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Michael Agar @alcaldemike

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It was easier to give a paper in the 60s

Tuneup on the way to the holidays

Awhile ago I tweeted about how the organization of an academic conference worked against previously announced goals of collaboration and innovation. I’d like to elaborate now.

This year, 2014, I’ve been involved in several such events, most of them in the U.S. but also one in Mexico and one in England. In other words, the comments are not about a particular event—they were all worthwhile and stimulating for me as learning experiences—nor about a particular group—the pattern spans three countries. Instead, the problem is much more general than any specific example and worthy of some thought.

The problem, in a nutshell, can be summarized with a famous quote from Alfred Chandler, a well known historian of business. He said that structure follows strategy. What that means is, if an organization decides to do things differently, it has to change its structure so that the new “doing” is possible. I used this quote during my years of organizational development consulting. At first, in the vicinity of a problem, people usually liked what I did and recommended. But then, at higher more remote levels of the organization where the rules were written and from which resources were allocated, proposals for change often died a death that ranged from peaceful to violent. The new ideas meant that—god forbid for those at the top—the structure would have to change to implement them.

The structure of the academic-based events I attended this past year mostly followed the academic schema. Of course. It’s what the participants, including me, trained for and use in their professional practice. Academics give papers. Papers may be long or short, but most of the presenters run out of time before they rush at the finish, eliding the all important contextual point. They use slides that are often thick with text or crowded graphics. A few presenters will arrive just in time to give their paper and then leave shortly afterwards. Some talks are clear and educational to outsiders; some are too discipline-internal to appreciate; many will say they are unfamiliar with the other disciplines represented. Conversations meant to open space for the collaboration and innovation occur after participants are exhausted from a long day of paper-listening. The differences among participants remain in any discussion as the comments are usually sequential and not cumulative/​interactive.

They're not bad people. I do pretty much the same thing in these contexts, though never when I do work in the so-called real world. This year the difference between the two bothered me more than it ever has, but I don’t know what to do about it.

Because … who can blame us? During my days as a professor, interdisciplinary was a luxury if not actually punished. Never say “transdicisplinary.” Innovation was crushed by peer review from the high prestige journals committed to maintaining boundaries rather than expanding them. I don’t think anything of current intellectual or practical interest today lies at the center of any traditional discipline. The phrase I learned from colleagues at the University of Vienna in the 1980s kept coming to mind, die verstaubte Universität, the dust covered university. But faculty—especially the junior faculty with the freshest minds—depend on its archaic structure for their professional career and so have to follow its traditions.

The regression to academic structure of gatherings dedicated to cross-disciplinary and innovation-seeking goals hasn't worked well this year, in my experience. Educational, stimulating, socially pleasant they might have been. But hammering out new paradigms to adapt intellectual power to contemporary problems in a changing world in a collective fashion? It felt like trying to to build an airplane out of parts from several makes of car.

Something of a parody, I know, but not by too much, and I’d bet that the hypothesis that this is the norm would be confirmed with a larger sample. There are counterexamples, like the post-World War II Macy foundation conferences that created cybernetics and set the stage for artificial intelligence, or the Summer Linguistics Institute gathering in 1963 that sparked the field of sociolinguistics, or the emergence of the Santa Fe Institute from Los Alamos laboratories in New Mexico. It would be a useful exercise to look back on these events, and other examples, to learn how they were structured such that transdisciplinary and innovative outcomes were possible.

In the real world the structure is different. I’ve participated in problem-solving ventures many times. No one gives an extensive paper, just a brief problem orientation. Good events require people secure in what they know but open to what they don’t, a cooperative orientation, and comfort with Einstein’s law, namely, that if you can’t explain something to a six year old then you don’t understand it yourself. Mainly it requires a shared focus on a problem and a desire to solve it and comfort with the fact that credit will go to a group rather than to a single person. And of course it has to be interactive, lots of turn-taking, equal access to the conversational flow so that it builds.

There were plenty of people in every event I participated in in 2014 who had those qualities. But the traditional academic schema prevailed, the process that we older ones were used to, that the younger ones felt that they had to accommodate to further their career, that the grad students were learning to eventually get their dissertations signed. No question that I heard a lot of interesting papers, and gave a couple, if I do say so. But the original interdisciplinary problem was diffused rather than clarified, and no paradigms were born.

