Monday, October 4, 2010

Scholarly sources say...

For those of us interested in "public anthropology", yesterdays's column from the NYT's Public Editor might be worth a gander: Scholarly Work, Without All the Footnotes.

Public Editor Arthur Brisbane comments on the reactions to linguist Guy Deutscher's article, “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?" which was published in the August 29th issue of the Sunday Magazine.

In fact, I had clipped the article as a possible reading to assign in Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology, which I will teach again next semester, because I thought it provided a fine overview to the issues surrounding language, culture, and thought, including a discussion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis / linguistic relativity.

Brisbane notes a stream of reactions from scholars who felt that the piece exhibited "an unacceptable scale of borrowing" (i.e., plagiarism) from other linguists, including the use of specific examples.

Interestingly, Brisbane consulted with anthropologists, including Michael Silverstein, who told the NYT that “one could not avoid writing about these particular substantive phenomena and these particular lines of research, since that is what has fired folks up."

So, Brisbane concludes:

The problem here, I conclude, is not one of intellectual theft. It’s really a problem of journalism itself.

The rules of attribution and credit in the domain of scholarship are established, strict and well-understood. Journalism, by contrast, lacks a formal code for citing scholarly work. When scholarly subject matter traverses the border into popular journalism, it simply isn’t clear how much attribution is enough.

As someone who is teaching an introductory course in linguistic anthropology, I agree with Silverstein - I mean, had Guy Deutscher not used the examples that he used, he might have been criticized for showing inadequate understanding of the field itself.

As someone who previously worked in journalism and esp. enjoyed writing so-called think pieces (for which I not infrequently read scholarly works, and interviewed and quoted scholars themselves), I agree also with Brisbane, who also quotes Peter W. Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars (and an anthropologist), observing that "scholars are filling a rising appetite for science writing in the popular press and that the protocols for giving credit there remain murky."

It might be time for journalists to develop such criteria - and for those of us interested in "popularizing" scholarly work to become involved in developing them.

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