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will sociology build the wall? on objectivity in social science

(The following is a guest post from Barış Büyükokutan)

ASA President-Elect Mary Romero’s call to put sociology in the service of social justice by doing away with “false notions of ‘objectivity’” triggered a fierce debate about the public mission of sociology. In opposition to Romero’s position and Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra’s defense of that position, I would like to point out that objectivity is not opposed to social justice. On the contrary, objectivity is a prerequisite of any effective prosecution of injustice.

We live in a time period in which injustice is objectively a problem, both for scholars as a puzzle – i.e. “why so much injustice here but not there” – and for citizens as actual experiences. And we do not lack for decent methods of showing this objective reality. Take, for a very basic instance, the Gini coefficient, which is not just relatively easy to calculate but also easy to explain to laypeople: by the Gini coefficient, the United States has less social justice than Finland, Switzerland or New Zealand; that is a fact. Even if such facts are already interpretations, some interpretations are more authoritative than others. More importantly, it is difficult – though, I admit, not impossible – to interpret ad infinitum against reality. We sociologists might want to keep to those “interpretations” rather than shooting ourselves in the foot by pointing out, for instance, that the Gini coefficient has many weaknesses without explaining that its weaknesses are tolerable for good reasons in many, if not most, contexts.

At the heart of my argument, therefore, is a commitment to the pursuit of reality: there is a reality out there, independent of what any one person might think of it. (It obviously doesn’t mean there is a reality independent of what all persons think; social reality is, after all, transitive.) A commitment to objectivity, in other words, is a commitment to following the study of reality wherever it takes us. As such, if an aspect of reality is unjust – if people are treated unfavorably, as a fact, simply because they are not male, white, straight, or middle-class, for example – objectivity requires, first, acknowledging that reality. Second, it requires trying and changing that reality with skillful means—objectively speaking, individual human beings have very similar capabilities, therefore arrangements that treat them differently are objective violations of this higher aspect of reality. By skillful means, I intend simply that one has to take responsibility for one’s actions. Good intentions do not by themselves good people make; people with good intentions have to at least try to find effective ways of getting the right things done. Max Weber was right here—we cannot limit ourselves to an ethic of ultimate ends; an ethic of responsibility is also required of the scholar.

Objectivity does not, therefore, mean value-free science as it is commonly understood—which, by the way, is not how Weber understood it. Weber meant his injunction to stay away from politics to apply in the classroom, and perhaps only in the classroom. This was for reasons our age will easily sympathize with: one should not use one’s superior status to shove one’s ideas down other people’s throat (especially if the shoving will suffice to defeat its own purpose). His many writings – for he was not, contrary to Pardo-Guerra’s sarcastic-but-not-too-much-so portrayal, a “one-book wonder” and would have dominated AJS had AJS existed then – on Junker agriculture, Polish immigration, and the postwar reconstruction of Germany, are all but apolitical. (That they are not the right kind of political for most sociologists today is irrelevant.)

Ironically, without a commitment to objectivity as commitment to the pursuit of reality, one cannot even, as Pardo-Guerra does, write that “science and technology studies have convincingly demonstrated” anything “over the past six decades or so.” For without a reality that can be pursued, one cannot demonstrate at all, at least not in the  sense of the word in use here: to demonstrate something presumes not just two parties, one of which conveys to another a message, but also the existence of the objects the message concerns and the veracity of the message. If, as Pardo-Guerra writes, science and technology studies have indeed argued that science – or objectivity, as it is not clear to me which is meant in that particular sentence – is simply politics by other means, which I take to be equivalent to saying that science does not concern itself with a commitment to the pursuit of reality, the argument is stillborn. In this case and in this sense, objectivity is, again contrary to Pardo-Guerra’s argument, indeed an obvious principle of science. That some scientists have historically failed to take the hint proves only those scientists’ inability to correctly assess the stakes involved. (That some such scientists were nevertheless successful in their fields proves absolutely nothing—scientific skills are many; lacking one does not mean one lacks all the others as well.)

