[This post is periodically updated as helpful comments roll in.]
Have you ever picked up an academic paper and read, right there in the abstract, that you don't exist?
We're used to reading rhetoric that defines us as the enemy, which is different. Rhetoric about the "war on cars" or "war on coal" posits an in-group of good people, including the author and presumed reader, and an out-group that is threatening to them. This is exclusionary language in its obvious form, and it's hard to justify in academia.
But academics can slide unconsciously into a more subtle kind of exclusionary rhetoric, especially in the social sciences — what I'll call (melodramatically perhaps) the rhetoric of annihilation. Instead of defining a group of people as evil or threatening, this rhetoric just ignores their existence. In this rhetoric, there is no talk of war, because only one side is visible. The author's presumed expertise becomes a kind of campfire. Gather around the author's assumptions and you will be warm, safe, and included; if you don't, we can't see you out there in the dark anyway, so you basically don't exist.
This is remarkably easy to do even in an academic paper. Here are two vivid examples, one classically leftist, the other conservative.
From the left, a paper on "transit deserts". You can go to the link, but I'm not naming the authors here because I have no desire to embarrass them by attracting searches on their names. Their work has been peer-reviewed, which means that several arbiters of academic quality view it as an acceptable example of professional thinking today. My point is about how pervasive and accepted this rhetoric is even as academic thought.
The abstract begins:
The term “transit desert” is a new concept that looks at the gap between level of transit service (supply) and needs of a particular population (demand). These populations are often referred to as “transit dependent,” people that are too young, too old, or too poor or who are physically unable to drive. “Transit deserts” in this case are defined as areas that lack adequate public transit service given areas containing populations that are deemed transit-dependent.
In just a few words, the authors have denied the existence of three very large groups of people. These rhetorically annihilated groups are:
- Anyone who analyzed the spatial relationship between transit service and needy populations before someone invented the "new concept" of doing this. This includes all professional transit planners over the age of 30, including past generations going back a century or more. (Of course, the rhetorical annihilation of elders is such a routine part of being young — kids, we did it too at your age! — that it's hardly worth being offended by.)
- Anyone for whom demand does not mean mere need, but rather the meaning that is already routine in business and economics — something like a "buyer's willingness and ability to pay a price for a specific quantity of a good or service". The paper's use of the word demand annihilates anyone coming from the perspectives of business or basic economics..
- Anyone who uses transit, wants transit to be useful to them, or wants the live in a city where even the rich ride transit, but who does not meet the specified qualifications to be called "transit dependent." As made clear in the first sentence, these people's desire to use transit, or to build a city around transit, does not count to the authors as demand, because they do not meet the authors' standard for need.
A paper could make arguments against the point of view of these groups, but tbat's not done here. Rather, the very possibility that such positions might exist is denied.
And of course, conservatives papers do this too. Let's turn to a conservative-sounding paper, featured in Atlantic Citylab, for which you can also follow the link for the citation. It's a little more careful but standard forms of annihilation appear soon enough. The paper opens like this:
This article asks why public transportation’s political support in the United States is so much larger than its ridership.
Upon reading this, I scratched my head trying to imagine what it would be like to find this an interesting problem statement. I don't mean to rhetorically annihilate the authors; I acknowledge their existence, but it it sounds like they don't talk with transit advocates or riders very much. Those people would tell you that the answer is too obvious to need studying, as indeed it turns out to be:
We … show that support for transit spending is correlated more with belief in its collective rather than private benefits—transit supporters are more likely to report broad concerns about traffic congestion and air pollution than to report wanting to use transit themselves.
Well, of course people vote for transit for reasons other than the narrowest kind of self-interest. People vote for transit because (a) it benefits people they care about, if not themselves, (b) it offers some solutions to real problems of urban mobility and (c) it helps foster cities that people want to live in, as demonstrated by the way land values are soaring in such places.
But why is this a problem? The authors conclude:
These findings suggest a collective action problem, since without riders transit cannot deliver collective benefits. But most transit spending supporters do not use transit, and demographics suggest they are unlikely to begin doing so; transit voters are wealthier and have more options than transit riders.
