More Sorcery from the Empire of Social Theorists
August 28, 2015
Uncle Owen: “Do you speak Bocce?”
Social Theorist: “Of course I do. It’s like a second language to me. I’m also fluent in postmodernism and poststructuralism.”
Uncle Owen: “What I really need is a Professor who will help me succeed in my career, even if I don’t become an academic scholar.”
Social Theorist: “I’m afraid I’m not terribly familiar with careers outside the academy. But if you learn to speak my gibberish I will sign off on your Master’s degree and you’ll be able to find a decent job even though you’ll need to retrain yourself to speak with normal humans.”
You may have noticed I’m battling with the Social Theorists who’ve over-populated the discipline of geography for far too long, preventing true geographers from being seen as useful in the workplace. Here are a few more of their efforts to argue for their own relevance, along with my replies.
“We need people to work through new ways of thinking and practicing and making sense of a changing, complex world.” and “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.”
I agree. There should be a Department of Philosophy and a Department of Sociology in every University. There should also be a Department of Geography in every University. And the geography department should be composed of geographers, not philosophers and/or sociologists.
“…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.”
Again, I agree. Every grad student should take at least one, preferably two semesters of Theory in Geography. Most of it is boring as hell, but necessary. That said, social theory is not a legitimate sub-discipline of geography, it’s a different discipline altogether. You can be a geographer who also contributes to philosophy or sociology but you are not a geographer if all you do is philosophy or sociology.
“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 understand social theory. I understand it well enough to know 80% of it is a pile of shit. I probably understand its role and relevance to society better than most who claim to specialize in it. I say this because I learned theory in geography from a true master, Alec Murphy. He brought it to life and inspired me to take it seriously (and I did indeed do the reading in his class). But then I was forced to endure, in other far less inspiring human geography seminar rooms, how it can be utilized to create alternate fantasy worlds and to serve no purpose aside from verbal/written ammunition in unproductive semantic disputes.
The claim that others don’t understand social theory is always the line of defense. And, this attitude of superiority is part of the problem. I think it comes from a feeling of insecurity because, deep down, you realize you’re enjoying the luxury of being a paid scholar without, in turn, making a sufficiently meaningful contribution to society’s priorities. So you hide behind absurd jargon and the ridiculous notion that you’re smarter than everyone else. If you are a practicing geographer and, in parallel, also contributing to social theory research – more power to you. But, let’s stop producing so many social theorists in geography departments. In doing so, we’re diluting the discipline and paying too little attention to far more pressing problems we are well-equipped to address.
“The accusation about no-one understanding, caring about or reading social theory simply is a statement without empirical evidence.”
There’s easily obtainable empirical evidence. Why not survey every student of geography and ask them what they want from their geography degree? Put various outcomes on the list along with “understanding social theory” to see what students value. Or, ask parents/taxpayers (the people paying your salary) where they want their money and your time invested. Or ask employers who hire geographers for their input.
I’ll go out on a limb and predict all three groups will plead with geography departments to spend less time on social theory and more time on spatial/geographical/environmental problem solving.
I’m not saying do away with social theory. I’m saying geographers need to do a better job of clarifying what we do and I’m saying the non-academic population is begging the entire academy, not just geography, to become more relevant.
It’s time to listen.
“I’m saying the non-academic population is begging the entire academy, not just geography, to become more relevant.”
Umm… yeah. Just so.
Justin, we are never going to agree because you feel that you know what ‘proper geography’ is and should be, and you have a particular view of what is relevant to society (which appears to be the view of business) and what the purpose of universities are (I lean towards Cardinal Newman on this in ‘The Idea of a University’). You clearly seem to think that social theory and spatial/geographical/environmental problem solving are mutually exclusive when a very large proportion of the discipline do not, and I would hazard never will. I would also be very surprised if Alec Murphy agreed with your limited view of what geography is or should be, or your view of social theory. I also think that leading scholars that share your more quantitative-applied, computational approach, such as Mike Batty and Mike Goodchild, would also favour a wider more catholic discipline. As per my reply to your last post, I personally favour a plural view of the discipline, whereas you favour one that is, in my view, limited and limiting – my view includes yours, but not vice versa.
I am also still of the view that every discipline should educate, challenge, stimulate, facilitate critical reasoning and reflection, and enable independent *thinking* – not simply a Department of Philosophy and a Department of Sociology. And I really do mean *every* department on campus. I think anything else is a derogation of a University’s mandate and role.
In response to this quote: “And, this attitude of superiority is part of the problem. I think it comes from a feeling of insecurity because, deep down, you realize you’re enjoying the luxury of being a paid scholar without, in turn, making a sufficiently meaningful contribution to society’s priorities. So you hide behind absurd jargon and the ridiculous notion that you’re smarter than everyone else.”