I am not making a pitch for standpoint epistemology. Humans live in spaces structured by various hierarchies, just or unjust, and it is true that where one stands in those spaces shapes one’s vision. But an objective account of those hierarchies – the identification of the principles, again just or unjust, that bring them about – is more than possible as those principles are usually sufficiently legible. In other words, one’s standpoint does not determine one’s vision—one can learn. As such, what the principle of objectivity calls for in a scholar is virtue: One must have the strength of character to, first, admit that one doesn’t know everything and that what one believes one knows may be wrong, welcoming corrections with an open heart. Second, one must admit that one’s own position may provide one with unearned privileges to be renounced. Third, one must accept the fact – fact – that practicing good scholarship might make one unpopular and jeopardize one’s own safety and welfare.

Social justice also requires respect for work that we may find thoroughly apolitical. The pursuit of social justice is the pursuit of a real utopia, and real utopias are frequently the unintended consequences of action initially devoted to something else. Omar Lizardo’s distinction between declarative and nondeclarative culture on the pages of ASR may strike some activists as much ado about nothing, but who can say with certainty that other activists will not at some point find it useful? What Gary Snyder wrote about poetry applies equally to sociology: Today we write about trees for seemingly apolitical reasons like getting tenure, tomorrow a lawyer files a claim of personhood on behalf of trees using our work, helping in the fight against the destruction of nature by capital.

The ASA and its president can help individual sociologists in upholding the joint commitment to objectivity and social justice only if they too commit to both objectivity and social justice. Without the principle of objectivity, we will be vulnerable to various misuses of the postmodern condition and the President of the ASA is in a unique position to help the public distinguish between use and misuse; s/he should be willing and able to play this role. The ethic of ultimate ends wouldn’t care about what these misuses will accomplish, but the ethic of responsibility requires us to anticipate the moves of the powers-that-be—after all, we do not just want to fight the good fight, we want to fight it well and, if at all possible, win it. Twenty-one years after the Sokal Affair, it should be clear to anyone that one cannot chase away misuses of postmodern thought easily; it certainly cannot be done in 140 characters.

Committing ASA jointly to objectivity and social justice means effectively mobilizing resources to protect and enhance the security, social standing, and welfare of its members: We must individually or in groups be able to pursue reality freely. In other words, ASA must be a conduit for the “corporatism of the universal”—it must preserve, as much as it can, our autonomy from states, markets, closed moralities, and the popular element. It must confront, on our behalf, populist politicos who want to do away with tenure; university administrators whose job definition is to extract from us as much as possible while giving us as little as possible; publishing houses that make fat loads of money off our backs while preventing people who stand to learn most from our work from accessing it; students and their families who see us as barriers to be cleared on the way to lucrative professional careers; and portions of the public that are impatient with our freedom and want easy, formulaic solutions to problems in which they themselves are enthusiastically complicit. In this regard, Romero’s promise to fight for tenure and academic freedom is obviously good news; so too is her identification of ASA’s declining membership rate as a key problem.

Yet it should be clear that tenure and the membership rate are objectively problems. Granted, they are problems within specific historically instituted settings. These might not be problems for thirteenth-century artists in Beijing, say, or for the food service industry in New York. But to acknowledge that our problems are historically situated and culturally contingent should not ignore that there are, nonetheless, objective conditions that hold in their description and in their critique. In emphasizing justice over objectivity, we run the risk of losing both. Whether objectivity, like anything else, is commingled with power is a very different question than whether it is simply politics by any other means.

As such, the “broad appeal” Romero speaks of as a way to increase membership may not be such good news. For fighting the good fight, not just ASA but also other established disciplinary traditions and institutions, with their hopefully meritocratic hierarchies, are crucial. (If the hierarchies are not sufficiently shaped by the meritocratic principle, one must of course denounce them and start from scratch, but in the case of sociology I do not think we are there.) AJS and ASR may be faulted for many things, but not for turning their back to the pursuit of social justice—just peruse the latest (April 2017) issue of ASR, which features back-to-back pieces on inequality that show that it’s there objectively and denounce it as unjust. Arguably, these publications are more skillful means for the pursuit of social justice than those in, say, Thesis Eleven or the New Left Review, both excellent outlets, both incapable, by virtue of their names alone, of having a significant portion of educated laypeople read them with an open mind. On the other hand, AJS and ASR, which Romero hasn’t published in and which Pardo-Guerra seems to me – I hope to be wrong in my assessment here – to dismiss without explaining why – “What can I say?” he writes – are far more resilient against such bad faith. Again, we are dealing with the difference between the ethic of ultimate ends, which would be scandalized by my comment about journal names, and the ethic of responsibility, which highlights the strategic aspect of knowledge transmission, including journal names, as a crucial bottleneck.
What we need, therefore, is a strong disciplinary core. This is no wish to do away with interdisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity, for these ideals presume distinct disciplinary cores—in order for one to be located between disciplines or cross from one discipline to another, at least two disciplines must be there. Nondisciplinarity, however, is a recipe for disaster—sociology needs STS and justice studies, not to mention anthropology and political science, but erasing all distinctions between them is a bad idea.

