July 13, 2022, 11:23
From Peter Harries-Jones ed. Making Knowledge Count: Advocacy and Social Science. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1991.
As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors ... of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves ... Education, properly speaking, is an initiation into the skill and partnership of this conversation in which we ... acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to conversation ... he final measure of intellectual achievement is in terms of its contribution to the conversation in which all universes of discourse meet. (Oakeshott 1962, 199)
Society is most aptly described as a conversation -- a conversation carried on in print, on computer screens, by television, in concert halls, in university lecture halls, and by bullhorn in protest demonstrations. The paramount human responsibility is to forward this living discourse, which is at once our legacy and humankind's future. This paper will appraise the self-imposed limits on the conversations of social scientists and of social activists.
Universities are in a period of unusual calm, precisely while our biosphere is undergoing the gravest social problems in history problems which may already be beyond solution. Among these challenges are the nuclear arms race, the increase of militarization around the globe, the increasing gap between the world's rich and
the poor, the ecological and health effects of nuclear power, the militarization of space, the poisoning of air, land, and seas, the depletion of the ozone, the indebtedness of Third World countries, the daily extinction of living species, the division of the world into rival nation states, the loss from the tropical rain forest of vegetation by which the planet's oxygen system is replenished, unparalleled hunger, the desertification of Africa, and the depletion of non-renewable energy sources. None of these problems are "acts of God."
All result from the collective actions of human beings. Flawed collective actions result from ignorance of facts or the belief in false theories. To dispel popular and consequential myths is the responsibility of the intellectuals of every society. While many journalists, popular writers, and talk show hosts do try to examine these myths, they are not backed up by a strong community of scholars who generate the primary research that make their conversations useful. The strange disjuncture between the forms of academic discourse and the urgent policy deliberations of the wider society calls for an explanation.
Social scientists -- academics -- are paid to combine research with other intellectual work, notably teaching. Alternatively, they may serve by identifying social problems, calling attention to them in public forums, promoting inquiries into their solutions, and publicizing the proposals that seem most promising. Actually, not enough choose this path. Crysdale's account of policy research in Canada (below) represents only a small portion of ongoing activity in social science; and policy research usually avoids concern with intervention strategy.
According to the principle of academic freedom, university professors are entitled to select the topic of their study. The liberty granted by this arrangement is partially offset by collegial accountability, as when candidates are selected for their specializations; also, research funds are allocated by professional reviewers. While funds are mainly derived from government sources -- taxpayers -- academics are shielded from any direct demand that they show the social value of their work by proving the usefulness of the knowledge they generate. This principle of academic freedom has favourable consequences, allowing for work on abstract ideas that could never be defended on pragmatic grounds. It also has some unfavourable consequences.
Scanning articles in four recent issues of the two most prestigious sociological journals, I counted the sentences that offer a judgment on an issue of public policy. They are as follows:
- A statement that nothing can be done to impede the flow of migrants from Mexico to the United States.
- Another comment by the same author in a different journal to the same effect.
- An observation that reduction in government employment is especially detrimental to Black Americans. (This is not phrased as a direct recommendation, but can be loosely construed as advocacy.)
- A remark that, since use of the index of economic productivity is fraught with methodological problems, social scientists should "proceed in this area with great caution." (This may amount only to methodological advocacy, but I will throw it in to prove the inclusiveness of my counting procedure.)
- A comment that, if they can do so, protest groups will be better off mobilizing their own social movements instead of relying on professional organizers paid by outsiders.
I found five comments -- none of them exactly radical. From this, I conclude that advocacy is taboo in the pages of mainstream academic sociology.
This does not mean that sociology can contribute nothing to the solution of social problems. Many of the articles dealt with topics that are regarded as social problems -- e.g., social inequality of women and minorities, worldwide urbanization trends, and the effect of labelling people as mental patients. None of those articles, however, proposed intervention strategies to ameliorate the trouble. Moreover, the eight journals contained no articles on any of the urgent topics listed above.
There are five possibilities. Either (a) sociologists believe themselves incapable of addressing the world's pressing problems, or (b) they do not want to do so, or (c) they believe that others would disapprove of their doing so, or (d) they have done so but their comments have been edited out before publication, or (e) the idea never occurred to them.
