the orgtheory psychological contract

At orgtheory we’ve tried to develop a loose environment for scholarly discussion. By loose, I mean a place where people can feel comfortable talking about serious ideas in a fun way, without the formality of a colloquium and more open and inclusive than most professional settings. For the most part we’ve been successful I think at facilitating that sort of feeling among contributors. Over the years we’ve had great conversations that have not been constrained by status, rank, or other forms of exclusivity. A community has formed around orgtheory that, while including a lot of sociologists, is fairly interdisciplinary and broad. Personally, that’s why I keep coming back and, even if I’ll go weeks without posting anything, I place a lot of value on this blog and the people who come here to speak their mind.

Our discussions frequently veer from their intended targets and most of the time that is totally okay and within the norms of orgtheory. This place would be boring if people were required to stay on point all the time. It’s consistent with the loose, collegial atmosphere we’ve tried to create. But occasionally (and I mean very infrequently) discussions turn in a sour direction. This wasn’t a problem for the first few years of the blog, perhaps because in those early years we knew almost everyone who came online to connect with us. We had a small community and it was easy to enforce norms with each other. But in the past couple of years, we’ve had a few posts where commenters have become a little snippy with each other. We’ve talked internally about how best to handle those outbursts. As I see it two ideals compete with each other. On the one hand, we value inclusiveness and believe that the best way to encourage real discussion and debate is not to censor. We want people to feel that their input is valued, regardless of status, rank, expertise, etc. On the other hand, we value civility and believe that if people treat each other according to the “golden rule” a greater variety of people will be more likely to participate. And it does seem to be true that when discussions get especially rancorous, many people drop out of the debate and the more impassioned voices surge to the front line.  The rules of discussion that Fabio posted a few months ago were a response to the rising tide of incivility that we observed on the blog.

And this leads me to the incident lurking behind this post. As many of you know, last Friday I invoked rule #6 and deleted a comment. I subsequently shut down the comments section over the weekend. We very rarely delete comments that are not spam. In this case, I felt that it was justified because the comment was posted anonymously and because it was overly-sarcastic and seemed intended to merely criticize a person rather than engage the person. I shut down comments because I saw the potential for a complete derailment of the discussion that would have led to a tone of negativity and hijacked the main stream. Up until that point, I felt like it was a very intelligent, well reasoned debate, and I had no issues with how people conducted themselves or what they said. I don’t regret deleting the comment. I may have shut down the comments section hastily though, and I regret if anyone feels that I censored them. I can only think of one or two times before when we’ve shut down comments. We’ve been wary of doing it because it cuts against our ideal of inclusiveness.

Yesterday, Andrew Gelman, as many of you know, wrote a blog post about this kerfuffle and made this statement:

The idea that a claim, just because it’s published in a top journal, should go unquestioned, or that critics are “trolls,” or that anonymous commenters can’t be trusted (in comparison to anonymous journal reviewers, who are trusted even though their reports are forever hidden): that really bothers me. It seems contrary to the goals and practices of science and scholarship, and indeed contrary to the goals of publication itself.

I want to make clear: this blog does not take the position that critics or anonymous commenters are trolls. We only delete comments when someone, usually an anonymous person, makes a comment that seems intended only to denigrate someone else’s character and criticize the person, not their stance. Any comment that I left on the comment thread undeleted is not trollish in my view. I perceived that the tone of the comment thread, however, was shifting and (based on my experience with past threads) it was quickly going to deteriorate into troll-heaven. The last few comments were moving away from the main discussion – in that sense, I felt like the thread was being hijacked. I wanted to avoid that.

Here at orgtheory we feel that we have a psychological contract with our contributors/commenters/readers/bloggers. Almost everything is fair game for discussion. If you keep  away from making personal attacks or going after someone’s character or criticizing in a needlessly sarcastic tone or hijacking a thread so that you can grind your own ax, then you can say what you want to say and criticize and debate and question to your heart’s delight. If you want to question why I wrote something or why I’m posting about something that you think is irrelevant, do it. If you think the blog sucks, tell us. If you don’t agree with the merits of an argument, make your case. If you dislike an article that everyone else seems to love, explain why. Just abide by the basic rules and you have enormous latitude. That’s been my position, and I want to reiterate that it is my position going forward.

