Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Lobbyists: the emics and etics of our culture

Much of what human culture is all about has to do with the distribution of resources--material resources such as wealth or property, and psychological resources such as power and prestige. Anthropologists studying the world's populations routinely observe what people actually do, and ask people what they believe that they do. The first, what a culture looks like to an external observer, referred to as 'etics' in anthropology-speak, is usually not the same as the latter, the insider's view, the 'emics'. People may routinely act in ways that deviate from the accepted tenets of their culture, for various reasons including self-interest, and this is often rationalized by the 'deviant'.

Anthropology has a long tradition of labeling cultures by some major feature--'The Basketmakers', 'The Fierce People', and so on. While anthropology is popularly seen as the study of the exotic 'other', the same principles of analysis also apply to our own culture. These days, one might refer to the US and other industrialized cultures as "The Lobbyists". What we do is organize, posture, dissemble, advocate, pressure, and persuade to gain preferential access to resources. Scientists may be among the most educated people in our society (according to some definitions of 'educated', at least), but we are not exempt from emic-etic differences.

Lobbying for research funds is part of our system. Lobbying includes providing, stressing, repeating and so on, our reasons why this or that particular project that we want to do should be funded. There is always an emic element--some justification of the argument in terms of our beliefs (e.g., that this will lead to major health advances). But the facts are routinely stretched, dissembled, and strategized in order that we, rather than somebody else, will corner the resources. We even give our graduate students courses in 'grantsmanship' which often if not typically amounts to teaching how to manipulate the funding system--it's certainly not about how to share funding resources!

We, your bloggers, often complain about the kind of science that is being funded. Among the reasons are not the sour grapes of being deprived of resources, because we have done well for decades in that regard, but that we are unhappy with the hypocrisy and self-interest intrinsic to the system. We think that is not good for society, and not good for science.

From an emic point of view, our complaining may be OK--what science is doesn't match what it is supposed to be! But our complaints probably reflect a poor acceptance of the etics of the situation on our part--science works like all other systems for sequestering resources, and we should not expect it to be perfect or in perfect synch with its emics.

Anthropologists are trained to try to be detached when evaluating a culture, even their own. From a detached, anthropological point of view, our system (our mix of emics and etics) is what it is. As anthropologists, perhaps we should learn to accept these realities, rather than complain about them as if emics could ever be identical to etics, which they never are. Whether the discrepancy in relation to science and its lobbying is serious, damaging to society--or, despite its lack of complete honesty actually good for society--are interesting and important questions, that themselves require one to specify what is good, and for whom.

In understanding our culture as The Lobbyists, we should not be surprised at its nature: we understand how it is, and the game is open to all to play. We are as free to dissemble as anyone, and we can dive after funding resources as greedily as anyone. In fact, the players generally (if privately) recognize the nature of the game. In that sense the rules are known so the game is fair, as games go.

Still, we have not been able to accommodate our views on science to the etics. We try to cling to our emics, thinking that science should be more honest and free of vested self-interest or greed. It doesn't take away from our, or anyone's skepticism about what is being said or done in science these days. And if the science is distorted because of its material or psychological venality, it is fair game for criticism--it may that only if at least a few point out the emic-etic disparities that things are adjusted to stay within societally accepted limits. Still, we should probably just learn to accept that we, too, are part of the The Lobbyist society!

Since the deadline is nearing, we have to end this blog, so we can get back to work on our stimulus-package grant application.

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