Typologies of Critique

Greg Downey over at Neuroanthropology has a fantastic post on the most recent flare-up of the anthropology-is-it-science-or-is-it-literature wars.  There is an awful lot of wise prose to be found in this post (and some disturbing information about the labor action at Macquarie University), but the thing that tickled me more than anything was his typology of criticism.  I love these sort of typologies as intellectual play-things and have lots of my own (that probably any of my grad students or post-docs would be happy to tell you about over a beer some time).  Greg’s typology of stupid criticisms:

  1. Critique for incompleteness, “where the critic points out something tangentially related to the author’s topic or argument and then asserts that this missing element is THE most important consideration, so the argument is hopelessly, fatally flawed.”
  2. Critique from creative misunderstanding,  where “the critic latches onto a single term or phrase, intentionally misunderstands it or comes up with an interpretation that could only occur to the most hostile, cranky, ill-disposed reader, and then projects the misunderstanding onto a straw version of the presenter.”
  3. Critique from guilt by association, where “the critic sees some sort of link between what the author writes and some deeply loathed intellectual villain, draws some sort of tenuous connection, and then just substitutes the villain’s ideas for the argument, essay or analysis in question.

Awesome.  I will need to get to work thinking of other willfully bone-headed modes of critique. I will think of this post every time I review a paper or grant proposal from now on…

A similar typology that I came up with attending demography talks, first at the Harvard Center for Population and Development and later at the Population Association of America meetings, deals with discussants. The phenomenon of the discussant is still something I find a bit bizarre, as I find having a discussant adds absolutely nothing to the intellectual merit of a talk or panel in the vast majority of cases.  It also chafes a bit at my science-as-meritocracy ethos (why exactly do I need to have the talk I just sat through explained to me by some guy in a suit?).

The different flavors of discussant that I have identified include:

  1. The redundant discussant: “Author #1 said this.  Author #2 said this other thing. Author #3 said something else…” Snooze.
  2. The bitchy discussant: “The author claimed to use a Mann-Whitney U when he really used Kendall’s tau. It’s not clear why they used Coale-Demeny West 5 when a UN life table would have clearly been preferable. The assumptions of the stable model are not exactly met. And you didn’t cite me!”
  3. The pandering discussant: “In brief, this paper will change the course of human affairs.  I feel an extraordinary privilege just being in the same room as this author on this day. Hosanna.”
  4. The orthogonal discussant: “Well, we just heard a number of very interesting talks, now let me tell you about my work…”

Very rarely (so much so that it doesn’t really merit a category), a discussant does what he or she is supposed to do: synthesize and provide novel insight about how the papers in a session relate to each other. I have personally experienced all of the forms of discussant except the panderer (at least in its fullest form).  I did witness a friend receive the panderer’s treatment much to her embarrassment and, frankly, that of everyone in the room. I think it’s fair to say that everyone thought she had indeed given a very fine paper, though had not quite changed history. I think I actually prefer the orthogonal discussant to all the others because that way you get to see another talk rather than just hearing a bunch of [redundancy, bitchiness, pandering], which is not the best use of time at academic meetings. As anyone who has ever been to an academic meeting knows the best use of one’s time is, as Greg notes in his post “drink[ing] heavily with my friends, sneak[ing] off repeatedly for Mexican food, and spend[ing] most daylight hours in the publishers’ expo.” Honestly, this is one of the reasons why I’ve decided I actually like the AAAs. True, there is generally very little in the program that actually interests me.  However, there are lots of people who interest me who attend.  I can hang out and have long lunches and long dinners and even longer sessions drinking and talking anthropology with cool people and not feel the slightest bit of guilt at missing all those sessions! What could be better?

2 thoughts on “Typologies of Critique”

  1. love the discussion of 'The orthogonal discussant'!

    I'm wondering if I'm finally senior enough that I can get away with it -- I mean, c'mon, it's ideal. Say you're a discussant, if you don't have time to write anything, be redundant, and if you do have some time, just write your own damn paper on whatever you like. Brilliant!

    You're inspiring me to put more of my folk typologies into teh intenet. Great for trading to give us something to self-amuse with during long presentations. My colleagues will have no idea when I suddenly start giggling during their responses to papers...

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