I truly appreciate the number of people who have been commenters on this blog over the years. Without your contribution, orgtheory wouldn’t be what it is. I also appreciate the people, like Jerry Davis, who are willing to go out on a line and be provocative and write ideas and arguments that make us think and debate. We need more people like Jerry Davis in academia. I also appreciate everyone who rushes in to tell Jerry why they think he’s wrong. I’ve done it myself. I’m glad that Jerry and I can still be friends even when we disagree on certain points (such as whether organizations are in decline as social actors/organizing units). The same can be said of many of our participants who return again and again.

I hope all of you keep contributing. Our end of the psychological contract is that we give the space and sometimes the fodder for discussion, and we occasionally moderate. Your end of the contract is simply that you avoid crossing that line into the arena of personal attack. It’s really for the good of everyone that we do that. The more personal attack there is, the fewer valuable contributors there will be in the future. I hope we can continue to foster that loose, fun, interesting, and compelling place for discussion for many years to come.

Written by brayden king

March 5, 2014 at 6:57 pm

Posted in blogs, brayden

29 Responses

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  1. Brayden:

    Thanks. I think this sort of open discussion is great, and I think that Davis’s original post was in that spirit, as were the comments by Steve Morgan, Thomas Basbøll, the anonymous commenter, and others in that earlier discussion.


    Andrew Gelman

    March 5, 2014 at 7:35 pm

  2. well-put! though it sounds like more of an implicit social contract to me…



    March 5, 2014 at 8:13 pm

  3. Brayden: Part of the issue with the referenced incident is that it began, not with a dispassionate argument for a particular position, but rather an argument that read too much as a personal statement of one’s own editorial prowess. And it denigrated others. It is really quite unreasonable to expect a completely non-personal response to something that is itself so personalized. I think there is a lesson here for guest bloggers too.


    Steve Morgan

    March 5, 2014 at 11:39 pm

  4. Hi Brayden. (it feels awkward to start out a message with Hi Brayden when I’ve never met you; but I cannot think of something better) I liked your post and the things you said here very much. There are some great discussions on this site, and sometimes discussions are great specifically for the comments. My advisor even (at least once, I know for sure) has said to me to check out a post and make sure to read the comments too; I think that post was a discussion about theory. In any case, there’s comments to a post, somewhere on this site, about what makes a good theory. Those comments contain some great back and forth discussion, and the commenters included folks like ocasio and ezra zuckerman and several other accomplished others.

    It must be quite a challenge to foster the environment that you attempt to attain here. I second a comment above, that it does sound like an implicit social contract. There is value in anonymous comments; perhaps to allow voice to that which may not be able to be said with disclosed identity. Then again, there is also the chore of getting through comments that add little, if anything at all, even if they may be harmless. Such commentary dampens the experience, for me at least.



    March 6, 2014 at 3:41 am

  5. I wouldn’t worry about it. I delete comments on my blog sometimes with no explanation – when they’re personal attacks or just offensive. The only people who mind are people I don’t mind annoying.


    Philip N. Cohen

    March 6, 2014 at 4:50 am

  6. This will be the last thread I participate in for a while at orgtheory. And let me apologize in advance for the length of this comment.

    It was disorienting for me to be the reason a discussion was shut down. For that reason, I’ll be staying out of debates here for the time being. (I’m over the indignation of being called a “troll”, which I’ve been assured was not the intention.) If the effect of my presence here is that debate can’t proceed, then I’m not making the contribution I would like to make. It looks like Jerry and Steve (and Amanda and Balazs) would eventually have had an interesting, substantive discussion, if only they hadn’t taken offense (or taken by Brayden to having taken offense) at my remarks. If you ask me, they should have just ignored me, and gotten on with whatever they took to be more important.

    I still think, that is, that the issue is one of the thickness of people’s skin. I’m not surprised that Jerry and Brayden can have a civil disagreement about the state of organizations as social actors but not, say, about the quality of each other’s editorial oversight, their mastery of statistical methods, or the quality of their scholarship. In my own scholarship, which deals with exactly that latter set of issues, I constantly run into the perception that such critiques are “personal”. You are free to say that someone is wrong about their conclusions, but if you point out that there are good reasons that they reached the wrong conclusions, i.e., that there was something wrong with the way they got there, suddenly the question of tone comes up.

