Thursday, May 03, 2012

Silly Studies, Part II

Last year, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) put out a list of NIH-research items that he deemed frivolous and examples of wasting tax-payer dollars. I found the list interesting, because pretty much all of the studies he picked sounded quite worthwhile -- providing useful information about various health and safety risks and the best responses to them.

In this same vein, I'm left gobsmacked by this Chronicle of Higher Education hit piece against the field of "Black Studies". I mean, the piece is appalling on a ton of different levels, but let's start with the most obvious: The author (Naomi Schaefer Riley) by admission didn't actually read the dissertations she's mocking. All she had was brief synopses of the proposed dissertations. This would be cringe-worthy enough without reading the title of her post: "The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations." Oy. You first, Ms. Riley.

Amazingly, Riley defended herself in a follow-up post by attempting to argue that "it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them. . . there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery." One would think before dismissing a whole area of study, one would actually read full, completed works of scholarship in the field. One would vastly overestimate the prerequisites Ms. Riley thinks necessary before she confidently tries to bring the banhammer down on a whole discipline of study. (I will, however, agree with her that there likely is not enough money in the world to justify spending any of it on having Riley read much of anything, or employing her in jobs that would seemingly make that into a requirement).

But what's really getting me is that even on Riley's own terms (her incredibly, incredibly poorly argued terms), I don't see her point. All three of the projects she identifies seem like clearly valuable and important scholarly endeavors -- and I don't think that about every project I see. The first one, "'So I Could Be Easeful': Black Women's Authoritative Knowledge on Childbirth" (that's the Black midwifery one), is part of an important area of literature on laws and cultural meaning given to reproduction. This is an area I'm obviously prone to defend, given that my girlfriend's area of expertise is anthropology of reproduction, and this is an area that has historically been strongly mediated by race. From mandatory sterilizations to the mainstream American belief that teen pregnancy in the Black community is community-destroying pandemic, these sorts of issues have both historical and contemporary import (hell, one of the areas Ms. Riley says people should focus on instead of on Black midwifery is Black teen pregnancy! I'd ask if she even is listening to herself, but I suspect that the sort of "research" she wants done on the latter area can be summed up as "tongue-clucking").

The next dissertation is "Race for Profit: Black Housing and the Urban Crisis of the 1970s." Government, housing policy, race -- what could possibly go wrong? Again, finding out how various housing policies were or weren't motivated by racial ideologies, or did or didn't have important impacts that affect the current racial state of affairs -- important information! Why am I supposed to think that it isn't, exactly? Well, apparently, I'm supposed to dismiss this line of research unless I think that race is the only important social force in America today and that its salience has not changed in any way since 1954. Of course, all one actually needs to show is that race is an important social force in America today, and it's probably better from an intellectual novelty standpoint that it's salience has changed in important and measurable ways over the past several decades. Which it has -- but those changes do not include "everything that ever happened with respect to race no longer matters, and we can treat the past several hundred years as a really bad dream."

Speaking of which, how about that last thesis, which explores the role Black Republicans have played in conservative attacks on the mainstream civil rights establishment. That would seem to be exactly the sort of "change" that might be worth exploring, no? It specifically locates its agenda in cultural transitions that took place in the 1980s. But no -- the problem here is that the author doesn't like these Black conservatives, and thinks their contributions malignant. This is very upsetting to Ms. Riley, and if people have differing normative commitments than she does -- bzzzt! Not real scholarship. Seriously, that's all the last attack boils down to -- the author and Ms. Riley have a political disagreement. How we jump from that to "and therefore, what she's doing isn't academic" I have no idea, except that a true scholar would never, ever say anything that Naomi Riley would disagree with.

So to sum up. Black Studies is bad because (a) three student dissertation proposals which (b) Riley has only read summaries of are (c) personally not interesting to Ms. Riley and, a fortiori, to anyone else (even though actually all three seem very interesting) while (d) potentially demonstrating normative commitments that Riley doesn't like. Oh yes, color me persuaded.



EW said...

What a weird collection of studies to cite to support a thesis.

1. Black midwifery and “natural birth.” Cultural norms around reproduction have HUGE implications. One item: breastfeeding. Via breastfeeding, moms convey certain immunities to their offspring. What could be more natural? Yet in the US, black women breastfeed a much lower rates than white women. This is a FRIGGIN’ CATASTROPHY -- and, conversely, a huge opportunity to achieve public health benefits (with disparate benefits to black people) through a seemingly low-cost behavior change. But how to actually achieve this change? It might help to have some historic knowledge on how this behavior disparity arose in the first place.

2. Race and housing in the 1970s. Urban housing dynamics of the ‘60s and ‘70s had a pernicious effect on wealth accumulation in black households that endure to this day. We have census block data showing average house prices and racial composition of neighborhoods. By tracking the changes, we observe a crappy outcome: Blacks who moved into formerly white neighborhoods bordering black neighborhoods paid a premium to do so. This reflects simple supply and demand: neighborhoods in which both blacks and whites felt comfortable living in were scarce, yet attracted demand from both black and white purchasers. But as the numbers black households passed 25% or so, whites started to flee and prices plummeted. The net effect was to create a wealth transfer from blacks interested in living in integrated neighborhoods to whites that were the first to flee those neighborhoods.

3. Conservative black intellectuals and opposition to civil rights legislation: Hell, what could be more interesting than that?

I don’t envy anyone who has to be “creative” on a schedule. I’m not a regular reader of Naomi Schaefer Riley’s work, but I’ll hazard a guess that this many not be her best effort.

PG said...

The only surprise here is that such proudly-ignorant blather was published in The Chronicle for Higher Education. I guess they're pretty hard up for page views and figured a WSJ editorialist like Riley would attract folks who normally don't read The Chronicle. If they wanted to spark a serious debate on the value of Black (or Women's, Asian-American, LGBT, etc) Studies, they'd have asked a conservative who at least had some social science scholarship background to take the con side. Say, Charles Murray, who's recently published in the field of White Studies.

PG said...

And the predictable martyrhood -- news of which, I assure you, has spread far beyond the Chronicle's normal readership to people who will forever be convinced that Riley was fired for her Hard Truths and Plain Speaking (TM) rather than for being proud of her ignorance.