Are You an Intellectual, or a Member of the Intelligentsia?

In some ways, it’s easier than ever before to be an expert in something – YouTube can teach you almost anything you want to know. At the same time though, it’s not the best time in history to purport to be an expert, either. And in a ‘post-fact era’, where politicians can make statements like “People have had enough of experts” and have an audience applaud the remark with enthusiasm, those of us who aspire to become experts are being held to higher account than ever before.

In some ways, that’s not a bad thing. I am all for an academy that is accountable to the people, and I think that the public has a right to be made aware of all of the ways in which they benefit from the academy. We’re not always very good at that communication thing, somewhat ironically.

Battening down the hatches…

But one of the unintended consequences, I believe, of this increased public scorn for academia, is a battening down of the proverbial hatches across the academy. The more ‘the public’ decries experts as fraudulent, time-wasting, money-squandering elites, the more academics hunker down behind their disciplines, seeking safety within the heavily patrolled borders of their intellectual paradigms.

From a psychological perspective, this makes sense. According to a recent study at the University of Southern California, when our strongest beliefs, the beliefs really fundamental to our identities, are challenged, the brain perceives this as a threat and responds by sticking even more firmly to those beliefs. So when as academics we hear people saying, for example, that anthropology is a waste of time, or that the STEM subjects are a waste of taxpayer dollars, our brains would naturally respond by making us cling to our disciplinary mores more tightly than ever.

The problem with this, as I see it, is that interdisciplinarity is a critical element of a healthy academy. There’s plenty of commentary about why silos in academia aren’t efficient or effective when it comes to solving the world’s ‘wicked’ problems – if the problems are messy, how can we expect a solution to be singular or simple? Why wouldn’t we work together, and pool our intellectual resources?

Intellectuals vs the Intelligentsia

Anthropologist Ulf Hannerz pondered this in his book “Cultural Complexity: Studies in the Social Organization of Meaning”, way back in 1992, before the current climate of distrust in experts really hit. Hannerz lays out what he (and others upon whom he draws) see as the difference between the intelligentsia, who are discipline experts, and intellectuals, who are the critical thinkers who transcend disciplinary bounds. The intelligentsia solve problems within the paradigm in which they have been trained. Intellectuals also aim to solve problems by processing ideas and meanings, but are more likely to draw from multiple disciplines, or perhaps none. Hannerz describes the role of the intellectual as follows:

It is the business of intellectuals to carry on traffic between different levels and fields of meaning within a culture, to translate between abstract and concrete, to make the implicit explicit and the certain questionable, to move ideas between levels of consciousness, to connect ideas which superficially have little in common, to juxtapose ideas which usually thrive on separateness, to seize on inconsistency, and to establish channels between different modes of giving meanings external shape.

Hannerz, 1992, p. 140

So that sounds like a pretty important role to me; at least as important as the role Hannerz describes for the intelligentsia, which is to commit to a single line of inquiry and pursue it dogmatically, ‘thus rolling back the frontiers of the unknown’.  But Hannerz also points out that society values the role of the intellectual less, which means that it is harder for an intellectual, compared to a disciple of the intelligentsia, to earn a degree. And the problem with that is, in many modern societies, a degree is a marker of competence – indeed, without at least a bachelor degree, it’s difficult to even make a living wage, never mind having people listen to your ideas about the meaning of things and actions in the world we inhabit.

It’s a paradox, really. On the one hand, people have had enough of ‘experts’. On the other, you have to get credentialed in order to just make enough money to survive.

A zombie idea that just won’t die…

I’m an intellectual, if I’m anything. I know I’m not a member of the intelligentsia, because I can’t help myself – I’m constantly running off after a new idea from yet another discipline. I’m currently reading a pop-psychology page turner called “Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain” (Verstynen & Voytek 2014). It’s kind of the perfect book for me, because I love zombie fiction, and I love neuroscience – I find both the hunger for brains and the study of the human brain fascinating.

I always thought I was interested in the human brain because I find people fascinating – it’s one of the reasons I have chosen to do a PhD in anthropology, and why as a young person (back in the day) I entered the fields of drama, education and later communication.

It had never occurred to me that there was any conflict to being interested in all these disciplines, which to me seemed inexplicably linked. I just like analysing people, and people’s thoughts, and their motivations for why they do things, and their relationships with others, and the human condition more generally, from lots of different angles. That’s alright, isn’t it? I always thought so.

But these days, I’m regularly informed that I was wrong. No, not just wrong. Naive. Actually, not just naive.


And I really think that the reason people chastise me for this ‘lack of focus’ is because of these attacks on experts, and this battening down of the hatches between the disciplines. I don’t think we are inherently this siloed. I certainly don’t think we need to be.

Seems to me that anthropology has a broad scope for interdisciplinarity anyway – it can be used to study anything even vaguely related to humans (and hello, anthropocene… isn’t everything now related to humans? #justsayin) – and that’s how we end up with all these sub-disciplines – neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, organisational or corporate anthropology for that matter (which is what I actually do do). I was chatting to the lovely Julia Brown, herself a medical anthropologist (and of course co-convenor of this public anthropology project), about this the other day, and she described it like this: “These sub-disciplines are increasingly gaining momentum even beyond academia, because they simply activate the links between disciplines that are otherwise tacit.”

Yeah! What she said!

So what about you, is your work interdisciplinary? Have you been wandering blindly across invisible borders in academia? Or can you make the argument for the importance of discipline border patrol? I know it’s a contentious debate – we’d love to hear from you in the comments, either way.

[Image by © Jorge Royan /]

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