    Also, Balazs remark, which became a turning point in the conversation, was itself a retreat into “the personal”. He was saying something about himself. Applying the golden rule, we had to take him to be saying that he would leave other people’s research alone after it was published even if he could see errors in it just as he would prefer to have others leave him alone. I disagree with that as a maxim that can be applied universally to scholars, and in fact take the opposite view. Being a scholar brings with it the responsibility to engage with published results, especially when we think those results are wrong.

    So here there’s a meta-question that really does border on issues of “character”. I’m saying there is something wrong with Balazs’ “attitude”; just as Steve reacted to Jerry’s obvious pride about what a great editor he is, and couldn’t let his actual practices stand as an example for others to follow (again, that’s just applying the golden rule symmetrically), I felt compelled to react to Balazs’ confession that, as I understood it, he just doesn’t have the energy to work in a critical environment. It was a strange admission that of a lack of intellectual stamina. Like if an athlete says the best thing about the sport is when it’s all over and the pain stops. Or we could use Andrew’s hiking metaphor. To me, it was quite serious. It was like a soldier abandoning his post and defending himself by saying simply that he was “scared”. Okay, we want to say, we’re scared too, but you appear to be in the wrong line of work.

    Brayden is telling us we always have to stop short at making that insinuation. It’s as though we always have to say, “You did everything right, and you’re a good and smart person to boot, and you probably only of intellectual interests in saying what you’re saying, but I still disagree with your conclusions.” I hope at least some people can understand why that’s an unsatisfying way to have a scientific disagreement. It construes conclusions as ultimately entirely arbitrary, unrelated to the procedures, whether practical (methodological) or theoretical (epistemological), that we use to reach them, and our extra-science interests.

    In my view, wrong conclusion should always be taken as a sign of a wrong or misapplied procedure, and in some case as outright disingenuous. Moreover, the insinuation that “if that’s the way you feel you should find another line of work” is, in my opinion, essential to the health of any profession. Sometimes it means actually having to leave, or even to kick people out. But often it’s just an occasion to pull yourself together and get back to your post before anyone gets hurt.

    What happened here is totally understandable as a social phenomenon, of course. It’s just also obviously one reason that the fact that social science is itself a social process makes intellectual progress difficult. My interest in the social sciences is focused on precisely this question. Do the social sciences provide the sort of critical environment that makes knowledge of social life likely to emerge? Or do they simply provide another site of social life, another place to observe the reproduction of social structures?



    March 6, 2014 at 9:42 am

  7. P.S. I appreciate Brayden’s acknowledgement that is was hasty to shut down the thread. And I accept his apology. I wasn’t censored, I guess, but I did feel censured. However, I do also happen to feel that the anonymous commenter was justified in making the comment, and should not have been censored. In that sense, I still don’t feel the issue has been resolved.



    March 6, 2014 at 11:18 am

  8. Steve: I really hope that contributors to this blog don’t feel that they have to write dispassionate arguments for anything. Being provocative and impassioned (even if only to make a point) is part of what keeps the blog loose. I didn’t have a problem with the form of Jerry’s post. The comments were fine as well until the anonymous one that I mentioned earlier.

    Thomas: I would never say that people should be scared to talk about how we arrive at our scientific conclusions. Methods and epistemology are frequent topics of discussion on this blog. There was nothing wrong with what people were saying in the comments section as it related to methodology and epistemology. And I wouldn’t have shut down comments at all if it were not for the sarcasm of anon’s comment.


    brayden king

    March 6, 2014 at 1:28 pm

  9. Brayden: I agree entirely. My point is that it wasn’t dispassionate and depersonalized, and so it would be odd for reactions to it to then be dispassionate and depersonalized. The lesson for the guest blogger is: “You will get what you give, and there will be collateral damage. Maybe think twice about whether it is worth it.” The lesson for orgtheory is reinforcement of what you already know: the more opinionated and personal the original post, the more the ensuing comment threat will be personalized and impassioned, until people move on to something else. If you don’t want that to happen, and you can see red flags that a post is going to tick off a bunch of people, maybe it would good to let the guest blogger know. In some sense, the critical realism debate got much more nasty than this one, but it didn’t center intellectually on the “in crowd” of organization researchers, and so you all were less protective of the casualties. In terms of protecting casualties, I might have done the same for junior scholars in my area of specialty, but I also don’t think I would have wanted the editor of Sociology of Education to write a post that exposed junior scholars to criticism in the way that Jerry did.