This is because structures enable as much as they constrain. As a structure, a discipline – including its professional association and leading journals – is a common language. Instead of decrying the fact that people speak different languages and so do not always understand one another and thus implicitly calling for an Esperanto-like lingua franca to replace them all, we must remember that different languages capture different aspects of reality and therefore that speaking multiple languages gives one a better understanding of reality. Speaking no language, on the other hand, means reality will overwhelm you. As a result, Romero’s distancing herself from research universities is not necessarily good news for sociology or for sociologists—it is primarily in major research universities that contact between well-formed disciplinary cores happens.

And no, a strong disciplinary core will not “make sociology great again,” at least not in the Trumpian sense Pardo-Guerra seems to refer to. A discipline with a strong core is one that has a healthy dose of self-esteem, such that fear of contact with others does not exist—such a discipline will not “build the wall.” Instead, it will have the capacity to speak about a world we can actually know fairly well, even if that world is (social) scientists themselves and their many flaws.  And from that knowledge, we will be able to leverage critiques. If objectivity is truly nothing more than politics by any other means, then we are all of us nothing but rhetoricians and might be better off just becoming full-time activists, or simply focusing on our teaching (though what are we teaching? How is its validity distinct from Breitbart’s own rhetoric?).  But if there is actually data out there, data whose interpretations can be objectively sifted as better or worse, data that provides leverage for social and political critique—then it seems better for us to keep at work.

Barış Büyükokutan is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boğaziçi University. His research interests include intellectuals, culture, field theory, secularization, and a German fellow named Max.

 

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Written by jeffguhin

June 10, 2017 at 2:11 am

6 Responses

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  1. […] a series of somewhat anxious and conservative responses to Romero’s election. The other, by Barış Büyükokutan in an article entitled “Will Sociology Build the Wall? On Objectivity in Social […]

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  2. I’m howling! And, not to be meant in an offensive manner whatsoever- lololol – ….and my friends say I am have an “Social Science brain that is difficult to navigate in certain emotionally charged scenarios”! HA! If so, then it’s due to way too much time in Clement Hall (University of Memphis, Dpt. of Sociology, – Dr Rebecca Guy was the Best Dpt Head/my advisor), because – clearly my Degree –
    Sociology and Journalism paid off, I am truly balanced due to years of Public Communications and writing for Print Media Publications! heeheehee – I am not at all close to my peer group in intellectual based writing form.

    When you guys “work this out” – send me a summary, for for standard professionals in the USA – ha –
    .I love Sociologists! They are ever so genuine and truly too learned for others to fear, they haven’t a clue what the hell we are ever talking about. Seriously – I’m howling at “our – us”

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    Beth Bartlett

    June 11, 2017 at 2:27 pm

  3. Thank you very much, Barış. I fully appreciate your argument, though I do not entirely agree with it. Let me explain where I think we diverge.

    Your argument reminds me of what Karl Popper wrote more than six decades ago in The Open Society and its Enemies. Like Popper, for example, you hold high the standard of objectivity and realism as central to science (e.g., your reference to the Gini coefficient); like Popper, you situate objectivity not in the individual but within the collective institutions of science (e.g. the virtuous “disciplinary core”); and like Popper, you subordinate ‘correct’ action to ‘true’ knowledge (e.g. “an objective account of those hierarchies”).

