Infernal Machine   /   September 22, 2014

Cultural Critics vs. Social Scientists—They Both Stink

Andrew Piper

The past few weeks have seen some heady attempts at generalization: first Sam Tanenhaus’s piece on “Generation Nice” and then A.O. Scott on the “Death of Adulthood.” (Potential correlation there?)

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The subsequent critiques of both were withering. Tanenhaus’s article proved to be laden with errors, resulting in hilarious retractions by the Times editorial staff. In response to the proof of the millennials' niceness, the editors wrote:

An article last Sunday about the millennial generation’s civic-mindedness included several errors.... Applications to the Peace Corps recently have been in decline with a 34 percent decrease from the peak in 2009, and applications to Teach for America decreased slightly last year; neither organization has seen "record numbers of new college graduates" applying for jobs.

Well done. And the unredacted rest apparently relied on citations of studies that cited studies that cited…an ad agency?!

As for Scott (one of Q&C's favorite film critics), his reflections on adulthood's imminent, if not already occurring, death come from having watched a lot of TV. "Something profound has been happening in our television over the past decade," Scott announces with a foreboding sense of doom (it's gotten worse?). And then, in an alliterative jingle that would make even the best nineteenth-century speech writer wriggle, "It is the era not just of mad men, but also of sad men and, above all, bad men."

So there you have it: A few shows (Mad Men, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad) have chronicled the decline of white patriarchy, which is a good stand-in for the decline of adulthood, which in turn is a good stand-in for a major shift in "American Culture." Imagining that all of adulthood, and masculinity in particular (Scott’s real aim), was coming to an end because of a few televisual-fantasies of bad dads like Don Draper ignored, as David Marcus pointed out, a whole lot of other stuff on TV that most people actually watch, like, say, football (or NCIS or NCIS: LA). Masculinity is doing just fine there (by which I mean on display, not as in, oh-so-admirable).

One would think at this point the answer is Big Data to the rescue. Instead of making whopping generalizations based on a few selective examples, turning culture into data can give us a much better view of the “big picture” (preferably as a picture: through that most ubiquitous of contemporary genres, the infographic). If we look broadly, what is "television" telling us and how would we segment it into different groups, for surely it is not telling all of us the same thing?

The problem is, as Marcus pointed out, it’s not as though the social scientists who traffic in cultural data mining have done much better. Turning culture into data is not a seamless process, nor is its interpretation. While we all know this, we seem unable to heed this advice given the opportunity for a juicy headline—in other words, given the chance to tell a story. Narrative trumps reason in fascinating ways.

The point is not, oh forget it, let’s just let Tanenhaus make it up after all. A good story is a good story and you can't count culture anyway. The point is we need a lot more work on the work of translating culture into data before we go ahead and start calculating and interpreting. What would be a representative sample of “TV” or “pop-culture”? How would you measure depictions of adulthood or "masculinity" (either as positively or negatively coded)? What is your control set, i.e., what are you comparing this against? And so on.

The real answer is we need to think more about the process of cultural modeling. How do we model a cultural subset through a data set (a generation, for example, or contemporary television), and how do we model a cultural practice or concept through a particular measurement? These aren’t easy questions, but they are the prerequisite for correcting against journalistic just-so stories of cultural criticism.

This is the time for the humanists to jump into the fray, not to put our heads in the sand and say, "You can't count that!"  The challenge is to think of counting culture in more sophisticated ways and so avoid the mythologizing that passes as cultural criticism these days.