    Steve Morgan

    March 6, 2014 at 3:02 pm

  10. I appreciate your intervention, Brayden. I also appreciate your sincere interest in maintaining an appropriate manner of discourse on this blog. This is the only blog I visit daily and one of three I visit with any regularity. I comment infrequently with an outsider’s limitations but sincere interest.

    As an outsider (I am no sociologist), I see a few issues with the blog that I believe lead to the perceived breakdowns in social discourse. First and obviously, there is a strong in-group/out-group nature to the conversation here. This is salient in this thread and the one that promulgated it. Just read the “I-know-that-Jerry-knows-that-I-know” comments. Semi-anonymous and anonymous graduate students and other out-group participants like me sometimes get trapped in this.

    Second, while I have been coming to this site for more than five years to see what is happening in organizational sociology, I have learned to put up with the tangential issues (the politics of ASA, whether GREs really matter,…) of professional interest to the bloggers. I don’t come for the jazz, though I enjoy it for its own sake. I don’t come for the blatant sell-promotion and I am capable of ignoring it. I find the blithe pop-sociology posts more annoying. But that is my out-group problem. All y’all in-group people can automatically sort these out. But I perceive that the tone and content of the conversations vary widely when these non-core posts provoke conversations. And umbrage is not taken in all cases. And when it is, and when threads are “hijacked”, the in-group decides whether or not to turn its back and move on without invoking cloture.

    So it appears to this outsider that the norms you wish to foster herein, Brayden, may be themselves the seeds of discord. If the norms are fluid, so are the putative boundaries around how they are perceived and how they are enforced.



    March 6, 2014 at 3:26 pm

  11. Brayden,

    I appreciate the sentiment and agree with the censoring of personal attacks, but I really don’t think “the incident” was all that big of a deal. On a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is “rational discussion” and 10 is “makes reader cringe with embarrassment for all involved,” the incident barely pulls a “6.” It doesn’t compare at all to the over-sharing, unrestrained Id, and all-round asshattery that was typical in the “wild west” days of academic blogging…the sort of thing that soc shrine used to archive. Orgtheory isn’t broken. It is working just fine.



    March 6, 2014 at 5:13 pm

  12. thanks adiff, and I agree.


    brayden king

    March 6, 2014 at 5:17 pm

  13. Just to be clear – I tried to offer a critique of the person’s stance, not the person himself. No idea who it is and don’t care. But declaring that one is not really interested in discussing the paper after it has been published is very, very strange in my mind – and I thought it was fair to argue, that I saw no reason to cite the work of people who are not interested in a serious discussion about the merit and potential of a given (awesome, as I also stated) paper.This is certainly an opinion (and behavior) that I will stick to. I could and should have offered as constructive a comment as Gelman did in his elegant blog post (or Thomas above in his lengthy comment). I am genuinely surprised to see that the comment was considered trollish – I apologize for any offence! Although as Steve points out – critical realists have received far harsher treatment on this (fantastic!!) blog than anyone in the comment section the other day.
    (And am of course far too scared to reveal my identity now – and not sure whether the post is acceptable)..



    March 6, 2014 at 8:53 pm

  14. Thanks for the explanation anonymous. You’re welcome to comment here anytime.

    Personally, I hate the idea of using citations as a punishment or a reward for something that someone might have said sometime. I guess I hate the idea of using citations to punish or reward, period. But I can see now that you were sincere and not simply attacking Balazs for the pure pleasure of it. There is a precedent of that on the Internet, and we’ve had our fair share of experience with it here as well. I sensed, and I can see now I was probably wrong, that your comment was meant in that spirit. Even if you didn’t mean it that way, I have an obligation to protect the integrity of the conversation from deteriorating into a shark-fest, and so that is why I took the action.


    brayden king

    March 6, 2014 at 9:41 pm

  15. “…exposed junior scholars to criticism.” Interesting locution. In retrospect, it appears that “This is a really good paper, and you should read it” is not a well-intentioned invitation, but a cruelty. Mistakes were made, hackles were raised, high-volume criticisms were leveled, by someone or other.



