The Appropriate Role of Outside Critics in Politicized Academic Disciplines:

I came across an interesting post by Professor Kenneth Dauber on a list to which I subscribe. I am reprinting it below with his permission. Professor Dauber's comments were prompted by the recent tenure controversy involving Barnard anthropology professor Nadia Abu El-Haj, and an obviously one-sided article in the New Yorker on that controversy, but I think have broader significance. Note that I don't know enough about anthropology to endorse Professor Dauber's view of that discipline [note that he takes no position on the quality of El-Haj's work]. But Professor Dauber's remarks go to a broader issue--the tendency of certain departments, or entire disciplines (see, e.g., Women's Studies), to be overtly politicized, and for academics who have participated in this politicization to then claim some sort of academic freedom right to autonomy not merely from outside interference, but from outside scrutiny and criticism. Here's Prof. Dauber:

1)Modern anthropology, founded, essentially, by Franz Boas — interestingly enough, a Jew and a professor at Columbia — took as its social good the appreciation of communities that the march of the West had relegated to the primitive.

Contemporary anthropology continues that tradition, but, now under the influence of a general academic agreement that the West equals colonialism, with barely a remainder of what else the West might be, it continues with the difference that it is less important to articulate the values of marginalized communities than to break down Western hegemony.

That the anthropological project of appreciating other communities is also a product of the West is what anthropology cannot admit. And that marginalized communities might adhere to values that are, actually, not to be appreciated is outside the discourse.

2) History: History is not particularly interesting to anthropologists. Since what anthropology is interested in is the way in which communities construct themselves, history and myth, fact and fiction serve equally well.

Anthropology is very bad at analyzing historical cultures--that is cultures for whom what actually happened is important. What actually happened is not exactly outside the discourse, but it is, if we may use the word, itself "marginalized."

3) Free speech: Within academic disciplines, free speech is highly constrained. There are norms, criteria of what counts as evidence, attitudes, and anyone violating these will have a hard time getting published or getting a job or getting promoted.

Depending on the criteria, this can be a good thing. It rules out the promotion of fantasy. When the criteria themselves are fantastic, however, they rule out the promotion of anything one might like to call truth.

Comparing the criteria you use with the criteria that those in other disciplines use is generally outside the discourse of your own discipline, not only in anthropology, of course, but very definitely in anthropology.

Let's put it bluntly: Whatever the particulars of the Abu-El-Haj case, whether her work is good or bad, to deny that a highly politicized discipline that evaluates the work of its practitioners from within the terms of that politics, to claim that experts with a vested interest in the blindness of their discipline necessarily are objective, to attribute to everyone and every objection an unholy commitment that contrast badly with the holy commitment of defenders is not only to be blind but either to blind yourself or attempt to blind others.

UPDATE: Post slightly edited for clarification purposes.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Norman Levitt on Nadia Abu el Haj and "Science Studies":
  2. The Appropriate Role of Outside Critics in Politicized Academic Disciplines:
Norman Levitt on Nadia Abu el Haj and "Science Studies":

Professor Levitt, coauthor of the highly recommended Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science, has the following thoughts on the Abu el Haj controversy, reprinted with the permission of Prof. Levitt:

My take on the Nadia Abu el Haj affair at Columbia, after much thought, differs both from that of Abu el Haj's defenders and those of her various critics.

I think that it was shameful of Barnard to retain her as a tenured faculty member, but that her political views, as well as those of her opponents, are not especially relevant to the issue.

My disquiet arises because I think Abu el Haj represents a pseudo-discipline that has gained some traction in universities despite its serious methodological and philosophical defects. The area is usually called "science studies" and its proponents can be found in anthropology and sociology departments, as well as in literary studies.

Abu el Haj tries to engage with archaeology on the basis of the assumptions and theories that are regnant in "science studies", as her book plainly concedes.

