Again—And Again Anthropology Pays Attention

Nicholas Wade has a new book out, and the Anthropologists are sharpening their indignation—complaining because he treads on their private territory.  Sorry, anthro, you are not medicine or law, and do not have a monopoly over who practices what you preach.  Let it go.  Sometimes I think that the entire discipline is beset by a big-time inferiority complex

The solution?  Simply do good anthropology, and more importantly, promote good anthropology.  That might mean assigning Nigel Barley’s The Innocent Anthropologist, Jonathan Marks book What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee, Carol Stack’s All Our Kin, W. E.B. DuBois The Souls of Black Folk, and so forth.  Durkheim, Marx, Wollstonecraft, and Malinowski are also more worthy of your precious classroom time.  Talk about such books in your classes, have students read them, and stop wasting time setting up the strawmen of Nicholas Wade, Jared Diamond, and others you may not like.

Strawmen. Are. Not. Worth. Class. Time. Of. Which. There. Is. Too Little.

BTW, I assigned The Innocent Anthropologist this semester to a senior seminar in Social Science and again had a great response—so good that I’m going to try it out with a lower division International Engagement class next semester.  Barley is great because not only can you critique the limitations to functionalism, you can also talk about the nature of empathy, humility, cultural relativism, and ethnography.

And in a final BTW, if you want to see some posts here at from the last time Wade published a book, they are here, and here.  From way back in 2007.

Mirror Neurons and the Looking Glass Self: The Neural Sciences meet Sociology

  Why do neural scientists need expensive MRI machines to “see” what classical sociologists Charles Horton Cooley and George Herbert Mead saw by simply looking into the eyes of children?  This is the subject of my recent article “Of Mirror Neurons and the Looking Glass Self” published in Perspectives on Science.

The Mirror Neuron is a hot thing today in the neural sciences.  The Mirror Neuron hypothesis postulates that a person watching another person do something, imagines that the other person is doing.  How do the neural scientists know this?  Because they can watch it on expensive MRI machines which show that blood flows to the same part of the brain in the person who acts, and the person who observes the person acting.  Pretty cool observation isn’t it?  In fact it is so cool that some people who know about such things are predicting a Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine for the scientists who first developed this line of research in the 1980s and 1990s.

I’m all for Nobel Prizes all around; but it is just too bad that they guys who first observed The Looking Glass Self, Charles Horton Cooley, and George Herbert Mead can’t share in it.  Using the same metaphor of the mirror, they described the Looking Glass Self beginning in 1902.  Cooley’s research subject was his two year old daughter who he simply watched, without a machine, sensors, or anything else.  He just watched her eyes, and saw how she evaluated the response of others, and then acted an reacted based on her interpretations of social action.  Funny thing of course is that he was able to reach very similar conclusions as the neural scientists did—they even used the same metaphor of the mirror/looking glass.

What Cooley saw in 1902 was that the two year old “perfect little actress,” mirroring the thoughts and actions she observed.  He went on to note that it was through this became a social being who developed a sense of “self” which comprehended the nature of the “I” and the “you.”  Over 100 years of social psychology has productively taken advantage of this basic observation to come up with idea popularized by Erving Goffman that “all the world’s a stage,” and that all social humans exist in a reflective world of Looking Glasses and Mirrors (Now that I think of it, isn’t this also the metaphor used by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland?).

Anyway, my critique of the Mirror Neuron hypothesis after years of rejections, harsh reviews, and the other wonders of the peer review process is now available in Perspectives on Science for those of you able to get behind the paywall. The rest of you can access a pre-publication version on my account here.  I of course hope that every sociologist and anthropologist will read it.  I like to believe that it is an effective challenge to the philosophical positivism that dominates the biological scientists with their reductions of society to genes, neurons, hormones, and other biological phenomenon.


Hey, I’m even hopeful that our more positivistic friends over in the biological sciences like Razib Khan will take a look, and offer further critique.

Campbell’s Law and the Fallacies of Standardized Testing

Donald Campbell was one of the leading psychologists of the second half of the twentieth century.  His was a time of optimism for planners—there was a belief that the power of technology could be brought to bear on many of the world’s ills.  And indeed they were, often with positive effects.  As a result of central planning, more people receive water, more places are electrified, more children educated, and more diseases eradicated.  All good goals with which Campbell would not quibble.

But Campbell noticed something else to, the emergence of “corruption pressures,” based on the general principle that is now known as “Campbell’s Law.”

