Intellectual Appropriation, Attribution Of Credit & Privilege (UPDATED)
April 13, 2008
UPDATE: Feminist blog Feministing has pledged to do exactly the kind of reasonable investigation of prior work in an area of inquiry before posting on it that I have suggested is required by academic norms of scholarship:
We’re actually going to take this opportunity to pledge to do better. With every post we write, we’ll do a search to see if another feminist blogger has covered the issue.
This is a busy, high-traffic, blog with multiple posts per day, and they have decided that they can afford to devote the time and effort to this.
UPDATE 2: For more on this topic, see this new post.
There is a big huge fucking dust-up going on right now in the feminist blogosphere that involves accusations that Amanda Marcotte, a prominent white feminist blogger, appropriated without attribution ideas developed as a long-standing project of women-of-color (“WOC”) feminist scholars, activists, and bloggers, including most prominently in this dustup blogger BrownFemiPower (“BFP”). My point here is not to take sides in that dispute, and so I am not linking to the more polemical blog posts that relate to it. My reason for addressing the issue is that it reveals a really important self-regulating feature of traditional intellectual discourse in academia that I think bloggers could stand to learn a few things from.
What I intend to do here is to first address this issue of appropriation of ideas and attribution of credit in isolation from the unique overlay of privilege that has, for sure, made the Marcotte/BFP situation so heated. I’ll then say a few words about privilege, although not so much in the context of racial privilege among feminist scholars, activists, and bloggers, and more in the context of male privilege and the participation of men in arguments among feminists.
As a starting point for discussion, I’ll take this post by Holly at Feministe, as it lays out the outlines of the dispute, and the comments contain some really well-thought-out and eloquent shit that gets to the nub of how academics think about intellectual appropriation and attribution of credit. The comments also contain what to me smells like really distasteful male privileged shit that sheds some light by analogy on what I think has WOC feminist bloggers so fucking pissed off about what has happened. All quotes below are from the comments to Holly’s post.
First, a very schematic summary of the facts, as I understand them based on what other people have said about them. I have not investigated the facts independently, because my point is not to adjudicate or analyze the substance of the dispute, but rather to use the dispute itself as a context for making some general observations.
Marcotte recently published a post about immigration as a feminist issue. Some WOC bloggers were disturbed by the fact that she did not link to or otherwise cite what they considered to be a deep long-standing body of work in this area of analysis developed by WOC scholars, activists, and bloggers themselves, including as a prominent worker in this field BFP. There were apparently accusations of direct plaigiarism and intellectual appropriation of particular works by WOC scholars, activists, and bloggers, including blog posts and conference presentations.
Marcotte, not surprisingly feeling under attack, defended herself with an argument that provides the conceptual nub of what interests me so much about this dispute. Boiled down, her argument is that she never was exposed to the content that she is accused of appropriating, that she developed her ideas completely independently on her own, and therefore it it illegitimate to accuse her of any malfeasance of any kind.
In other words, Marcotte’s claim is that her ignorance of prior existing work in this area is a complete defense to claims of intellectual appropriation and failure of attribution, and completely absolves her of any responsibility to acknowledge the existence of any such prior existing work or its relationship to her own. In fact, she went so far as to assert in the comments to Holly’s post that would adopt a policy going forwards of “intentional ignorance” in order to absolve herself of having to deal with the possible existence of prior work in this area:
I make a point of linking anyone that I think made the argument I’m making and borrowing. I’ve linked BFP in the past, but won’t in the future, of course, because she’s not on my reading list anymore. After all, I don’t want to be accused of being unduly influenced by her, so best to play it safe by not reading her anymore.
Holly’s response to this comment brings us very close, but not all the way there yet, to the ethic of intellectual attribution in academia, and how Marcotte’s position is completely at odds with that ethic:
Too bad that doesn’t get you off the hook either. You could still be influenced — ideas are like horrible viruses these days, remember? If I tell you about a theory of Michel Foucault’s, even without mentioning his name, and then you go on and talk about this theory, even if you attribute me… you’ve still been influenced by Foucault. Someone could come along and say, uh you know that was Foucault’s idea, right? And then someone would send you a link and you’d be like… ohhhh they’re right. Damn that Holly. And at that point, quite honestly I think the thing to do would be to say, if asked, that yes Foucault published that idea first, or published that idea too, deserves credit for it, whatever.
So Holly is saying, and rightly so, that even if you haven’t read a particular work, you may nevertheless have been exposed to that work indirectly through other works or discussions, and thus still incur an obligation to address that work and its relationship to your own. As we will see, this is true, but doesn’t go far enough to encompass the true obligations of intellectual attribution in academia. To illustrate this, here is an anecdote from my own academic career.
My major scientific discovery as a post-doc was based on a very interdisciplinary methodological approach that I developed as a collaboration between the labs of two mentors, each an expert in one of two very distinct disciplines. And based on application of this novel methodology to a particular experimental system, we stumbled totally by fucking accident into a conceptual area that we immediately recognized as quite important.
Unfortunately, because of the novelty of this combination of two quite different disciplines and the fact that we were essentially just accidentally stumbling around, neither I nor either of my two mentor/collaborators were aware of work that had been done about 15 years earlier that, while methodologically quite different, actually provided an important conceptual and intellectual context for what we did.
