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November 30, 2007

« Philly Style | Main | Karl Marx: Journalist, Blogger »

Washington Monthly's  Kevin Drum disagrees with Tyler Cowen's plea for "intellectual anthropology."

Actually, this kind of amateur anthropology goes on all the time, and it obviously has its uses. But it also has its drawbacks: the conventions of social interaction allow people to obfuscate, prevaricate, evade, and just generally lay on the charm in ways that frequently blur distinctions instead of sharpening them. And human beings being the social primates that we are, we often give views that we hear in person more weight than they deserve simply because we heard them in person.

So I disagree: When it comes to important issues of public policy this kind of personal interaction should be secondary. For the most part, we shouldn't judge people by what they say in private or how they act around their kids. We shouldn't judge presidential candidates by how sociable they are on the press plane or whether they'd make a good drinking buddy. That's how we ended up with George Bush. We should judge them mostly by their public record: their speeches, their actions, their roll call votes, and their funding priorities. Anthropological research, aka hanging out and having a few beers, is fun and interesting, but it's not necessarily a superior guide to what someone really thinks or what they'll really do when the crunch comes.

After reading this, I immediately asked myself: Is this the difference between academic and journalistic styles and norms? In my experience, academics are much tougher critics of ideas than journalists, but they tend to be more civil. That is, they want to take down an idea, not a person. So, they tend to restrict their criticisms to the realm of ideas and don't get into personal motivations and attacks. They are colleagues with many of the people they debate. Journalists are less concerned with ideas and principles. Their focus is on personal motivations. They see themselves as a check on the system and don't give a hoot if they hurt someone's feelings. It's just part of their job.  For some, the goal is a personal take down; and in this day and age, that can get pretty nasty.

Am I overdrawing this one - your thoughts?

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Comments

DJM

Richard,

We have been having a similar debate in Janine Wedel's qualitative methods course at the SPP -- we are defending qualitative research (ethno/observation, interview, focus, oral history, etc) vs. quant, but also asking what the difference between journalism and anthro research methods are. (motivations, constraints, peer review, standards practices, office of human subjects, etc.)

After reading drum's entry, it appears he is claiming to be better off with less knowledge? and accepts that much of that knowledge can only be accrued through lots of weak ties, tacit transfers, spillovers etc. in washington dc or some such place.

as you know richard, it is very possible to live in dc, take in the sites/sounds/knowledge w/out becoming personally invested in either side.

worst of all, Drum admits to being a cat person! no wonder he has few friends.

John Trenouth

I've always found the journalist to be little more than a salesman. For an extreme example, CNN's Crossfire was always like watching two auctioneers flogging their memes 3 feet away from each other.

Friedman, Brooks, Gladwell, etc... brilliant salesmen, brilliant packagers, not terribly insightful though.

I guess I'm showing my bias here.

Gary Dee

While Tom Friedman treats globalization like a new discovery, he is one of the few who has ably described the phenomenon to the masses as opposed to Lou Dobbs on CNN, who has latched onto people's fears and xenophobia as his rocket to fame. I must keep reminding myself that while this may be old news to many of us in the tech sector (it's been over ten years that I got a request to make a presentation, blind over a telephone party line to Bangalore, and hoping that their slides printed black & white onto plastic foils appeared good and were shown in proper order), this is still news to most people.

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