Honorable Scholarship: Social Responsibility, Critique, and Confidence

Address delivered at the Phi Eta Sigma Academic Honor Society Induction Ceremony

Washington and Lee University

Alison Bell  May 20, 2005



As you’re inducted today into the Phi Eta Sigma academic honor society, I’d like to reflect briefly on what we mean in this context by honor. First, we honor you for your accomplishments to date. You’ve transitioned superbly to the high expectations of academic life here at W&L, and have demonstrated the capacity for accomplishment that you possess. Today is for congratulating and honoring you.

I’d also like to think about honor in another sense, and the question of what it means to be honorable in academic work. Rather distinct from other definitions of honor (e.g., don’t lie, steal, cheat), I’m asking if particular ways of framing research questions and pursuing knowledge are honorable, in the sense of being worthy of respect and emulation.

My mentors had definite opinions on this matter. I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to have had strong mentoring relationships with several remarkable scholars, influential figures in archaeology or anthropology (my discipline) and related fields. These mentoring relationships have been a source of great richness in my life, and I think that you’ll benefit, too, from hearing a little about what my mentors – Jim Deetz and Henry Glassie – considered honorable scholarship.

When I was a student at W&L, I read a book called In Small Things Forgotten, by James Deetz. This book for me was a bombshell: Deetz looked at “small things forgotten” – artifacts like bits of pottery, bottle glass, and nails – and in those patterns traced the emergence of key modern American values. He could see the rise of individualism for example, in the ways people ate, built their houses, and buried their dead. I’d never dreamed that artifacts could, to the trained eye, document the historical creation of cultural values that seem so natural to many of us today.

After I’d graduated from W&L, I applied to graduate schools in anthropology/ archaeology, including UC Berkeley, where Jim Deetz taught. I was accepted and soon met the person I’d often heard called “the great man,” my new advisor. I studied with Deetz for eight years (first at Berkeley and then at UVa). As things turned out, I was his last graduate student. He signed off on my dissertation in May of 2000 and died that fall.

Among the scores of academic luminaries present at his funeral was Henry Glassie of Indiana University, Jim Deetz’s long-time close friend and intellectual match. Jim as an archaeologist studied objects in the ground. Henry as a folklorist studies objects, stories and songs in their living social settings, especially during the process of their creation. Henry Glassie has spent years living with and learning from farmers in rural northern Ireland; rug weavers and calligraphers in Turkey; potters, sculptors, and boat makers in Bangladesh. Returning from these lengthy immersions in the world, Glassie writes lengthy books on the people he studied and the ideas they taught him.

Out of the wealth of scholarship Glassie has produced, one theme emerges most clearly to me, and it’s one that his intellectual companion Jim Deetz shared: the contention that work should be socially responsible. This is the first lesson from my mentors that I’d like to pass on for your consideration.

Honorable work – honorable research and scholarship – is relevant to people’s needs and to social issues. Your efforts should not simply be a vehicle for your own academic promotion; they should also participate usefully in the debates of your times. The needs of the world’s people are too pressing for great minds to occupy themselves with little tasks.

Jim Deetz had a particularly poignant way of expressing this philosophy. At presentations of academic research, the speaker would hold forth on his recent investigations and would conclude. Polite applause would follow, and a then a quiet, pleased feeling usually settled on those of us assembled as the question-and-answer period began. But sometimes Jim would start things off this way – asking, “Who cares?” He didn’t elaborate on his question, even as the speaker visibly shrunk in size, but (pretty clearly) what Jim meant was: how do the conclusions of your work merit the time spent you spent conducting it or the time we spent listening to it today? To use an analogy, you could spend the summer counting every fiber in every carpet of your house. That would be research. You’d learn something. But who cares? This research isn’t worthy of your talents and it’s not relevant to larger issues.

Many of the craftspeople from whom Henry Glassie learned in his travels emphasized the importance of using their talents to benefit others. Henry said of one Irish fiddler: “When I asked Peter Flanagan … why he performed, he replied that he had nurtured a gift from God and his talented parents for a reason loftier than getting free drinks in public houses. His music, he said, could help people find the right road through life.” Whether your work is playing the fiddle, or perhaps you’ll become a psychologist and counsel people in crisis, or a biologist researching new cures for old ailments, or a poet describing pieces of the world as they look to you – in many types of work, excellence and social awareness can help people find roads through life: find ways to achieve equanimity as they define it.

Scholarship can also be honorable – not only by participating in the world – but also by critiquing it. Defining alternatives to current arrangements are a second way in which scholarship can be useful, meaningful, and honorable. Glassie puts it this way: “Humanity is our issue. The scholar’s duty is questioning the shape of his or her own world, logically rebelling against its impulse to consolidate.”

I think that Jim Deetz had this idea in mind when he told me, as he frequently did, “Give ‘em hell.” If “who cares?” was his critique, “give ‘em hell” was his encouragement. He’d offer this sort of cheer before I gave a research talk or lecture, and I think what he meant was this: remember that research is about questioning received wisdom. We encounter an apparent truth, find some aspect of it unsettling or questionable, go into the world to learn about this topic, and return wiser –  with information that allows us to show why the received wisdom merits revision or clarification.

