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An Invitation to Reflexive Blogging

Greetings OrgTheory readers—I’m Tom Medvetz, sociologist at UC-San Diego. My thanks to Katherine Chen and the other site members for inviting me to write a few guest posts now that my book Think Tanks in America has come out. I’ll discuss some particulars of the book in later posts, but I want to start out with some broad context.

Because I study experts, intellectuals, and professionals, I spend a lot of time—too much, probably—thinking about the relationships among sociologists. And while peaceful and collaborative relationships are my favorite kind, it’s the opposite kind—the ones marked by antagonism and mutual suspicion—that tend to capture most of my attention. Let me focus on a specific kind of criticism that seems to have become increasingly common, at least in casual discussions among sociologists. I’m referring to the criticism efficiently conveyed in the term mesearch.* (For other discussions of this topic, see here, here, and here.)

To adapt C. Wright Mills’ language, “mesearch” means stopping your car on Autobiography Avenue somewhere short of the intersection with History Road.† It’s undeniably a term of abuse—and a fundamental one at that—the suggestion being that the work in question is more memoir than social science. No social scientist wants to be accused of having done mesearch.

But the idea also contains certain obvious complexities. When I was a sociology graduate student at Berkeley, for example, folkloric tales about Erving Goffman still echoed through the department hallways. And inevitably these stories focused on his notoriously difficult and combative personality.‡ Even more intriguingly, the main point of the stories was often that Goffman’s personal idiosyncrasies, aversions, and predilections were linked in intelligible ways to the insights contained in his work. Consider the following passage from Dmitri Shalin’s interview with former Goffman student Arlene Kaplan Daniels (itself taken from UNLV’s extensive Erving Goffman Archive):

DS:      I believe that Erving [Goffman]’s entire corpus is crypto-autobiographical, [starting with] his early article on manipulating class symbols that he wrote when he’d dated Schuyler. . . who came from a high society.

AD:     Yes, and he was a guttersnipe.

Now, whether or not Goffman was a “guttersnipe,” the suggestion seems to be that his scholarly insights about subterranean codes of meaning, hidden status struggles, and ulterior motives flowed directly from his own sensitivities and experiences. Put differently, Goffman’s greatness as a sociologist was built, not on a simple distance from mesearch, but on a complex flirtation with it.

Image“What are you looking at?”

What does this have to do with the topic I was enlisted to write about—my research on think tanks? Now that the book is out, I find it easier to reflect on the study’s origins and my own motives for writing it. When I do, it’s clear to me that the book is indeed part of a very personal (and ongoing) attempt to understand what it means to be an “intellectual.”

Why would this question be pressing to me? Without subjecting you to many details of my own autobiography—and without implying that it’s been marked by any particular sort of exclusion or deprivation—I think it’s relevant that the very idea of an “intellectual” remained completely foreign to me at least until I was in college. In the rural setting where I grew up (in which cows outnumbered people, the Appalachian Trail intersected a nearby road, and oceanic cornfields were the main backdrop), aspiring “intellectuals” were few and far between. In 11th grade, a local vo-tech recruiter visited my class to extol the virtues of a career in air-conditioning repair. He opened his spiel with a question: “How many of you think you’ll ever make $100,000 a year?” A few hands went up. “Well,” he said, “I’m here to tell you that you probably won’t.”

To me and my classmates, there was nothing surprising about this exercise in aspiration management, and nothing insulting about the recruiter’s dim view of our earning potential.§ (In fact, having never being a fan of euphemisms, I remember being more irked by the vo-tech guy’s repeated use of the phrase climate control instead of air-conditioning.)

So if, as Loïc Wacquant has suggested, many sociologists enter the field “in reaction to a succession of ‘culture shocks’ at key junctures” in their lives, then my primary culture shock was my aberrant encounter with the world of higher education itself. This was where I first encountered “intellectuals,” by which I mean people who seemed to regard the accumulation of knowledge as a vocation in and of itself.

If I were to tell you, then, that Think Tanks in America is ultimately part of my attempt to understand a social species that remained foreign to me even as I began the study—but also that the study was part of the process of certifying my own membership in that group (since it began as my dissertation), then am I guilty of mesearch? I hope not. I’m not a character in the book, and sociologists in general appear only as shadowy figures at the outskirts. Yet make no mistake: while the book focuses on a set of agents who currently overshadow social scientists in policy debates (viz. self-styled “policy experts”—about which I’ll say more later), my interest in the topic was driven by my relationships to both groups.

ImageFile photo: In the process of cataloging the properties of an unfamiliar species, a man (left) mutates into a member of that species.

The questions remain: What’s the peculiar alchemy through which a set of deeply personal interests and motivations becomes a properly social scientific product? And where’s the line between research and mesearch?

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* In the unlikely event that you don’t know this phrase, I’ll define it as the form of scholarly self-absorption that consists in passing off an account of one’s own life experience as social research. For a parodic representation of mesearch, see The Onion. 2001. “Sociologist Considers Own Behavior Indicative Of Larger Trends.” March 7. )

† Or if you happen to share Mills’ vehicular preferences: your motorcycle.

‡ For a more nuanced picture of Goffman, see the wealth of materials (including personal recollections and interviews with friends, students, and confidants) available at UNLV’s Erving Goffman Archive.

§ In 1993, a pretax household income of $100,000 put the earner between the 90th and 95th percentiles in the American income structure.

 

 

Written by Tom Medvetz

September 24, 2012 at 12:21 am