I have no deep feeling of insecurity and again, I’m not sure other geographers who use social theory do either. I also have no feeling of superiority, though I do have a different view to your own and I prefer argument that relies on ideas and reasoning rather than personal asides and judgements. I am a paid scholar. I contribute to society through my teaching of students and through my research. I also do work with companies, I work with governments (local and national), I work with agencies such as national mapping institutions and official statistics bodies, I work with community groups, and I work with journalists (and they all think what I have to say is useful as they pay me for it). Other social theory geographers do work with one or more of these groups as well; I am part of the majority not an exception. I am familiar with careers outside the academy. I raise the salaries of 10-15 people a year doing contract work and research grants. My work does make a difference and so does the work of other geographers employing social theory. I don’t hide behind absurd jargon, but I do use social theory and the nuance of its rhetoric and reasoning, and I am absolutely confident it is not ‘80% shit’ and nor is the work of my colleagues (there is a distinct difference to whether one agrees with the work and whether it is a good piece of work within its framing). And I do think social theory absolutely belongs in the discipline.
But that said good luck shouting into the wind.
P.S. You might find the forum in Dialogues in Human Geography by Ron Johnston et al of interest: ‘Mutual misunderstanding and avoidance, misrepresentations and disciplinary politics: spatial science and quantitative analysis in geographical curricula’ http://dhg.sagepub.com/content/4/1/3.abstract
“I would also be very surprised if Alec Murphy agreed with your limited view of what geography is or should be, or your view of social theory.”
All current academic geographers have concluded it’s better to tolerate those who don’t actually practice geography rather than go to war with them. I understand. It’s a self-preservation technique because the band of incomprehensible social theorists would kick up such an obnoxious fuss – just as they’re doing here – that it would make life too difficult for prominent geographers … let alone those trying to obtain tenure and make a name for themselves in the discipline.
I don’t know what Alec would say. He’s so smart I’m certain he’d find a way to both recognize the obscurity geography suffers and suggest improvement while also managing to placate the social theorists so any ensuing debate doesn’t distract him from more important matters.
“I have no deep feeling of insecurity and again, I’m not sure other geographers who use social theory do either. I also have no feeling of superiority, though I do have a different view to your own…”
Why then must you trumpet your own cv to make your point … twice?
“Good luck shouting into the wind.”
Thanks. By the way, these posts have been read more in the last two days than any single article in Progress in Human Geography has been read in the past two years.
“…and I am absolutely confident it is not ‘80% shit’ ”
You were thinking more like 70-75%?
I have followed the debate and the snark and would like to share the Bogdanov Affair link as sort of a Sokal hoax in reverse (though the intentions were apparently ever completely revealed).
Just would also like to propose that as far as there is a lack of utility for social theory in the private sector, this might suggest a core problem in the way businesses are run, not a problem of academia. I know these words will be misread, so I will add that I hope we can consider the priority of social theory is to impart critical thinking and initiate new, creative, even potentially useful, ideas (and not, say, the caricature of theory as just Derrida’s inscrutability). Who benefits when a generation of graduates turn out to be great button-pushers (drone operators?) but leave the critiques in the hands of just the perfessers?
Thanks for the comment, Flavone. I enjoy the snark just as social theorists probably enjoy their jargon. Sorry if it rubs readers the wrong way. Businesses could certainly use improvement in the way they are run but pretending it’s a private sector problem is to reinforce my contention that academics don’t pay sufficient attention to the priorities of society. Instead of growing an insular academic caste that communicates only within its membership, try building more bridges to the rest of the world. I think there’s middle ground where the concepts of social theory can be communicated without the paywalls and the indecipherable layers of jargon.
Why are the social theorists/postmodernist/close-reading academics so insecure as to make these “we’re just like math/abstract-physics”.
Yes, math and theoritical sub disciplines of physics and CS is laden with terminology and the concepts discussed aren’t easily available to laymen. That doesn’t mean that its fundamentally similar to other jargony hard-to-understand academic disciplines.
You guys don’t see how these completely bogus equivalence of “we’re just like math” is actually giving credence to Justin’s point?
Pete, even if they were “just like math” (and, of course, they’re not) they would still be wrong to think of social theory as a sub discipline of geography. I relied heavily on statistics in my dissertation research but I don’t consider statistics to be a sub discipline.
“All current academic geographers have concluded it’s better to tolerate those who don’t actually practice geography rather than go to war with them. It’s a self-preservation technique because the band of incomprehensible social theorists would kick up such an obnoxious fuss”
And your evidence for this is? If the particular brand of geography you profess is so superior, surely it would win any philosophical debate as to the relative merits of different forms of practising geography? It would overcome any obnoxious fuss (and I really don’t think I’m being obnoxious in my comments by dint of simple disagreeing with your arguments) for the greater good. So why doesn’t it at least try to transform rather than tolerate? If the discipline is so in need of rescuing and re-directed onto a new path the strategy of tolerance makes little sense. Perhaps most academic geographers are okay with a plurality of positions and have a much more catholic view as to what constitutes a practising geographer that extends well beyond your limited definition. And maybe they think this broader framing of geography makes sense in terms of producing a vibrant, active, impactful discipline. Certainly in professional terms the Geography’s star in the US is rising, not falling.
