August 18, 2005

Reading(s) in the social sciences

From Des von Bladet, two (implicitly) related items. First, a link to a story at BBC News telling us that

Former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham has admitted she has never read a book in her life - despite having apparently written her own 528-page autobiography.

and then a quote from the introduction to the 165-page Routledge textbook Knowledge and the social sciences: theory, method, practice:

When it snows I just see snow. If I think hard about it I might see sleet. But an Inuit living in Northern Canada. whose language includes over a dozen words for snow, will see a much more nuanced snowstorm than I ever can.

Des explains:

The claim is utterly false, of course. (See the title essay of G. Pullum's The Great Eskimow Vocabulary Hoax for an entertaining discussion, or his remarks here.)

Also, the Inuit are the Greenlandic bunch and the Canananadians aren't keen on the name; their habitat is technically an Arctic desert, so they don't get as much snö as all that, and the "than I ever can" is just plain icky - learn, you couldn't?

But most exasperating of all is that this necessarily unsourced factoid stars in the introduction to the block on "knowledge and knowing" where we get to be all epistemological for once. It'll star in my essay, too, I think.

With an appropriate modification of Des' jokey spelling, you can find Geoff's book here.

The second (and most recent) edition of the Routledge text, published in 2000, can be searched at, and the quote Des cites is really there. A bit of the prior context:

Three key elements of the social construction of knowledge are explored in this book

  • the role of language and discourse
  • the role of institutions
  • the role of different types of social power

Language is a social phenomenon and no description or explanation of the world can be created without recourse to it. But the language we inherit shapes what it is we see in the world and what we cannot see, what we know and what we cannot know.

And then on to the subtle cognitions of the frozen north. Some of what comes next:

Institutions are equally important in shaping the content and standing of knowledge systems. At one extreme, the dominance and public legitimacy of knowledge systems has been backed up and underscored by the use of force, terror and censorship. But even in the context of more diverse, open and plural societies, institutions exert powerful effects.

And then:

Which brings us to power. The production, dissemination and legitimization of knowledge requires access to and use of resources economic, political and cultural and, as the examples above suggest, these resources are rarely equally distributed.

The author of this introduction is David Goldblatt. I wonder if the stuff about Institutions and Power in this textbook is any better researched than the stuff about Language seems to be. Des, who is apparently reading the book, may tell us. It's certainly a lot easier to write a textbook if you can just kind of make up stuff that sounds plausible.

Posh Spice is straightforward about her scholarship:

The 31-year-old wife of England captain David Beckham told a Spanish magazine she does not have time to read.

I wish that academics who make things up about language were equally forthright.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 18, 2005 10:40 AM