    Let’s start with the first, objectivity as central to science. For Popper, scientific objectivity was paramount: “Scientific results are relative”, he wrote, “only in so far as they are the results of a certain stage of scientific development and liable to be superseded in the course of scientific progress. But this does not mean that truth is “‘relative’”. The literature on this is enormous (think of T. S. Kuhn; and I know that this is, ironically, an accumulationist, Popperian argument). A key take away from this vast and meticulous research is that epistemological relativism does not entail renouncing to reality, but that it necessarily requires thinking about the interests and politics animating its representations. Let’s take a slightly watered down version of the Gini coefficient example, which you present as one of the “decent methods for showing […] objective reality”. The coefficient provides a measure of how much a cumulative income distribution deviates from an ideal situation where incomes are equally distributed. This is not the same as saying it measures “social justice”. There is nothing ‘objective’ in using Gini as a measure of inequality or social justice. Indeed, Gini is only meaningful in the context of a historically situated (political) discussion on the role of inequality in capitalist economies. This discussion could have taken other paths. We could have chosen to define equality and social justice in very different ways (look at discussions in political philosophy between Nozick, Rawls, and Dworkin for a vivid example), and this would have probably implied using descriptors that are quite different to Gini coefficients (why no, for example, measures of the efficiency of the price system?). What we measure, how we measure it, and what we do with measurements, are all relative.

    Second, like Popper, you seem to find objectivity in a combination of personal ethics and a strong disciplinary, institutional core. Popper wrote: “objectivity is closely bound up with the social aspect of scientific method, with the fact that science and scientific objectivity do not (and cannot) result from the attempts of an individual scientist to be ‘objective’, but from the co-operation of many scientists. Scientific objectivity can be described as the inter-subjectivity of scientific method”. I find this thoroughly unconvincing. On the one hand, it evokes a certain Hayekian notion about the wisdom of crowds tempering the lunacy of individuals (though a beautiful metaphor, Freddie got this one wrong). On the other hand, it assumes a rather unexplained virtuous disconnectedness of scientific institutions. (Robert Merton tried something similar). I am not sure if there is anything really unique in the strong disciplinary core you refer to. How, for example, does this maintain our “autonomy from states, markets, closed moralities, and the popular element” other than through purely discursive strategies of purity and boundary drawing? And much how does this obscure the actual present and historical connections of sociology to the state, markets, moralities and the popular element?

    Third, like Popper, you also assume that ‘good [read: objective?] scholarship’ results in obviously better outcomes. “The choice before us is not simply an intellectual affair, or a matter of taste. […] For the question whether we adopt some more or less radical form of irrationalism, or whether we adopt that minimum concession to irrationalism which I have termed ‘ critical rationalism ‘, will deeply affect our whole attitude towards other men, and towards the problems of social life. It has already been shown that rationalism is closely connected with the belief in the unity of mankind.” Popper wants us to think that rationalism will solve the problems of humankind. But this is really just a displacement of politics, not a proof or demonstration in your sense.

    Here is where, I think, we reach the crux of the problem: The Open Society, like some of the recent discussions in this distributed debate about the ASA, raised the understandable anxiety of what science and societies should do in the face of authoritarianism. For Popper, it was fascism and communism. For us, it is the rising threats to the institutions of liberal societies. The problem in most of these arguments, however, is that they hinge on a form of moral realism linking scientific objectivity to the institutions of modern, liberal democracies (consider your claim that “if an aspect of reality is unjust […]”, science will find it). This is a nice utopia, but it is historically incorrect. In fact, it is dangerous. Rather than trying to rethink the makeup of the (perhaps liberal) polity in the context of a postmodern, relativist critique of knowledge (that is, to come up with tools and strategies to defend our values against insidious techniques of obfuscation and oppression—from the attack on higher education to greenturfing and the calculated production of doubt), it represents a retreat to a rather old moral argument. Objectivity won’t save us. At least not now.

    Some minor points:

    The use of ‘demonstration’ doesn’t imply a commitment to rationalism and objectivity. You can also read it as invoking a pragmatist epistemology. We demonstrate not only through formal proof, but also through exhibition and explanation in communities. That is actually how much science was once done back in the days…

    Theoretically, Max Weber (1864-1920) could have published in AJS (founded 1895). My point was not to question his work (which I admire greatly) but the absurd and awfully mechanical critiques made of Romero’s trajectory. It is a false syllogism. (Similarly, I am by no means dismissing ASR or AJS as the great journals that they are.).

