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Posts Tagged ‘emotions

the role of polemics (and emotions) in academic work

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I’m here in Montreal at various pre-ASA conferences, and people are still talking about “Talk is Cheap,” Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Khan’s provocative article about the problems with interviews and the superiority of participant-observation.

I don’t want to get into the argument of “Talk is Cheap” in this post (I wrote about it a bit here) but instead want to think about the role of polemics in academic writing. Some (including Professors Jerolmack and Khan) might reject the characterization of Talk is Cheap as polemic but I’m calling it that because, well, it’s brought about the kinds of reactions polemics often get: most folks I’ve heard talking about the article disagree with it, some of them with fairly intense emotion, and many of the responses I’ve read have been disagreements, some also intense. People characterize the article as having too blunt a point, missing important distinctions, being right in a lot of senses but taking the argument too far, etc. They’re also often upset by what they characterize as the argument’s aggressive bluntness. I don’t want to get too much into the weeds on this (there has already been a lot written about this article) but the title alone can at least be an index to what I’m talking about. Interviewers felt that their entire methodology was being called “cheap.”

Whether or not “Talk is Cheap” is itself a polemic, those kinds of characterizations are often what we refer to when we call something polemical. Look up the definitions of polemic and you’ll usually get words like aggressive or attack but if you dig into the usages of the word, they tend to have connotations of simplicity for the sake of an especially damning critique. That’s not to argue that polemics are simplistic: they’re often quite intellectually ornate. It’s simply to say that the basis of the critique is powerful because it is so damning. If there are two kinds of arguments, the boring and the wrong, then the polemic errs on the side of the wrong, but it is rarely if ever boring. It makes a real argument, rather than a series of hedges and calculated clarifications.

Such arguments can raise emotions because they miss those subtle distinctions, but also at least potentially because they force us to think about our priors in ways that might make us uncomfortable, maybe because those priors aren’t as stable as we might think. Yet if we can get past our frustrations at what these polemics get wrong, I think it’s worth considering how they move conversations forward, forcing people to consider more fully their assumptions and their own commitments.

There is a cynical defense of polemics, which is that they gain dozens more citations than a more careful article from what some refer to as “hate-cites.” This is a tried and true method in philosophy, where there is even more incentive and possibility for seemingly ridiculous but fascinatingly provocative arguments. Yet think about how that works in philosophy: to argue, for example, that we are all brains in a vat forces other scholars to think harder about why that’s ridiculous, to clarify their own assumptions and methods and empirics. The emotional character of a polemic adds to this (again: the definition always has aggressive and attack). We are taken aback, forced to think on our feet, getting pulled into a conversation we might otherwise have avoided or felt comfortable moving past. I don’t think there’s any necessary reason for this to be cynical. It can even be fun.

To be clear, it’s not nice to be (or to feel) attacked. And there’s a way in which academics take quite personally what they do and how they do it, so that a critique of methods can be a critique of selves. (Not to mention that sometimes such critiques of moral commitments are explicitly part of the critiques of methods or arguments.) I often talk about how I’d like for academics to be capable, in the same act, of criticism and kindness. And there are questions, when talking about polemics, about who is criticized (and by whom) and their relative capacity to respond to the critique, etc. etc. But, well, people get passionate and say passionate things, and sometimes those passionate arguments (and their equally passionate responses) produce some important movements.

Of course, it’s possible that intellectual life could move forward by just thinking carefully about new ideas as they show up, and it’s an empirical question how often that’s the case. But the sociology of emotions helps us to see how even intellectual life is also a deeply emotional life. How we react to polemics (and how they function in moving social life forward) helps us to recognize how emotions do work in intellectual exchange. Along these lines, I disagree with quite a bit (though certainly not all) of “Talk is Cheap,” but I’m extremely grateful for how it’s forced me to think (and feel).

There are other kinds of emotions we could think of, of course: an encouraging warmth rather than a rallying frustration. But the question, for me, is what gets us excited, passionate, eager to respond. And for some of us it’s simply a great idea. But for others it’s the joys of working out the argument in, well, an argument, even a fight. There’s more to write here, but it’s worth thinking more about the ways in which emotions help intellectual conversations (and arguments) to move forward and the role of polemics in that emotional work.