PRISONERS OF THEORY
If the ills of the planet are at all susceptible to remedy, the project must involve analyses of existing arrangements and some vision of a better world. Such a vision must be informed both by theory and praxis -- by action in the service of human liberation. A cramped, technical concept of one's profession is too limited to elicit mastery of our problems. If academics are to fulfil their responsibilities in dispelling crucial myths, they must liberate their self-images first.
Social movements depend on visionaries. If they are to succeed, they must coalesce as a comprehensive agenda, nurtured by scholarly research, and manifest themselves as campaigns of reform. Our problems arise from common causes, and can be resolved only when the linkages among them are recognized as global in scope. Yet the social sciences today lack any analyst with the breadth of vision and political engagement of, say, C. Wright Mills, whose insights into the causes of our present difficulties have been confirmed fully only during the past decade. What is impeding this intellectual process?
Several explanations are possible for the current reluctance of social scientists to tackle issues and advocate corrective policies. One explanation is purely material- that research funds and professional honour go to those who do not challenge the business interests and ideological beliefs of elites. This view portrays universities as the research arm of the military-industrial complex and researchers as too greedy to kill the goose that lays their golden eggs.
There is something to this view, but perhaps not much. True, scientific funding has become increasingly tied to military research, but nevertheless a substantial proportion of physical scientists have publicly vowed never to accept research contracts for Star Wars, and their professional associations have denounced militarization of space as an impractical and destabilizing project. Moreover, physicists and engineers have more actively opposed this militarization than have their colleagues in the humanities and social sciences
people who have fewer career interests at stake in the military-industrial complex. Thus it is going too far to claim that the universities feel the direct pressure of militarists and cannot extricate themselves from this control.
Instead of responding to the ideological demands of their "capitalist masters," as Marxian analysts might allege, academics seem to be monitoring themselves and obeying the umpires they have chosen. Oddly, in the 1980s, theoretical opposition to advocacy diminished with no corresponding increase in the practice of advocacy. Today advocacy is avoided -- no doubt, for the ordinary reason, to preserve harmony and civility in the academic community -- but so is policy related work. Not much appreciation is accorded the production of knowledge for practical applications. And indeed, little social research has been generated since the 1960s in the context of political or moral campaigns of social reform.
Far from being new, this avoidance of advocacy or public policy research on the part of sociologists involves traditional values in research. It is constrained, not by material interests, but by theoretic considerations. Three issues may be especially important in this regard:
- The near-bankruptcy of the two models on which sociology grew up -- functionalism and Marxism;
- an unsettled view of the relationship between knowledge and interests; and
- an inherited sociological assumption linking authority to violence.
Just as lesser mortals, sociologists are prisoners of their own beliefs. And they, too, deserve liberation.
TWO LOST PARADIGMS
It was Gouldner, twenty years ago, who anticipated a crisis in which sociology would fail the social revolution that needed it, because it did not fully recognize its need. He wrote:
The profound transformation of society that many radicals seek cannot be accomplished by political means alone; it cannot be confined to a purely political embodiment. For the old society is not held together merely by force and violence, or expedience and prudence. The old society maintains itself also through theories and ideologies that establish its hegemony over the minds of men, who therefore do not merely bite their tongues but submit to it willingly. It will be impossible either to emancipate men from the old society or to build a humane new one, without beginning, here and now, the construction of a total counter-culture, including new social theories; and it is impossible to do this without a critique of the social theories dominant today. (Gouldner 1970,5)
Gouldner's prophetic view of the coming crisis was not entirely accurate, but he foresaw our theoretical impoverishment. This, in his analysis, was to be expected from the inadequacy of functionalism (specifically "Parsonsianism") and Marxism, or the feeble version of it that was all American sociologists knew, to meet the demand to help guide a "Welfare-Warfare state."
He need not have worried about the American Welfare State; there is none of it left. The Warfare aspect is another matter.
Gouldner made a career of criticizing functionalism, particularly as promoted by Parsons. He depicted sociology as sharply divided into two blocs, functionalism and Marxism, which roughly corresponded to the capitalist and socialist worlds. Academic sociology, he said, was basically American sociology, and American sociology was basically "Parsonsian."