    Finally, let’s not blame the postmodern condition for our institutional woes (in the same way that Popper blamed Hegel and Marx for his). What if we are Thompsonian about this and think of the postmodern critique not as cause but as a symptom? What if the seeds of discontent were sowed much earlier? This, I think, is a more challenging, relevant, and interesting question.

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    Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra

    June 11, 2017 at 2:30 pm

  4. Oops – can’t edit – from here – or due to hand held devise – do forgive the rough draft above –
    Thanks

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    Beth Bartlett

    June 11, 2017 at 2:31 pm

  5. Why using the problematic term “injustice” in the first place and not use the more accurate scientific term poverty? Injustice us a a-priori political (marxist) and honestly a bit childish. Poverty an objective characterization of the problem.

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    value free science

    June 11, 2017 at 5:29 pm

  6. Dear Juan Pablo and others, Barış here. Juan Pablo, thanks for keeping the conversation going. This is a very thoughtful comment. Below are my responses.

    “like Popper, you situate objectivity not in the individual but within the collective institutions of science (e.g. the virtuous “disciplinary core”); and like Popper, you subordinate ‘correct’ action to ‘true’ knowledge (e.g. “an objective account of those hierarchies”).”
    Not necessarily: In my view, objectivity refers to the pursuit of the facts rather than to the facts themselves. Facts are tricky: even if they are “correct,” they may be misleading in the absence of other relevant facts. The pursuit is eternal, so while there is “truer” knowledge, I take “true” knowledge to be an asymptotical aspiration.

    “epistemological relativism does not entail renouncing to reality, but that it necessarily requires thinking about the interests and politics animating its representations.”
    I have no qualms with this. As I wrote above, “Whether objectivity, like anything else, is commingled with power is a very different question than whether it is simply politics by any other means.”

    “There is nothing ‘objective’ in using Gini as a measure of inequality or social justice. Indeed, Gini is only meaningful in the context of a historically situated (political) discussion on the role of inequality in capitalist economies.”
    I agree with the second statement, but not with the first; this has partially to do with the fact that some historically situated political discussions come closer to truth. More importantly though, my claim on the objectivity of injustice rests on something else; on the discussion of the relative equality of human capabilities.

    “We could have chosen to define equality and social justice in very different ways (look at discussions in political philosophy between Nozick, Rawls, and Dworkin for a vivid example), and this would have probably implied using descriptors that are quite different to Gini coefficients (why no, for example, measures of the efficiency of the price system?). What we measure, how we measure it, and what we do with measurements, are all relative.”
    If I understand that particular debate correctly, efficiency is not offered as a way to maximize social justice. In fact, the marginal revolution that made efficiency the golden standard in economics begins with the you claim that one cannot meaningfully compare different persons’ welfare because they are relative. There is a lot of discussion in economics about the demonstrable falsity of this claim, and it is not limited to radical political economy. So if we take it, as you suggest, that “what we measure, how we measure it, and what we do with measurements, are all relative,” we may have to accept neoclassical economics as a valid form of knowledge. I am not prepared to do that. There is better economics. Objectively better economics.

    “Second, like Popper, you seem to find objectivity in a combination of personal ethics and a strong disciplinary, institutional core.”
    I wouldn’t say my ethics is personal. It’s virtue ethics, which claims, unlike personal ethics, that The Good exists independently of the person.

    “Scientific objectivity can be described as the inter-subjectivity of scientific method”. I find this thoroughly unconvincing. On the one hand, it evokes a certain Hayekian notion about the wisdom of crowds tempering the lunacy of individuals (though a beautiful metaphor, Freddie got this one wrong).”
    I strongly disagree, because I wouldn’t call that a crowd but a community (and so would reject the parallel with Hayek.). A crowd doesn’t relate to or reflect on itself; a community does. This is not to suggest that all communities are virtuous, of course. But I think our current institutional setup allows quite a bit of common virtue.

