In the first thread based on the Williams website post, “What Questions are Williams Faculty Asking Themselves?”, Rory made a comment which was a response to a query submitted by Peter Just.  Just, a Professor of Anthropology, asks:

How and why do we believe what we believe? How much of our belief and perception is based on assumptions we hold sub-consciously, without even being aware we hold them? How are we, individually and collectively, to reconcile and balance reason and faith, reason and emotion?

Rory frames his response with the model of the Seder parable of The Four Sons:


Peter Just’s question is at the core of any good social science and social scientist. Where is the hidden assumption in my work and my understanding of society?

To model after the four questions (classic parable from passover. look it up):

The wise child creates statistical models that control for various factors and does not overstate causality and idolizes the experimental design for statistical research. S/he loves the ethnographic site that is revisted and the ethnographer who grapples with this very question for offering insight into the author’s assumptions and hopefully, for a reader, the reader’s assumptions as well. The wise takes what s/he can and tries desperately to play devil’s advocate (knowing full well that a dichotomy is often oversimplified). It isn’t bad, but it’s very positivist at its core–even if I can’t get to the truth myself, there is one to uncover.

The simple child is a relativism–if i do not assume a good and a bad, perhaps then i’m without assumptions. That of course, assumes an equality that is not so: it is better to live a healthier life. People enjoy options. Relativism is simply the acceptance of all assumptions to avoid biasing towards only one. Doesn’t work.

The wicked child proposes that marxism or a similarly conflict-driven view of society is the best resolution to avoid assumptions about a society. This, of course, assumes conflict and that people are/should strive for power over others. It leads, more often than not, to dogmatic arguments.

The one who does not know how to ask is always the most endearing child in the original story. Knowing full well that s/he wants to be involved and wants to know the answer, this child is also the one that knows that to fully grapple with this question leads one to inertia. It’s impossible, once one asks “what assumptions do I have?” to ever be fully comfortable claiming knowledge of society. And for those searching for some sort of answer to Peter’s question, I would say I’m not even sure how to begin. But I do know that others might have some clues, and then I can critique those, and some third person can critique me and eventually–ideally cross-culturally so we don’t all miss one key assumption–we might start identifying key assumptions. It is why Bourdieu’s model is so insightful in the US, even though US sociologists have also been challenging French theorists about making the theory more rigorous, testable, and less absolute. It’s why the rediscovery of Du Bois’ insight has inspired and improved sociology in the past ten to twenty years (I should say: rediscovery by white sociologists, as black sociologists have built a long literature with Du Bois’ work as grounding instead of Durkheim or Weber or Simmel or Marx). When branches of work speak to each other, there’s an opportunity to uncover more of the assumptions behind both. That’s where we should focus our academic research on, that’s why we need to constantly strive for diversity…to expose and challenge assumptions otherwise left untouched.

I won’t dare touch on reason vs. faith. I leave that to others. I’d only point out that he is very smart (duh) to ask not only how we balance our reason and emotion and faith not only as individuals, but as collectives. The two are very different questions and both very important.

(Also, I’ve never been able to answer one of Peter Just’s questions without prompting him to ask another question or comment that so challenges my argument that it often left me stuttering. lol)

Comments are welcome.

And it seems to me, that Rory has issued a more than obvious invitation to Professor Just to expand on this very thoughtful response.

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