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Thoughts and Hallucinations

Basic vs applied vs practice, the end of "versus"

Ever since I was lucky enough to be offered a commission in the Public Health Service during the Vietnam era, it’s bothered me. There I was, a grad student at Berkeley with a year’s experience working in a small South Indian village, reading up on burning questions like how and in what ways did caste matter, or not, and whether Kanarese, the local language, might actually be a distant relative of Finnish and Hungarian. Those were, and are, interesting to wonder about. I was all set to finish coursework and return and dive deeper into village life and write my dissertation.

Then, with a phone call from a federal treatment center for narcotics addicts, life changed. I was all of a sudden the equivalent of a lieutenant junior grade with an assignment to bring anthropology into a new social science research section to better understand heroin addiction. Most people thought I was a sociologist. A few addicts thought I was an undercover federal agent. Many of my colleagues in anthropology thought I was crazy. My parents had no idea what I was doing, but then that was the same as when I was a grad student.

At the time, the late 1960s, working in the U.S.--never mind with addicts in an institution--was a way-out-there, many-sigmas-from-the-mean, weird anthropological thing to do. And it was indeed personally disorienting at first. But then a couple of things came clear.

Once I started thinking about what I was doing as using a particular way of looking at the human social world and learning about it, my experiences in the village and my experiences in the treatment center weren’t so different. What I’d learned in the former translated pretty well into the work I started to do in the latter. Younger anthropologists, and others who do the kind of work we do, know this perfectly well today. It’s about an epistemology. I know, the new academic buzzword is “the ontological turn,” but I’m still not sure what the proponents claim is around the corner. A way of knowing versus a way of being? Don’t they have something to do with each other? But I digress.

Another thing came clear in those early days as a ethnographic lieutenant junior grade. I had gone, in the eyes of colleagues in both the university and the treatment center, from “academic” to “applied.” Most people looking at this blog will have had plenty of experience with this distinction and its variants, ivory tower vs real world, theory vs practice, and so on. Both sides of the distinction, when talking amongst themselves, engage in high levels of snark and sarcasm when conversing about the other side. It’s easier to find cartoons, like the ones at the top of this page, that mock the theory side than it is cartoons that mock the applied side. In my personal mental cartoon, academic/theory/etc types think that if the world would just do what they say based on their ideas about that world, everything would be fine. Applied/practice/etc. types, on the other hand, think the idea mongers—to use an expression from my youth—can't find their ass with both hands.

This distinction drove me crazy within a few days of arrival at the drug treatment center and continues to do so today. So did the earlier distinction, that what I’d learned to do as an undergraduate in South India could only be used in a particular kind of place with particular kinds of colleagues. Distinctions everywhere that didn't make any sense. Later in life I started using the old tv anti-drug ad when I gave talks, the one where a young woman holds up an egg and says “this is your brain,” then cracks it into a hot frying pan where it sizzles as she says “and this is your brain on drugs.” My version was to joke that “this is your brain” versus “this is your brain on distinctions.” The way of thinking forced me and everyone else to choose. No middle ground allowed.

The words “exploring the logically excluded middle” were attributed to anthropologist Duane Metzger. They refer to the classic law of logic that says either a proposition is true or it is not, P or Not-P. You’re an academic or you’re not; you’re a theoretician or you’re applied; you think or you do; you’re an intellectual or an activist. And so it goes.

These particular binary cuts in the universe don't feel as strongly enforced, these particular excluded middles, in France or Mexico, though those places have other binary traps to avoid. Maybe the surest sign that that law is fading here is the creation of “fuzzy” logic and set theory, “fuzzy” just because the logic breaks that law. It's not just either that or not that. It can be a little of that, or sort of that, or more that than not, or really the perfect example of that. This logic was created by Lofte Zadeh, an engineering professor. His colleagues thought he was nuts and he was so desperate for company that he even talked to anthropologists. Eventually Japanese business started to make money off of the idea and then the concept took off. It’s all over the Internet now if a reader is curious.

All those past years in the drug field, and more recent times using ideas in the world and talking about the world to the idea-obsessed, and lately working on water governance—the law of the excluded middle still rises into discourse as a barrier to cooperation and communication rather than a source of clarity as classical logic intended it to be. The law has been questioned but it is time to repeal it once and for all. Any use of “either/or” is a signal to take a look at the space between them.

End of my first 2015 rant. Next I'll leave in place some publication notes from the previous blog and add a couple of new items:
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