Thursday, June 09, 2005

Academia and journalism - can the twain meet? I know that sounds like a shoddy essay question from a first-year media studies subject, but it's a very real and omnipresent frustration for me in my professional life, which as I've miserably blogged about before, takes place in a dreary no-man's land in which I get no respect from either field.

The thing that inspired me to write this latest post is an article I wrote this week for the Sydney Morning Herald, which posits the idea of a compliment economy. It's not a particularly novel idea - it clearly ties in with Mauss's gift economy. And my thesis argument about mutual obligation was inspired by a wonderful Ghassan Hage article that spoke of gifts as ethical exchanges. But anyway, I wanted to explain how compliments worked in a very distinctive way as social transactions.

It was a really hard article to write, because I was stripped of the academic discursive mode, which allows digressions, rhetorical gestures towards alternative possibilities, and detailed and contextualised citations of relevant work. By contrast, the journalistic mode - particularly the "opinion column mode" I was adopting, provides encapsulated summaries of other research as self-contained evidence for an unequivocal argument. That "other research" must be a published account of research findings, or a book. There's very little room for going, "Well, then there's this way of looking at it," or "but X counters that idea". And in the newspaper context, it looks dodgy to cite one article someone's written - you want something that suggests authority in this particular field.

Anyway, I used two sources: a recent social pyschology study at the University of Kansas which found compliments improve female self-esteem (I know: hold the front page!), and University of Michigan law professor William Ian Miller's philosophy book Faking It. (I have been a fan of Miller's smart, wry style since reading Humiliation, a book of essays on honour, shame, humiliation and violence.) Then I got the following email from B.Ro, my editor:
Do we have any local input to validate what all these American's [sic] are saying?
A locally sourced quote speaking to the main theme would be useful.
So despite slight ethical twingeings (thinking of how New York Times wundercolumnist Jennifer 8 Lee was bagged for using her Harvard alumni listserv as a journalistic resource), I promptly got on the CSAA list:
Hello all,
I'm currently writing an article for the SMH that imagines the practice of complimenting people as a kind of economy of goodwill. It's a two-way exchange in which people recognise and trade desires and expectations; and how people respond to compliments reveals their perception of the relative social positions of the complimenter and recipient.
I am wondering whether any Australian academics have written on this or similar topics, and/or if anyone is interested in being quoted for this article.
The responses I received really underlined the gap between the standard "help with research request" email you get on such lists, and what I was actually asking for. I thought that because everyone on the list is reasonably self-reflexive and media-savvy, they would understand the restrictive requirements implied by my request, and would tell me about a recent book, or offer a quote. Here's a selection:

Dear Mel, You may be interested in a perspective from other cultures – Franca Tamisari has written ‘the Meaning of the Steps is in Between: Dancing and the Curse of Compliments’ in The Politics of Dance, special issue of The Australian Journal of Anthropology, No. 12, R. Henry, F. Magowan and D. Murray eds. Pp 274-286, or The Gift, by Lewis Hyde with a differing viewpoint. These may impinge on your area of focus.

It's not my field, but I run a course that includes some organisational behaviour material from AGSM - they draw on Covey's Seven Habits stuff to talk about things like "building your emotional bank account" with other people as an effective means of management...with concepts of making deposits and withdrawals. Don't know if this helps.

Mel, Maybe you could note the way that such exchanges tended to be relegated to the 'phatic' communication category - in communication studies - and the content and meaning of the exchange was often discounted, with emphasis placed on the alleged purpose of the exchange - opening/closing the channels of communication.

Can you see why I didn't find these responses particularly helpful? But the most irritating response of all was this:
Hi Mel
Isn't this similar to the notion of the Gift economy?
There has been a lot of work done on this.
When I read this, I snapped and sent this person a short, reasonable email briefly explaining the gulf between academic and journalistic discourse. The tone of this email was very Academicist: dismissing an argument by invoking more extensive knowledge on the topic. And in an academic context, I would take that on the chin with only a few bitter mumblings about hobbit philosophy.

But my query was not academic.

Asking the list was a real misstep on my part. And I feel it was a real indication of how far humanities academics have to go before they'll understand why the Andrew Bolts of this world persist in mocking them. My career project is to bring academic-style rigour (note how it's not academic, but academic-style, the same way karaoke videos often have that little thing at the start: "in the style of Britney Spears") to journalism.

And I felt that this article, being much more theoretical than any journalism I've done so far, would be prime bait for these same academics bitching about how lame this stupid journalist was. So my question was equally a pre-emptive move to anticipate any hostile reaction before the piece ran.

I'm about to head up to Melbourne Uni now to shamelessly use their facilities. Because, funnily enough, the thing I miss most about university is the access to research resources. The internet is becoming less accessible every day as all the good content gets locked behind subscription and registration.

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