Social Fringe Workshop – Day Three

Someone (i.e. me) went out drinking for six hours last night, but that’s okay, it was academic drinking. Academic drinking can be heavy (and in this case it was) but its work-related: when academics talk shop over drinks it takes a long time (in part because the drinking encourages long rambling sidebars which may or may not be relevant to the conversation at hand). So, today might be hard, because, well, I’ve only had four and an half hours sleep and I might still be drunk (I suspect this because I don’t, yet, have a hangover).

I will skip over Mark Woodward’s presentation, in part because I don’t really have anything interesting to say about. This is no reflection on the material; I just don’t have any comment. Instead, let me move on to the whole “Working Group” thing and what I ended up thinking about the process of the workshop in general.

I went to Kuching with brave doubts about not just my utility in such an environment but also questions as to whether anything useful would come out of the experience for any of us. I can say that, now, I was too pessimistic going on: there were some interesting proposals that were put forward in the final session and I can see just how useful a philosopher can be.

That being said (famous last words), there were issues.

  1. We never really defined what a “social fringe” is, which meant that we did an awful lot of talking at cross-purposes.
  2. Each day we had a working group, which ran for two hours, and then we had to produce a presentation about what we had talked about and worked on. These working groups were fairly structured, in that we were told broadly what we should talk about and how we should report back. The problem was that after each report we would have a round of questioning. This, I think, was a bad idea. Normally, when you give a presentation, you are talking about a subject you have worked on for a considerable amount of time; questions are suitable after such a presentation because you should be somewhat wedded to the content and able to work with your interlocuters. However, when what you are presenting is something that you only came up with an hour ago and may not be something you are particularly enamoured with (or can even claim ownership over), academic-style questions really seem like a very bad idea. I think a roundtable discussion after all the working groups had reported back would have been a better way to do things.
  3. Once we were put into our working groups, that was it, really, when it came to cross-pollinisation of ideas. Whilst there was some mixing and matching on the last day and people did have the opportunity to talk over lunch and drinks, I think something, like a daily roundtable discussion could have been done to encourage more interaction between delegates.

My working group was the “Commitment and Sustainment” group. We had several social pyschologists, some area experts from the Middle-East and Indonesia and me, the philosopher. On the first day I was all about trying to get some decent definitions of key terms in play, whilst on the second day I showed off my historical literacy. The third day I emphasised just how useful a good taxonomy would be for allowing us to move from talk of specific cases to a more general theory. In each case, I had some, but not much, sway over proceedings. This was to be expected; I was very much the junior academic in the room and also the person who doesn’t usually get his hands dirty with empirical data. Still, I was disheartened to some extent by how little interest some of the participants had in what I take to be core analytical problems; decent definitions that take into account interesting border cases and well thought out taxonomies really are some of the most useful things a person like me can bring to the table.

Now, I’m not saying I wasn’t heard and I’m also not saying that people were ignoring spectacular arguments on my part; I did contribute and some of my ideas did have traction. All I saying is that in a philosophical working environment these ideas would have been central (and possibly never answered satisfactorily) while at the working group they were not considered to be paramount.

It turns out that the rumours are right; philosophers are not treated like gods by other academics.

I’m not going to say anything about what we produced for the time being. I’m currently a little sleep-deprived and in transit. When I get back to Auckland and can do a little decompressing, perhaps I’ll be in the right state of mind to talk shop one last time.

About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.