 

 

 

 

Written by jeffguhin

August 10, 2017 at 2:56 pm

scary stuff trigger alert

Well, it’s the scariest time of year.  For some, the scariest stuff reaches its apotheosis on Election Day, Nov. 8, while for others, Halloween is the celebration of choice.  For a sociological take on the Oct. 31st festivities, check out Sociological Images’s compendium of Halloween blog posts.

I’ve been counting down these weeks to recommend reading  Margee Kerr‘s book Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear (hat-tip to a neuroscientist friend for the rec), about the mechanisms underlying fear among humans.   In her book, Kerr takes readers on a worldwide journey to investigate fear in different contexts, from a derelict prison where inmates served their time in solitary confinement to Japan’s notorious Suicide Forest.

Kerr is also a practicing sociologist who also designs and refines an experimental haunted house,  ScareHouse, located in Pittsburgh.  In chapter 8 of her book, she describes how people want to bond with others after being scared and how she and colleagues have channeled that intense emotional energy with an anonymous “confessional” room where people can unload secrets.  Overall, Kerr’s experiences shows how sociology and related research can directly inform and shape experiences.

To learn more about fear from Kerr, read the Jezebel interview with Kerr here or watch this video on about how fear evolved and “Why is being scared so fun?”:

Now for some of our social scientists’ fear… Trigger warning !!! after the jump, courtesy of Josh de Leeuw.

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Written by katherinechen

October 25, 2016 at 11:07 pm

Relational Work and Embeddedness

Nina Bandelj, Sociology, UC Irvine

The fact that relations matter is a trademark contribution of economic sociology. What added value does this focus on relational work bring? As I argued in a Politics and Society article, attention to how people form, negotiate, repair or dissolve economic relations develops relationality in economic life as a process rather than structure, and effectively conjoins it with meaning-making. Zelizer reframes relationality as social interaction between economic actors that has to be accomplished – as relational work – rather than merely as systems of social relations congealed into networks. This is one crucial difference with the network embeddedness research. The other is in their opposing views of the relationship between the economic and the social. From the network embeddedness perspective, the economy and society remain two separate spheres; the economy is autonomous and society provides a context for it. Quite to the contrary, relational work, as Zelizer clearly demonstrates, rests on the opposition to the separate spheres arguments, is grounded in connected lives, and interactionally sustains the mutual constitution and elaboration of the economic and the social spheres. Obviously, should the analyst understand embeddedness from a Polanyian perspective, and argue that this term actually describes the co-constitution of economy, polity and society, this would be quite compatible with relational work. Because they share basic assumptions about the relationship between economy and society, the concept of relational work could be fruitfully employed to uncover the microlevel dynamics of economic interactions that the macrofocused institutional embeddedness perspective has yet to tackle.

Further, focus on relational work allows an analyst of economic transactions to spell out how power, meaning, and affect all influence economic outcomes. This is because any relation involves potential asymmetries, because parties have to interpret the position of others, and because interactions invariably conger emotions. This would avoid the prevalent tendency of economic sociologists to privilege in their analyses one social force—be it networks, culture, or power—over the other. Meaning-making, relationality, and its potential asymmetries should all be considered integral to economic processes and analyzed jointly as such. The focus on relational work allows this.

Finally, attention to relational work helps bring the emotional underpinnings of economic exchange to the fore. This is beneficial not only because the role of emotions in economic life has yet to receive more attention in economic sociology but also because it helps us scrutinize the theory of action that underlies economic sociological inquiry. Given the processual nature of incessant negotiation of interpersonal relations enmeshed in affect and sense-making, the theory of action that views partners to an economic exchange as rational actors with clear goals and preferences intent on maximizing utility is limiting. Rather, the concept of relational work aligns well with the practical actor theory, which, as DiMaggio wrote in “Nadel’s Paradox Revisited” (1993), “views rationality as only one, and rarely the principal, orientation to action, and takes much behavior to be highly conventional, . . . according importance . . . more to the purely cognitive . . . and affective dimensions.” Accomplishing relational work is a reciprocal process; any misalignment in expectations and differences in interpretations between the participants exacerbates uncertainty and ambiguity. These are the kind of conditions where action is more open ended, and creative/non-teleological, rather than teleological, and (boundedly) rational. Therefore, the focus on relational work departs from rational action and suggests that the pragmatist tradition and practical actor models are more useful for theorizing and empirically capturing economic interactions.

Written by ninabandelj

August 29, 2012 at 8:26 pm