Surely this is something that we can change, starting with the incentive structure of the university. The frustration I felt this year was, I don’t know how to start helping out. It’s the same frustration of my earlier organizational work, energy percolating everywhere in the vicinity of a problem, but with heavy hands—visible and invisible—holding the structural lid tight at the top. But why not change the format for the academic small group gathering to one that resembles organizational problem solving at its best?

In both cases, though, the heavy-handed problem of Chandler's quote, the structure police, still remains, but at least the bottom-up pressure to dust off the university would increase with more successful events. The timing might be right. Universities are in crisis and know they need to change and aren't sure what to change into.

Maybe the only hope is the famous quote by Gandhi, I must go, for there go my people and I am their leader. We need to show the leaders the way. No wonder I got interested recently in the literature on social movements. How do you get the discourse rules to change so that a different discourse is possible from the kind that the rule-enforcers want to maintain? Foucault laughing in his grave.

End of my 2014 rant. Here's to better use of what I learned in 2015. Next I'll leave in place some publication notes from the previous blog:

An article I've been trying to publish for years will finally appear in a journal called Cultus, an Italian based journal for translator/​interpreter/​intercultural types. A prepublication version is in the column to your left, "Looking for culture in all the right places." The article grew out of work with computational and anthropological linguistic colleagues around efforts to figure out how to train civilian and military heading for faraway places. I miss my language and culture work. That project, in turn, came out of that magical long ago moment when Obama and Petraeus intersected on the theme of, the U.S. really has to stop being so naive about countries it deals with, echoes of Vietnam and the Iraqi follies of Bush the younger echoing strongly in the background.

I've started a book called "Backwater," about New Mexico (and the world's) issues with water governance. Me and about a thousand other people are writing them. Amazing to have seen the topic diffuse so rapidly even in the few years I've been working on it. No end in sight. No matter, I'm enjoying the brain food, and the spread of water--and environmental in general--consciousness is a good thing.

In September I gave a talk at the School for Advanced Research, http:/​/​​index.php, a long-standing center for anthropology and indigenous arts in Santa Fe. (The abstract is in the left-hand column). It was similar to the talk I gave in Ensenada, only with New Mexican instead of U.S./​Mexico frontier examples. Then in January I'm scheduled for a talk at the Santa Fe Institute, http:/​/​​gevent/​detail/​science/​1930/​.

An article in The New Mexico Mercury recently came out, a description of a public water policy meeting in Albuquerque to inform decisions about how to use new money and water rights in the Gila River Basin. It highlights the lack of human social science research in the process and the limited view of "stakeholders" and "community" that result. The URL is at the top of the column to the left. Another new bit of writing is a forward for a book in preparation, by Larry Torres, a collection of his popular newspaper columns called "Growing Up Spanglish." Each column tells a story from the perspective of Canutito, a young boy growing up with his grandparents in Northern New Mexico. I've been a fan since the column first appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper and was honored to be asked to add a touch of linguistic anthropology at the beginning. It is downloadable from the column to the left.

Life continues to be interesting.

Selected Works

Wonder why studies you read about your world usually don’t get who you are and how you really live? Frustrated that “the numbers” don’t solve the problem? Does it bother you that policies and programs, more often than not, don’t work like they’re supposed to? People, organizations, countries–they rely on information about real human social lives. Usually they don’t have it because they only test what they think they already know in narrow situations of their own design. The results have value, some of the time, but it’s not nearly enough. We need a human social science that begins and ends in the real worlds of the humans that it claims to be about. One has been around for a couple of hundred years. The Lively Science tells the story of its historical roots and the reasons for its neglect, blends in new intellectual tools, and argues that it’s time to get on with a science that changes research objects into human subjects and learns who they are and what they’re trying to do before conclusions are drawn.
Living in a world of linguistic and cultural differences
A personal story of decades of work in the substance abuse field, a story of how our ineffective drug policy came to be and stayed in place. Now available as an e-book at iBook on iTunes and on Barnes and Noble.
The story of the working world of independent truckers in a time of deregulation
Nonfiction, Introductory Text
An introduction to ethnography