This Academic Life
  The Ee electorate
Call me crazy, but I think that the analysis I presented a couple of days ago concerning tensions between orientations towards politics also can help to shed some light on the recently-completed U.S. presidential election. The sociology of knowledge: it's not just for academics anymore.

First, let's review:

contemplatingCc: scholarsEc: scholar-activists
enactingCe: expertsEe: practitioners

These four orientations to politics, generated through a "fractalization" of the the basic choice between contemplating how politics works and enacting specific political programs, produce different sets of expectations with regard to such matters as knowledge, theory, "success," and the like. Scholars have their internal debates about epistemology and methodology, and in an ordinary academic context generally have some experts around with which to contend; experts seek "value-added" in the form of policy recommendations that are grounded in some sort of theoretical rigor but targeted at overcoming the "ivory tower" habits of their scholarly brethren -- even at the expense of a measure of intellectual coherence. Practitioners focus on geting things done, and have little use for more abstract conceptualizations; scholar-activists remain grounded in the world of practice, but step back to reflect on that practice according to standards that they share, more or less, with scholars -- even as they, like experts, aim to produce specific recommendations for policy practice.

Because of "positional solidarity," experts and practitioners find themselves weakly allied against scholars and scholar-activists when it comes to a choice between abstract theoretical rigor and more concrete plans of action. Scholar-activists are the contemplators of the enacting community even as experts are the enactors of the contemplating community. As a result, the issues open for debate between scholars and experts on the one hand, and scholar-activists and practitioners on the other, are effectively the same issues translated into different local contexts. Just as scholars criticize experts for oversimplifying, minimizing complexity, and glossing over methodological subtleties, scholar-activists critique practitioners who do not have a broader grasp of the meaning of their activities, or a solid intellectual defense of why certain actions are performed in preference to others. "Theory," or "rigor," or sometimes "methodological sophistication," serves as a specific move in a language-game of debate between the two ideal-typical poles within each community. And the reverse move is also possible, and prevalent: experts and practitioners throw the charge of "sophistication" back in the faces of their opponents, charging them with being completely out of touch with political reality.

[Parenthetically, such conflicts are also fueled by the striking fact that scholar-activists look like ivory-tower scholars to practitioners, even as experts look like a-theoretical practitioners to scholars…typical fractal distortion, in which a group occupying a similar position within the broader universe of positions is substituted for the group with which one is actually arguing. Experts are hopelessly "abstract" by comparison with either scholar-activists or practitioners, but from the content of the charges leveled during the debate, you wouldn't know it. Hang on to that point; it will be useful in a moment.]

A final thing to note is that Ee practitioners are not impressed with academic rigor or sophisticated logic; they are much more likely to respect results, even as they (from a scholarly perspective -- I can't completely detach myself from my own position in this typology, even while trying to envision how things appear from other positions) lack the critical argumentative habits of thought needed to evaluate claims about results. This accounts for the habit of expert-seeking I often see among my MA students, who shop around for an expert whose arguments support them and then deploy that expert as part of a debate with other Ee practitioners. This kind of move presumes a certain positive valence to contemplation, though, such that a practitioner with experts on her or his side is to be taken more seriously than a practitioner without them, or that policies founded in systematic contemplation about how the world is structured are superior to policies that are not so founded. Ec scholar-activists are better able to separate sound from unsound arguments by thinking critically about them, but are probably less likely to simply accept the pronouncement of one or another expert in their debates with Ee practitioners -- which is why we see Ec scholar-activists critiquing the methodology of the experts on which Ee practitioners draw, and drawing on Cc scholarly arguments in order to do so.

Now, assume for a moment that we are dealing with a situation in which contemplation has been devalued. [Set aside for a moment the intriguing question of precisely how this has happened.] In such a situation, one can effectively attack an opponent by deriding their intellectual proclivities and portraying them as an aloof thinker -- lumping reflective enactors in with the most ivory-tower of intellectuals. Given that Ec scholar-activists -- or, perhaps, "thoughtful politicians" -- tend to have more nuanced positions on issues, given their increased familiarity with the nuances of scholarly debate and the complexity of the issues under investigation, one could easily take such a candidate to task for "waffling" on the issues, while touting one's own "fortitude" and "resolution" -- and occasionally trotting out a expert or two to assuage the objections of those remaining few who give a little credence to the idea that thinking matters to political decisions. Behold, the Bush campaign strategy, with the Heritage Foundation and AEI playing the occasional (very occasional -- the Bush campaign, indeed the whole Bush administration, prides itself on not consulting experts for advice, and they rarely base their public claims on expert testimony) "expert" role, and the major substance of the charges against Kerry amounting to something like "he thinks too much, and he surrounds himself with thinkers."

Yes, the Bush campaign also deployed the "moral values" card -- which, as my friends over at The Republic of Heaven wisely point out, means "homophobia" -- and this got them quite a bit of (rural) turnout in swing states, and thus sealed the election. But the condition of possibility for such a deployment to work is that contemplation and thinking be devalued; if it weren't, then we'd be having a much more intricate debate about sexuality, instead of the naked fearmongering characteristic of current public rhetoric on the issue. [Note that I am not saying that the more intricate debate would necessarily be more rational or anything like that, just that it would be more intricate -- with experts weighing in on all sides, and discussion rather than categorical pronouncements that shut down further debate.] In the absence of any public discussion of values, and in the presence of a culture that devalues contemplation, we are left with bare assertions of what "value" entails -- and a lack of public rhetorical space in which to effectively challenge those pronouncements without being accused of, in effect, "thinking too much."

Not too surprising, coming from a group that prides themselves on not being a part of the"reality-based community":

The [Bush] aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

We are now living in a country run by people who not only don't value contemplation, but actively de-values it. And this resonates with their base of supporters.

The solution? We have to restore the value of contemplation, somehow, so that we can get the positive valence back for "thinking a problem through." FDR's brain trust followed the Great Depression; maybe we need another crisis of that magnitude to frighten people into esteeming something other than their "gut" sense of right and wrong?

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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