    “On the other hand, it assumes a rather unexplained virtuous disconnectedness of scientific institutions. (Robert Merton tried something similar).”
    I don’t assume it. I find that there is some virtue in the community. I just didn’t have the time or space to develop that notion; this is, after all, a blog post. I wouldn’t characterize that virtue as disconnectedness, though; quite the opposite.

    “I am not sure if there is anything really unique in the strong disciplinary core you refer to. How, for example, does this maintain our “autonomy from states, markets, closed moralities, and the popular element” other than through purely discursive strategies of purity and boundary drawing? And much how does this obscure the actual present and historical connections of sociology to the state, markets, moralities and the popular element?”
    One weakness of my piece above is that I did not get to define what I understand by that core; thanks for allowing me to unpack this a little. By a strong disciplinary core, I mean one around which clear but porous lines are drawn. Your discussion of boundary-making seems to me to assume that those lines are unclear and nonporous—unclear because they go back and forth; nonporous because gatekeepers prevent movement across. At any single moment, however, they are relatively clear in settled times. (I don’t think sociology is experiencing unsettled times. The rest of the world is, but our milieu has not yet experienced the collapse of its illusio just yet.) And if the core has a healthy dose of self-esteem, it doesn’t mind traffic in ideas. That self-esteem, I think, is a function of institutional robustness and diversity. I think we have some of both in sociology today. (Whether we have enough is a different question, but as you may have guessed, I’m a glass-half-full kind of person.) So the core I have in mind would not obscure the actual present or the connections of sociology to the state, markets etc. Related to this is the idea that autonomy is always relative to particular stakes and never reaches 100% in any of those stakes. I speak of autonomy, not of autarky.

    “Popper wants us to think that rationalism will solve the problems of humankind. But this is really just a displacement of politics, not a proof or demonstration in your sense.”
    I did not say that rationalism and politics are mutually exclusive. (This is a recurring misunderstanding in your comment.) Like Bourdieu, I am in favor of a critical reason, which is necessarily political—some political actors, movements, and ideas are objectively uncritical or irrational. That is a problem for me, and I’d like to think that it is a problem for you as well.

    “The Open Society, like some of the recent discussions in this distributed debate about the ASA, raised the understandable anxiety of what science and societies should do in the face of authoritarianism. For Popper, it was fascism and communism. For us, it is the rising threats to the institutions of liberal societies. The problem in most of these arguments, however, is that they hinge on a form of moral realism linking scientific objectivity to the institutions of modern, liberal democracies (consider your claim that “if an aspect of reality is unjust […]”, science will find it).”
    I am not attempting at all to preserve modern liberal democracies, and nothing I wrote should suggest that—I think you just read this into my piece. (My political ideal is elsewhere; it is in the Greek notion of isonomy.) As such, I must say that what follows in your comment about postmodern relative critique is irrelevant here. (I also think it is wrong, but that would take too long to establish.)

    “We demonstrate not only through formal proof, but also through exhibition and explanation in communities. That is actually how much science was once done back in the days…”
    And what is exhibition, if not the display of something about whose existence the exhibitor and the exhibitee can agree beyond any doubt?

    “Theoretically, Max Weber (1864-1920) could have published in AJS (founded 1895).”
    I had a feeling I was screwing something up somewhere. Thanks for this! The point remains, though: Weber wrote in the German equivalents of the AJS, and, something I didn’t get to discuss in the piece, he was able to wield significant influence because of the stature he attained as an intellectual in those outlets. This is not to claim that Romero is unfit for office, but I do wonder where all the more qualified people were this year.

    “Similarly, I am by no means dismissing ASR or AJS as the great journals that they are.”
    Good to know. Sorry if that statement offended you.

    “let’s not blame the postmodern condition for our institutional woes (in the same way that Popper blamed Hegel and Marx for his). What if we are Thompsonian about this and think of the postmodern critique not as cause but as a symptom? What if the seeds of discontent were sowed much earlier? This, I think, is a more challenging, relevant, and interesting question.”
    You are right. But I wasn’t blaming the postmodern condition. I was blaming the misuses of some ideas it produced. Which is more or less what I take you to be saying here.

    Thanks again for this chance to clear things up. I look forward to interacting with you again in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    Barış Büyükokutan

    June 12, 2017 at 9:19 am


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