My View from South Hill
Friday, June 10, 2011
Last week I went to a retirement party for Cornell University’s Sidney Tarrow, one of the world’s leading scholars in the study of social movements, a field in which I used to work. The “retirement party” was more of a two day research conference at which leading scholars discussed their recent work while offering comments on how Tarrow has shaped the field and inspired them personally. Academics celebrate the life and work of their colleagues upon retirement really well, which is a bit ironic because we tend not to be terribly kind to each other during our working years.
In this case, participants came from around the country as well as from Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Canada, South Korea, and Australia. They presented research in areas that have been shaped by Tarrow’s lifetime of work, particularly on the phenomenon of waves or cycles of protest. Some of the presentations examined why movements accelerate and then decelerate with such rapidity. Others considered the international diffusion of protest, such as the recent and on-going struggles against authoritarian rule in the Middle East and North Africa. One of Sid’s contributions to the field was to find commonalities in the dynamics of protest in different parts of the world, under different types of governments and using radically different methods of contention. Accordingly, cases examined at this conference in his honor ranged from armed conflict for regime change to peaceful protest within democracies aimed at changing specific laws.
Though most of the conference was given over to research presentations, one panel at the end of the first day focused on Tarrow himself. The discussants included one of Sid’s former professors (Joe LaPalombara of Yale University), one of his former students (Sarah Soule, now at Stanford), one of his research collaborators (David Meyer of the University of California at Irvine), and one of his current colleagues at Cornell (Ken Roberts). Despite their different relationships to Tarrow, and despite the fact that their anecdotes ranged in time from the 1950s to last semester, there emerged a consistent picture of Sid’s commitment to collaboration for the advancement of knowledge. Sid’s collaborators – and he insisted on viewing first year graduate students and distinguished full professors as his collaborators – were drawn into an informal network that he put great energy into creating and maintaining. Sid befriended everyone working in the field, and being his friend meant sharing ideas and draft papers for review and comment by him and others in the network. The list of people who have been Sid’s co-authors is extensive, but several participants noted that his willingness – insistence really – to offer critiques of everything he read made him an unacknowledged co-author of a significant fraction of work in the field.
Sid Tarrow lives in Karl Popper’s ideal world of how reliable knowledge is developed. Popper believed that science advances by cultivating the widest possible proliferation of ideas and theories, and then ruthlessly testing each one to see whether they adequately account for observed reality. In Popper’s philosophy, all untested ideas are equal -- whether they come from an acknowledged expert in the field, someone new to the discipline, or someone completely outside of it. Tarrow shows us how that philosophy can be made to work in practice: network with everyone working in the field, show them your work and ask to see theirs, and then engage in a thoughtful dialog by email when necessary and by grant-supported conferences whenever possible. There is in this approach scant room for professional rivalries or for judging people by the prestige of the university they are associated with. It is instead all about the work.
Listening to Tarrow’s colleagues and collaborators, I was reminded of the fundamental nobility of the academic profession when properly pursued. Tarrow created (and though now retired has no intention of ceasing to create) a learning community in its purest form. Scholars in Tarrow’s orbit – including Sid himself – work better and faster because they are exposed to a wide range of ideas and research methods and because they can find out more quickly which ideas prove to be dead ends.
Of course there is also competition among those in Tarrow’s network. All scholars seek to advance their careers and reputations through the research they do. But embedded in the network is a recognition that collaboration enables everyone to do their best work. What would happen if other segments of society were also structured around a competiveness that is more substantially leavened by collaboration and mutual support?
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