Nicholas Wade, Jared Diamond and Anthropology

     Ok, Anthropology, one day after my post on Nicholas Wade, and that post gets more hits than the last five or six posts here put together.  I get it, you like Nicholas Wade, and especially complaining about him.  You don’t like biological reductionism, and think that such studies are used to reinforce racist ideologies.  For what it is worth, I more or less agree.

But for some reason you don’t want to read stuff that critiques biological reductionism on its own terms, and opt for those presented by the anthropology’s favorite bogeymen, which from recent activity in the blogosphere seem to include Nicholas Wade, Jared Diamond, and Razib Khan. I know because I follow the hits on this blog, and my academia.edu account, and the hit masters are those posts which mention those three names.  In contrast, my April 30 post about six inches below this post is doing realtively poorly, as is the article it mentions “Of Looking Glasses and Mirror Neurons….” Which was published last month in Perspectives on Science.  It is about The Looking Glass Self, a fantastic concept from sociology, and the advantages of using it rather than that favorite of the biological world, The Mirror Neuron Hypothesis.  Please read this rather than the latest diatribe about Nicholas Wade, or the others.

And if you want a further dose of social scientific critique of biological data, go read Jonathan Marks What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee, and Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man.  It is better to read these classics, then to spend time complaining about the latest from Nicholas Wade or Jared Diamond.  There are plenty more great citations to social scientists like Susan Engel, Omar Lizardo, Timothy Ingold, Richard Wilkinson, Pierre Bourdiue in the bibliography of my article—believe me sociology and anthropology are in an excellent position to create an alternative to biological reductionism—just do it!

Anthropology is a wonderful subject—show the world how wonderful it is by practicing it, and have the confidence that the rest of the world will notice.  I certainly have.

 

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.

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.

To Disrupt or Preserve The University

Lately there has been a lot of heat around the idea of disrupting higher education. In fact, the search phrase “disrupting higher education” currently yields almost 2 million results via Google.

Like everything else disrupted in the recent past, the impetus here is the application of digital technology to a new domain in order to lower costs and increase efficiency. This HASTAC article has a nice breakdown of the current state of play in higher education. And here is a presentation on disruptive innovation in education from the man who coined the term and popularized the concept. No word on whether Joseph Schumpeter considered the university as part of the business sector and hence available to be torn asunder, though I suspect he did not.

There is a bit more to the story than just the application of digital technology to higher education. I would argue (and will in a later post) that the confluence of learning objectives derived from Bloom’s taxonomy, standardized testing, and digital technology constitutes the three legged stool supporting this trend. I won’t dwell on the consequences of disruption here, as I have a feeling most people reading this have first-hand experience, or soon will, with the effects of disruptive innovation.

Pessimism in this situation is understandable and, to an extent, unavoidable. But, there is a countertrend afoot: a conserving trend that would see the university reimagined along the traditional lines of a self-governing polity of scholars. Granted, these initiatives are young and some are little more than a few people sitting and talking over drinks, but that is exactly how most movements get their start.

Theses initiatives include cooperative organizations like the New University Cooperative (which doesn’t seem to have any new activity since 2011) and The Social Science Center, Lincoln. In addition to their organizational work, both of these initiatives have spawned conceptual work around the question of whether the cooperative is a sustainable model for the university, here, here and here.

Another direction is represented by the IF Project which aims to provide a  free education in the humanities by using London as an open air lecture hall/seminar room combined with select online lectures. An example of their curriculum can be found here. They also just finished a successful kickstarter campaign. Similar to the IF Project are the Ragged Project, the Liverpool Free School,  the University of the Commons  and The Public School.

Developing in a different direction is The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Here you will find seminars in philosophy and the humanities conducted in found space across NYC. While many of the initiatives I have highlighted are utopian to the point of insisting on not paying their instructors, the Brooklyn Institute charges a modest fee for its 6- to 7-week seminars, most of which flows directly to the instructors. I would imagine the pay per hour is equal to, or slightly better than, adjuncting with the priceless benefit of controlling your working conditions. If you are in NYC, they are looking for new faculty. Though, I notice they are looking for a social theorist and a sociologist but not an anthropologist. Ahem…

Another area of ongoing experimentation is assessment. Some initiatives are pursuing traditional accreditation, others are experimenting with Mozilla Open Badges, and others are going assessment free. This is worth thinking through comprehensively, even more than new forms of organization, as assessment is the most difficult and politically charged issue in education. Not only in the form the assessment takes, which can range from the easy computability of a standardized test to the hermeneutic task of interpreting a narrative evaluation, but also in how, or whether, the assessment might be taken up and employed by future publics.

One more thought before I wrap this up. If you think things are bad in the social sciences and humanities, and they are, take some comfort in knowing they are no better in the life sciences. Ethan Perlstein has been talking for a couple of years now about the “postdocalpyse” in the life sciences.  Yet, Perlstein and the projects mentioned here continue to pursue their intellectual projects by other means and in the process take small, but important, steps towards repairing the disruptions.

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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