A review of Andrew Abbott’s ‘Varieties of Ignorance’ (Am Soc (2010) 41: 172–189, if that means anything to you)
This is an academic article by Andrew Abbott. His tone is a bit pompous and like much academic stuff, the prose is slightly turgid, but there’s food for thought there. It came to hand from a friend who is an academic and talks about all the interesting things he’s read, so lately I’ve been pressing him to send me articles, which I nearly always have to make myself read because they’re so stiffly written, but so far it’s always been worth it.
Abbott’s field of study is the history of professions. His shtick is that the structure of professions is determined simply by their need for jurisdictional control, rather than by particular traits. In other words, ‘the problems handled by professions – health, disputes, monies*– do not have any symbolic shape.’ The professions culturally constitute the problems they claim to address, and they then create a structure that guarantees legitimacy before the public.
But Abbott’s field of study is only incidental to his real topic: ignorance. In Abbott’s view there are three types of ignorance: amateur ignorance, professional ignorance, and expert ignorance.
Abbott starts by analysing Wikipedia’s article on professions, and the associated discussion page. Both, in his view, are ‘fundamentally ignorant…they are not only ignorant of the state of the art in the scholarly literature, they are also largely unaware of the scholarly literature altogether.’
His comments on the talk page are disdainful, if interested. It ‘resembles nothing so much as a dinner chat in a university dining hall. It is a melange of mixed agendas, unstated moral positions, sharp – even contemptuous – assertions of (usually erroneous) authority, and vastly different levels of actual knowledge, all sustained by a kind of youthful energy and a noble but naïve faith.’
You get the sense Abbott doesn’t have a particularly high opinion of undergraduates.
But what really gets me is when he says: ‘one has the sense that this group of people is more committed to having the debate than finding a conclusion – another hallmark of graduate thinking.’
But the sense that there’s always a conclusion to be found, or that you always have to be looking for one, seems a bit positivistic to me. And some of the best conversations I’ve had have been when we really are just throwing ideas around; not necessarily looking for a ‘conclusion.’ I believe enquiry in itself is of value. That said, I’m sure Abbott’s definition of a ‘conclusion’ is more nuanced than I’m giving him credit for.
Abbott labels the Wikipedians as possessing ‘amateur ignorance’: they know facts about professions, but they are ‘ignorant of modes for evaluating those facts and then on setting them and the literature into an order that will stand against the onslaughts of new facts and literature.’
I can appreciate where Abbott’s coming from. After all, he’s spent his life studying this, given it deep thought and analysis, and then he has to watch people argue round and round about it on the internet. Maybe it’s like a doctor watching people argue about whether sunburn causes skin cancer.
But amateur is really important. People shouldn’t be discouraged from seeking knowledge about stuff just because they don’t have the tools to use an online research database (and no Abbott, it is not that easy to find what you’re looking for). That just favours the privileged; those who have the time and money to study or discover the ‘literature.’ Plus, the truth is highly subjective; why should people not be encouraged to find it out for themselves? Experiential forms of learning are not given enough credit.
Maybe I’m just defensive because being amateur is kind of what I’m good at.
Abbott talks about the substantial numbers of academics – and this is quite interesting – the amount of academics that have cited his book on professions unnecessarily or trivially (for example to justify some very general assertion), or wrongly. Some people cited his article for empirical analyses that were not central to it, but were easier to find in his book. I can remember doing that as an academic!
So some academics are citing articles without reading them properly, to give themselves legitimacy (and perhaps flatter academic colleagues)? I wonder what kind of pressures the internet has created for them to pump out work more quickly and rack up their publication tally – and how that’s impacting on the quality of their deep thinking. After all, if we care about anyone’s deep thinking, surely it’s academics.
This is the one that Abbott dobs himself in for, and to me the most fascinating. It is when you earnestly dive deep into facts, patterns, theories. You emerge with a theory. From that point, it is difficult to think of the other facts, patterns and theories except in light of that conclusion. He also calls it ‘synthetic ignorance’, because it arises from a synthesis that can obscure complexities.
It occurs to me that the process that Abbott describes is even worse when the person’s not even on any genuine sort of truth seeking mission, ie they start with a theory and they look for the facts and patterns to prove it. In political life this is super common, probably quite so in personal life too.
In my view, expert ignorance – ie the creation of some kind of meta-truth which obscures the disorderly, and often inconsistent, texture and colour of situations – is why Abbott’s supposed amateur ignorance is so important. Debating around a subject, going round and round in circles, sometimes that actually helps you understand a situation, without coming to a conclusion.
Abbott acknowledges that ‘synthetic ignorance is in many ways the reverse of amateur ignorance’. So maybe he is talking about two extremes of a pole, and anticipates a happy medium.
He also acknowledge that expert ignorance is the most dangerous, ‘for it makes us unable to see the new…Always, we are only beginning to think.’
That last line is my favourite.
*err monies? See – turgid prose! That said, I’ve seen seen way worse, academia wise.