These ideas are at the least heavily tinctured with what, for want of a better term, is usually called "postmodernism." This incorporates the attitude that knowledge claims are, perforce, political claims, that "objective knowledge" is an oxymoron, and that modern science, in particular, is a repressive ideological edifice designed to bolster the hegemony of western capitalist patriarchal societies, not least by demeaning and displacing the "alternative ways of knowing" that are embedded in non-western cultures or are simply more appropriate to marginalized sub-populations (women for instance!)

This point of view is strongly conveyed by the science-studies sages from whom Abu el Haj tries to derive her theoretical authority, for instance, Michel Foucault, David Bloor, Bruno Latour, Karen Knorr-Cetina, Helen Longino, Steven Shapin, Simon Schaffer, Andrew Pickering.

The unifying theme of all these theorists is that the manifest content of scientific discoveries is not determined by the relevant physical facts of the universe but is "socially constructed" by some kind of murky alchemy that synthesizes the social and political interests of scientists into scientific theories.

Almost all scientists, as well as philosophers of science in the traditional sense, find this overarching theory of the nature of science to be highly unconvincing, to say the least. I cite some well-known critiques, to some of which I have contributed: "Levitt and Gross, "Higher Superstition," Boghossian, "The Fear of Knowledge', Haack, "Defending Science--Within Reason", Sokal and Bricmont, "Fashionable Nonsense", Koertge (ed.), "A House Built on Sand", and Gross, Levitt and Lewis (ed.), "The Flight from Science and Reason."

These critiques, however, have not dampened the enthusiasm of some would-be scholars, usually with blatant political motivations, to dedicate their academic careers to "science studies" in some context or other.

One clear advantage to this methodology, obviously, is that it gives its practitioners leave to dismiss scientific findings they find discomfiting without the necessity of developing significant scientific arguments against them. If science is a phantom constructed by a cabal with social interests opposed to yours, you have only to utter a few magic words from the science-studies canon and, poof!, the offending ideas go up in smoke. One can see this at work in the supposed findings of many authors, from Helen Longino, who doesn't like the fact that exposure to hormones in utero can affect the behavioral propensities of young children, to Vine Deloria, the American Indian activist who simply despises western science root and branch and asserts that it has no authority to dispute Native American lore.

For me, the most damning fact about this school of thought is its cavalier attitude to the work of earlier philosophers of science, who are tossed aside with little more than a sneer. I find, much to my astonishment, that the term "positivism" (i.e., the positivism of E, Mach and, later on, the Wienerkreiss logical positivists such as Schlick, Carnap, and Ayer) is utterly misunderstood in science-studies circles, which use it as a generalized term meaning, more or less, respect for the empirical findings of science.

"Positivism" has a very specific meaning, of which even freshman philosophy majors are largely aware, but this understanding is barred to proponents of science studies, who want to use the term as a generalized pejorative. Abu el Haj provides a splendid example of this kind of ignorance and miseducation at work. I want to emphasize that on this ground alone, she disqualifies herself from being considered a serious scholar of the nature of science.

I don't know enough about "science studies" to endorse Prof. Levitt's take, though to the extent I have encountered sociology of science in my work on scientific evidence I have not, to say the least, been impressed overall.

But Prof. Levitt's critique raises a broader issue. There are lots of methodologies and modes of thought that are widely acceptable within at least some circles of academia, but would strike an uninitiated outside observer as nonsensical, academically dishonest, or otherwise discreditable.

For the most part, the outside world ignores the academics who indulge in these flights of fancy, leaving them to their own echo chambers. However, when a group with an interest in a particular issue--for example, pro-Israel activists--encounter academics who are doing such work, they denounce it as obviously biased and unworthy of the academy. And they're right! The other side responds, this work is perfectly respectable within the discipline in question, and you're only complaining because your ox is being gored. And they're also right!

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Norman Levitt on Nadia Abu el Haj and "Science Studies":
  2. The Appropriate Role of Outside Critics in Politicized Academic Disciplines: