Trump and the academic and policy bubble

10 Nov

The pollsters got it very wrong. So did the experts. But then the experts and pollsters have been getting it wrong for some time. British general election: wrong! Brexit referendum: wrong! Colombian peace accord referendum: wrong! Trump defied the conventional wisdom while the pundits and pollsters were trapped in a conventional wisdom paradigm.

All of this reminded me of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. I was fairly confident that the result would be 45 percent for and 55 percent against. For once I was right (believe me – a rare occurrence). I used very unconventional polling methods and gut instinct. As a resident in Scotland, I used the revolutionary technique of talking to people on the morning dog walk, in the queue at the post office, and on trains. I also looked around me: at the screaming headlines on the newspapers as I walked into the supermarket, at the particular newspapers people were reading on the trains, and what the land owning families in my locality were doing to mobilise the locals. At this point, social scientists will be rolling their eyes and imagining me making predictions on the basis of various ingredients I throw into a cauldron. But that eye-rolling, and the dismissal of anecdotal and non-conventional evidence, is the point of this blog.

Social scientists and those in the policy and journalistic bubbles often convince themselves that they have their finger on the pulse of society. I am not sure that many of them do – simply because they do not live in the societies they claim to understand. Take, for example, most UK academics in the fields of politics and IR. Newspapers of choice: the Guardian and Financial Times. Radio station of Choice: BBC Radio 4 (or 6 Music). Favourite bands: too-cool-for-school specialist stuff. I could go on. The key point is that they tend not to listen to local radio stations, read local newspapers, live in the areas where they grew up, have deep family networks in the locality they live and work.

Not only do these social scientists (and I suspect the same is true for many in the worlds of commentary, journalism and policy-making) live lives far removed from general society, but they are deep denial about this. I had a conversation with some very lovely Manchester colleagues recently about the fact that academics tend to be removed from the society around them. The conversation did not go well. Every time I made this point I was met with howls of denial. ‘Oh, but the guy in the building next to me voted UKIP, so I really do have my finger on the pulse’ or ‘My plumber, you know, I really like him, but he reads The Sun and we talk about politics all the time’. Every time I made the point that academics are removed from the real world the protestations from my tri-lingual, cappuccino-drinking, yoga and yeast-free obsessed colleagues grew more ridiculous.

The key point is that academics and ‘experts’ lack the humility to take an honest look at themselves and their removal from (UK cultural references coming up) the Greggs-eating, Foxy bingo enjoying, payday loan society that is out there. Wonga, anyone? Academics who write about sensitive and ethnographically-inspired research overseas somehow forget that they are incredibly removed from the societies they physically live in but culturally avoid.

It is this interest in the anecdotal, and its evidential value, that made me pursue the notion of Everyday Peace Indicators. The project, which community-sources indicators of peace, security and change in localities in post-conflict societies has faced enormous difficulty in that the policy world cannot take seriously data that it deems to be anecdotal, too local or non-generalisible. The project has to work very hard to say that its data (expressed in a local vernacular) must be taken seriously by policy elites. From our research we know that people live in very local worlds, and make decisions and hold beliefs on the basis of anecdotes and everyday observation. They tend not to live the privileged lives of pollsters, academics and policy-makers. We have made ourselves into space aliens (who failed to predict that Trump would do it). That means that we really need to take a good look at ourselves, our disciplines and all those methodological conventional wisdoms that we foist upon our students.

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5 Responses to “Trump and the academic and policy bubble”

  1. Emily 10/11/2016 at 8:53 am #

    I agree and social media reinforces our silos in many ways, as we can surround ourselves with those with whom we agree and not-friend those we don’t. I also think Facebook (purposely built into the logarithm) shoehorns us into our siloed bubbles as well as it funnels you to see the postings of those you comment on the most– and that becomes a self-reinforcing cycle.

    I think these elections would be worth studying for the assumptions built in to the methods. I read an interesting account of how the only poll that was right (LA times I think) weighted things differently than others. The others discounted those who had not voted before in the previous election in their polling while LA times gave those extra weight with the assumption that voters who hadn’t voted in 2012 could be a demographic that would come out of the woodwork to vote for Trump.

    Likewise assumptions are made that people will tell pollsters the truth about who they might vote for. Given the national media narrative that anyone who is Trump supporter is a hater, surprise surprise anyone who didn’t conflate the two and would vote for him, probably didn’t feel so safe to say it out loud– a silent majority. So, another interesting thing to examine is how is the liberal narrative is obscuring the real concerns those individuals have about their everyday lives and missing the point by portraying them all as racist ignorant white trash.

    I think this is an election about class and education–about who counts, whose knowledge counts and is important, about those who feel left behind more so than anything else.

  2. Diane 10/11/2016 at 3:18 pm #

    Hi Roger, it resonates with me. Since June 24th, I’ve been thinking, maybe it’s time for the ‘ethnographically-inspired’ researchers to come/return to the global north, use their development/peace building lens, to see what’s wrong here. We are so removed from these ‘other’ locals that it’s as if we are existing in different countries. My British colleagues and I (and I spent most of my life in another city arguably in the global south) will have no problem agreeing on Remain and no Trump, but we have difficulty really understanding what’s going on in the lives and heads of those living in other parts of England. Forces of globalization pulling different peoples together but also others apart…

  3. Patrick Mason 10/11/2016 at 5:37 pm #

    Excellent post. I think you hit it right on the money.

  4. maryanneclarke 11/11/2016 at 9:00 pm #

    I couldn’t agree more. On all aspects. Recent events reinforce the need for us to get real, and also just how critical it is that pollsters, social sciences etc., get real and get it right, i.e. honest.

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