    March 6, 2014 at 9:59 pm

  16. I stayed out of the last round because I had nothing to say, and have no opinion about the specific exchange that led to the temporary closing of comments, but reflecting on the issue, I think it is important to say that the author of a published work has absolutely no obligation to respond to every criticism, or any criticism, that is made of it, whether that criticism is made in a traditional paper publication or on a blog. And, in fact, most authors of widely-cited or widely-read works find it healthiest to detach themselves from their works and avoid engaging critics. Once something is published it is fair game as a text, and wise authors let the text stand on its own. Similarly, just because you the critic went to the trouble to write a criticism does not entail any obligation on the part of the author of the text to read or even notice your criticism, much less engage it. This can be frustrating to critics, but there you have it. The fact that we customarily use the author’s name as a stand-in for the text probably confuses some authors and critics, but I believe it is important to maintain the distinction between text and person.

    I’m not saying that deciding to respond to critics is always wrong, just that it is not obligatory and often unwise.

    When I was first starting out, there was a saying: there is no such thing as a bad citation, as long as you spell my name right. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but food for thought.



    March 7, 2014 at 3:23 am

  17. The best approach is to treat readers like adults. The same elitism that i criticized in the original post has been present in this discussion. It has been a big turnoff for me. Why have a public forum when you can just set up a private club where only you and your smart friends can talk? Disappointing but not atypical sociological behavior…

    Liked by 1 person


    March 7, 2014 at 12:55 pm

  18. Hector – which part of this discussion do you find elitist? I hoped to get across the opposite point – that if you act like an adult, you are free to comment as you’d like. And I should point out as well that it’s very rare that we ever delete a comment. In most cases the reasons for deletion are much more severe than what happened last Friday.


    brayden king

    March 7, 2014 at 1:33 pm

  19. @olderwoman: Two things in reaction. 1) I entirely agree with you. 2) You write for a blog, yet seem wholly unfamiliar with the brave new world they are trying to construct for the rest of us. It is not a world in which “the author of a published work has absolutely no obligation to respond to every criticism…on a blog.”



    March 7, 2014 at 4:02 pm

  20. Olderwoman’s take is the smartest reaction to the kerfluffle yet. In literary criticism, there’s the well known “death of the author” idea (from an essay by Roland Barthes). Once a text is published, it stands on its own disconnected from the author’s intentions and self. The social sciences don’t seem to like such a stance, as Olderwoman notes.

    All this to say that I found Kovacs’s response refreshing. I, too, gain satisfaction from publication and being able to put a particular text to bed. If I want to engage the ideas therein, or criticisms made of it, I’ll conduct another study or write a formal response or comment on in a future presentation, which will then give me the satisfaction of being done again. For a time, at least. Such satisfaction doesn’t make me less of a social scientist, or less committed to finding the “truth” of a phenomenon.



    March 7, 2014 at 7:51 pm

  21. If one compares two different scientific worlds (disregarding incentives systems for now): World A consists of Orgtheory blog posters who not only publish in highly ranked journals, but often offer reflections on topics and papers currently discussed in the research community, or topics and papers that should be discussed. Some of them just random thoughts, some are basically short research notes of a very high quality. Research is thus not just developed in in peer reviewed papers that are published after 12-18 months of peer review, but continuously. E.g. when a recently published, very well done ASQ paper is discussed. World B consists of people who only offer substantial thoughts in these peer reviewed papers that only see the light of day (except for reviewers) after 12-18 months. It should be quite clear in which world problems (in a Simon’sque sense) are solved in a most optimal way, both in terms of speed and quality. World B sociologists are surely not less commited to finding the truth, but live in a scenario that leads to slower developments. There is nothing inherently wrong in any scenario though, and noone is obliged to do follow one or the other scenario….



    March 8, 2014 at 10:21 am

  22. Sorry Brayden, I was a little cranky after reading all the related exchanges. Apologies. Main point is that the readers can exert a level of social control over the comments and that should keep the conversation going. I appreciate concerns over trolling but I would err on the side of open debate. I come to the site for some lively and timely sociological exchange…be well and thanks for your work…



    March 8, 2014 at 2:44 pm

  23. I think this is obvious to most readers, but possibly not all (maybe I misunderstand Anonymous’s point), but detaching text from author is not to shut down vigorous discussion and debate about texts. To the contrary, it says that any and all criticisms of texts are legitimate and should not be construed as attacks on persons. Young scholars who want to get noticed by publishing on-line criticisms of published work are welcome to do so, as are established scholars who are trying to use publications as exemplars of some point they want to make. It also says that “what I really meant” or “you are misinterpreting me” are not legitimate author responses (which is why refusing to engage a criticism of one’s work is often wise).

