• Category Archives Blogs by Tony
  • 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 Ethnography.com from the last time Wade published a book, they are here, and here.  From way back in 2007.

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  • 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 Academia.edu 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.

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  • Participant Observation at Its Best: How Max Weber Concluded Nine out of Ten Politicians are Windbags!

    It was January 1919, and Max Weber was on a roll in his career as a German politician, journalist, and academic.  Germany had on November 11, 1918, more or less surrendered to the Allied forces of France, Britain, Italy and the United States, and Germany slowly began to collapse into an anarchic state. Bavaria sort of seceded under the apologist Kurt Eisner, and set up its own government—this new government was releasing documents from the Bavarian archives so that the Allies meeting at Versailles could better make the case that World War I was indeed started solely by Germany.

    Street demonstrations were erupting in Berlin, and the Spartacist forces of Karl Liebcknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were ruling the streets (Liebknecht and Luxemburg were assassinated that same month, on January 15).

    The Rhineland was being occupied, and Max himself was campaigning vigorously as a Center-Left candidate of German Democratic Party, even as he was publishing articles in the German press critical of the Allied role in starting World War I.

    It was indeed a lively time.

    Let’s see what he had to say as the month went by in his role as a political speechifier, journalist, and academic:

    Standing (unsuccessfully) on the German Democratic Party (DDP) list for the new German Parliamentary elections of January 1919, he made speeches proclaiming sentiments like:

    We have this revolution to thank for the fact that we cannot send a single division against the Poles.  All we see I dirt, muck, dung, and horse-play—nothing else.  Liebkencht belongs in the madhouse and Rosa Luxemburg in the zoological gardens. (see Radkau 2009:507)

    In other words Weber knew himself what it felt like to be a full-throated political hack.

    It gets better though.   Justifying Germany’s war conduct in an essay “War Guilt” published in the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine in January 1919, in which Weber blamed The Russians and Belgians for provoking World War I:

    In the case of this war there is one, and only one power that desired it under all circumstances through its own will and, according to their political goals required: Russia…it never crossed [my] mind that a German invasion of Belgium [in 1914] was nothing but an innocent act on the part of the Germans…

    Finally, at the end of the month on January 28, 1919, he was invited to give a speech, the long-winded “Politics as Vocation” by the Student Union of Munich University.  What did he have to say about politics?  He could no longer compare the now-assassinated “revolutionary of the street” Rosa Luxemburg to creatures in the zoo.  So he wrote something that echoes through the annals of social theory even today

     …in nine cases out of ten I was dealing with windbags who do not genuinely feel what they are talking o themselves but who are making themselves drunk on romantic sensations

    This is of course the speech that has endured; it is part of “Politics as Vocation” which is considered to be one of the most important essays about the sociology of politics ever written, and which should be part of every liberal education in ways that the two other things cited here should not.

    But talk about a participant observation as a research technique!  If anyone was to know about the how and why of political windbaggery, it was certainly Weber.  January 1919 was indeed Weber’s month!

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  • Voting Sheep, Voting Cows, and Sheeple

          Max Weber uses a great German noun Stimmvieh to describe unthinking voting behavior.  Literally translated into English, it means “voting cow,” or “voting livestock” which Weber wrote in 1918 or so.  At the time, he had this love-hate relationship with the United States, so two of his illustrative examples of “voting cows” both came from there.  He saw “voting cows” in both the United States Congress where voting members are herded into party line voting, and in the urban areas of the early twentieth century where ward bosses rounded up recent immigrants to cast votes based on pre-existing ethnic loyalties, rather than the issues involved. 

    But I think the phenomenon is actually more general, rooted as it is in the need to conform to group dynamics. In fact just yesterday I voted “aye” (or should I say “moo”) to approve meeting minutes that I had not read.  In fact now that I think of it, on most of the committees I sit, I tend to vote in such a fashion—ratifying the pre-arranged decisions that are presented to me.  I do it all the time on university committees. “How do you vote on X?”  Altogether now “Mooooo.”  Any opposed? (Silence).  The motion passes.  Now that I think of it, same thing happens on church councils, corporate boards of directors, and any number of other places people are told they have “great responsibility.”  In the end?  Mooooo!

    Weber is of course writing about is the fact that people vote for things that they haven’t read all the time.  I could of course pick on the US Congress which recently passed a monster bill on health care which few if any of the members had ever read.  This is a well-known foible of the US Congress which happens time after time, no matter which party is in charge; after all Weber wrote about the phenomenon 100 years ago before there was a health care bill.  Congress seemingly has not changed.

    But more to the point, I could point to the “stuff” I vote for on the local ballots every year or so (after all I am an obedient and important voter supportive of democracy!).  Thus, I am always thrilled to be ask my opinion on matters big and small, even if I don’t know anything about the subject, or for that interest have much interest in the things that appear on California’s election ballots.  After all, if paid member of Congress don’t read the bills, why should I read everything that goes together in Califronia’s version of direct democracy?  Still the fact that the Legislature and Governor asks me at the ballot box to decide big issues appeals to my vanity, and I dutifully weigh in with a considered opinion on election day.

    Do I want to have the government buy bonds to do X, and Y to Z% interest rate? Oh, thank you for asking!  Moooooo!

    Who do you want to vote for to assess property in your county?  Well, yes, thank you for again asking my expert opinion, and now that you mention it Moooooo!

    Or do I have an opinion about the death penalty, property rights,  air pollution regulations, school policy, sales tax, or the other multitude of issues that clutter the California ballot.  Thanks for asking! Mooooo! Mooooo! And Mooooo!

    So as a sociologist, I like the concept of Weber describes—but how to render Stimmvieh into English in a fashion that Weber might recognize?  “Voting cows” does not capture  the spirit of the German.  “Voting sheep” works a little better, since in the English language sheep in particular are known via metaphor for the mindless herding mentality that Weber is referring to.

    Indeed in the right wing blogosphere, they have started to use the word “Sheeple” which Wikipedia defines as

    a term that highlights the herd behavior of people by likening them to sheep, a herd animal…. used to describe those who voluntarily acquiesce to a suggestion without critical analysis or research.

    In other words Stimmvieh.  That sounds like what I do before voting “Aye” on ratifying the minutes of meetings I have not read, voting for my county’s assessor, or weighing in on a bond issue which I really do not understand.  The problem is that the right wing in the US has somehow appropriated the word “sheeple” and it has come to be associated only with the mindless voting behavior of the Democrats, rather than voters in general like Weber intended.  But we need sheeple back, if for nothing else, because it is such a great idiomatic way to translate the equally idiomatic Stimmvieh.  After all,  Sheeplehood and Stimmvieh behavior is not only for Democrats, but all of us, including you, me, and the guy behind the tree.  It is for whomever has voted “Mooooo,” whether it was to just to go along, inattention, or boredom.

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  • 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.”

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  • 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.

     

     

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  • 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.

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