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 different ways, both Michael Scroggins and Max Holland have pointed at this basic problem in their recent blogs critiquing intelligence tests ranging from the standard tests, to the SAT and college entrance exams.  Such intelligence tests are indeed used to divide up the spoils of placement spots at elite schools, and not surprisingly, ambitious parents seek to corrupt it by means both fair or not. But for use in general analysis like that done by the evolutionary psychologists, the consequences are that their data source over time is corrupted.  The cheating scandals associated the No Child Left Behind Act are a byproduct of Campbell’s Law.  So is the fact that the SAT exam was recently cancelled in South Korea due to widespread cheating.  However most of the corruption does not come from cheating.  It also comes from the fact that such standardized tests are routinely gamed by testing companies which guarantee 100 extra points on the SAT through $1000 prep courses (I used one of these classes for my daughter—it worked!).

For what it is worth, tests like the internationally administered National Association of Educational Progress (NAEP) which do not have consequences attached to them are much less likely to be gamed.  They do not have consequences for funding, admissions, etc., attached to them because they sample across broad areas, and report results on large geographical areas rather than individuals.

Which brings up the BGI Cognitive Genetics Gene Trait Association Study of Intelligence that Michael Scroggins wrote about, and which Dr. Steve Hsu is promoting as a member of the Core Team of BGI.  The Chinese company is seeking people with “high cognitive abilities,” as defined by high scores on the SAT and other standardized tests, or PhDs in a limited number of fields (e.g. physics, computer science, electrical engineering) from “top” US universities.

The implicit assumption is that these people must have DNA which makes them higher functioning than the rest of us.  There are a number of flaws with this approach, starting with those pointed to by Donald Campbell—particularly the fact that the measures they are using long ago lost the validity and reliability due to corruption pressures.  There is also the problem that Michael, Max, and I have been hammering home here at, which is that “intelligence” is always culturally defined, typically by those who have the power to define people like themselves as, well, “intelligent.”  (Perhaps this is why BGI does not want people with PhD degrees in fields they have not studied, or from universities outside the US–this is who they are).

There are of course other reasons why BGI are off on a fool’s errand, some of which is described in Chapter 5 of my recent (2012) book Schooling, Childhood, and Bureaucracy: Bureaucratizing the Child.  Chapter 5 is called “The Sorting Function of Schools: Institutionalized Privilege and Why Harvard is a Social Problem for Both the Middle Class and Public School 65 in the Bronx.”  For that matter Chapter 8 “Seeing Like a State: Efficiency, Calculability, Predictivity, Control Testing Regimes, and School Administration” is also relevant.  (Sorry the book is still only out in hardcover at $90, and Kindle for $72—check your library for a copy, or wait for the paperback version).  To summarize the findings in my book:  Success on tests are inevitably associated with reproducing the status quo, whatever status quo the elites of the day might be promoting.

As for Campbell’s Law, I hope that the people organizing such projects as the Gene Trait Association Study of Intelligence read Donald Campbell’s article carefully, even if he is not an electrical engineer or physicist with a PhD from a top US University, or an 800 on the math portion of the SAT.

A Rumination on Hillary Clinton, DNA, Cognition, and Culture in Just One Blog

Michael in the last pot here, is pointing to a book review “No Big Deal, but This Researchers’ Theory Explains Everything about How Americans Parent” in that describes something that is self-evident to anthropologists, i.e. that whatever is defined as “cognitively advanced” is in fact culturally determined.  This is a point which I tried to make, apparently unsuccessfully, to commenters on this article, which was posted in in March.  What can I say, I just don’t get it how a culturally determined characteristic like “cognitive ability” which is specific to a time and place is determined by DNA.    I also don’t trust the tools of the psychometricians when they are used indiscriminately across national, temporal, and cultural boundaries. (Note the operative word: “indiscriminate.”)


Along these same lines, though on an unrelated subject, there was another pair of articles about DNA I read today, one by the conservative columnist George Will in today’s Washington Post, “Obama is Right on Syria “.  In an outbreak of comity, the conservative Will is complementing the prudence of President Obama for not taking military action in Syria.  In making this argument, Will is in effect pointing out that there is not always an American solution for every foreign policy problem.   He contrasts this with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s claim in a 2010 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations that “Throughout our history, through hot wars and cold, through economic struggles, and the long march to a more perfect union, Americans have always risen to the challenges we have faced. That is who we are. It is in our DNA. We do believe there are no limits on what is possible or what can be achieved.”  So up pops yet another biological metaphor: DNA determines that Americans always rise to challenges, and makes us believe that all can be achieved.


Now for my major stretch in logic.  Science, testing, DNA, and the genetic revolution have become a metaphor which stretches way beyond where, from a scientific perspective, it should be.  Scientists are not at fault, as Rajiv Khan seems to be pointing out to me in his comments.  However, as the book review in Slate points out, cognitive ability is perceived by American culture as being ever manipulable by parents, foreign policy by Secretarys of State, and so forth.  This is why such metaphor is so appealing—there is indeed a culturally grounded belief that “there are no limits on what is possible or what can be achieved” by Americans.  Geneticists and others have of course taken advantage of this cultural bias toward explanation via DNA, and pumped the federal government for ever-larger grants in ways that anthropology can only dream of.