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Inference: Association and Reference

Further evidence that we read ideas, not words—as well as of the social nature of language—can be seen in the ways readers and authors rely on shared cultural understanding.

June 9th, 1998, between the fourth and fifth games of the National Basketball Association championships, Dennis Rodman, Chicago Bulls’ forward, missed practice to attend a wrestling match with noted wrestler Hulk Hogan. Responding to dismay at Rodman’s behavior,The New York Timescolumnist Harvey observed:

Compared to some of the company many N.B.A. players keep, Hulk Hogan is practically the dean of Harvard Business School.

Of course, Rodman is the Joker to Jordan’s Batman and Scotties Pippen’s Robin. In his third and presumably last season with what no longer is a mere basketball team but a collection of action heroes, Rodman as what Jackson calls the “anti-hero” has made himself a windfall as Jordan’s evil twin. With Rodman around, Jordan has become more of a deity than ever.
Harvey Araton, "He's Nobody's Business But the Bulls',The New York Times, Austin edition, June 10, 1998, p. C21.

To someone from another planet, or just someone who doesn’t follow American basketball and culture, much the above may make sense grammatically but have little meaning. To follow the thought, a reader must bring a familiarity with the bold faced references.
Compared to some of the company many N.B.A. players keep.Hulk Hoganis practicallythe dean of Harvard Business School.

Of course, Rodman is theJokertoJordan’s Batmanand Scotties Pippen’sRobin. In his third and presumably last season with what no longer is a mere basketball team but a collection ofaction heroes, Rodman as whatJacksoncalls the"anti-hero"has made himself a windfall as Jordan’sevil twin. With Rodman around, Jordan has become more of a deity than ever.

None of these terms or phrases is in most dictionaries. We are dealing with cultural associations and references, not denotations or connotations. Readers must provide the appropriate concepts:

Compared to some of the company many N.B.A. players keep.Hulk Hogan(a popular wrestler) is practicallythe dean of Harvard Business School (the leader of a respected, conservative institution). Of course, Rodman is theJoker (fool)toJordan’s(the all-time greatest basketball player and nice guy) Batman(respected leader)and Scotties Pippen’sRobin (trusted assistant). In his third and presumably last season with what no longer is a mere basketball team but a collection ofaction heroes (super powerful figures)Rodman was whatJackson(coach of the Bulls)calls the“anti-hero”(antithesis of a hero—not a model person)has made himself a windfall as Jordan’sevil twin (opposite personality). With Rodman around, Jordan has become more of a deity than ever.
The author assumed readers would be familiar with the appropriate references. In so doing, the authors can imply additional meanings, convey a sense of shared understanding, and express thoughts in a more picturesque way. Reference and association are often used to imply acceptance or rejection, approval or disapproval.  

Reference and association work in somewhat similar ways. Reference calls attention to a particular person, event, or idea. It draws a link to shared knowledge outside the text. Association invokes ideas and feelings through a particular reference.

The difference between association and reference is not as important as the key similarity: both reference and association involve inferring meaning or feelings not explicitly stated within a text.

You do not have to be able to distinguish between reference and association. It is enough that you infer meanings and judgments that seemingly go beyond the specific words on the page. Rely on both your prior knowledge and your imagination. Test your understanding by looking for consistency of meaning with the earlier and later discussion.

References and association are common in articles in the popular press. While not as common in academic works, reference and association are often present, generally in a more subtle fashion.

Allusions

One special form of reference deserves special mention: allusions. Allusions are brief references to a well-known figures or events, often from literature, history, Greek myth, or the Bible).
Plan ahead: it wasn't raining when Noah built the ark.
Readers fill in their knowledge of Noah—that he built a boat to endure forty days and night of rain—to infer the appropriate meaning—here that a lack of preparation for unanticipated danger can have catastrophic consequences.
SAYS:
Make plans early. (Noah built an ark when it wasn’t raining.)
DOES:
The remark issues a command to plan early and offers an allusion in support of that idea.
MEANS:
If you don’t anticipate problems, you can run into major problems.
Reference, association and allusions draw on shared cultural knowledge to enrich discussion. They exist in the mind of the reader, and need not be true. In the past decade, "Tiananmen Square" has come to trigger associations of a massacre. In June, 1998, in conjunction with President Clinton’s trip to China and his welcome in Tiananmen Square, various newspapers referred to a massacre of students demonstrators there on June 4, 1989.
Tiananmen, where Chinese students died…
Baltimore Sun headline, June 27, 1998, p. 1A

[the place] where pro-democracy demonstrators were gunned down.
USA Today, June 26, 1998, p. 7A

the Tiananmen Square Massacre [where armed troops ordered to clear demonstrators from the square killed] hundreds or more
Wall Street Journal, June 26, 1998, p. A10

the site of the student slaughter
New York Post, June 25, 1998, p. 22

In fact, there is no available evidence that students died in Tiananmen Square that night, as originally reported in various newspapers, includingThe New York Times.Although others died in or near the square, the student demonstrators were allowed to leave peacefully. Nevertheless, in the varied phrasings, the reference works: Tiananmen=student massacre. ("The Myth of , And the Price of a Passive Press,"Columbia Journalism,September/October 1998, p. 12. Readers initially unprepared to accept the above account should also note the author's response to a follow-up letter, November/December, 1998, p. 10.)


Related Topics
Inference: Reading and Writing Ideas as Well as Words
Inference: The Process
Inference and Analysis
Inference: Inference Equations
Inference: Denotation
Inference: Figurative Language

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