Thomas Friedman’s Lessons for Anthropologists

Recently Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan wrote a spot-on critique of Thomas Friedman, the New York Times op-ed columnist – Thomas Friedman Writes His Only Column Again.

Fabulously wealthy CEO whisperer and newspaper columnist Thomas Friedman is little more than a human-shaped random word generator… He writes one single column, sometimes using different proper nouns or cycling through slightly new platitudes, in order to allow a new headline to be written.

Greg and I liked the piece, and began to riff on its implications for anthropology. We went back and forth by email. Here’s our conversation:

Daniel: Greg, I thought Nolan’s piece was one of the more effective take-downs of Friedman that I have read. And you?

Greg: Absolutely. I find Friedman hair-pullingly frustrating to read, when I somehow wind up in one of his columns. Nolan points out some of the formulaic elements in the Friedman oeuvre: he refers to the paint-by-numbers rhetoric as ‘The Only Thomas Friedman Column That Exists,’ a semi-literary dead-horse that can be endlessly propped up for yet another New York Times column. His fevered, free-associative juxtaposition of whatever concept-du jour has crossed his plate with achingly lame, timeless platitudes sort of sounds like deep thinking. Sort of… if you haven’t slept much, I suppose, or don’t read much…

Daniel: Exactly. Nolan uses Friedman’s column, The Rise of Popularism, to illustrate that so well.

Friedman opens this op-ed writing, “Traveling in Europe last week, it seemed as if every other conversation ended with some form of this question: Why does it feel like so few leaders are capable of inspiring their people to meet the challenges of our day?”

Nolan comes back: “Whether traveling in Europe or Israel or Pakistan or The Arab Street, Thomas Friedman has astoundingly boring conversations with people who speak in vague, nonsensical phrases.”

The one I really liked was Nolan’s skewering of Friedman’s use of simplistic explanations. So Friedman writes, “There are many explanations for this global leadership deficit, but I’d focus on two: one generational, one technological.”

And Nolan paraphrases the Friedman op-ed approach as:

“There are many explanations for [broad phenomenon], but I’d focus on two: one [generational, cultural, or sociological], one [technological, biological, scientific, or economic].” Thomas Friedman knows how to write a freshman-year research paper at the last minute.

Greg: I suppose this is what I find most frustrating: Friedman is bad, but he’s not that much worse than many of the writers in Big-Thinkism, the realm of paid speaking and those who translate science, philosophy, social research, and other serious intellectual endeavors into Big Ideas Lite for the masses.

Big Ideas Lite are potted versions of real thinking that can be published in a newspaper column and read on a treadmill or over a single cup of coffee. Friedman is like a bad translator; what may be a good idea (may be) goes in, but what comes out is so much less interesting.

And you’re sitting there staring at the translator saying, “No way, man! I understood enough of what he said that I know you’re not translating it all.”

Problem is, and I know we’ve talked about this, Big Thinkers have become a special category of intellectual workers, as much celebrities as serious intellectuals. A few real intellectuals make the cut, but even those have to become promiscuous generalists, willing to say something about anything, in order to lock up a permanent seat in the Big Think Council.

Daniel: And so it becomes a formula. They have to respond, and pull out the same hackneyed approach each time. Nolan nails that in another critique of Friedman, The Friedman-est Column of the Year.

Friedman has two shticks – (1) globalization, or the world made flat by technology and capitalism, explains everything; and (2) paint-by-numbers writing that delivers that point and makes Friedman into the friendly expert.

So, on #1, Nolan uses his formula of quoting Friedman and then providing pithy critique:

Friedman: Why now? It starts with the fact that globalization and the information technology revolution have gone to a whole new level. Thanks to cloud computing, robotics, 3G wireless connectivity, Skype, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, the iPad, and cheap Internet-enabled smartphones, the world has gone from connected to hyper-connected. This is the single most important trend in the world today.

Nolan: Sorry, did I just pull a random quote from any one of Thomas Friedman’s hundreds of identical columns and/ or books over the past decade and paste it, above? No, that is from the column which we are discussing, from yesterday. It is. Just because it could have appeared in any of hundreds of other Thomas Friedman columns on hundreds of other subjects is no reason to think differently. What is the most important trend in the world today? “A list of random words related to the internet.”

