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Armchair theorizing and scholarship on wsn
by David Smith
12 March 2002 05:52 UTC
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Just a quick point of information for those involved in the recent
discussion, which is ostensibly about "the Islamic State" but seems to
have digressed into diatribes against folks who are academics.  I won't
attempt to defend academia: no doubt the world that many of us who are
professors live in is very imperfect, with pressures to "publish or
perish" often detracting from the intellectual quality of our work as well
as it's policy relevance, the degree to which its grounded in everyday
life, etc.  No point in defending the indefensible.

However, the idea that "most" of the contributors to the current wsn,
such as it is, are "pointed-headed intellectuals" is very ironic!  It is,
frankly, (to use a shopworn "intellectual" phrase) a "straw argument."
This list did, in fact, start out as one that was primarily subscribed to
by serious scholars who studied the world-system from various academic
disciplines (sociology, political science, history, etc).  However, in
the past few years MOST of those scholars have either unsubscribed or no
longer actively participate in the listserve.  Some have told me that
they found the discussions were no longer interesting because they got
the impression that a number of the interlocutors on wsn had so little
deep understanding of the issues.  One person told me, "It seems like
most of the folks current participating in wsn discussions are primarily
interested in venting their opinions and get most or all of their
"information" from dubious sources on the internet or the web."  This
person was suggesting that many current wsn folks who want to understand
the dynamics of the current global situation might actually do well to
try actually read some of the important books in the field by "armchair
theorists" like Arrighi, Wallerstein, Gunder Frank, etc.  (Just to be
clear: none of these folks are the World Bank "experts" with their
Land Rovers or "exotic villas" -- and their books really DO help us
understand why there is so much global inequality today, and who and what
really is to blame for it.)

I have a suggestion for Adam, the poli sci undergrad student.  Read some
of this stuff (heck, after all you are a college student, so you ought to
be reading something).  If you had a rudimentary understanding of some of
the larger debates about the nature of the modern world-system, and how
it came to be, you would know better than to deride Immanuel Wallerstein
for his question about "the influx of cotton," might not be quite so
"amazed" (this is a classic case of something zipping right over a
person's head!).

It's okay that many of the folks on wsn are not as well-read or as
distinquished a scholar as Professor Wallerstein (and he's actually a
pretty sharp, clever, "grandfather" -- wsn is actually very fortunate to
have someone like that actually "look in" on it once in a while!).
Personally, I find it particularly useful to hear voices, of scholars and
others, who are living far beyond North America and can offer
perspectives from different parts of the world.  And it's interesting to
get some input for those of you who think you have more "real-life"
experience with the world than the rest of us -- and those who think that
having relatives who are from different cultures make them "experts."
I'm willing to read some of this stuff (okay, I'll confess: I DO delete
some, too).  But it seems like it serves no real purpose to rail against
the world-system scholars who really DO have some understanding about how
things work, and who were the original inspiration for this network.

Would wsn really be better off, if ALL the serious academic types
unsubscribed?  The sort of silly discussion that I've read today pushes
the listserve precisely in that direction.  Pause and think before you
start typing!

dave smith
professor of sociology

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