The Social Theorist Strikes Back
August 27, 2015
Last week I wrote a post warning my GIS-inclined readership to Beware of Social Theorists in Geography. Apparently this struck a nerve with some who fit the description and don’t want me to express such an opinion. Here’s the text of the primary voice in opposition to the contents of my post:
I’ll encourage you to (1) read or re-read Nadine Schuurman (2000), a GIScientist, on the unnecessary, if well-trod, distraction created by precisely the line of thinking your advice advances — to divide the discipline (http://phg.sagepub.com/content/24/4/569.short), and (2) to help your audience by reflecting on the philosophical training/reading that composed your own **Ph**D, however spatial scientific it might be, which likely would be a much more productive point of commonality in the discipline.
Schuurman (2000, 587) writes in her conclusion after a brilliant re-telling of the story of 1990s hair-splitting and nasty name calling (of which your post seems somewhat nostalgic), “The greatest danger is that critique of GIS will develop its own vocabulary and references. … Social theory can, by definition, only tangentially engage a technology which is written in the language of computational algebra and constructed through the laws of physics. The present danger is that sociotheoretical critics of GIS will create a self-reinforcing world framed in a discourse unrecognizable by practitioners and scholars of GIS.” Indeed, a real pickle — and one that has been discussed for decades now. HOWEVER, she continues to pinpoint the problem that your post illustrates well: “GIS scholars are apt to respond by discounting critical attention to implications of their work in favor of attention to theory and practice situated within the technology.” The point was to recognize that we benefit when we are actually speaking with one another, not to gloss over the potential irreducibles in our various epistemologies, but to trace and understand their various departures, to build stronger interpretations and claims.
Since these dark times, there have been incredibly productive engagements between spatial scientists and critical/social theorists within the discipline. Dismissing these engagements (see here: http://criticalgis.blogspot.com/p/critical-gis-bibliography.html) is to fan the flames of a science war that you seem ill-prepared to address. Of course, I could be misreading your advice.
Here, dear Readers, is my response.
Allow me to apologize for the strange collection of obscure syllables above. Despite this man’s advanced education it’s clear he’s lost the ability to communicate in plain English. I’ll do my best to help you wade through the jargon and parse his syntax. It’s a path fraught with peril. So, follow along as I boldly go where very few plain spoken humans have gone before.
But first let me expose the skeletons in my academic closet. I do have a Ph.D. in geography but I lack any noteworthy scholarly production. After finishing grad school I went into the private sector so my business resume better illustrates my professional accomplishments than my curriculum vitae. I also must admit I was a below average graduate student. I didn’t read everything assigned, relying primarily on abstracts alone to complete my understanding of various topics in the discipline. I was far more interested in computational approaches to applied geography problems. I also had a job outside of grad school so I could support my family and thus I had to be efficient with my time. I never really figured out how to include the term postmodernism in a sentence and I was often admonished for failing to properly cite key figures whose work I found too boring to endure. My dissertation research wasn’t even published except for the copy collecting dust in Knight Library. I teach now. But only as a lowly Statistics Lecturer in the Business School at Colorado State University in Pueblo (where?). In short, I’m an academic failure (sorry, Bart).
Despite my failings, I have a unique perspective on the discipline of geography. I understand how the academic game is played and I successfully mastered the art of identifying skills used by top research geographers that are actually applicable in the “real world” (for the social theorists, this is a different sort of universe where problems must be solved rather than discussed endlessly). I also served on an admission committee while I was a Master’s student so I know more than average about what it takes to gain admission to a good graduate school and a good geography department. In addition, I’ve hired several geographers and coached many more on this blog and elsewhere.
As it turns out, and this may come as a shock, most students of geography don’t become tenure track professors. In fact, almost none of them do. Instead, the overwhelming majority of geography students enter this unfamiliar real world where jobs are not handed out to those whose primary talent involves speaking in tongues and publishing fairy tale ideas in obscure academic journals.
Sadly the discipline of geography has few representatives from the real world who are in position to help aspiring geography majors, geography graduate students or job hunters with a degree in geography. There were certainly very few helpful resources for me when I decided to pursue a geography education in the early 1990s. One of my goals with this blog is to provide a third party perspective to help aspiring geographers reach their career goals. I don’t know if I’m succeeding, obviously I have detractors, but I’m certainly trying my best.