A collective action problem is a situation in which everyone would benefit if X were done, but nobody can justify doing X as a selfish cost/benefit calculation. One fable explaining the problem imagines a group of mice who would all benefit if a marauding cat wore a bell, but none of whom finds it rational to the huge risks of climbing the cat's back to put the bell on.
What does it mean to assert that the transit ridership is a problem of this kind? It implies …
- … that transit users who do not vote do not exist. The most explicit rhetorical annihilation in the paper is the assumption that the set of people who vote in the US (rarely more than 40% of the population and often less in local elections) largely contains the set of potential transit riders. In reality, non-voters are so dominant in the population that their ridership may be a big contributor to transit's actual success, thus helping solve any "collective action problem". Nor do they consider that many of these non-voters are friends or relatives or employees of voters, who may then understandably, even in a sense selfishly, vote in the interests of those people.
- ... that people who don't think they'll use transit are right about that. In the biz, what people say they want to do, or would do, is called stated preference data, and it's known to be largely useless. Humans are terrible at guessing what they'd do, or want to do, in a hypothetical future based on a situation, and set of options, that they can't imagine now.
- ... that there is no gradual path to collective action, because demographic categories all have hard edges within which people are trapped. This is the big one. To posit a "collective action problem" the authors must assume that the level of wealth above which people are unlikely to use transit is rigid, even though it in reality it rises as transit grows more useful, and that it divides a population cleanly. Everyone who is near the boundaries between demographic categories, or who chooses transit for reasons not predictable by their income, is annihilated here.
No argument appears in the paper for any of the assumptions above. Limited discussion about ridership is based on what people tell the census about their commuting behavior; this casually annihilates all non-commute users of transit, including people who voted for it and love to use it on weekends, but have to drive to work because it's not useful for that purpose.
Finally, the collective action problem assumes that everyone is a bizarre character from classical economics known as homo economicus: someone who rationally computes and acts on self-interest that is defined only in the narrowest sense. Among the many absurdities that follow from this are that in exactly the same circumstances, everyone would do the same thing, because we do not have diverse values, attractions, or personalities.
But in the real world, one mouse sometimes does put the bell on the cat. Some of us will take ridiculous risks for the common good. Some of us choose to be firefighters or police or soldiers or artists or social workers, all high-risk jobs that require courage but that enrich society if they succeed against all the odds. Most of us don't take those risks, but we're all better off because some of us do. Likewise, some fortunate people ride transit because they like it. Some less fortunate ones prefer to spend their scarce income on a motorcycle.
Everyone who acts in ways not predictable by their assigned demographic category is being annihilated here. Human diversity, even human quirkiness is good for the collective, however hard it is for the social sciences to describe.
What do these two papers have in common? Between them, they annihilate almost everyone, including each other's in-groups.
You could say that all this annihilation is an occupational hazard of the social sciences — or indeed that it's an inevitable feature of them. The social sciences are in the business of talking about gigantic groups of people using reductive categories, and all categorization suppresses diversity.
But the hardness of category boundaries is one of the most fundamental and dangerous of human illusions, because it is coded deeply into common language and underlies all forms of prejudice. So the social sciences are always playing with fire, always at risk of giving aid and comfort to polarizing, exclusionary styles of thought.
This rhetoric of annihilation can lead to publication and approval, so long as an adequate ecosystem of reviewers and advisors has reasons (ideological or material) for sharing an assumption or at least not challenging it. But once past that bar, these assumptions become "the literature," bounced around in the echo chamber of "expert" discourse. Through the turning of generations, some of these assumptions do get overturned, if only as part of the inevitable process of the young annihilating their elders. But much harm is done in the meantime.
Great academic work also requires thinking about all of the forces that determine the situation being studied, not just the one's academic discipline or in-group values, and honoring descriptions of the issue from those points of view. If they intend to influence policy, they make sure they understand the diverse experience of practitioners in the field, not just academics. This is especially true if a paper intends to influence policy, rather than just participate in a discipline's private conversation.
But meanwhile: Do you see a new academic paper, thick with footnotes and citations, as an immediate signifier of authority and wisdom? Be careful. To be welcomed around the campfire, you may have to consent to annihilation.