Do you have to be an American to write about America, or a Black person to write about African American issues? Or a Christian to write about Christianity? These questions get asked, quite often, especially in academic circles. While the general academic rule of thumb, or the ‘mood’ in academia today is that this is not an appropriate way to think, such line of thinking still persists. Academia prides itself in being above the narrow confines of partistanship – when it comes to politics – or religious or ethnic chest-thumping, though some of it does occur, nevertheless.
I came across an important essay by Robert Merton, a Sociologist, who has contributed much to our understanding of how knowledge is produced and the field of ‘Sociology of Knowledge.’ Titled, “Insiders and Outsiders,” (1969) where he talks, at length, about the ways that knowledge is legitimized, among groups of people.
Merton quotes Karl Polanyi, the celebrated intellectual, and I quote him here, at length to illustrate a fundamental point : That in a free society, people are free to choose their sources of information and should be able to judge the ‘truth,’ for themselves. While we live in a multi-cultural and multi-racial society, with no single claims to truth on any matter, there are groups that would contest that, arguing that there is indeed just ‘one way’ to do things – whether it is in the matter of choice of religion, politics or other issues. This is where the real thorn arises.
“in an ideal free society each person would have perfect access to the truth:
to the truth in art, religion, and justice, both in public and
private life. But this is not practicable; each person can know directly very
little of truth and must trust others for the rest. Indeed, to assure this
process of mutual reliance is one of the main functions of society. It follows
that such freedom of the mind as can be possessed by men is due to
the services of social institutions, which set narrow limits to man’s freedom
and tend to threaten it even within those limits. The relation is analogous
to that between mind and body: to the way in which the performance of
mental acts is restricted by limitations and distortions due to the medium
which makes these performances possible”. [ Polanyi,1959, p. 68]
Merton explains that as there is growing distance between people in society, and a growing lack or mistrust, this function of checking and re-checking of facts is lost; and people tend to hunker down in their own narrow visions of what ‘truth,’ is. This is evident, I would argue, in any issue : Race matters, issue of religion or even issues such as national security. Any of these areas are contentious and full of emotional baggage. When one approaches these issues with purely pre-conceived notions and firmly held beliefs, which one is not willing to question, then we have a problem. Dogmatic beliefs do not inform us, they can only tear us apart.
Insiders and outsiders
Speaking of the processes that form these insiders and outsiders, Merton argues that social movements start off with the intention of bringing about a greater consciousness among people. They are however, formed primarily on the basis of ‘ascribed rather than acquired statuses’ (and identities, with eligibility for inclusion being in terms of who you are rather than what you are (in the sense of status being contingent on role performance). This presents the first significant problem – bias – excluding people just because of who they are. For instance, if someone tells me that I am not qualified to write scholarly material on America because I am not an ‘American,’ it’d be the case of appealing to an ascribed rather than ‘acquired status.’ For such a person, it wouldn’t matter that I am getting a Ph.D in the U.S. and have interacted, studied with, and worked with some of the leading intellectuals in this country. All that would matter is my ‘origin,’ and who I ‘truly’ am. This approach, Merton suggests, and I would argue, is the wrong one.
The ‘insider and outsider,’ discourse is not only deeply problematic, but also has basis in earlier discourses of exclusion of people, from acquiring knowledge. This almost Brahminical rigidity in excluding people from acquiring forms of knowledge has precedents in Nazi Germany, in the U.S.- during the debates about what sort of knowledge Blacks should receive – technical or liberal arts, etc. The most famous of these debates were between Booker Washington and WEB Dubois, while the former argued for a ‘technical,’ training for the newly emancipated Black man, while Dubois was in favor of a more liberal arts approach.
In the strongest form, the insider argument can take the form of ‘Only a black person can write about Blacks, only a Muslim can write about Islam etc.’ Academic training, capability and a curious mind mean nothing, according to this doctrine. For sure, if this were true, then none of the history we are reading today would be of any use, because it is often written by people who are not the ones who create it. They are most often, not people, who are like us.
The outsider doctrine holds that anyone who does not belong to the group can never fully and totally comprehend what is going on. It is easy to see how this is false. Just as there are incompetent outsiders, who bungle through their field work and interviews and act culturally insensitive – say, in an anthropological study- there are incompetent insiders, too. Extreme insiderism is nothing but ethnocentrism – the belief that one’s world is at the center of the universe – and this manifests itself in chauvinism of all kinds. Nationalism, race pride, pride in one’s religion, at the expense of others’ are all manifestations of this ‘insiderism.’
Academic study of any topic – whether it is religion, race or ethnicity is supposed to be an exercise in critical thinking and investigating the claims to truth, not indulging in propaganda. Therein lies the distinction between academia and propaganda.Academic training allows one to analyze and weigh the empirical proofs for and against a phenomenon and make an informed decision. As Merton reminds us, sociological understanding demands much more than ‘acquaintance with.’ It includes an understanding of methodologies and conditions and processes, in which people are caught up with. This often comes with training and years or practice.
On another note, here is take-down of extreme insiderism of Fox-News, watch this interview with Reza Aslan.