The inadequacies of Parson's model were becoming apparent even before Gouldner published his final, major attack in 1970. It had become apparent that the model offered reassurances that everything was all right instead of useful diagnoses of societal problems. By saying that all variables formed a system, the model did not highlight any of them as causal and hence offered no insights as to how to fix what was wrong.
Gouldner added an observation, however, not apparent to other sociologists: when pressed to account for social change, Parsons actually incorporated Marxist ideas into his scheme, creating from the synthesis an evolutionary model (Gouldner 1970,354-62). That synthesis would not offer any useful guidelines for programmatic work, he noted. The result was the "entropy of functionalism and the rise of new theories," such as Goffman's dramaturgical model, ethnomethodology, and exchange theory (Gouldner 1970, 373-96). None of these would satisfy the New Left, which was then in its prime, and which was influenced by the unreconstructed version of Marxism that had prevailed in the U.S. but had been superseded in Europe by the emendations of theorists such as Lukacs and Gramsci.
For its own part, the Eastern bloc had been influenced by Parsons too, according to Gouldner, and was developing its own synthesis of the two systems, with as little success as the Americans. There was evidently not much theoretical insight to gain from that quarter.
Gouldner did have good things to say about C. Wright Mills, who had died almost a decade before, and about critical sociologists, who were developing an activist, non-positivistic, post-Marxist approach to sociological work that took human liberation and social criticism seriously. That approach, like the New Left itself, has diminished in this era of political conservatism. Nevertheless, sociologists can still find in critical sociology the inspiration to pursue both theory and praxis in ways that count. In any case, if only as a moral boost towards broader sociological visioning, the writings of Habermas have been valuable. For example, he has attempted to straighten out the problem of the relationship between interests and knowledge.
INTERESTS AND KNOWLEDGE
Intellectuals' quest for "objectivity" used to be grounded on the ancient philosophical assumption that reality is not "constructed" but "essential" -- i.e. independent of human judgment and apprehension. As Habermas described this view, éThe only knowledge that [it considers] can truly orient action is knowledge that frees itself from mere human interests and is based on Ideas -- in other words, knowledge that has taken a theoretical attitude" (Habermas 1968, 301). Yet when phenomenology overtook Greek metaphysics early in this century, the ivory towers did not topple; the academics' commitment to theoretical (as opposed to practical) work continued, though justified on a moral, not an ontological, basis. The separation of knowledge and interests was reemphasized, along with the admonition that the new reflexive sociologists should strive as hard as objective sociologists for scientific purity when analysing a problem, by bracketing their interests as phenomena for observation.
Habermas has thus described the attitude of modern social scientists:
In this field of inquiry, which is so close to [existing sociological] practice, the concept of value-freedom (or ethical neutrality) has simply reaffirmed the ethos that modern science owes to the beginnings of theoretical thought in Greek philosophy: psychologically an unconditional commitment to theory, and epistemologically the severance of knowledge from interest. This is represented in logic by the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive statements, which makes grammatically obligatory the filtering out of merely emotive from cognitive contents. (Habermas 1968, 303)
To Habermas, this is a perversion of intellectual work. Far from being obliged to estrange themselves from their own interests, it is the highest task of social scientists to uncover them. Interests take their shape in the activities of work, of languaging, of interpretation -- all of which require participation in the discourse of the broader society. Work on "pure theory" is unproductive delusion; what truly contributes is to participate unreservedly in humanity's unbroken conversation. "The unity of knowledge and interest proves itself in a dialectic that takes the historical traces of suppressed dialogue and reconstructs what has been suppressed" (Habermas 1968,315)'
Thus critical sociology promoted the combination of research with advocacy, but not, of course, by reducing research to inquiries at a technical level. Critical sociology never devalues the significance of the symbolic, communicative realm as the distinctively human domain (Habermas 1981), and no one influenced by the Frankfurt school is likely to devalue ideas, or become an ideological hack, turning out research to support some party line. There have been such possibilities for other Marxists and among them a good deal of attention has had to be paid to the restoration of the status of ideas in orienting human action. One of most frequently quoted of Marx's admonitions is, after all, a passage from Theses on Feuerbach: "the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it." This is usually understood as a prediction that philosophy will be replaced by revolutionary action, that there will be no room in the post-revolutionary world for mere speculation.
