Name-Dropping vs Name-Checking as Academic Vices

When I was a student, teachers used to warn against ‘name-dropping’ as a scholarly faux pas. This is when you suddenly provide a string of names in place of a substantive argument. The implication is that if you read the guys behind the names, you would understand what the author is trying to say. However, this was seen as an unfair imposition on the reader, who should be able to judge an argument through direct presentation. In fact, name-dropping would be cited as a paradigm case of ‘argument from authority’, a fallacy of informal logic. It was seen as a very elitist – if not outright bullying – tactic. But I now believe that this attitude is an artefact of the context in which scholarly communication was conducted in the 20th century, an exponential growth in publications while ordinary human cognitive capacities remained largely the same – i.e. technologically unenhanced.

I seem to see fewer complaints about name-dropping these days. A big reason no doubt is the widespread adoption of the so-called Harvard style of scholarly reference (i.e. author/date format embedded in the text), which basically allows you to drop names with impunity but in a superficially accountable way. Another reason, of course, is that search engines allow the reader easy access the identities behind the names, so that one can quickly discern the pattern of thought that the names trace. In fact, the burden of proof is beginning to shift, so that if someone complains that they didn’t know half the names mentioned in an article, they’re told, ‘Why didn’t you Google the names?’

However, name-dropping is not the same as name-checking. Name-checking is when you do more than simply say you’re relying on the authority of someone else’ work. Rather, a stronger bond is suggested, namely, that you’re somehow part of the same team, party or movement as the other person. Thus, a much stronger sense of identification is being asserted – in fact, so strong that the name-checking serves to pre-empt any criticism that the name-checked party might have of you. This is recognizable as part of the Mafia’s gift-giving modus operandi: I go out of my way to do something nice for you in order to put you in my debt, which you may repay simply by keeping quiet if I do something (to someone else) that you don’t happen to like.

(I must confess that this influences my view of gift-giving more generally: in other words, I tend to regard it as a mildly aggressive act unless the gift-giver is clearly exposing themselves to risk.)

I first associated name-checking and the Mafia mentality when I heard a distinguished feminist theorist periodically name-check people in the audience by referring to them as ‘my dear friend’, which I found (and still do) vaguely annoying. She spoke in the sort of raspy voice that I associated with Borscht Belt comedians, who also use the same mode of address. The Borscht Belt bred America’s edgiest comedy talent, but the resort hotels in which they operated were under the protective gaze of the Mafia. My view is that these comedians incorporated Mafia discourse protocols into their acts, so as to co-opt the audience into accepting things that they might not otherwise, were the audience not overtly made complicit in them by the comedian.

The interesting thing, of course, is that comedians often refer to literal strangers in the audience as ‘my dear friend’, which is much braver than academics who cite as ‘friends’ people they already know – and perhaps whose behaviour they can then more easily control.


Categories: Committing Sociology, Outflanking Platitudes, Sociological Craft

Tags: , , , , ,

1 reply »

  1. ‘on being accused of name-dropping, [Norman] St John-Stevas is said to have sighed: “The queen said the exactly same to me yesterday”’ (http://www.economist.com/node/21549927)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *