SEEING THE WORLD: HOW UNIVERSITIES MAKE KNOWLEDGE IN A GLOBAL ERA
Perspectives editors sat with Professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss to discuss her new book Seeing the World: How U.S. Universities Make Knowledge in a Global Era (with Mitchell Stevens and Seteney Shami - Princeton UP). Their book draws on interviews with scholars and university leaders to understand how international research is perceived and valued across American social sciences.
Cynthia Miller-Idriss: Sociology, out of the disciplines that we studied, was the wariest of international contextual work. The debate is often framed as “this deep rich context is not worth it, if it’s done overseas” unless you can relate it back to the U.S. I think that the discipline of Sociology has clung to its core interests for good reasons. It really is oriented around race, gender, social class, and it has been for really long time focused on these key issues of inequality. That’s core to the discipline and always will be, but for some reason that I don’t fully understand myself even though we’ve tried to trace it in this book, that interest in inequalities doesn’t really extend to inequalities outside of the U.S. in a systematic way. In terms of labor markets and publications, Sociology does worse in terms of how much time and energy it devotes to regions outside of the U.S. According to the department chairs that we spoke with, in part because they believe that the market demands it, they don’t believe that students should spend their time on it - a self-fulfilling prophecy in some way. They believe that unless you already have the language -if you come in already speaking it, that may be a different story- that you’re never going to get good enough in the language while in graduate school or on the tenure track for that to be a good investment of your time. One of the department chairs said that he could never in good faith even recommend that an undergraduate starts taking Mandarin, because Chinese sociologists will just run circles around any Americans sociologist who tries to study China.
Some of this is a kind of rational hedging of bets in very competitive and tight labor markets because there’s an imperative to reproduce your own discipline and try to place your students and that’s part of how people maintain prestige in the field. That sounds a little cynical, but it is the way it works. At the top of the field, people really want to place their students. They want to celebrate that. They want their students to get the best shots possible and they see the labor market working in this way. Why doesn’t it work quite as bad in Economics and Political Science? It’s bad in different ways. Political science has a kind of baked-in comparative structure to their comparative positions still in the departments, and so they have a little bit more of a history of comparative work.
Sociology out of the disciplines that we studied was the wariest of international contextual work
Miller-Idriss: One thing I think is important to acknowledge is that none of us, as authors of the book, and everyone who worked on the team, is a mainstream sociologist, political scientist, or economist with our primary appointment in a mainstream department. We were all on the margins ourselves, although we’ve been trained in mainstream departments. Mitchell (Stevens) and I were working in interdisciplinary fields and departments, Seteney (Shami) entirely at the Social Science Research Council. That probably shapes what I’m going to say about epistemology, but I think the answer to that question is that, it’s not just kind of benevolent tactic or strategy but is also rooted in beliefs about what the best kind of knowledge is. I think that what we heard from the faculty was that they really believe this is what the discipline should be doing; they were also reinforcing that. There was one chair who said “you have to connect anything outside the country to things that are in the U.S. because that’s what people care about, it’s knowledgeable. I say that tongue in cheek but it’s true.” So, he was being reflective, but also reinforcing. I think it’s not fair to give them a complete pass, that they’re just trying to get around the system and make sure their students get jobs, but that they’re also reinforcing the system - and some of them more strongly than others. You’re being trained in a place like I was trained at, that has really strong comparative historical roots, and that really sees theory as being driven by contextual work. I saw my project as creating theory, refining theory, but not in the absence of data that I gathered from the ground. But I think there are others, as I told you when I first sent that dissertation book out for review, one of the reviewers said that they fundamentally disagreed with the premise of the book, which was that qualitative data could generate theory. I think that there’s the contingent in the field that does believe that. I think that’s something that faculty feel that they are up against, whether they believe it or not, that’s the reality they feel they’re faced with as they are sending students out.
I'm more optimistic than, I think others are. I have felt that there's tremendous promise in something like Southern Theory, but the truth is that its still considered kind of fringe within the field...
PE: Recent theoretical movements have tried to push sociological theory in new directions, we’re thinking of Southern theory and post-colonial theory. How does your research help us make sense of the difficulties these movements have faced?
Miller-Idriss: Also, a great question. For me, one of the biggest flaws in American sociology (and education work, which I also spend a lot of time on, global education work) is the fact that even when we work internationally we are often applying measures and constructs that are created with theory in mind, or driven by theory in some way, but that are totally rooted in American-centric ideas and ways of thinking. What Raewyn Connell and others like her bring so strongly to the table is this understanding.