As a prediction it may still come true; as a moral admonition, however, it is too pat a slogan. It was Gramsci who sought to clarify again the relationship between praxis and abstraction, as indeed he claimed would have to be done again and again once for each generation. Gramsci, in addressing this issue, specifically denied that philosophy could ever be supplanted by political action. He gave historical materialism a new twist: While historical circumstances do create the necessary conditions for the emergence of new ideas, it cannot be taken for granted that any ideas will develop automatically simply because the time and circumstances are ripe. To Gramsci, this is the responsibility of intellectuals, and it matches precisely the requirements of the revolution -- it is up to them to turn private thinking into historically effective mass beliefs and ethics. In describing this responsibility and putting forth a vision of how it would be achieved, the importance of struggling with ideas, of engaging in abstract discourse, was again recognized. Gramsci gave back to intellectuals the work of creating and sustaining culture -- including post-revolutionary culture.
Of course, no one needs to read Habermas or Gramsci in order to conduct social research into programmatic concerns -- except perhaps those social scientists who still worry about jeopardizing their intellectual status by such work. Unfortunately, they may be in the majority.
AUTHORITY AND VIOLENCE
A third theoretical myth may have some bearing on social scientists' diffidence about committing themselves to work on contemporary social problems. It is the prevailing definition of power.
People do not normally want to disempower their own societies even when they perceive the root cause of the global world crisis as the aggression and imperialism of their societies. In the case of social scientists, the reluctance may be related to an inherited theory of power that equates it to dominance. Power, we learn in our first course in sociology, is the ability to impose one's will on others -- to dominate. Coercion need not always be used, to be sure, especially when it is recognized as legitimate, in which case we are dealing with authority. Nevertheless, under authority lies power, and under power lies some an instrument of coercion -- a whip, a bomb, a lock. Max Weber defined the state as "the rule of men over men based on the means of legitimate, that is allegedly legitimate, violence." Since authority is necessary to social order, any reduction in the state's stockpile of weapons would represent, by definition, a weakening of the polity. To propose such a policy might, by an extension of this logic, constitute treason. No wonder social scientists fail to challenge the legitimacy of participating in arms races!
This is not the place for an extended discussion of political theory ~ but it is appropriate to point out that the equation between power and violence, while pervasive, is not universally shared by theorists. Thus Arendt denied that any government has ever existed that was based exclusively on violent means. "Power," she wrote, "is indeed of the essence of all government, but violence is not." She did not see power as the ability to command, but as the "human ability to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say of somebody that he is 'in power' we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name" (Arendt 1969, 44). Strength, on the other hand, designates a property of individuals, "though the strength of even the strongest individual can always be overpowered by the many." Violence is not exactly either of the former, but is based on weaponry. "Phenomenologically, it is close to strength, since the implements of violence, like all other tools, are designed and used for the purpose of multiplying natural strength until, in the last stage their development, they can substitute for it" (Arendt 1969, 46).
Commonly, violence is used not by the powerful, but by the powerless to compensate for their weakness. Social groups that can act in concert, that can attain their collective purposes, normally get on with the job and do so. Groups that cannot do so may try to force, their will by violence. Arendt points out that, when small nations; and terrorist groups get nuclear weapons, it will be clear that the' least powerful groups may be capable of the greatest violence. At, that moment, it may occur to some theorist to redefine power along lines that depart from Weber's.
The point is a small one, but it is true that our theoretical constructs, limit our perceptions and shape our politics. It is time to root out of our sociological assumptions the belief that the effectiveness of polities depends upon the weaponry that they amass.
TOWARDS A NEW PRAXIS
If Marx's vision of a post-revolutionary utopia sounds archaic now, his suggested method of orienting one's intellectual work towards, significant human projects -- through praxis -- remains contemporary' and useful, at least when interpreted in the light of Gramsci's and Habermas's insights.