Now, let’s move on to translation of the hieroglyphics written above.
First, the social theorist says I should read a 15-year old paper explaining why people like him shouldn’t criticize research involving GIS technology and vice-versa. He states this as if GIScience has remained stagnant since 2000 and as if the world knows or cares about the ongoing debate and navel gazing within geography. Also note the holier-than-thou tone where he speaks down to me as if I’m a student in a seminar where he presides over his unworthy minions.
Second, he says I’m trying to divide the discipline of geography. Here’s a news flash, pal – the discipline is already divided. There are two camps. One camp does research on salient topics that are important to contemporary society. The other camp writes a pile of drivel no one understands, no one cares about and no one will ever read. One camp has driven the growth of geography by becoming relevant while the other camp has continued to obscure the discipline and prevent it from being looked upon as useful to the private sector (the place where the vast majority of geographers make a living now and will make a living in the future). So, while this Kumbaya peace accord might help faculty coexist at AAG conferences, it does nothing for students of geography or the standing of the discipline as it relates to the value of a geography degree.
Third, he says the discipline benefits when we speak to each other. Well, sure, I’m all in favor of cross-disciplinary communication, research and problem solving. But, I don’t care about pandering to members of the discipline whose work doesn’t resemble anything even remotely geographical in nature. I think the discipline benefits when we have clarity about what it means to study and practice geography. This would suggest a more consistent curriculum and a more coherent and cohesive explanation of what geographers do. At the moment, although it has changed for the better in the past 20 years, the average professional who might be in position to hire a geographer thinks we study States and Capitals.
Fourth, he says I’m “fanning the flames of a science war”. Whatever. If we’ve been at war no one has died and no one has really noticed. I don’t like to tip-toe around issues. I prefer candor. I find candor far more effective than the passive-aggressive style of someone who implies I’m not worthy because I forgot, heaven forbid, the critical contribution of someone who wrote a friendly paper helping her stay in good stead with her unproductive colleagues who might otherwise have denied her tenure and ruined her career. In my experience debate is a highly effective process that often produces important insights even if it also results in bruised egos.
Finally, he says I am “ill-prepared” for this debate. This is his way of declaring I’m not qualified to contribute to the discussion of what geography should be.
Thankfully, I live in the real world. Here, I’m allowed to say what I believe about geography and its role in society and my voice isn’t required to survive a gauntlet of sanitizing journal reviewers. My opinion matters to my small readership because I tell them the sort of truth they rarely hear from professors. My opinion matters because I’ve figured out how to make geography training valuable in an increasingly competitive and tech-driven global marketplace. And, my opinion matters because I represent the overwhelming majority of geography students and geography graduates who’ve never published in the Annals and never read it because most issues provide limited yield in the way of useful knowledge.
So, I stand by my advice to avoid social theorists in geography. Unless you plan to become a stuffy elitist academic who dwells on the ethereal, these well-meaning but misguided wanna-be philosophers won’t help your career and they might just do long term damage to your prospects for earning a living … at least on this planet.
What’s funny here is three things.
1) All you said is stay way from social geographers as advisors, unless they are demonstrably quantitative.
2) Matt is referencing a long list of academic publications as evidence of his superior qualifications to give advice regarding the non academic marketability of the geography degree.
3) The ***Ph****D comment. Dude! That Ph stands for something!!! Otherwise, you’d just be a D! A D!. The theorists are saving you from a Peppermint Patty grade!
Good stuff, Pete. Thanks for sharing your perspective. 🙂
Rather than go through this blog post line by line, I want to engage with a couple of statements to illustrate why I think the advice being given is sub-optimal, whilst being heartfelt and genuine in its intentions.
1) “this is a different sort of universe where problems must be solved rather than discussed endlessly”
I will admit that there are some geographers who do very theoretical work. In my view it is needed. We need people to work through new ways of thinking and practicing and making sense of a changing, complex world. The vast majority of geographers do theoretically-informed, empirical research — not simply empirical research. The theory bit is underpinned by philosophical argument and is important. It is what frames the questions asked, how they are asked, and how we make sense of the findings. And lots of social theorists (most of those I know, at least) work and engage with policy makers, community groups, advocates, and others — their ideas are often applied and translated into various forms of practice (they don’t just talk to themselves or a few colleagues through journals).
