Why I believe it's time to devise new ways of categorising modern scholars

August 15, 2003

None of the schemes traditionally used to divide up scholars makes sense. The borders between cognate disciplines have dissolved, the divide between the "two cultures" collapsed and hybrid fields routinely draw together humanists and social scientists (think urban studies), social scientists and natural scientists (think environmental studies) and such odd mixtures as classicists, biologists and psychologists (think sexuality studies).

There is nothing original about pointing out that ours is an era of blurred genres, but the outdated categories persist. Our epistemologies, methodologies and relationships to disciplines draw us to some colleagues but not others, yet we have had no easy way to describe these affinities - until now. I have come up with one based on the differences between provers and persuaders, nesters and nomads, and loyalists and loose cannons.

The contrast between provers and persuaders relates to epistemology. Put bluntly, some academics think they can demonstrate things conclusively (they present "findings"), others assume they can offer only convincing interpretations ("arguments"). This might seem like an updating of the humanist/scientist divide, but it isn't. History is generally thought a humanistic pursuit, but some historians are provers. And some scientific fields, such as cosmology, have persuaders.

The divide is not absolute: a spectrum runs from pure provers (concerned solely with establishing things conclusively) and postmodern persuaders (who insist everything is up for grabs). A sociologist colleague recently told me he is convinced both that all he can hope to do is to provide convincing interpretations and that his arguments can be disproved. I said he's a persuader, just one not that different from a prover who likes to establish things conclusively, yet admits that much can't be proved.

Next come nesters and nomads. The former feel they can bring together everything they need in a confined space, while the latter need to roam.

Once again, no discipline has a monopoly on either type. The physically fixed nature of labs makes scientists seem quintessential nesters, but I immediately thought of Stephen Jay Gould.

To judge whether a scholar is a nester or nomad, tell them firefighters want advice on what to save in a library fire. Nesters will find this easy.

Nomads will not: economists, for example, will recall gaining insights from books on literature or architecture housed far from the social science section.

My third binary is about relationships to fields. A pure loyalist cannot imagine taking a post in a new discipline, while a loose cannon can. And when interdisciplinary fields they care about move in worrisome directions, the thoughts of loyalists turn towards reform, while loose cannons turn to escape.

What good is my scheme? Contrasting sorts of scholars will answer this differently. For example, as my racquetball partner (not a persuader) pointed out, pure provers will object that my claims cannot be supported by solid evidence. However, I see a payoff to the widespread adoption of my scheme.

Namely, it would help to do what a visiting Italian scholar encouraged a colleague and me to do when we expressed vague disgruntlement with our academic lives: form a salon. These were great things, she said, and her stay in Bloomington, Indiana, had convinced her we had the makings for a good one. All we needed was to bring together a group of scholars from different fields.

The idea appealed, but I had no idea how to proceed. If my categories gained acceptance, though, I could run a personal ad: "HoC (historian of China), who is nomadic and a devout persuader (though sure some things exist), looking for colleagues with similar inclinations. Loose cannons especially encouraged to apply."

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is professor of history and the director of the East Asian Studies Center at Indiana University

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