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Michael Agar @alcaldemike

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Tuneup for March

April 9th at 1 pm mountain time I'm doing a webinar for the International Institute on Qualitative Methodology. As far as I know it's free though you have to register. Information at: http:/​/​​ResearchTraining/​WebinarSeries/​WebinarSchedule2015.aspx

The IIQM asked me to write an entry for their blog, something more descriptive than an abstract. Here's what I sent them.

Universals, Particulars, and the Heartbreak of the Excluded Middle

I’m assuming that “we”—those who do or those who are interested in a particular kind of human social research--are the audience of this IIQM seminar. That kind of research requires an understanding of meaning and context among those whom the project deems “subjects.” Between the lines of this job description lurks a complication, one long ago recognized in anthropology with its two definitions of “culture." On the one hand, culture is what we Homo sapiens share that makes us all human. On the other hand, culture is a specific historical situation of some group of those humans that differ in massively important ways from other groups. Clearly both versions of culture are relevant to a research project of any type. Any group will be both familiar and strange to a person not a member. How is it that we—any two “we’s”—are both the same and different?

The wrong way to look at this complication is to try and figure out how to sort the all-human part from the unique local part. It’s the wrong way because it means you slice the social world into two pieces before you try to understand it, the universal piece and the locally different piece. In other words, you destroy the coherence of the data before you analyze it. That’s the heartbreak of the Law of the Excluded Middle in logic, either it’s this or it’s not this. What I want to argue in the IIQM seminar is that it’s not “either/​or,” the so-called “exclusive or.” It’s “both/​and” instead. Both/​and, as it turns out, leads into controversies over Eastern or Buddhist logic. And since Lofte Zadeh introduced “fuzzy logic” in the 1960s in a “Western” format, the exclusive “Eastern” claim doesn’t work anymore anyway. I won’t try to deal with all that now.

In the IIQM seminar I will give in April, I’ll start with a story from the history of ethnographic research. It is a story about the terms “etic” and “emic.” The terms come from phonology in linguistics, “phonetic” and “phonemic.” In the old days, phonetic meant a system of notation that captured many distinct sounds that humans could make given the configuration of their articulatory biology. Phonemic meant the subset of those possible sounds that mattered in a particular language. I’ll give a few examples in the lecture to show how this works. Phonetic, the universal human part, was used to figure out the phonemic, the locally important part. But then when mainstream anthropology took the emic/​etic distinction over, they lost the relationship between the two. Either you did etic ethnography or emic ethnography, never both. The heartbreak of the law of the excluded middle, a blow against clarity, and the creation of a lot of academic arguments that didn’t make any sense.

Next we’ll fast forward to the late 90s, when Donald Brown published his book on cultural universals. There is a brief YouTube of a public presentation he gave that we’ll look at to get the general message. Anthropologists have always been biased towards the discovery of human social differences. They ignored the fact that differences could only be made sense of if there is some kind of connective tissue to make a translation across those differences possible. In 2013 I wrote a book, The Lively Science: Reconstructing Human Social Research, where I made that argument. (The book is written for a general audience and suitable for birthdays and bar mitzvahs.) In the last few years I’ve given several talks, based on the book, that feature the emic/​etic issue. Interesting to me is that the topic of universals makes most audiences nervous. It seems to me that the norm remains, that differences are the right focus and that universals run from problematic to threatening. The heartbreak of the excluded middle again, not both/​and, but rather either/​or.

Finally, though I’m no expert in the area, we’ll sample a few themes from the many fields that now blur the differences between cultural variability and universals with issues like the nature of cooperation, the ubiquity of social network power laws, the universality of fairness, and theory of mind. This sample won’t be a conclusion, but rather what I think of as a promising and comparatively recent direction that looks like a road to the both/​and logic that will move us towards a single theory of what it is to be human and how it is that that humanity takes different forms. One theory, minus the excluded middle.

Where do we end? Most important is a mindset that rejects the law of the excluded middle. True, we need to guard against using the call to universals to justify naive realism. But we also need to hold off conclusions that differences are all that matter. We need to think of universals as the figure against which the ground of differences can be understood. Most importantly, we need a coherent theory that includes them both and considers how to mix evolutionary and historical explanation with contemporary ethnography. Time permitting, a final focused example from a serious game language/​culture training project that I recently participated in will conclude the seminar and open up the digital gathering for discussion.

That's the abstract. Now back to the usual news. 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 gave a similar talk at the Santa Fe Institute, only with more complexity in it 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. Then just before I wrote this blog, another article in the Mercury lays out an idea for a more inclusive water policy process in the state based on the annual Water Dialogue conference. Its URL is on the left as well. Finally, the most recent article rants about the lack of empathy in proposed legislation in New Mexico.

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.

Coming up in March will be a couple of weeks again in Puebla in Mexico working with colleagues there, then the webinar with the International Institute for Qualitative Methods, URL with which the blog started.

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