The very best work in Geography is both philosophically-informed and deeply empirical. It is work that has impact both within and outside the academy — think here of geographers such as Danny Dorling or Bill Bunge (both deeply quantitative-orientated scholars). Or even my own work. I am one of your problematic social theorists; I’m fluent in postmodernism and poststructuralism and can hold my own in a lot of other isms and ologies. I publish carefully argued theoretical papers. I also build practical things such as city dashboards and national digital repositories. I advise governments and contribute to policy formulation. I am also a regular media commentator on TV and radio, and in newspapers (by regular, I mean over 600 times). I do between 30-40 invited talks a year, half of them to non-academic audiences. I can explain things using social theory, not just describe them. I can engage in rigorous debate both in the abstract and on the deeply practical. I can create ideas and work them through from theory to practice. All of this is dependent on critical thinking and high theory, not simply technical practices and low theory. It is social theory that gives it its impact in the ‘real world’.
I agree that some professors might be more theoretically, rather than applied, orientated, but their role is an important complement to more practical skills and knowledge because it engages and produces independent, critical thinking. It facilitates lateral and deep thinking. Deeply empirical and low theory rarely leads to more than shallow and weak findings and insights that are not robust to penetrating critique.
2) “most students of geography don’t become tenure track professors. In fact, almost none of them do. Instead, the overwhelming majority of geography students enter this unfamiliar real world where jobs are not handed out to those whose primary talent involves speaking in tongues and publishing fairy tale ideas”
Okay, there are two points here that need addressing, I feel. First, whatever the workplace all students enhance their employment prospects and the quality of their work by being able to think critically and philosophically and to be able to apply that to their endeavours. The whole point of the University is that it educates, it challenges, it stimulates, it facilitates critical reasoning and reflection, it enables independent *thinking*; it is not simply training for rote employment. My former students when I meet them in the ‘real world’ (as you call it, as if professors don’t live in the real world of kids, shopping, travel, taxes, and everything else), tell me the thing that they most valued is I opened their eyes to *thinking critically* about issues — to be able to see things differently, to be able to challenge, to be able to rationalise and debate — not simply that they could perform a task in a technical way only, or think in a limited way.
Second, social theory does not ‘speak in tongues’ and its ideas are not ‘fairy tales’, nor is it ‘drivel that no one understands, no one cares about and no one will ever read’, and nor is not ‘remotely geographical in nature.’ All forms of communication involve a learning of language, syntax, grammar and meaning. Mathematical equations or computational models might be difficult to understand if you do not know how to make sense of the formulae or code and appear to be fairy tales. If you know the language, it is straightforward. It is the same with critical social theory. Just because you do not understand it does not make it a fairy tale – as your post details itself, you barely tried to learn the language whilst a student, but nonetheless dismiss it because you don’t understand it (I’m sure if someone dismissed your computational models using the same reasoning you’d take issue). Yes, I agree some of it could be more clearly expressed — just as equations or computer code can be more elegantly expressed — but that nonetheless does not invalidate its ideas (and yes, I can read equations, and build models, and I can code and the power of being able to do all of them enhances my work rather than detracting from it – and it would enhance a graduate’s career prospects as well).
The accusation about no-one understanding, caring about or reading social theory simply is a statement without empirical evidence (it is simply an assertion), as per my examples above illustrate and lots of others — a whole dynasty and many wars were founded on Marxism (rightly or wrongly depending on your ideology); the social model of disability has transformed disability service provision; critical planning theory has reshaped planning processes and procedures; and we could go on with a very long list. Similarly, social theory practised by geographers is work that is highly geographical. Geography as a discipline is centred around its key *concepts* — space, place, location, nature, environment, mobility, landscape. Social theory within Geography is about thinking through these concepts and using them to make sense of the world. That is explicitly geographical work.