Greg: Absolutely. Nolan’s critique is really pointing to a kind of vague technological-determinism that’s not just characteristic of Friedman. But, as many critics have pointed out, people don’t automatically change in order to adapt themselves and their lives to technology: some ‘innovations’ fall flat because people choose not to make use of them.

The story of Twitter, for example, is not that everyone’s thinking has changed to conform to the constraints of 140-character posts, but that people have found a USE for this technology which appeals to them. But there’s more train wrecks out there in the land of Internet IPOs and innovations than there are blockbusters. If you think like Friedman, you have no clue why this might be.

Daniel: Agreed. So onto #2 for Friedman the paint-by-numbers approach. Nolan captures that with his own formula of presentation and critique:

Friedman: Surely one of the iconic images of this time is the picture of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak – for three decades a modern pharaoh – being hauled into court, held in a cage with his two sons and tried for attempting to crush his people’s peaceful demonstrations. Every leader and C.E.O. should reflect on that photo. “The power pyramid is being turned upside down,” said Yaron Ezrahi, an Israeli political theorist.

Nolan: [Item in the news this week about the Middle East.] [Nonsensical patronizing platitude directed at audience of fanboy businessmen.] [Crushingly obvious quote from Israeli political person,] says Thomas Friedman. Cancel your New York Times subscription and simply reread this post three times a week for the rest of the year.

Greg: We’ve talked about the problem of complexity in public discussion elsewhere; I think I even saw you pointing it out on comments on someone else’s blog! I know of plenty of serious social theorists who are guilty of formulaic explanations; arguably, getting your formula down — it’s all about class conflict, discourse is a capillary form of power — but how one chooses to simplify, which part of one’s more complex world view matters. Of course, if you don’t have a more complex worldview, simplifying is a bit easier.

What I mean, and you pointed this out to me when you first tweeted me about this column, is that Friedman, although admittedly annoying, actually has manufactured a coherent, transportable analytical framework. We many disagree with it. He may simply be wrong (often, I suspect). But he’s actually got a coherent explanatory strategy that you can even spoof as Nolan has. The satire works because of the formula.

The sad thing is that, at this point, I’m not sure that we’ve got the same sorts of, hopefully much better, formula to provide a public based on new research in neuroanthropology. Evolutionary psychology has got a formula. Marxism has got a formula. Dynamic systems theory in biocultural anthropology — nope.

The point is not that the formula should be the END of our research, but it can provide quick and dirty, testable explanatory hypotheses. Sure, simplistic thinkers will go no further. But at least we get more interesting explanations into the public discussion where they can vie with other frameworks for understanding social problems, or new research findings, or political events.

Daniel: I’m less worried about the generalization part with neuroanthropology right now. First off, the field is just getting started, so we’re still figuring out what some of our basic points are in what is a complex research area. I think the “how to explain” or “basic premise” part will become clearer with time. At least I hope so! Perhaps we can take a stab at some “quick and dirty neuroanthro” later in the conversation. Part of the problem there, however, is that we can’t do the one-cause-to-explain-it-all approach. It’s not the brain-did-it or culture-did-it. Or perhaps we could use that approach, and just add the twist – your brain did it, your “dynamic, biocultural” brain. Hmm, maybe not.

One thing you and I at least try to do is communicate with the public, and to write reasonably clearly when we discuss our ideas and research. That in itself – good writing, without the convolutions and jargon and stilted prose seen in some academic papers – is a form of generalization. That is something I appreciated about the Nolan piece. Take this short paragraph:

Scrutiny does not make it more difficult for leaders to make sensible, brave decisions; it makes it more difficult for leaders to be corrupt and cheat on their wives. Thomas Friedman does not point out this discrepancy. He has more important thoughts to deliver.

That paragraph delivers critique, a discussion of power, a characterization of leaders, and more, all in four simple lines. It’s complex, even though it reads in a straight-forward manner. I do wish more anthropologists realized that effective writing matters. Rather than going on and on, hitting the reader over the head with all the detail of how something is complex, good writing can deliver complexity in an intelligible and enjoyable way. It’s one of our greatest tools, but we misuse it constantly.

