Notes on: Denzin, N. (2000) Ethics in the Academy. International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 13(4) 673--81

Dave Harris

[This is actually a review of a book charting the relationships between Gerth and Mills as they produced their famous collaborative publications. Denzin bumps into real academic micropolitics which he deplores, provides a dark side to collaborative writing, uses Goffmanian terms to describe stances, and proposes anaive utopian solution. These are the bits these notes emphasise]

This is a 'painful story' of the 'conflicted, strained, at times deceitful relationship between Hans Gerth and C Wright Mills' (673). The book offers an initial Weberian model of academic careers, reputations, collaboration and ethics, where institutionalised science selects people for career paths, requiring a balance between personal ambition which raises doubts about honesty, and diffidence. However, it is sometimes possible to violate these ethics as in this case.

The letters exchanged between Gerth and Mills 'revealed a backstage, private side of their academic relationship'. The two famous books they produced 'present another version of these textual selves' and there is also a mythic Gerth and Mills as intellectual heroes [Denzin himself once saw Mills like that]  The public and mythic personas are seriously challenged by the book, for example Mills was 'quite manipulative in his relationship with Gerth'. The analysis provides 'a close reading of the institutional, moral, and interactional practices that shaped academic conduct in one historical moment', in revealing how members of 'sociology's emerging power elite did collaborative scholarly work'.

Themes in the 'sociology and cultural intellectual life' include: 'the place of power knowledge in… collaborative relationships; the dynamics of collaboration, including competition over credit and… precedence…; the use of collaboration as a vehicle of self-promotion; the place of deceit and concealment in the production of academic reputations; the importance for academic careers of third parties, such as publishers, editors, and influential colleagues'. The book pursues 'a grounded theory analysis of the archives'

Overall we see that 'an ethic of academic career management turns on a set of dramaturgical practices that specify acceptable goals, interactional practices, and ways of concealing information and intentionality'. Academic ethics might be based on idealism or complete cynicism. There were differences between Gerth and Mills, and 'each felt that certain goals justified certain means'. Both pursued self-interest and 'engaged in practices of deception and concealment. Each used powerful colleagues and associates to obtain desired goals. In more than one instance, they collaborated on tactics to manipulate colleagues, editors, and publishers' (675)

[details follow]. Gerth was the translator, but he needed help in editing and correcting his translations. Mills was the one who targeted publishers and submitted manuscripts both to the publishers and key academics including Merton and Shils: Shils later objected that his own translation of Weber had been plagiarised. They illegally held contracts with two publishers at once. They both worried about the impact on their careers. Mills seem particularly contemptuous of critics including Shils: '"who the hell does he think he is anyway? We both taken enough shit off little people not to be fucked out of something that is ours by pseudo-monopolists"' (677). They later quarrelled about how to be depicted as authors, and fell out — e.g. Gerth threatened to expose Mills as an impostor (678). Gerth had 'enormous intellectual capital' while Mills had 'considerable social capital' in the form of reputation and connections. The example shows how 'the ethics and pragmatics of science (and the academic life) are complexly intertwined' and can be 'incompatible' (679). Both Gerth and Mills 'deceived the editors' in various publishers companies and 'operated "below the surface of official ethical rules governing conduct in academia and academic publishing"'. In co-authorship, academics can 'receive credit for work they did not do' despite the practice that the order of names reflects the person who does the most work: 'this ethic is often violated'. It is even possible that fraud was involved — 'or is the absence of fraud merely a dramaturgical illusion'?' Success 'in the Academy works back and forth between opportunism and truthfulness, or at least the illusion of truthfulness' (680). 'Collaboration is a site where class, status, power, gender, and race intersect. This is a place where self-promotion can occur'. Academic publications become commodities circulating within a 'capitalistic economy' which 'allocates rewards, status and prestige to successful players… Ethical norms... can be manipulated, based as they are, on secrecy, deception, and illusion.

The traditional ethical practices of the Academy 'worked against women and persons of colour', and required conformity to its norms — 'publication thus functions as the measure of successful assimilation'. The ethical scheme 'is based on an individualistic, rational, utilitarian calculus… embedded in codes of ethics, which are administered by institutional review boards'. They're supposed to protect human subjects and seek out fraud in fabrication, although they say little about relationships between faculty and students and are 'primarily silent on collaboration' except that recognition is still measured in terms of 'the individualistic, utilitarian model' with the consequence that there is 'the potential of introducing conflict and competition into the collaborative relationship'. For utilitarianism there can be 'no communal or collective publications', none which 'refuse to name specific authors', none which embrace 'communitarian, feminist, or multiracial, postcolonial perspectives' (681). We can only 'imagine a version of the Academy where things are done differently. And in that utopia collaboration would be a different thing'.

As it is academic heroes are usually tarnished — Sartre, Heidegger. We also need to ask 'where is the author?'. Is there [a nice] one outside the text — but 'nobody stands outside the text. We only know these men through the words they wrote' [not quite the same point] and when we reread the texts we can come across other meanings.

'This is a valuable reading, for it takes us into the backstage regions of the Academy; it shows us just how ugly things can be. And this is sad'.

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