My advice to any prospective student is to find a programme that has a diverse set of types of course that cover all/most subdisciplinary fields, that has a set of professors that practice theoretically-informed, empirical research, but do not all share the same philosophical views. Students then at least have the choice of which path through that department to take and have the option to engage with what you obviously feel are more challenging courses but which nonetheless will equip them with intellectual skills they can apply in the ‘real world’. It thus follows that I think advising prospective students to seek out limited programmes which are social theory light is, in my view, poor advice and does not serve them well. Certainly, my approach will not do them long term damage to their career prospects, nor constrain them to being career academics, but will provide more choice and broaden their horizons and skills.
“Mathematical equations or computational models might be difficult to understand if you do not know how to make sense of the formulae or code and appear to be fairy tales. If you know the language, it is straightforward. It is the same with critical social theory.”
Really? Really? Umm… so the Sokal hoax … just a coincidence it happened with postmodernism and not string theory or theoretical computer science?
Peter: *cough* umm…http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2015/03/major_peerreview_scandal_causes_withdrawal_of_43_published_scientific_papers.html
Sloth … you don’t know what the Sokal hoax is, I take it? Or you just want to confuse the issue to deflect my point?
Peter, yes, really. Whatever form of science philosophy you follow they all acknowledge that taking one case and generalising from it produces ecological fallacies of the highest order. Using one article to dismiss the work of of thousands of people working on postmodernism is bad reasoning. Using one article to dismiss all social theory – of which there are hundreds of varieties – is worse.
Besides that there have been many similar hoaxes in the sciences, with papers getting accepted that have poorly worked out equations that got through refereeing. In fact, I can simply counter by questioning the veracity of vast swathes of scientific work as a number of articles have recently. For example, to quote from Richard Smith’s (editor of Nature) editorial in the Times Higher Education Supplement (https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/content/the-peer-review-drugs-dont-work)
“The most cited paper in Plos Medicine, which was written by Stanford University’s John Ioannidis, shows that most published research findings are false. Studies by Ioannidis and others find that studies published in “top journals” are the most likely to be inaccurate. This is initially surprising, but it is to be expected as the “top journals” select studies that are new and sexy rather than reliable. A series published in The Lancet in 2014 has shown that 85 per cent of medical research is wasted because of poor methods, bias and poor quality control. A study in Nature showed that more than 85 per cent of preclinical studies could not be replicated, the acid test in science.”
Yes, there are other things going on in a lot of these papers, but bullshit reasoning and poor expression is also part of the problem and it is not limited to social theory by any means.
I absolutely stand over my claim that students would be much better off in programmes that present a diversity of approaches and letting the student have a *choice* to be challenged to develop critical thinking skills, than chanelling them into programmes that are limited in pre-defined ways.
Sorry Rob, you’re putting up a lot of false equivalences here to dismiss the issue.
Lets stick to theory. Problems of empirical data (your examples) are fundamentally different.
You think someone could publish a deliberately nonsensical string theory paper? Or theoretical computer science paper? Certainly in the latter case …. hell no. You could wake Laci Babi or Lance Fortnow from a drunken stupor and they’d differentiate between proper theory and bogus hand waving in heartbeat.
The notion that postmodernism obeys the same sort of rules of formal logic as physics, CS, and math is frankly absurd.
That is not to say it is useless gibberish or a fairy tale. (Justin can make that argument if he wants — I’m inclined to think it adds value in a salt-for-the-stew sort of way). But for phucks sake – it’s not a formal logical system and its 100% disingenuous to pretend otherwise.
Peter, you are still generalising from one single paper and the ecological fallacy still holds. And I am absolutely confident a paper that is near enough to fitting the style and framing of a particular kind of science paper but has non-sensical elements in it could slip through refereeing and editor oversight and be published – heaven knows refereeing is a fraught business (either referees not reading the paper closely enough, or not being sufficiently informed enough, and editors trying to deal with 100s of manuscripts). And I read enough computer science journals to know that there are a lot of very weak papers published in reputable journals that are poorly reasoned and argued. We agree that they are very different kinds of writing and papers, but you seem to be intimating that one area of science is infalliable in its mode of communication and reasoning and cannot be hoodwinked and another it is very easy to do (as if good referees would be unable to distinguish). I don’t think that’s the case.
My point is that your “postmodernism is just like obscure math” analogy is absolute garbage.