The basic dictum of writing – Show, Don’t Tell – is a good illustration here. Writing professors exhort their students to illustrate action and ideas and social situations and so forth. Rather than telling the reader what is happening, they show the reader. But anthropologists often don’t follow that maxim. It’s tell, tell, tell, as if that will really show the reader the truth of the world. In the meantime, the reader’s eyes are glazing over, and they start wishing for something like Friedman. And that’s what they find – Friedman. Because the anthropologists aren’t delivering in this space.

Greg: It’s funny though, because we all complain about turgid, thick-as-paste prose. I’m always stunned when my grad students, who complain about the worst offenders of convoluted, difficult-to-follow structuring and vague generalities in some of our theorists – I won’t name names – often end up reproducing all these sins against communication when they start to write. As academics, we know there’s a problem, but it takes courage, craft and some serious commitment to produce elegant and deceptively clear discussions of complicated ideas.

I say this as someone who feels like I still have a lot to learn. I study the science writers and essayists whose work I most admire and think about how to bring this aesthetic to my anthropology. I still fail miserably sometimes — my real problem is overly long writing and an unwillingness to just pull the trigger and put things out there for readers to see.

The danger, if we don’t get this right, is that, even if we solve the problem of closed access, our work will just get ignored. Or people will try to read us and just give up.

There will always be space for data-driven research papers to crack through, to some degree, into the land of press releases and science reporting. But our field has bigger ambitions, ambitions to shape theoretical frameworks and worldviews, not just chisel away on the edges of empirical work. To have this broader effect – to shape how people seek to frame and understand problems – requires that we communicate our ways of thinking, that we model our distinctive intellectual habits like biology-culture holism, broad cross-cultural (and cross-species) comparativism, ethnographic induction, and greater-than-adaptation-and-gene-selection accounts of our species’ evolution.

With so many thinkers out their fighting for headspace, some of them glib and formulaic like Friedman, we have to persuade people to like the way we think and write about problems that they are about. To get this sort of public cut through, I think we need to study those who do it well, even when we don’t like the conclusions that they’re pushing. As a field, we have to become more savvy about public intellectual debate.

We can’t hide from public engagement and hope we’ll be left alone peacefully in some kind of academic game park. A colleague was just interviewed about his application for promotion by a university-wide panel here in Australia, and he told me that the first questions he got from other academics were, ‘What IS anthropology?’ and ‘How do you study that?’ We can groan and roll our eyes, but we’ve got to put the gloves on and go out there and fight for the public’s attention, and that means better communication strategies. People say, ‘Well, we’ve been trying that, and it hasn’t been working’; so, learn from the mistakes, recalibrate our efforts, and have another go at it. If we gave up the first few times our fieldwork or research didn’t go as planned, I doubt most of us working in the field would ever get degrees.

Daniel: People have to like it – that’s a great motto. But I don’t think it’s a question most anthropologists or scientists ask themselves when they write or try to convey their research to a wide audience. I’d love to see that stressed even more. Write so other people will enjoy your essays and stories and reports.

I’ll also return here to the point about formulaic writing. Having a formula can help – it provides structure and helps make it understandable to people. Sure, the pop sci and pop op-ed people overdo it. They are too simplistic, and apply the same heavy-handed approach to every problem. Still, I think it would be interesting if more anthropologists tried to do that, to present the anthropological perspective in that manner.

In the end, anthropology has some basic points – culture, power, evolution, variation. So it can employ the same kind of “well, there are two possible explanations” approach that Friedman uses.

Greg: Maybe it’s not that we need a single formula. Probably, as a field with a lot of internal disagreement, we’re not going to come up with one formula. And I’d hate to turn into a one-trick pony. But we do have to think strategically about our interventions.

One of the great resources of our field is that we are so analytically and theoretically diverse. Some academic disciplines are dominated by a small group of, or even a single theoretical perspective. That theoretical diversity can be a nightmare, but it gives us a great analytical nimbleness, as long as we embrace this variability. If we dig in and take sides in too partisan a fashion, we potentially lose valuable intellectual resources. Certainly, in my neuroanthropological work, I find that I can’t commit to any single explanatory framework, in part because different parts of systems, and different scales of phenomena, don’t function in the same way.