    That SocSci has created a forum for post-publication discussion/debate is great, and presumably authors of articles in that venue sign on to participating in such discussions in that venue.That’s a different issue from being expected to reply to any random criticism made anywhere, no matter how well taken that criticism is. Similarly, the fact that some authors in some contexts do constructively engage critics to the benefit of all who read does not thereby entail an obligation on every other author to do the same anytime anybody wants them to.

    There is another kind of attack on texts that is about persons, that alleges that the text was willfully false or politically motivated, or that the text reveals the author’s underlying but suppressed opinions about controversial issues. Authors may well treat these attacks as personal and some readers will treat such attacks as inappropriate personalizing of an issue that should stay intellectual. The circumstances under which it is appropriate to personalize a discussion is itself contested and engaging that debate would re-open heated arguments that have already occurred in this blog space without resolution. But I think that both sides in even that heated debate would agree that the grounds on which personalizing a debate is appropriate involve important extra-text ethical or political issues. And even when the criticism is undeniably personal, authors rarely have anything to gain and much to lose from engaging critics.



    March 8, 2014 at 3:57 pm

  24. Olderwoman says, “refusing to engage a criticism of one’s work is often wise”. I’d rather say, “not engaging a criticism of one’s work is sometimes wise”. That is, answer or don’t answer a criticism as you choose. Make your decision based on the criticism itself and the forum in which it is made. But if you choose not to engage don’t make a show of your refusal. Don’t claim you have a right not to engage. Don’t say you’d prefer not to engage. Don’t say you were hoping you wouldn’t have to answer any further questions by anyone. Etc. Just ignore it and hope no one important thinks the question was valid and you should have answered. Such is the nature of discourse.



    March 8, 2014 at 6:26 pm

  25. Olderwoman, if you your post is meant to relate to mine in any way, then yes, you have misunderstood my point. Whether texts should be detached from authors is not really relevant at all, for my point about different scientific worlds.



    March 8, 2014 at 6:29 pm

  26. Thomas: Yes I agree with your rephrasing. No show of refusal is appropriate. Just don’t respond if you don’t want to. Anon: sorry for misunderstanding your point.



    March 8, 2014 at 7:20 pm

  27. From where I sit — and I am very much an outgroup member — it sure looks like the very specific thing which triggered the “it’s a troll!” reaction was the use of ridicule (by Thomas) and of sarcasm (by the anon) to make their points.

    The argument is being framed that the issue of contention is whether or not the censured comments were ad hominem, and, relatedly, whether criticizing a person rather than their work is licit. The meta-argument here so far has been about whether or not it is licit (in this blog’s culture or the larger culture of sociological researchers) to criticize, or what are legitimate targets for criticism. But that seems to me to be a red herring.

    I would argue the real bone of contention is whether or not the rhetorical tools of mockery and/or sarcasm are in this community licit means of criticism.

    I’m but an occasional orgtheory reader, but in the entirety of my experience reading comments here, I’ve never once observed the use of sarcasm and ridicule in the comments, except in some earlier comments by Thomas. I make no claim of completeness, but my limited experience leaves me with the understanding that, in this space, sarcasm and/or ridicule are not normative. If I am correct in that observation, then it is only to be expected their use in this context was first and foremost read as transgressive, and, as a transgression suspected of being willful, taken as an expression of contempt for the group’s norms and thus the group itself. A troll is one who does not believe a group’s norms of discourse apply to the troll, so I’m not at all surprised that Braydon’s first reaction to two people so violating the group’s norms was oh, no! trolls!

    Both Thomas and the anon disavow any trollish intent: they did not mean to act transgressively. While they have only addressed whether they meant their comments to attack the person (the anon argues he didn’t, Thomas argues he did but that should be licit to do so), I expect neither meant to communicate contempt for the gathering in their choice to employ those rhetorical tools; I don’t think they meant to say “screw you all and your little norms too!” In fact I think maybe they hadn’t even noticed other people don’t habitually speak that way here. Somebody (Thomas? I can’t find it now) raised the interesting point that the original post which started all this actually used quite a bit of disparagement to communicate contempt; I just went back and checked, and yes, it uses sarcasm, too (e.g. “where her detailed knowledge of Heckman selection models might come in handy”.) One can see where there might be some confusion as to the licitness of ridicule and sarcasm[*].

