Stating the Obvious in Academia

I bet you’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about epistemology. I know I have (really, who doesn’t these days?).

Alright, probably you haven’t. Probably you are also a normal person. But if you will indulge me nonetheless…

Rogers Brubaker is a sociologist at UCLA. He, along with coauthors Feischmidt, Fox, and Grancea, published in 2008 a book entitled¬†Nationalist Politics and Everyday Ethnicity in a Transylvanian Town.* Taking the Romanian city of Cluj as their locus of study, the authors explore how, “ethnicity and nationhood are experienced, enacted, and understood in everyday life.” Before I go any further, two things are worth noting. First, I have read large chunks, but not all of, the book. Second, the book is, from a methodological standpoint, an immensely impressive achievement. Collecting the requisite ethnographical data in a way that does not also pollute it is a feat to be admired. But (and you knew there was a but coming).

On page 169 they write, “…we turn to the question of how ethnicity works…Ethnicity is a perspective on the world, not a thing in the world. It is also a discursive resource that can be used for specific interactional purposes.” This is all well and good. I even think I agree! But it’s also a little bit, “no shit”. The book describes in detail, bolstered by painstakingly performed field research, how ethnic Hungarians (who constitute a minority in the city) living in Cluj alternatively emphasize and de-emphasize their Hungarian-ness depending on circumstance, deploying it or recalling it as a form of social capital.

Anyone who has roots in more than one country, or good friends abroad, or any connection with another country or culture, should find this painfully obvious. My ethnic heritage is Greek, so I’ve been back to visit many times. In the grand scheme of things I suppose I am not actually all that Greek (my pretensions notwithstanding), but I’ve got more of a connection to the country than most people who visit as tourists. So of course when I’m there I insist on saying Agamemnon like this, or ordering a horiatiki instead of a Greek salad. I’m deploying my cultural, ethnic, and linguistic capital; I’m signaling to jaded waitstaff that I’m not like other tourists, I have a Greek middle name dammit. Time to cold-email a potential client at work who (according to his LinkedIn) went to university in my grandmother’s hometown? You can bet I’ll add that Greek middle name to my online signature.**

But back to the book. Within its context, it’s awfully difficult to criticize. The methodology is impressive, and it represents a significant advancement in the content of nationalism studies. Inasmuch as we can speak coherently about there being a discipline of nationalism studies, it has to date largely lacked the kind of empirical and ethnographic research this book undertakes. But knowing all that does little to make the sense that its conclusions (the one in question being that ethnicity is a discursive resource) are highly intuitive any more palatable; surely effort as monumental as Brubaker & Co.’s could be better spent elsewhere?***

This is where the epistemology comes in (I’m sure you were hoping I’d forgotten about that by now, but I am, in this post at least, elephant-like in my recall). It turns out we find plenty of things to be intuitive which are also disastrously wrong; it is not as if there is no value or knowledge gained from validating our intuitions. Furthermore, since the work undeniably represents a contribution to the discipline, our knowledge, in the more formal sense of canon-expansion, increases. But at the individual level, these are kind of unsatisfying claims to investigatory success. It just seems kind of, silly, for lack of a better word, to have to do so much just to allow us to say, “Ya, that makes sense. I already knew that. Only now I Know it. Like, officially.”

On the other hand, if you were to examine intuitions over time, you’d see in the long run enormous shifts, none of which would be possible without all the intervening revisions. Getting from “the world is at the center of the universe” to “the universe does not have a center” takes a lot steps.**** So it’s kind of tempting to wish, for efficiency’s sake if nothing else, that our intuitions might start closer to the truth. At the risk of sounding too new age-y, that really should read with closer and truth in quotation marks; all of the preceding rather presupposes there is in fact something like truth on the matter towards which we can work, even if it may not actually be something we can attain. It’s certainly comforting to assume that’s the case (if it’s not, all this university stuff is even more of an exercise in signalling than I thought), but it’s also not an assumption we interrogate all that much. Until you’re forced to read a sociological work on a regional city in Romania.

*It’s a bit harsh to call Cluj a town; according to Wikipedia the 2011 census found ~325k residents in the city proper
**To be fair, these examples are not quite the same as those described in the text, and I have less riding on these interactions than a Hungarian in Cluj might
***I may also just have very unfair standards for academic output; more mind blowing please!
****I realize we’ve careened into the hard sciences here, but the idea is the same