I think we’ve both written about how, as a field, anthropologists have a tendency to say in response to ideas like Friedman’s, ‘Well, it more complicated than that.’ I’m reminded of the ‘it’s complicated’ relationship status option on Facebook — in other words, I can’t really tell you, probably because I don’t know, or because I just won’t admit what’s really going on (probably because you shouldn’t know).

As experts, we can’t resort to ‘It’s complicated’ unless we’re ready to take people on the next step. We can tell them, ‘It’s complicated, but it helps to start thinking this way…’ Or we can intervene tactically, choosing just one dimension of an issue to intentionally throw a wrench into someone else’s overly simplistic way of seeing things.

Daniel: Agreed. We know it’s complicated, but we need to reserve much of that in our own minds, and save it for more academic discussions. For our readers, we need to provide something more complicated than Friedman (shouldn’t be that hard) yet clear and direct enough to get our basic point across. And we definitely have a myriad of basic points that we wish other people got about the world!

I also think we can focus on the structure of our writing. So Nolan uses a basic back-and-forth: Friedman, then critique, and keeping it crisp and to the point. Friedman uses a basic set of elements: pose a question, personalize it, present a couple potential answers, focus on the more important answer, say why it matters.

I advocate the same thing for blogging: Have a lead, something to grab readers attention. Then tell readers what your post is about. Go through a series of clear points or illustrations (your argument). Wrap it up, generally by providing the reader with some sort of pay-off for sticking with you for so long – a good conclusion, some funny final thought, a personal note, and so forth.

I don’t follow this approach every time, but it’s still there, in the back of my mind, as something I can play with. And I think anthropologists could do more with that.

Take Charles Brooker and how he lampoons news coverage. It’s spot on. I’d like to see more anthropologists try to provide this sort of story telling:

The flip-side to this is that anthropologists don’t even do something this formulaic. I’d like to see more of them try. One or two main points, some examples and commentary, and then get out.

As you mentioned in our initial Twitter discussion, in our attempts to make anthropology more relevant or more public, a lot of energy has gone into open-access discussions of late. But there is a flip-side to open access. Creating material that people will care about, will like, will find interesting and compelling.

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11 Responses to Thomas Friedman’s Lessons for Anthropologists

  1. Great stuff! Many nuggets to inspire and consider. Thanks Daniel-Greg!

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  5. ryan a says:

    Thanks for this discussion Greg and Daniel, you guys are right on the mark here.

    “I think we’ve both written about how, as a field, anthropologists have a tendency to say in response to ideas like Friedman’s, ‘Well, it more complicated than that.’”

    Ya, the “it’s complicated” response is basically a dead end. It’s also condescending to basically tell someone you can’t give them an answer about something because it’s too complex. I started picking up this habit after my undergrad at some point–and then had to catch myself once I realized that it’s basically a non-answer or non-argument. In the case of Friedman, I guess things may be more complicated…but in many cases the arguments he is making (about technology, globalization) are either flat out wrong or just misguided. When anthros try to counter folks like Friedman, but all they come up with is a long-winded non-answer, Friedman basically wins. The way to counter these kinds of arguments is with solid counter arguments–that are hopefully well-written and interesting to read.

    “But there is a flip-side to open access. Creating material that people will care about, will like, will find interesting and compelling.”

    That’s a really good point. We can make anthro literature the most openly accessible material on earth…but if the writing is stale, boring, bad, etc, then it’s not going to matter. People like good, interesting writing. I like good writing. So we are going to have to think about things like style and form. And I think you two are right that rather than always complaining about the Thomas Friedmans and Jared Diamonds of the world, maybe we should pay attention to what they are doing that WORKS. IMO, however, we should look beyond folks like Friedman and Diamond for inspiration about using writing as communication. There’s lots to learn from journalism, literature, etc.

    Thanks again.

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  9. Dr. Douglas Duncan says:

    You remind me why I read peer reviewed journals.
    Instead of criticizing people’s personality why don’t you discuss their ideas with some logic and some ideas of your own? If you disagree with a statement, discuss it and give a better idea.
    Or perhaps this website is for entertainment, rather than serious discussion?

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    • daniel.lende says:

      Way to put your own advice into action – with a discussion of ideas and some logic, rather than criticizing. Whoops! I also think you didn’t really read the post. We do present an analysis of Friedman’s approach and writing, and even turn some of the strengths of what he does back on anthropology.

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