“Why then must you trumpet your own cv to make your point … twice?”
I’m using to illustrate the fact that social theorists do make a difference and impact and they do work with all kinds of groups in the ‘real world’ as you put it – and that we are practicising geographers in your terms, and successful at it as well, not simply theorists locked in ivory towers. If you want to interpret that as insecurity or superiority then that’s your reading, but it’s not one I share.
It’s great for you that your hits have gone up, but I doubt your arguments are going to convince the discipline to turn its ship in your direction – and not for the reason of tolerance, but because what the discipline thrives on its plurality and the diverse ways in which it is practised and has an impact within and beyond the academy.
I have no evidence. But the game of tenure and promotion is such that taking a position as I’ve done here would be far too risky if I were an Assistant Professor seeking tenure in a Dept of Geography. Surely you recognize these built-in barriers to a more open discussion within the academy. We should look back on what was referred to as “the nasty name-calling in the 90s” and see how things have played out 20 years later. I suspect an honest review will reveal GIScience has far outperformed expectations (far from the fad many human geographers suggested it would be) while social theory has gone almost nowhere, at least not in terms of helping the typical student or graduate of geography.
No, you’re not being obnoxious at all. And I’m grateful for your participation in this thread – thank you! I enjoy this sort of debate and I may be guilty of overusing “snark” (as Flavone calls it) or sarcasm but I think these sorts of academic debates are overdue for airing in the light of day using more pedestrian language rather than hiding within the realm of obscure peer-review journals. And, I point out blog readership only to illustrate how few people read ostensibly influential journal articles…not because my pageviews are terribly impressive. They’re not.
Geography is indeed a rising star in the US but we’re still struggling to be understood by Main Street. This means our student population is thinner than it ought to be and the geography department population is far smaller than it ought to be.
At the end of the day, I see far too little consideration for the needs of the student population from the discipline and from the entire academy. No, geography departments shouldn’t be strictly job training programs; however, they are generally in desperate need of moving the needle toward practicality.
“That said, social theory is not a legitimate sub-discipline of geography, it’s a different discipline altogether.”
I don’t understand this statement. You might as well say that anthropologists and literature professors should ignore social theory too.
Anthropologists and Lit profs are certainly under no obligation to use social theory. Do you need to check with Marxists before digging up and analyzing historical artifacts? Do you need to consider postmodernism before writing a book of poetry? No. Same goes for geographers.
Geographers are under no obligation to cite Marx. Neither is anybody in Anthro or English. However, anybody in these disciplines aspiring to study human societies would probably be wise to ignore those telling them not to learn about any social theory.
I get the sense that it’s just certain social theorists you dislike: Marx, postmodernists. Fine. But then it would be more constructive to try to get to a theory of human societies you do like, rather than say that such inquiries simply aren’t what “real” Geography is about.
I never said “not to learn about any social theory” – in fact I agree wholeheartedly that it’s an important element of a graduate program. But that doesn’t make it geography.
Well I don’t think there are any Geography programs anywhere which try to claim that reading Marxist philosophy is sufficient for getting a Geography BA, MA, or PhD. The required coursework in virtually every program I know of is in stuff like geographic methods. Maybe there’s some program you have in mind, in which case I’d be curious to know what it is.
There are a handful of programs with only physical geography or only human geography. I think these programs are more problematic than others.
It’s actually very troubling to think that a whole generation of geographers might be under the mistaken notion that learning so much about Marxist philosophy is the same as becoming fluent in geography. What a shame.
Justin, I am enjoying this discussion and I hope that it continues since our poor discipline has waited far too long for it to begin. A major mistake was made when physical geography and human geography went down different ways many decades ago. Now we are seeing yet another break developing because some of us (and they are nice people for the most part) seem unable to understand that being “relevant to society” is not necessarily the same as being “relevant to geography.” I would like to continue participating but, at the moment, I am being pressed by a deadline. Some of what I would like to say may be found in “Computational Geography as a New Modality” in Volume 6 of The History of Cartography (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2015).
You might also be interested in a book recommended to me by my old friend David Unwin.
Wheen, Francis. How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World – A Short History of Modern Delusions.
Duane, thank you for weighing in! I will take a look at these references and look forward to you re-joining the discussion when you’ve moved beyond your deadline. Thanks again, Justin
Justin appears to me not to be dismissive of anything. He appears to differ on the EMPHASIS of different content of things taught.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts Vicki!
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