Last week I returned to the sweet, sweet daycare that is academia, only to be forced to interpret statements like this in my first reading assignment:

“The ontology of the participatory paradigm: Participative reality– subject objective reality, co-created by mind and given cosmos.”

To be fair, I was crossing disciplines into sociology with this literature, which means I’m not as familiar with the core jargon as I would be in my own field. Also, sociology and anthropology seem to be in the middle of some sort of ivory tower turf war over whether empirical knowledge exists, or whether humanity simply creates meaning in endless gender/sex/race-based power struggles. Still, I just read around 80 pages of small-print text filled with words I didn’t understand and concepts that seemed self-contradictory.

And for what, you ask?

Well, because four or five doctors of sociology (who were constantly footnoting each other, by the way) have made their professional careers out of determining the different academic paradigms that have grown out of ontology (how to know) and epistemology (what can be known). These paradigms are Positivism (we can absolutely know stuff), Postpositivism (we probably can know stuff), Critical Theory (all stuff is shaped by social, political, economic, ethnic, and gender values), Constructivism (all stuff is made up by people), and Participatory (all stuff is imaginary and we’re on mad hallucinogens).

Of course, your tax dollars are paying for all this paradigm interpretation, but the part that really gets my figurative goat is not the premise (which could be quite interesting in a different context), but instead the opacity of the presentation. Why can’t these illustrious doctors, especially after roughly a gazillion years of higher education, write an article that is actually comprehensible to your average person?

I think I’m going to invent a rule here, call it Esau’s Law, that asserts a direct correlation between the relative importance of an idea in the social sciences and the simplicity of its explanation. For example, if you walk up to an economist at a party and ask them why we have income tax, you’re going to get a straight, relevant answer. Even if you walk up to a visual arts professor and ask about Voice of Fire, you’ll get a speech about the importance of galleries and art. But if you walk up to an abstract sociologist and they start off “Well I study the ontological and epistemological relevance of postpostpositivist paradigms…” you’re going to wonder how the hell you keep ending up at the wrong parties.

And yes, “postpostpositivism” was a word in one of my readings. I didn’t make that up.

Anthropology and sociology used to be disciplines which encouraged researchers to go out and discover things by observing cultures and societies, while trying to maintain professional distance from their subjects to prevent data contamination. Now many academics have realized (rightly) that the role of impartial observer is an impossible one, and have decided (wrongly) that the traditional method of pursuing anthropological research is inextricably bound to colonialism and systems of white oppression. This has led to the anti-positivist paradigms mentioned above, which believe in a “multiplicity of realities” in which knowledge is created rather than discovered, and the researcher actively engages with the community as part of their project.

I find the latter idea of active engagement rather cool, but I am aware, because of the horrible experiments occurring in the field of journalism, that mixing social activism with hard journalism (or professional research) is a stupid idea. Not only does it prevent you from drawing certain conclusions from your project (including anything that could be perceived as negative), but it also requires more personal hubris than remaining as an observer. Critical Theory, Constructivism, and the Participatory paradigm teach that social action can be spearheaded by researchers who double as both studiers of and advocates for the community. Although these individuals may preach the “multiplicity of realities” and the validity of all perspectives and experiences, they are absolute positivists when it comes to the “isms” (racism, sexism, colonialism, classism, etc.). There is no room for interpretation of the “isms.” They exist, they exist absolutely, and the researcher and community possess their empirical interpretation.

So really, anthropology is becoming another satellite broadcaster of the global ‘made-for-TV’ hit “Who’s The Biggest Victim?” which is interesting in theory but exhausting in practice because of the inherent discrimination of its premise. Underneath a few layers of wonderfully participatory rhetoric is the basic assumption that “It’s not what you say, it’s what you are,” and only those within an exclusive “victim” club have the right to define other victims or speak authoritatively.

And, even more frustratingly, it took me five hours of careful reading and another few hours of preposterously abstract discussion to determine this.

If you are an academic, or want to be an academic, remember that your purpose is to uncover (or create) knowledge and pass on that knowledge in a simple and concise way. According to Esau’s Law*, purposeful obfuscation is an implicit admission that your argument is bullshit — that behind all your five-syllable words and fancy prefixes is an vacuous absence of meaning.

Also, don’t footnote yourself. It’s pretentious.

*Esau, Paul, “Postpostpositivism,” Eucatastrophic, 2015.

I'm a graduate student at Laurier University in Ontario. I used to be a journalist, and I moonlight as a writer / tennis player / LOTR nerd.

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