Outside of that, you make some reasonable points.
But postmodernism doesn’t follow the same sort of logical structure that math, theoretical CS or Physics, or, for that matter Logic as a sub-discipline of Philosophy don’t.
I get the impression that at some level you’re aware that you’re making a misleading analogy, and your using it as a fig leaf instead of a meaningful point of communication.
“My point is that your “postmodernism is just like obscure math” analogy is absolute garbage.” and “I get the impression that at some level you’re aware that you’re making a misleading analogy, and your using it as a fig leaf instead of a meaningful point of communication.”
No, I don’t believe it is garbage and nor is it a fig leaf.
First, you are using a single-case spoof article, not published in Geography, to contend that social theory arguments are not well argued or reasoned and that they way in which they construct their thesis is not a particular form of scholarly communication (it is not just different but bogus). To quote you:
“Really? Really? Umm… so the Sokal hoax … just a coincidence it happened with postmodernism and not string theory or theoretical computer science?”
You have not provided a single case of a spoof article of in Geography or any evidence that social theory work in Geography is not sound scholarship or does not make sense if you understand how to read the argument. Not one jot. Generalising in this way is falicious and extremely weak argument. It is an ecological fallacy pure and simple.
Second, you want me to accept that you can falsify data, use poor method, have dodgy equations, use crappy code, have weakly reasoned argument and get a paper published in a physics or computer science journal, but somehow there is no way that false or spoof papers or papers that are conceptually bogus or talking gibberish could get through a physics or computer science journal? Really? My point is the scholarship and forms of communication in Science have their own and related problems.
P.S. I do agree that the mode of communication is different between maths and social theory, with the former being more logical and structured and latter being more rhetorical and discursive. The latter nonetheless has its conventions, norms and style and if you do understand how those work then the argument can be followed. In the same way that if I know how equations work then I can follow them, but if I don’t I can’t. I still hold that a single spoof case does not invalid a swathe of scholarship, and that there are related forms of communication issues in the sciences as per last comments. As per your previous comment, I suspect we are talking past each other a bit and we would probably agree our difference pretty quickly through face to face chat.
I am beginning to see why Justin is so frustrated with the social theorists.
Your willingness to argue black is white and up is down (postmodernism is just as objectively verifiable as mathematics) is impressive, in sort of a dancing bear sort of way. (I.e. I agree the bear can be said to dance, but good luck getting any but a tiny slice of of the population as your partner).
Philosophy was my original major. At one of the stronger departments in the US. I switched majors to get better summer internships, and not for lack of straight As. I honestly think you’re totally out to lunch from a “Philosophy of science” standpoint. Like, way way way out. It looks like Justin agrees with me, and honestly, I’d guess most of his readers (much increased from these posts) would as well.
I’m not arguing that postmodernism is just as objectively verifiable than mathematics, or that ‘black is white and up is down’. Nowhere do I make such a case. I am arguing that social theory language is not gibberish as you put it, but that it’s own conventions, rules, norms and styes of rhetorical and discursive argument, and nor are the substantive arguments of social theory gibberish (both of which the Sokal hoax aimed to illustrate). And that using one case to contend that it is, is not good scientific reasoning – both because it generalises from one case, and because it assumes that other forms of science communication are inherently better rather than different (when all of them clearly have faults and are open to being spoofed as in the Sokal case). I’m basically refuting your use of Sokal to dismiss my original argument. And I stand by that.
Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think I know where you’re coming from but I still disagree with your vision of the role social theory ought to play in geography. Here’s my full reply: http://www.justinholman.com/2015/08/28/more-sorcery-from-the-empire-of-social-theorists/
Let me jump in here a minuet and explain my feelings on this discussion from a academic and professional level – regardless of the topic or jobs.
Your defense of professors being inept as practitioners and spewing rhetoric about the old days only creates critical thinking because it becomes problem solving; the student has to learn how to update the old lesson to the new application of any said topic. Your logic only applies to History degrees. This is a fine example and is exactly what is wrong with my degree plan and faculty. Many of their inability to teach even basic computer science concepts is because they didn’t practice at all and if they did it was in the 80s. In any field, if you don’t keep up with the new advancements, like Justin is suggesting, then what you teach is dated and irrelevant.
