Are you an Insider or an outsider?

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.

Credit : The
Credit : The

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.

Why you should be Skeptical of Media Pundits’ Commentary

Are the pundits (or experts) on TV actually making us more ignorant? I am starting to wonder if all this explosion of ‘experts’ around us is really helping us understand the complex issues in front of us, or are they ‘dumbing down’ things, in order to reach us, and in essence not really helping us ‘know’ and ‘learn’? With the proliferation of social media, TV and 24 hour news channels, it is easier for everyone to have an opinion about everything. Even if we don’t know anything about a topic, it is quite possible to have an idea about that topic – I would even say that this current flood of ‘knowledge’ around us forces us to have an opinion, however ill informed. I am guilty of this, myself and catch myself having an ‘opinion’ on a random topic that I don’t know much about.

Are we are living in an age of illusions – where the ‘illusion of knowledge’ is very real, while the actual knowledge of the topic or subject may be minimal. The most egregious form of ‘knowledge sharing’ is the 2 minute interviews on TV. In fact, there has been much criticism about this form of discussion. How much can you realistically aim to teach or inform someone about complex topics such as the unemployment in America, War in Iraq or Global Warming? While TV anchors force their interviewees to churn out wisdom in sound bites, are they not really asking these ‘experts’ to dumb down, so that the lay person can really ‘get it’ in two minutes? Whose responsibility is it, then, to inform and educate the public – that of the public scholar or the media houses?

This brings us to the question of ‘what is knowledge’? Knowledge can simply be defined as what is agreed upon by people in a society. While observation and logical deductions form the tools of creating knowledge, they must also be validated by the ‘experts’ in the particular field, before it becomes ‘knowledge’, as Earl Babbie(2011) reminds us. “In general a scientific assertion must have both logical and empirical support: it must make sense and it must not contradict actual observation.” (p.4). This means that what our society determines is actually very critical, if not the only relevant criterion, to what we consider authentic ‘knowledge’.

Let us use one example to illustrate a point I am trying to make. Recent debates about Islam in the US media are also an example of what is going wrong, when it comes to ‘knowledge’ about Islam. A recent Pew Survey shows that 42% of Americans believe that Islam, more than other religion promotes violence. While the findings of the survey may be true – that is a whole different argument – what I am concerned is how terms are defined and how this comes to constitute what we ‘learn’, in other words, the epistemology behind it.

What the surveys do not tell us is how they define violence. This should be balanced with ‘facts’ such as structural violence, which are defined as ‘hunger and poverty’ are growing enormously in the US alone. Is poverty ‘structural violence’ as I have argued above, in which case the US society would be very high in this form of violence? And in comparison, many of the answers that we see in this survey may not hold true, even if we were to compare societies by religious belief.

While surveys are surely useful in aggregating opinions and ideas of large numbers of people, these very surveys can be quite problematic too. False respondents, social desirability and interviewer distortion are some of the methodological difficulties in survey research and in using the data that is collected. Also, surveys do not tell the ‘full story’ from the perspective of the group that is researched. Data and numbers can only inform us partially and only in a very dry, scientific manner, that may be misleading at times. So, while data alone cannot help us understand religion, we realize that tradition and metaphysics are crucial tools too. So, the real question is – what do we really ‘learn’ from such efforts? Not the entire story, I would argue.

Another problem with study of religion is that of tradition. While scientific research and methods often disregard values and tradition, as being anachronistic to research methods, one cannot ignore the force of traditions in studying religion. This does not mean we need to disregard tradition completely. While a purely positivistic paradigm of research may reject tradition and values outright, a constructivist may regard them as valid and often required. But for one who is practicing religion, tradition is part and parcel of the practice. I speak here of most Abrahamic religions, and perhaps some Eastern faiths too – Hinduism and Buddhism included. So, how do we incorporate tradition with the modern notions of how contemporary religious people see themselves? Speaking of Islam as an example, Talal Asad (1986) has argued that there is a need for studying Islam as a discursive tradition, i.e., a tradition that is evolving and adapting to the circumstances around it. Additionally, the work of Anthropologists who have studied Islam- scholars like Ernest Gellner and Clifford Geertz place representation of Islam in the social structure that is ‘entirely in terms of dramatic roles and this tends to exclude other conceptions”. By this, he means that Islam can be reduced to a battle of ‘big traditions’ of the city with the ‘small traditions’ of the villages. Asad says that Gellner’s Muslim protagonists do not speak, they only behave. Asad’s biggest critique of both these scholars, and by extension of a way of writing about Islam is that it ignores indigenous discourses i.e., how Muslims themselves talk about Islam and how they understand it. Their own notions of ‘knowledge’ about Islam are ignored. Pundits usually rattle off numbers, statistics and latest ‘reports’ by think tanks to prove their point, without telling us the weakness of this data and the many fault lines that exist there. Traditions, values and understandings of norms – that are crucial to behavior are often ignored or ‘essentialized’, making simple the complex and ever changing dynamic of how groups behave and negotiate with their circumstances.

Another recent example of the fuzzy logic that media pundits use to convince people is on Politico. Here, the authors points to data shared by Fareed Zakaria, who has argued that ISIS holds about one third of Syrian territory. This is blatantly untrue, argue Weiss and Itani. They further say “Most troubling is Zakaria’s fuzzy math about the opposition, its ideology and the terrain it is said to control. He writes: “The Islamic State controls about one-third of the country, and the other militias control a little less than 20 percent. But the largest and most effective of these non-Islamic State groups are al-Qaeda-affiliated and also deadly enemies of the United States. The non-jihadi groups collectively control less than 5 percent of Syria. These data points are dubious and misleading. A look at reliable maps of ISIL-dominant zones in Syria indicates that the terrorist army holds much of the Euphrates River Valley and Raqqa province, as well as parts of Aleppo province.” This seems – at face value – to be a more sound argument, based in facts rather than the one that Zakaria has made. Which facts do we choose and why? Not easy answers, unless we know a whole lot about the issue and the sources of research that are being presented before us, as ‘valid proof’.

While all that I have said should not mean we should totally disregard ‘experts’ on TV, who can be thoughtful and knowledgeable people – their comments should be treated for what they are – appetizers for us to start our meal of knowledge – rather than treat their summary remarks as the entrée. Doing so will only ensure we remain hungry for more knowledge! And at worst, our limited knowledge will blind us to the realities of the world that we do not see, in our own ignorance, and the illusion of knowledge.

The illusion of knowledge is tempting. Indifference and ignorance aren’t sexy, anymore.