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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