I’ve traveled and been to many colleges in different regions. The problem is all too much the same. At this college the students congregate and develop projects on the side just to learn what their professors are TRYING to explain. For an hour and a half of my valuable life seconds, I listen to the sound of a tap dance while pointing out SIMPLISTIC code in a upper level course. The version of which is dated to the point of irrelevancy.
I regress, there are a lot of faculty that are great. Their knowledge is fantastic and I learn a lot in all of their lectures, notably one CS professor who is genius. Education institutions are, as you put it, for “educat(ing), it challenges, it stimulates, it facilitates critical reasoning and reflection” and you are right that it isn’t OJ, leave that for ITT Tech. Applied application is critical – paint the picture for me, professor. Don’t hold my hand, show me the way of the force and lets practice some down and dirty application so we can go forth into the world, together, and land a job with little issues about how to do my job so I can just learn my new bureaucratic policies and procedure so I’m not tripping over my shoelaces and questioning what I learned back in Academia.
Don’t be defensive. I understand Justin’s logic about the real world and the university – he does both. And like a Soldier coming in from the cold, he has a better understand of the why. I whole hardheartedly understand and I see it all the time – everyday – that the 9-2 job of many professors who lectures their dated power points looses prospective of whats actually happening in the now-world (real is a harsh word, I suppose). I’ve had this debate all week during the first week of classes. I cannot address the issues where I need to, its Provost or bust, because the professors are so embedded in their tenure that there isn’t a need in, in many of their minds, to even think of updating a Power Point labeled Person Higher Ed, 2003.
Practice makes perfect, professor.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Paul!
This would make for an interesting panel at the AAG in San Francisco next year. I think this is an important dialogue to inform what goes into graduate education in Geography. Unfortunately many departments are only giving graduate students an empirical GIS education or a critical theory education without the opportunity to mix the two. Both sides are defensive over the importance of their territory in the discipline, but both are equally important. I was very fortunate to benefit from both an empirical and theoretical lens in graduate school, and I use both every day. This fall I’m teaching a BigData+GIS graduate seminar and using Rob Kitchin’s Data Revolution book, and last spring Matt Wilson spoke to my GIS class. However, most of the papers that come out of this class will remain highly empirical and almost positivist, and that’s ok, because the students have had the exposure to the debates in the discipline that have allowed for their empirical lens. Thanks for posting this debate Justin, please keep it going!
Thanks for sharing your perspective, Monica! And, I very much appreciate your encouragement! Cheers, Justin
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It’s total insanity that any geographers are willing to entertain a division between human and physical geography in the middle of a global climate catastrophe caused by humans. The most pertinent work being done in *both* the private sector and academia are analyses on mitigating the economic and environmental risks of resource extraction, population displacement, and the nexus of politics these arise from. Anyone claiming allegiance to either approach over the other are both guilty of being wildly out of touch with reality.
You don’t need to know the intricacies of Das Kapital or have any background in physics in order to understand the gravity of the connection between human and physical geography. You just need to turn on the news:
One of the world’s most powerful corporations is on a mission to drill with the knowledge that their plan at best has a SEVENTY-FIVE percent chance of triggering a catastrophic oil spill. Why is this happening? For reasons that pertain equally to the social mechanisms enabling this as they do to the physical geography of the Arctic that precipitated it.
Navel-gazing runs both ways. My background is in physical geography, but it’s my orientation toward scientific rationality that prevents me from hand-waving human geography or words like “irreducibles” and “epistemologies” away from fear of looking stupid in the face of “po-mo”. I know post-modern garbage when I see it, and the comment you excerpted was honestly more reasonably argued than the bewildered impromptu ranting it provoked.
I mean, it’s your blog, write whatever you want. If candor is what you want, though, maybe first consider refraining from any discussions that have real material consequences.
Hi Andy, you have completely misunderstood my intent. I have no interest in dividing physical from human geography. Instead, I want to encourage a more complete merger of the two in order to better tackle urgent problems. My objection is with the social theory branch of human geography dedicated to publishing tongue twisters rather than working on the type of salient issues you list in your comment.
Thanks so much for granting permission to write what I want. I feel truly liberated.
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