The eerie indifference of the academic community to these responsibilities was foreseen in 1970 by Gouldner. He recommended as a corrective what he called "Reflexive Sociology": "What is needed is a new praxis that transforms the person of the sociologist[s]," he wrote. "[As] their most immediate work environments -- the universities themselves -- become drawn into the coalescing military-industrial-welfare complex, it becomes unblinkingly evident that sociology has become dangerously dependent upon the very world it has pledged to study objectively... There is no way of making a new sociology without undertaking a new praxis" (Gouldner 1970,512). Of course, the same advice applies to other intellectual professions as well.
There are many degrees of political engagement, and no single praxis will suit all intellectuals. Perhaps the most extreme approach to this question can be seen in method by which the French sociologist Alain Touraine fuses scholarship with advocacy. Touraine's main work has been on the issue of nuclear power. He is interested in the most important type of social movement -- a "value-oriented" one. He maintains that it is through the discourse of such social movements that society clarifies and revises its values. The activists in such movements do the work that one might properly expect social theorists and ,researchers to do -- engage in public dialogue concerning important issues and seek the information that is crucial to such debates as they unfold. Touraine, therefore, studies movements by participating in the work of proselytizing for them.
His method is to engage in what he calls "intervention." Pairs of researchers, an "agitator" and a "secretary," engage in dialogue with a group in a deliberate effort to shape its aspirations and self-interpretation in a direction that will forward their social movement. This is a role that goes far beyond the practice of sociology, and Touraine does seem to be mindful of the possible excesses of his method. Thus Touraine suggests:
Confusion, doubt, and resistance must be dispelled so that one can come closer to the fire of society. The researcher realizes, humbly, that he is not an actor; but at the crucial moment of intervention he is a prophet. He does not call upon the group to move towards him but to go towards what he has proclaimed and yet does not possess -- towards the movement, of which he will never be the guide. At this point, the relation between the group and the researcher is dramatic, and the researcher is drained by it. He is even in danger of becoming too personally engaged and of mixing his prophetic role with this personal situation and his reactions to the group. His co-researcher must therefore protect the group against over-intervention on his part and ensure that the group maintains control over its own self-analysis ... The researcher does not endeavor to please the group, but he feels himself to be responsible towards the movement, as constructed both by analysis and by the militants' ideology. (Touraine 1977, 194-5, 197)
Touraine is emulated methodologically by few North Americans. Of the possibility that his method may impair his objectivity, Touraine acknowledges: "No researcher, in fact, can maintain perfect balance between analysis and participation" (Touraine 1977, 197).
What is at issue is not Touraine's particular method, but a general stance that keeps intellectual work oriented towards issues that are significant for policy. It invariably happens that participation in the discourse of social movements forces one to grapple with the urgent questions of humankind. Participation in action-oriented conversations hones academic questions in a salutary way that cannot be expected of routine scholarly discussions.
Let me cite a couple of examples of heuristic usefulness of political debate for the sharpening of research questions. On one of her visits to Canada, Margaret Thatcher stated with supreme assurance to a political journalist that "history shows" militarily strong countries to be less likely to get into wars than under-armed countries. I have mentioned this claim to several military historians, none of whom challenged it. Not surprisingly, independent peace researchers have given the lie to this claim. Thus numerous studies show that overarmed countries are far more likely than under-armed ones to get into wars. Newcombe's research, for example, estimates the probability as thirty times as great.
Other peace researchers have also established that military deterrence is rarely successful. A "deterred" adversary normally tries to match or exceed the threat from the other side" so that the usual outcome is an arms race and finally war. Throughout history, about 70 per cent of the arms races have resulted in war (Singer 1980, 359). Contrary to Thatcher's supposition, nations that are armed heavily rarely attack "weak" ones; they fight each other instead. The reason for arming is not to prevent wars, but to win them. As a practical policy, while military preparedness has made war far more likely, it also has historically increased the likelihood of victory over a less heavily armed adversary. This provided a certain logical justification for militarization in times past; no longer, of course, since no side will win a nuclear war.
My second example is the relatively unchallenged public myth that military investment is good for the economy or even necessary for prosperity. Most adults have heard that the Great Depression was cured by World War II, and not by the half-hearted government programs of job creation that preceded it -- predisposing belief that military spending generally benefits the economy. It does not. We need to know more about the effect of military expenditure as a mechanism for stabilizing the demand cycle for commodities and assure business a steady, predictable market for their products. Who benefits from this arrangement and who loses? How can the stabilizing effect be created in other ways?
