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Sunday, September 9, 2007

MEDIA PSYCHOLOGY & THE NEED TO BUILD COMMUNITY TAILORED IDENTITIES

The last three days I attended the doctoral day and the following convention of the German Media-Psychologist's Society in Dresden. The doctoral day was a one day training in academic presenting and writing. The sessions were very much hands-on where I got once again feed-back from peers and faculty. It was an ideal complement to the Harvard experience. It also reminded me that presentation skills are one of the most vital parts of any (academic) career. And in a very applied way it made me cross-reference the Donath / Clippinger talk of the OII-SDP2007 (see previous post; the annotated pictures are from the Donath talk and not from the Dresden convention).
I cross-reference the Donath Talk for several reasons. For one Judith Donath works at the bleeding edge of sociable cyberspace designing interfaces and interaction principles, e.g. on (but not limited to) Second Life. On the hand were her readings eclectic, they comprised her own landmark Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community but also Max Gluckman's (1963) Gossip and Scandal. Which is strange, considering that Gluckman's Paper is essentially about the Potlatch rite with the Makah Indians and a reinterpretation of Franz Boa’s monumental anthropological documentation of their culture published around 1900. Citing Boa, Gluckman describes the potlatch as a ceremonial feast to which one group or individual invites social rivals in order to demonstrate family prerogatives. In potlatch, rich men and rich kin exchanged rich gifts. They spent their wealth in splendid and stylized feasts served upon hallowed feast dishes oftentimes financially ruining them.
When I first read the whole story, I read it as a scientific text (as opposed to a fictional text). That means that the article is a discourse on a subject matter which is intentionally written to be interpreted in a singular direction. In other words this kind of academic writing is performed in a way that the author’s intentions and the meaning of the text coincide. The result is a text which is dry and disengaging the imagination of the reader. I assume this academic writing style developed as a counter-reaction to the post-structuralist, post-modernist movement which purported that all texts (even academic ones!) are cultural productions. That the meaning of a text is inherently unstable, dependent upon the wide range of interpretations brought upon to bear upon it by various readers and thereby beyond the control of the writer (help!).
With this baggage in my mind I disregarded or should I rather say overlooked the following paragraph on the second page of Gluckman’s paper:

The more exclusive the group, the greater will be the amount of gossip in it. There are three forms of social group which test this hypothesis. The one is the professional group, like lawyers or anthropologists, whose gossip is built into technical discussion so tightly that the outsider cannot always detect the slight personal knockdown which is concealed in a technical recital, or the technical sneer which is contained in a personal gibe. This is, therefore, the most irritating kind of group to crash into, because one has no clue to the undercurrents, no apparatus for taking soundings. And this is why old practitioners of a subject can so easily put a comparative newcomer into his place, can make him feel a neophyte. They have only to hint in a technical argument at some personal fact about the person who advanced the theory discussed, to make the eager young student feel how callow he is. Again, the more highly organized the profession, the more effective is the role of gossip.

In this paragraph Gluckman clearly states his intention of using the potlatch rite as a ‘big’ metaphor (article overarching metaphors; Barnes & Duncan) for talking about social conventions of specialized communities, like academia. With every re-write of this entry I more and more realize why Gluckman is talking about the makah indians or Donath about assessment signals of animals instead of their own community - academia. It is so difficult to put any observations into words without making the reader infer something different. And Gluckman's choice of the terms gossiping and scandalmongering to describe important social processes in society implicate only the worst intentions by the writer. Therefore let me state that the important aspects in Gluckman's observations are the rules you have to adhere for doing so. First you should only gossip about other members of the same community and never to strangers. Second the more 'heritage' you have, the more you have this communital right and social duty to gossip. Heritage basically means how long you and your ancestors (e.g. thesis advisor) have been part of a certain community. Applying Glucksman's observations to a summer school like the OII-SDP means that all participants are expected to gossip and scandalmonger from a certain point of time. Just because it is one of the important social processes which keeps a community alive. Therefore I agree with Gluckman when he writes in the final lines of his paper:

If I suggest that gossip and scandal are socially virtuous and valuable, this does not mean that I always approve of them. Indeed, in practice I find that when I am gossiping about my friends as well as my enemies I am deeply conscious of performing a social duty; but that when I hear they gossip viciously about me, I am rightfully filled with righteous indignation.

The inability to speak about its own community, for one it violates Gluckman’s gossiping rules (never gossip to strangers), may be one of the reasons why the potlatch rite has sparked such a great interest by academics over the last hundred years. Of interest is also Gluckman’s use of the personal ‘I’, a writing style which is shunned by academics because it is considered as non-scholarly. The use of the personal form ‘I’ is a violation of community code. Let us also note that this could be a sign of power and influence because only an influential member of that community has the right for such a digression.
That said, let us get back to the Dresden convention and to Peter Vorderer, the doyen of German Media Psychology. He concluded the doctoral day with a speech about his experience in the states and as editor of the Journal Media Psychology. In his speech he addressed and answered a burning question of mine:

Why do non-[native]-English speakers get less published?

The answer is both simple and compelling: Non-Native speakers are affluent in the inside-speak of a particular community. A text which is (originally) written in another language and then professionally translated is from a linguistic vantage point perfect. Except that the translation makes disappear the "many basic cues about personality and social role we are accustomed to " (Judith Donath, 2007).
A text which is perfectly written but lacks the cues of social role and community membership alerts the reviewer (subconsciously) of a potential risk of deception. Hence the reviewer - acting as gatekeeper of his community - scrutinizes the paper doubly. Even though a reviewer neither accepts nor rejects papers, an editor is (statistically speaking) less likely to publish such a heavily scrutinized paper.

AHA!

So however well we design a system to counter bias, our inherent need for gossip and status will nullify it. Therefore I agree with Vorderer that the only viable solution is to become part of this other community, to become part of their gossip and scandalmongering. Or in Vorderer's terms: It is absolutely vital to learn how to use those verbal cues, the inside speak and the positioning terms of every community you want to say something. As they are the assessment signals for competence very alike the horns of a stag or the mane of a lion.

So do we have to accept that academic writing has to be dull and boring? Is it really a necessary byproduct of status signaling processes? Howard Becker partly disagrees with this notion in his book ’Writing for Social Scientists`. According to him the most unintelligible academic writing comes from aspiring scientists who “repeat the worst stylistic excesses the journals contain, learn that those very excesses are what makes their work different from what every damn fool knows and says, write more articles like those they learned from, submit them to journals whose editors publish them and thus provide the raw material for another generation to learn bad habits from”. In order to change academic writing Becker also published his observations in the sociological quarterly, where a reader wrote a letter to the publisher pointing out (as Vorderer did) that in refereed journals articles with less stylistic excesses would get less published, unless he has already earned the respect of the community.
I do hold it with Becker, that academic writing need not be unintelligible. If we look at the two excerpts of Gluckman’s paper, both are written in a clear and concise manner. The only thing that differentiates it from similar writing in a newspaper is Glucksman’s command of vocabulary. Which is okay, because he is addressing a specialist audience.