Nov 10, 2012

Top-Down vs Bottom-Up

No this isn’t about the economy, but listen up.  It’s related.

Even though most of the time my brother and I converse as 8 year-olds – finishing each other’s sentences, revisiting embarrassing family moments, and basically making everyone in our social environment wish they had either not come along at all, or at least had ordered a much stronger drink – occasionally we interact as “colleagues.”

We are both university professors, and whereas I moved back from France to an American University just over a year ago, my brother Simon lives and works in Sweden, where he settled about six years after I moved to France. 

When Simon treats me like a colleague, he asks me intriguing research questions, for instance about the effects of emotion on some mental process.  Or about the relationship between emotion and olfaction.  But recently he asked me another question.  He posed it simply, and then noted that a quick response would do.  But he opened a floodgate and fortunately felt comfortable being carried along in the rushing waters of my rant because it turns out he sees eye to eye with me on this point.

The point is that one of the most enduring and perhaps explanatory aspects of (French? Swedish? European?) culture, from the perspective and culture of an American academic, is that institutions of higher education and research are defined by and function in a top-down manner.  The structure of the European institutions that I know well is almost never organic or bottom up.  What this means, really, is that things are not the sum of their constituent parts.  The parts are twisted and wrenched into a presumably coherent picture that the top has fashioned and has decreed from on high.

When I moved to France, top-downness was first revealed to me through the word, la politique.  Indeed, the question we discussed in every administrative meeting of my institution, because at the time we were requesting funding for the next four years, was the nature of our politique.  I did not speak French fluently at that time, but I knew something was rotten in the, well, the state. 

I would think to myself, or much more disastrously, murmur aloud, “isn’t la politique to be good scientists?” 

Mais non.  Being a contributing scientist was a fine goal, but had nothing to do with the very core of existence (or sometimes – no, often – promotion).   And receiving accolades for being a good scientist threatened the all-important concept of égalité.  This sounds like a facile if not banal insight.  But the difference between academic banter and living the real top-downness is huge; living it struck fear into my soul.  

Slowly la politique became a real thing, a concept with meat.  La politique called for a definition of our institution in terms that made it sound unique, viable, and coherent.  Unique, because otherwise we might be absorbed by another, similar institution.  Viable, because otherwise we might fail in the zero-sum game of resource acquisition.  And coherent, because if we seemed incoherent, we’d be ridiculed, doubted, and then crushed.  Survival depended on rhetoric. 

You might object that American academic and research institutions play the exact same top down games.  And then you might add some sentences along the lines that “in America we just do it more implicitly, and maybe it would be better if we were more explicit … blah, blah, blah.”  But I think you would be entirely wrong.  It isn’t the same thing.  And it is not merely a difference of implicit versus explicit.  Top-down and bottom-up are fundamentally different notions that reflect utterly different ways of holding and using power, about making and maintaining institutions that express and preserve cultural values.

I remember discussing my research with the director of my laboratory.  After listening with vague interest, he told me that, parfait!, I could use his words and his labels to summarize my research in an important document!  I told him that, no, those words had nothing to do with my work.  His labels changed the meaning.  The labels I myself just used, I said, are the words that best characterize my ideas and research.  What I didn’t grasp at the time was that he was not making a suggestion.

One of the documents we discussed in full top-down frenzy was my habilitation.  An habilitation is a document that summarizes ones research activities past, present, and future.  The end, the reason this document is undertaken, is to gain the official right to train graduate students.  At the time I moved to France I had recently been promoted to the position of full professor at Indiana University (USA).  I had trained graduate students for more than a decade.  My former students were already in tenure track positions at research universities.  In the top-down meetings, one of which occurred in Bordeaux, where I was flown and then flown back home to Clermont-Ferrand in the space of about five hours, I was told what to write in my habilitation.  Not what a habilitation contains.  Rather, what I should write in mine.  Which words to use to make it sound like I was part of the tribe. 

Did I mention that I resented this and all other similar meetings?
The cliché that I believe that top-downness is incorrectly and unwisely linked to is the concept of collectivism (versus individualism).  Collectivist cultures and societies are supposed to champion the group at the expense of the individual.  But while top-downness can superficially look like less individualism (championing the individual at the expense of the group), exercising a top-down organization is not necessarily the result of believing in the group or caring more about the outcomes of the group as those of the self.  And I think that often top-downness enhances neither group identification nor group outcomes.  The distain for authority that top-down structure ultimately engenders seems to me to directly counteract “true” collectivism.

I do truly believe in organic, and bottom-up processes when it comes to the advancement of science.  Even when it comes to the life of many other institutions.  For the last five years of my career in France, I played the game by my rules.  And I am quite certain that everyone affected by my politique benefitted.

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