The main justification offered for military spending is that it creates employment. Yet those few disarmament researchers who have studied the question have concluded that spending on military production is a poor way of creating jobs. Such production is capital-; not labour-intensive. Investing in almost any other sector -- such as construction or education -- would create man y more jobs than would an equivalent expenditure on the military (Sivard 1981, 20; Tuomi and Vayrynen 1982).
Comparative studies of national productivity have shown that the more income an industrialized nation puts into the military, the less productive it becomes and the less able to compete on world markets (Sivard 1981, 19). If this is so, the fact needs far better publicity, for industrialists do not realize that military expenditure is bad for the economy, and social scientists should dispel the myth of armament as productive enterprise.
The urgent global problems of our day -- economic, environmental, and military -- are interrelated, arising from the capacity of elites tc divert humanity's resources into expenditure on military destruction; that are elements of a reduced but continuing international struggle for hegemony; and the economic dominance by nations of the North over the South; through maintaining institutions of excessive, privatized consumerism, instead of global, sustainable economic development.
The catastrophic consequences of these distorted priorities loom large: famine, irreversible environmental destruction, local wars, and, potentially, nuclear annihilation -- all resulting from endemic militarism and from the weakness of alternative systems of international conflict management, such as the World Court and the United Nations.
These social problems are held in place by prevailing myths that are unexamined -- such beliefs as that keeping the peace requires enormous weaponry, and that military expenditures keep economies healthy.
Social scientists of the North enjoy sufficient academic freedom to work without fear in dispelling such myths. They also have access to media and suitable forums for dispelling these myths. Social movements exist outside of academia that need their research expertise for providing crucial information to address these global problems.
Despite all this, social scientists have not responded to the challenge. This is because norms of academic discourse have traditionally called for a rhetoric of cool disinterest and "value free" scholarship. However, much more than this is involved. I suggest that social scientists -like lesser mortals -- are disempowered by their own faulty theories.
As Gouldner foresaw, neither functionalism nor Marxism has repaid sociologists with insights that help address our current global crisis. Social scientists of the socialist countries have done no better. More promising approaches -- notably a critical sociology that would bring back praxis -- dried up on the vine during the long conservative period of the 1970s and 1980s. It is worth reading Habermas on this question, if only to restore legitimacy to the concept of uncovering interests through participating in the discourse of the broader society.
New ideas will not automatically develop simply because they are needed. Social scientists have an opportunity to contribute to vital social movements; by doing so they will not jeopardize their analytical integrity but rather participate in the very dialogue that will best stimulate their intellectual work. Standing apart from societal issues is no way to test the power of one's thoughts. Conversations at universities will be better, not worse, for adopting the rhetoric and purposiveness of advocacy.
The sources for this are Massey 1986,683 and 1987, 1399; Pomer 1986, 657; Block and Burns 1986, 778; Jenkins and Eckert 1986,827.
I am thinking of such U.S. projects as the Coleman Report, evaluation studies of Headstart, opportunity programs for minorities, and studies of economic development. In Canada, comparable examples of programmatic research of the same period were the Bilingualism and Biculturalism Report, the Gray Report on foreign ownership, and a number of studies of immigration policy.
The sources for this are numerous. They include: Michael D. Wallace, "Armaments and Escalation: Two Competing Hypotheses," paper, Canadian Peace Research and Education Association, University of Quebec at Montreal, 2 June 1980; "Arms Races and Escalation: Some New Evidence," Journal of Conflict Resolution, 23, no. 1, 1979, 1980; Alan Newcombe and James Wert, "An Inter-Nation Tensiometer for the Prediction of War," Peace Research Institute, Dundas, Onto 1972, 326pp; Alan G. Newcombe, Nora S. Newcombe, and Gary A. Landrus, "The Development of an International Tensiometer," International Interactions, 1 Jan. 1974): 3-18; Alan Newcombe and Frank Klaassen, "The Tensiometer Prediction of Nations Likely to be Involved in International War in the Years 1977-1980," Korean Institute of International Studies, 10, no. 1 (1978-79): 1-43; Alan G. Newcombe, "The Prediction of War," Peace Research Institute, Dundas, Ont., p. 1, 1982.
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