The Higher Groupthink: A Look at the Academic Spin Cycle in a Workshop

I recently attended a workshop in which some very intelligent and informed people from several countries were brought together to discuss a range of topics that had been presented in advance as a set of interconnected, open questions. Although everyone had contributed some relevant texts for the occasion, there were no formal presentations. Instead each session was structured around one of the questions and the discussion was allowed to go its own way.

The discussions involved considerable back referencing to others’ comments to legitimate one’s own contributions. You know what I mean: ‘I just want to follow up what X said and bring in what Y said earlier in response to Z…’ One participant managed to name-check eight of the fourteen people in the room in a contribution that lasted just over three minutes. Much of the discourse had the feel of washing other people’s laundry. At the end of the workshop, there was a general sense of satisfaction at this ‘refreshing’ format, which had created an atmosphere of consensus, even though no one dared try to capture the nature of this agreement – and how, if at all, it related to the issues that brought about the workshop. But we plan to meet again, nonetheless.

Ernest Gellner used to say that Popper’s main insight for sociology was that there is an inverse relation between forms of social interaction that aim for truth and aim for solidarity. Stated so bluntly, the insight involves a confusion of logical levels. There needs to be some measure of solidarity even among the truth-seekers, if truth is not to become purely idiosyncratic. However, the sense of solidarity is at the second-order level, i.e. the level that enables us to agree to disagree. However, there is nothing epistemically luminous about agreement at the first-order level. It is simply groupthink, unless it provides a space from which significant disagreements may emerge, which may include marginalizing what some of the contributors say – which in turn would either motivate them to conform or to argue more forcefully. Maybe that will happen next time we meet…

Categories: Committing Sociology, Conferences, Sociological Craft, The Idle Ethnographer

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