I hope that that’s an example of something that will contribute back to theory and method, but I think that’s the dilemma we get into: when we have this completely parochial sense of what George Steinmetz calls ‘homeland methodology’, when you have this kind of gaze that is so inward turning that you don’t even realize it’s inward turning, that it shapes the very questions you ask in ways that shape the results you get. That’s where something like Southern theory can challenge that: There are other ways of knowledge, other ways of knowing, other ways of thinking, and we have to start working from within to get the constructs and measures and ways of thinking more locally rooted in places, and have those start to shape the way we come back. But ultimately, it hasn’t had a major impact on the mainstream of the field. I’m more optimistic than, I think, others are. I have felt that there’s tremendous promise in something like Southern theory, but the truth is it’s still considered kind of fringe within the field. That’s where I get less optimistic: If Raewyn Connell can’t do it, then who can?!
PE: Because of the separation between area studies and the social sciences, the humanities are most represented in area studies--but the humanities are often highly theoretical. Could you say a bit about what it means for the relationship between the area studies and the social sciences that theory has developed in a particular way in area studies.
Miller-Idriss: There’s several interesting things here. One is that area studies were created to incentivize social scientists to engage with regions, but that never really happened. There was this brief heyday, modernization theory was probably it – this moment where scholars felt they had the capacity and the power in these fields to solve pressing problems of the world and of national security – that they could bring their expertise to bear on it. But that pretty quickly faded and there were good reasons why sociologists distanced themselves. We trace it in the book. There were a couple of major controversies where social scientific knowledge was misused by the government for nefarious ends in overseas conflicts, for example. So, I think that there was a retreat of the social sciences from policy relevant work. That factors into this whole story because area studies centers, which are meant to be policy relevant in some way or related to the nation’s needs in some way, were kind of abandoned by social scientists who in many ways would be best suited to engage those policy questions.
Even where I was trained, a professor here in Michigan told me “leave the policy implications to the policymakers. Don’t put them in your conclusion! That’s the policymaker’s job. Your job is to provide evidence.” There’s this fear of being subjective or biased or getting too close to the regions, being too immersed, and not having a clear, neutral, objective stance about things, issues that, I think, anthropologists and historians just worry less about because you have to be deeply embedded in places and in local histories in order to tell stories about places in the histories, which is what you are supposed, more or less, to do in those fields. We didn’t study the humanities disciplines, so I can’t really say how they would have talked about it, but certainly there is the sense, in mainstream sociology, that we’re striving for some kind pure objectivity, and that being too close to particular regions taints that. That’s another dynamic there, that I feel like the humanities just don’t have in the same way. Economists will say that “the context isn’t needed” but sociologists wouldn’t say that so much as they would say “it may contribute to bias in some way”. It’s still useful as long as it connects back’, and that’s why extrapolating from those regions is part of what the field wants us to do as scholar, because that lifts it up out of the individual cases into arguments that can be made.
And to some extent that makes sense. When I write my book, I don’t want only people who are interested in Germany to read these books. I want people to care because I feel like I’ve learned something that says something bigger about extremism or about universities. We’re not just talking about these eight universities. We’re talking about universities.
PE: We’re wondering if the area studies chairs talked about the kind of theory that is done in area studies.
Miller-Idriss: Not so much. Probably because they are interdisciplinary by nature, they didn’t really have as coherent a story to tell about a theoretical or methodological set of commonly held ideas about what success means. What they did talk about, though, was the relative importance of their regions in global geopolitics, and the relative importance of their regions on campus.
...the knowledge [area studies] can produce in terms of teaching students is also dependent on the tenuring departments...
So even though they are heavily historical, and humanities focused, they aren’t exclusively that, so they didn’t really talk about those terms. A lot of the center directors we interviewed were political scientists and sociologists, or from the social science disciplines anyway. One said “you can’t be a Syria expert in political science, you have to be a person who studies nation-building, and happens to have spent some time in Syria, and then moves on to test that theory in other parts of the world”. He said that as a center director, but also as a political scientist in a kind of cynical way, frustrated at the way his field works. As center directors, they are working there for three years. They aren’t permanent hires but are on loan from another administrative department. And the same things with the deans. They all had been faculty first, so they held their disciplinary assumptions as well. A lot of them came from the social sciences instead of from the humanities. That also probably factored into the way that they talked about area studies.
Miller-Idriss: Trend of non-departments that have opened up over the last fifteen to twenty years in thematic areas is a really interesting trend. It’s going to sound kind of teleological, but I see it as progress. I think it’s a positive step toward thinking about knowledge in interdisciplinary ways that aren’t just interdisciplinary for the sake of being interdisciplinary, but that are oriented toward questions such as ‘How can we think about migration differently?’.
I think in the best scenarios, the disciplines challenge each other. I spent time a year while I was doing my other book on Germany at a center that was almost entirely populated by humanities scholars. The book was an image-based project, so I was one of only two sociologists (the only social scientists). The other one was only there for four months and I was there for the whole year with this whole group of art historians, classicists and religious scholars. They really challenged me to move beyond in my thinking. I was working on three thousand images or whatever. So, I would give a paper and show sixty-four images and one of them would give a paper on one image. They pressed me to stop seeing images as data points and to start looking at one image closely and understand what more was happening in that image. And when I did interviews with young people, they challenged me in the same way. They said, ‘well you can’t necessarily understand the symbol is right wing,’ even though it was clearly a right-wing symbol, ‘because you don’t know if they’re wearing it intentionally or not.’ And now I see in the image that there’s another person and there’s obviously a police officer in the back – so there’s this is probably a right-wing rally. All these other contextual clues would allow for that image to be understood in a right-wing way. This helped me sort of slow down and look at individual images, look at musculature and facial expression, and not just the symbol on the t-shirt I was studying. That was tremendously useful, to have that cross-fertilization across methods with these scholars in the humanities.
In the best possible world, that’s what these kinds of centers do. They challenge the methodological nationalism and the theoretical narrowness that we have developed in our disciplines by just not reading widely and not being challenged by folks outside. But in the best possible worlds, I think, that would also include people who are deeply embedded and focused in areas. I think if you’re going to study migration, let’s say, and there is a Center for Immigration, you also need someone who knows about the refugee crisis. You need people who understand the economics, the political situation, and the instability, but you also need people who know Syria, who know the history. Somebody ideally with roots in that region or from that region, or at least who has spent a ton of time and it’s not just studying this as data points in a slur of sixty-four images, but who really understands how to slow down. I think that’s a little Pollyanna-ish, “in the ideal world”, but the point of all of that is to step back for a minute and ask ‘why do we structure knowledge the way we do? How do we know it’s the right way? Or even if there’s no right or wrong way to do it, what are the repercussions of structuring knowledge production in the way we have? And understanding that this may be leading us to miss tremendous frameworks that could help us understand social issues in a different way. That’s what I hope the enduring impact of the book will be. Not even necessarily about how we think about the rest of the world or not, but how absurd it is to think that our way of doing things is the only way of doing that, and how we can step outside of that and look at it critically.
...in the best possible worlds, I think, that would also include people who are deeply embedded and focused in areas... Somebody ideally with roots in the region or from the region, or at least has spent a ton of time...
PE: Your book seems to have implications for advising, particularly students from international backgrounds. How do you work with students who come with such backgrounds?
Miller-Idriss: It gets back to this question of tactics and strategy versus how to benefit from different perspectives. Some of it is linguistic. In German there are words, and there are in other languages as well, that reflects concepts that don’t exist in English. And when you learn those words, it can change the way you think about the world in some small way. One of my favorite phrases in German is the word ‘to miss somebody.’ There’s three different ways of saying miss – you can say ‘I miss eating bagels,’ or ‘I missed someone,’ but when you say you miss someone, you say ‘you are missing from me.’ It’s a reflexive. You can also say ‘I miss you’ in the way you miss bagels. But if you really miss someone, you’re not missing them, they are missing from you.
In an ideal world, all of those international perspectives would enhance and improve sociology as a field--and hopefully the more diverse our field gets, the better that we’ll get because that’s true for anyone who comes from a different background than what the norm has been, for the same reason why we know there are gendered understandings of the world and racialized understanding of the world that comes from the experience of observing the world through different lenses. Standpoint theory says that, right? But that’s the ideal. In reality, what I fear is that when people come in from overseas contexts, that’s sort of stamped out of them. The training washes a lot of that away. One of the things we have to do as a field is to hold on to that – not just intellectual diversity, but conceptual diversity. Not just as adding to, but also changing the field from within, changing the way that we think – that is what Southern theory should be doing. It should not just be an add on at the fringes that reminds us that there are other ways of thinking, but that should actually challenge the concepts we are using to think about ourselves in the mainstream of sociology.
There are improvements compared to when I was being trained, and I think even the fact that we are able to write the book and publish it in a mainstream sociology press, and that people want us to talk about it in mainstream sociology departments and in political science departments, that is a good thing. It shows a willingness. I think that for a long time, people weren’t even looking at the university as an organizational unit. And we have Michèle Lamont, Elizabeth Armstrong, Amy Binder. We have a lot of people who are looking at what is happening in the university as a way of confronting how ideas are shaped. And not just around inequality – who graduates and who gets what kinds of jobs – but how people think and how their thinking is shaped within the university... I think that’s a good sign. I hope in twenty years you’ll be looking at this as ‘what a funny little artifact!’