    (To forestall the inevitable: I’m not invoking the canard that sarcasm is widely misunderstood in text; research shows the opposite, and in this particular example, it seems clear that all the sarcasm used in both threads was absolutely transparent to all involved, and no one had the slightest trouble understanding what was meant. The problem was not in decoding the actual sarcastic speech, but in decoding what the choice to employ sarcasm signaled. Pro tip: while sarcasm can be employed to any rhetorical end, including the most affirming and supportive, it is, at least in the English-speaking modern cultures with which I am familiar, strongly associated with aggression, hostility, and contempt; absent other contextualization, one may reliably assume that that will be the connotated affect understood of any message couched that way.)

    I have no opinion as to what the norms of this group should be (not that I, being an outgroup member, would or should have any say). I have had fabulous experiences in communities of discourse in which ridicule and sarcasm were illicit, and I have had fabulous experiences in communities of discourse in which they were not only licit, they were common, accepted, and not taken personally. You can make this work in any a number of ways. But I am certain one thing doesn’t work, and that is to have two competing sets of norms in the same group. Whatever you pick, you might make a statement somewhere about the forum’s expectations, whether that is “Criticize anyone you like, but please don’t express yourself through mockery or sarcasm to do it” or “Mockery and sarcasm are not grounds for censure here; this is a free-fire zone” or anything else you decide.

    [* I’ve informally observed two norms that commonly show up in bloggy online spaces. One is “sarcasm and mocking disparagement are okay in the original post, but not in the comments; take it to your own blog if you want to get snippy/catty”, another (hardly unique to blogs) is “sarcasm and mocking disparagement can only be turned on outgroup members; don’t point those things at us”. At this point in Internet history, these should not be surprises when you encounter them in the wild.]



    March 9, 2014 at 12:26 am

  28. I think it is very interesting and useful to critically discuss published papers. These “top journals” have immense power in our institutional setup and some of the papers can seem even quite silly or trivial once their content is rephrased. I can see it is quite worthwhile to point out that some papers might be just tautological, outright trivial, repeating some already published work, and incorporate grandiose language just to make things appear more “theoretical” with little gain in actual abstraction. These discussions would seem to be useful because most people fail to ever publish in these journals with grave costs. More discussion is healthy because it establishes and reinforces more transparency on what is good scholarship and thereby helps make the whole system more legitimate.

    Unfortunately academic papers are written by real people and I agree we ought to have a fair bit of civility in criticizing actual people. As Ezra noted in an earlier thread, it is not like all published papers wouldn’t be full of problems. While it seems mean-spirited to attack any particular paper given the difficulty in making “perfect studies”, I doubt we want to accept that everyone in our field lives in a glass house either? It seems inherently more fair to scrutinize really accomplished people who we should expect high standards from (like Jerry Davis, guy when he next publishes something ;-)). But that is perhaps slightly suicidal…



    March 9, 2014 at 7:35 pm

  29. Minder:

    You write, “I’m but an occasional orgtheory reader, but in the entirety of my experience reading comments here, I’ve never once observed the use of sarcasm and ridicule in the comments, except in some earlier comments by Thomas. I make no claim of completeness, but my limited experience leaves me with the understanding that, in this space, sarcasm and/or ridicule are not normative.”

    No, the orgtheory bloggers do use sarcasm at times. I say this not as a criticism (I enjoy sarcasm myself) but just to indicate that your impression isn’t quite accurate. Indeed, orgtheory blogger Omar Lizardo mocked Thomas Basbøll a few years ago, calling him and his collaborator “the Danish guys what’s his name and watchumacallit” and mocking the name of the journal where “ephemera” where their article was published.

    Again, I have no particular problem with making fun of people (consider the various recurring figures on my blog such as Laurence Tribe or Dr. Anil Potti) so I’m not making any sort of moral judgment. I just don’t think that orgtheory has any sort of implicit anti-ridicule or anti-sarcasm rule that Thomas or the anonymous commenter were violating. Indeed, Jerry Davis’s post which started all this out had some sarcasm of its own.


    Andrew Gelman

    March 11, 2014 at 1:26 pm

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