The aggregate

  • Posted on: 6 March 2018
  • By: benfell

While political dysfunction has soared under supposedly, but not really, unified Republican control of the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government, the economy is widely reported to be doing well, thanks, allegedly, to the cautious policies of the previous administration. We are repeatedly told that inflation is low, perhaps too low, and that the economy has reached "full employment," which doesn't mean zero percent unemployment, because there is normal economic churn as the forces of capitalist "creative destruction" play out, reallocating resources to more productive use, meaning that people still change jobs, compamies still go out of business, and new companies come into being.

And yet we know this is an incomplete picture. Homelessness is soaring as workers crowd the cities, driving up rents and displacing people from neighborhoods where they have lived for decades or generations. Poverty persists. If the economy is in fact doing so well, why is this so?

The picture I obtained as I went through school is also incomplete. The world is divided between 'colonizers' and 'colonized,' the former consisting of political, economic, military, and religious elites, and the latter of pretty much everyone else.1 Positivism ("scientific method") is an instrument of their control and the social sciences were initially developed under the auspices of colonizers to better under understand how to keep the colonized in line,2 but it was never explained how.

I think the answer lies in a word uttered by a man I despise and hate to give any credit to whatsoever.

I had just started my Masters program when the simmering tensions between mass communication and speech communication scholars came to a head in my department at California State University, East Bay. The department launched a national search for a new chair and settled on Isaac Catt, who came in, revamped the curriculum, pushed most of the old faculty out, and brought in new faculty. Which I guess is one way of settling a dispute: Kill everyone.

Catt, who called himself a human scientist, pushed the department in a strongly post-modernist direction. I was convinced he was a fraud.

Relying on impenetrable post-modernist readings in his classes that I still cannot penetrate, Catt claimed that "if the reading isn't hard, you aren't learning anything." And then, when "you" didn't understand, he berated you for not having done the reading. Hence my understanding of intellectual bullying, a term I later came to learn is an actual term used to describe pretty much what I experienced.

By blaming the students, he innoculated himself from ever having to explain anything. Which could mean he didn't even understand it himself. Which is why I thought he was a fraud.

But his attitude toward positivism could be summed up in his disdain for the 'aggregate,' that is, quantitative results derived through statistical methods.

I had to acknowledge a point here. As I was taking methods classes, I was learning that as I evaluated research, I was supposed to critique methods. But I'm not a statistician. Indeed, the two statistics classes I took ran up against my absolute mathematical inability, an inability that was a major factor leading to the end of my efforts to pursue a computer science degree in the 1980s. But if I'm to critique quantitative methods, that means I need to critique statistical methods. Which means I have to be a statistician.

Don't worry about it, said my first methods professor, Valerie Sue. Assume, she told my class, that the peer review process has made sure that part is right. But as I was going through all this, including the two statistics classes, and looking at SPSS, the "statistical package for the social sciences," and noticing that throughout all of this there were so many forms of statistical analysis, that I couldn't tell one from the other, that I was suspiciously thinking of teenaged boys fooling around with the automobile engines (have I dated myself here?), trying this carburetor or that (have I dated myself again?), this muffler or that, trying to obtain a desired improved performance. As a scholar, I worried that methods were being tailored to obtain results.

Just as another of the new faculty, Grant Kien, was suggesting that we needed to explain our results according to theory. Which is to say that theory no longer follows from results, but rather results are tailored to fit theory. An ontological idea, as any good conservative will tell you,3 is superior to our experience.

Just as the economic aggregate—low inflation and so-called "full employment"—is superior to the experience of all those homeless and poor folks. The aggregate, which doesn't actually represent real people, according to Catt, but rather a statistical result, masks widening social inequality and thus functions to rationalize policies that promote inequality. Hence the colonial utility of positivism.

I outlasted Catt in my Masters program. Initially, we heard that he would be leaving at the end of fall quarter. Then he left in the middle of the term. I was teaching public speaking by then; at a faculty meeting we learned that the curriculum changes he had instituted had never been ratified by the Faculty Senate and were, in the words of my then-favorite professor, Robert Terrell, "dead on arrival at the dean's office." I still don't really know if he was indeed a fraud. But I think he was right about the aggregate.

  • 1. I here add the military from C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1956; repr., New York: Oxford University, 2000) to an agglomeration of political, economic, and religious elites seen throughout Denzin, Norman K., Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds. Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008. Mills identified the "power elite" as being composed of  political bureaucrats, corporate leaders, and military leaders.
  • 2. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, "Introduction: The Discipline and Practice of Qualitative Research," in Strategies of Qualitative Inquiry, eds. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2003), 1-45.
  • 3. David Benfell, "Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration" (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).