Well, we published our work, and only found out about the prior related work when a scientist who was writing an analytical perspective piece about our paper called me on the phone to discuss his interpretations with me. During this discussion, he described to me the 15-year-old work that we had failed to cite in our own paper. I was horrified that we had missed this. (And yeah, the peer reviewers of our paper totally fucked up, too!)
My reaction was to immediately write a letter to the author of that older work, a senior figure in one of the subfields in which I operate, explaining the situation and apologizing for not citing it. He was very gracious, and we ended up becoming quite friendly. Later, he ended up writing me very favorable letters of recommendation for certain grant awards that I successfully obtained, as well as informally advocating for my career in significant ways.
One point of that anecdote is that, even though we were totally unaware of this earlier work, and weren’t even indirectly influenced by it in the way that Holly described since we literally just unintentionally stumbled into the area, we still had a clear unambiguous obligation to acknowledge that earlier work and its relationship to our own. Ignorance, absence or influence, and good intentions are simply not an excuse.
And this obligation to relate one’s work to existing work does not disappear once you publish. Academics have a continued obligation to rectify matters if an this obligation is not met, no matter how innocently. Janet Stemwedel, brilliant and cogent as always, makes this point very effectively:
The resistance to acknowledging another scientist’s work or contribution to the field once you’re aware of it is not tantamount to scientific misconduct, but it shows a lack of grace and a short-sightedness about what might contribute to a healthy scientific community.
Regardless of the merits of accusations of intentional or accidental plaigiarism or appropriation, and regardless of whether Marcotte was aware of or indirectly influenced by the work of WOC scholars, activists, or bloggers, if the standards applied in academia are to be applied to bloggers, then she is affirmatively obligated to explicitly acknowledge the existence of prior work and its relationship to her own when she becomes aware of it.
Furthermore, academics have an affirmative obligation to make a good faith effort to become aware of prior work that is possibly relevant to their own. Willful maintenance of ignorance is considered at best sloppy and at worst despicable. In my opinion, bloggers–to the extent that they wish to be considered legitimate contributors to intellectual discourse–also incur these two obligations.
So now, finally we can get to issues of privilege. When I, a punk-ass post-doc toiling in fucking obscurity, became aware of the fact that I had failed to become aware of and appropriately acknowledge the prior work of a well-recognized powerful scientist, I was fucking scared shitless. And I did everything I could to rectify the situation.
This is, of course, the exact opposite of the Marcotte/BFP situation, where it is someone with relative privilege who has failed to acknowledge the work of the relatively unprivileged. This is eloquently encapsulated by commenter Violet:
The thing that’s fucked up is that she did that without any reference to the work that is currently being done, nor to the bloggers and activists who are doing it… and nobody seemed to notice. She didn’t notice, Alternet didn’t notice, nobody in the admittedly-short chain said, “hey, maybe we should talk a little bit about the work and theory that’s being done in this area right now.”
They didn’t have to. They don’t have to worry about things like that. They have that privilege.
That’s what’s fucked up.
And all concerns about recognition and supporting a plurality of voices aside, it seems like the article would just be stronger for referencing real work being done by women right now.
Naked self-interest ensures that the unprivileged will do everything they can to make sure they don’t fail to appropriately acknowledge the work of the privileged. So what ensures that the privileged do what they can to appropriately acknowledge the work of the unprivileged? Well, nothing really, except for a desire that all voices get heard, a desire that the privileged and unprivileged work together towards a common enterprise, and the willingness of the privileged to take responsibility for their privileged position.
Holly expresses this very, very clearly:
It is the responsibility of people who have a wider audience, more legitimacy, more privilege (and despite what Hugo said upthread, I’m afraid privilege is not imaginary) to hear and address the concerns and grievances and accusations of people with less. Until we live in a truly equal society, some of us are going to have to deal with that. While people’s lives are still being bulldozed by racism, some of those things you have to hear are going to be angry — very angry. I don’t think that legitimizes any and everything that might be said, there are definitely lines that get crossed that make communication harder, inflict hurt, are unproductive except for venting. But still — I think that’s the point of view it’s vital to listen from.
OK. One final point about male privilege and the role of men vis a vis feminism. This partial excerpt of a comment to Holly’s post was written by a dude named Hugo:
I write all this not to distract from the conversation at hand. The point is, the meta-conversation between white feminists and RWOC bloggers (acknowledging that those categories create a bit of a false dichotomy) has produced a lot of pain — and a lot of growth — for a lot of us this past year. That conversation works best, however, when we move away from the personal attacks of the sort that have been thrown, primarily in one direction, this week.
I am not a woman, so there is, of course, no way for me to know how women would react to this kind of comment by a dude. But this made my jaw almost hit the floor. I sort of imagine that if I were a woman, my reaction would be “Us!? What the fuck are you talking about, dude!?” And it kind of surprises me that in the comments to Holly’s post, no one said, “Yo, dude. This particular argument is about and between women; mind your own fucking business.”
I have always assumed that women would find it really fucking annoying if I were to ever tell them what is feminist or not, or to use the pronouns “us” and “we” in reference to feminists. And I certainly never refer to myself as a feminist, as I don’t think it is for me to say if I am a feminist or not; it is for women to judge.
What I do is try to treat women like human beings, and tell other men what I think they can do to try to treat women like human beings. You gotta be fucking nuts to wade the fuck in there as a man and start taking sides in an argument between a white female blogger and WOC bloggers over how to further their respective common and distinct goals. Seriously.
I get that I am viewing Hugo’s remark as a privileged male, so I could be missing something important. Am I getting this wrong?