Some time ago, a friend and colleague of mine used to call me a lot just to talk about our field, my friend’s job situation, and other stuff. My friend finally got in a good job situation and we talked less often. I think partially this is because I got busy and I’m kind of bad about keeping up with people in general, which is a continual source of anxiety-causing regret for me. I’m not kidding about the easily distracted thing.
But it was also because my friend always wanted to diss everyone else in our field and diss most of the books and articles written by people in our field, in generally pretty personalized terms. I kind of played along with that while my friend was still in job limbo but I got tired of it once my friend was in a more secure situation.
It’s an odd thing. I can be pretty harsh about academia as an institution overall. I can be pretty critical about some of the problems I see in my own fields of speciality. I can certainly dish out abuse on some books: one of the first professional book reviews I wrote pretty thoroughly brutalized a work that I thought then and still think was pretty awful. I was certainly over-the-top mean in my assessment of Ward Churchill’s scholarship.
Mostly, though, I’d rather not. Even if I’m going to be critical of a particular scholar, a particular book, a particular field, I’d still always like to think sympathetically about why that scholar does what he or she does, why a particular book has the problems that it does, why some field of study or discipline has a blindspot or two. I mean, it’s hard to write a scholarly monograph or complete a serious research project, even when the results are not hugely significant. Some of the harsher critics of academia out there are acting like most of what academics produce is just totally worthless. Really, that’s too harsh. It might be fair to say most of it is sort of middling or mediocre, but that’s not an invitation to act like particular scholarly individuals stole your lunch money. The lack of proportionality in some criticisms–including my friend to whom I don’t speak that much anymore–depresses me.
I don’t think that sympathy came naturally to me: it’s more like a professional commitment I picked up along the way. I learned it partially from my graduate advisor, for whom it is a profound way of life, especially in his pedagogy. As far as he’s concerned, almost every work of scholarship has something in it that is useful or smart, and when he criticizes, he has a great knack for trying to criticize something in its own terms rather than break it on the wheel of his personal tastes and make it be more like himself. I’ve never seen him say, as many of us do, “You should have written the book I would have written”.
All of this is a prelude to explaining why a recent Crooked Timber thread about complexity and social networks made me feel really uncomfortable. Some really intense things got said, especially in the comments, that seem to me disproportionate to the subject matter. The substance of the discussion is that physicists are moving into the area of social networks with a relative lack of knowledge of work done by social scientists on this topic. That seems a fair observation. If you want the really detailed, insanely smart version of that observation, read Cosma Shalizi’s essay on the subject. (As long as I’m mentioning it, anybody who thinks scholarly blogs aren’t particularly scholarly should read that essay: the scholarly goods delivered in that entry to me outweigh any three or four average journal articles.)
Part of the reason it’s fair is not just that physicists are moving into this area of study but that they’re doing so without a kind of performative (and substantive) humility. Ok, fine. But at least some of the people bothered by this movement at Crooked Timber, both contributors and commentators, are so hostile to the mere fact of movement that I’m not sure sufficient humility would do anything to ease the passage of new players into work on social networks.
It makes me feel uneasy because I’ve tentatively been poking at these subjects (complexity, social networks, emergence) with a long stick and an acute sense of my own limitations. Reading some of that CT thread, particularly Daniel Davies’ comments, it almost seems to me that anybody who wants to say anything about these subjects, or apply them to work of their own, has to emerge like Aphrodite from the waves, a dazzlingly erudite, full-blown sociological researcher whose command of everything and anything within the canon prescribed stretches all the way down to the roots and all the way up to the tops of the scholarly tree.
Subjects, theories and methodologies may be old hat in one area of inquiry and excitingly new in another. Africanists have been thinking about problems of epistemology in history for two generations that other areas of humanistic thought are only just starting to consider, but I find it quite annoying when Africanists get upset about that fact. Sure, they could cite us more often, but I think it’s better to be pleased at the company than jealous about the table scraps. I wrote about commodification and consumerism in my own narrow field before almost anyone else did; now there are many new studies, and not that many of them cite me. I notice that, mind you: we all do. But it seems to me that it would be churlish to complain about it. In all honesty, no fake humility here, I’m very pleased to see that shift happen. Even in purely egotistical terms, it feels good to see it happen: it means I
got lucky saw it coming ahead of time.
Maybe the ability to be relatively relaxed about such movements is a function of career security. A mid-career, tenured scholar with little driving ambition to move up the perceived status ladder can afford to just be playful and generous. Those who have a more serious need to accumulate reputation capital may need to hoard it more aggressively.
It seems to me that we learn best about fields which are new to us by trying to practice them, not by going into monkish seclusion and acquiring a comprehensive command of a full canon before we even dip our toes into a new hot tub. Complexity and emergence is old hat to some people, but it’s new to me, and judging from the reaction when I talk about it to colleagues in my own discipline, new to most historians. It’s best when we first try to practice in a new area that we acknowledge our limitations, I agree. It does annoy when someone tackles a topic that is deeply explored by a generation of scholars as if those scholars never existed. Stephen Wolfram got smacked for just such a sin, and appropriately so, whatever the virtues of his work in other respects might be. That humility isn’t just a performance: it’s a recognition of the collective, cumulative nature of scholarship. It needs to be met by a generosity on the other side of things, however. Part of how we learn by doing is the gentle amendations of others inside and outside our own disciplines once our work circulates or is published. Guiding people to well-formed bodies of knowledge is one thing; punishing them for having failed to find those bodies of knowledge, for failing to be us is another. The one seems to me the best possibility of a scholarly community; the other the worst realization of it.