As example of this process, many mid-20th-century Americans believed that it was natural for women to stay home, and for men to provide for the family. This received wisdom struck many – anthropologists and others – as questionable, and so they went into the field. They studied foragers: people living in small bands, gathering wild plants and hunting animals as our ancestors have for many thousands of years. What anthropologists discovered is that in these traditional societies, men often contribute meat – an important source of protein – but women provide on average 70% of  the calories that band members (children, women and men) regularly consume, in the form of nuts, for example, eggs, roots, and fruits.

As citizens of a modern nation we may choose to depart from our ancestral pattern (of female and male providers), but we cannot rationalize this choice as natural. Relying extensively or exclusively on male providers is unusual in the human career. Such understandings are possible because scholars make forays into the world and return with information that enriches – that creates options for – the places from which we departed.

I think this use of scholarship to critique received wisdom is what Jim Deetz meant when he recommended that I “give ‘em hell” in my anthropology lectures. Henry Glassie says something similar when he writes, “Scholars who study people serve their own society by arguing with its definition of humanity. As culture tightens around its vision of what it is to be human, its thinkers battle to keep things loose, driving forward, believing there is more to learn.”

Honorable scholarship is work that matters to people and that expands our notions of what’s possible. If undertaking this type of research seems intimidating, it shouldn’t. Well-substantiated, significant scholarship is not easy, but neither is it beyond you. Along with some other anthropologists, I suggest that high-quality, systematic thinking comes naturally to you – especially because you sit here today, appropriately honored for your accomplishments – but also simply by virtue of your being human.

Many of us tend to envision research or science as something that happens by specialists in special places (people with advanced degrees and white coats in labs, observatories, or clinics). A long tradition in western thought recognizes science as a well-defined, discrete activity. This view has merit. Scientists are highly trained to generate hypotheses carefully, develop a rigorous method of inquiry, and submit results to their peers who can replicate their work. Yet this process, many anthropologists contend, is not different in kind from the ways in which people throughout the world, now and for thousands of generations, have interacted with the natural environment. As anthropologist Laura Nader says, “a scientific habit of mind is universal.” Surviving for millions of years in the natural world – with no grocery stores, no farms, no reference books – our ancestors necessarily used scientific methods to investigate and effectively exploit their environments. If they wanted to eat, they had to think in terms of prediction, experiment, and replication (you predict that the caribou will pass by the water at evening; you watch to see if they do; then you or others watch again for the next week to see if this is a valid hypothesis about caribou, which can provide an important food source).

Thinking systematically and scientifically in many realms– not just when you don a white coat in the lab – is your human birth right. And so you are qualified to conduct meaningful, honorable scholarship. I hope that you won’t forfeit critical thinking to others, to the “experts.”

In any number of situations – after we’d heard a scholar deliver a paper, for example, or as we stood on an archaeological site pondering a newly unearthed artifact – Jim Deetz would turn to me or others nearby and ask, “So what do you think?” He was the expert, the authority, but wanted to know what I thought. From him I learned that we should listen to authorities because they are authorities in their field; they’ve presumably done something to earn their position and have knowledge worth attending to. But we should view their conclusions as a point of departure for our own thinking, not as “truth.” Certainly, the history of anthropology (like other disciplines) is littered with authorities who were absolutely wrong. Among the more famous cases is a preeminent German anatomist who interpreted the remains of a Neanderthal (now understood to be an ancient human) as a soldier following Napoleon’s retreating army who crawled into a cave to die and whose face, contorted in discomfort, sprouted mountainous brow ridges.

Questioning the conclusion of this expert anatomist would have been good scholarship. Thomas Jefferson, often considered the father of American archaeology, also recommended against deferring to authorities when logic suggested otherwise, as he urged people to act according to the dictates of their own reason. The Buddha is credited with having said something similar: “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who said it, even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason.”

The comments I’ve made today about honorable scholarship represent my thinking, and my interpretations of my mentors’ ideas. I’ve said that honorable scholarship means first asking questions that matter; second, critiquing received wisdom by going into the world and returning with new possibilities; and third, trusting your own ability to reason through and explore questions systematically. I’m pleased if you agree with me, because that means we have common ground on which to continue talking. And I’m pleased if you disagree with me, because that means you’re relying on the dictates of your own reason – and that is the quality we hope, most of all, to see in young scholars. So I’ll leave you with these thoughts, to embrace or critique as seems right to you: Who cares? What do you think? And give ‘em hell.


Sources used:

James Deetz (1996). In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life, Anchor Books, Doubleday, New York.

Henry Glassie (1982). Passing the Time in Ballymenone. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Henry Glassie (1995). "Tradition." Journal of American Folklore 108(430):395-412.

Laura Nader (1996). Naked Science: Anthropological Inquiries into Boundaries, Power, and Knowledge. Routledge, New York.