A survey on research and activism

Tina Palivos (Athens) is conducting research on this issue and looks for a maximum of responses. The topic is, to say the least, timely, so please do participate. What follows is the English survey; surveys in other languages (Spanish, French, Greek) are available on request. Copy the survey, alert colleagues to it, please do fill it out and email it to Tina Palivos:  tpalivos@gmail.com

Responding to the survey will take, depending on the length of answers, anything between 20 and 40 minutes.

SURVEY (English)

Dear Colleagues:

We are interested in exploring and bridging the assumed or actual tensions between research and social action, as well as academic and activist worlds. Note, we approach research and social action as activities that all persons engage in, and they are not necessarily restricted to academic OR activist worlds. Nevertheless, research and social action, and communities of academics and activists, have greater potential for overlap than is often acknowledged.

We realize that the terms social action, research, academic, activist are flexible and difficult to define/describe. Yet they have significant impact in shaping relationships, institutions, audiences, professional identities, and the boundaries of (il)legitimate knowledge. Rather than starting with a pre-conceived idea of what we mean by them, we are hoping to get a sense of how YOU define or redefine them and how you see the the relationships that they imply.

We appreciate your taking the time to answer a few open‐ended questions and prompts. Please answer the questions as you see fit: if you don’t like the questions or the terms, please feel free to rephrase them.

1) How would you define or describe research  and social action? Tell us a little bit about your background and your experience in both of these areas.

2) Briefly describe academic knowledge or know‐how? Activist knowledge or know‐how?

3) Do you see them as distinct? If yes, how? How do they overlap, if at all?

4) In your experience, how do these areas complement each other?

5) For you, what are the tensions or conflicts between activism and academic work that you have come across? What would you do (or have you done) to resolve these conflicts or tensions?

6) What do you think are the most important and necessary ways in which research and social action could be linked, bridged, or integrated?

7) Are there any stumbling blocks or concerns you would have around projects that seek to bridge or bring together research and social action, and academic and activist worlds, to create modes of knowledge and collaboration? How might these be ameliorated?

Demographic and Background  Information

In addition to anything that you want to add yourself, the following factors would be useful in helping us consider how position, background, demographic facts, and social status may shape one’s capacity to produce and disseminate knowledge, and whether that knowledge is considered legitimate.

8) What institutions have you worked at (NGO, university, private sector, etc.)?

9) What is your age range?

10) How would you describe your class background? How about aspects of gender and race? How do you see these shaping your approach/ access to knowledge and action?

11) How would you describe your professional trajectory? Where are you in your professional trajectory? (IE, do you have a stable position, are you “senior,” do you have a contract position, no formal position?).

12) In what parts of the world have you worked, lived, or collaborated/ consulted? And in what capacity (director, volunteer, consultant, policy analyst, fieldworker, etc.)?

An interview with Jan Blommaert on research and activism

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Jan Blommaert 

Responses to a survey on this topic, March 2015 (courtesy Tina Palivos & Heath Cabot).

How would you define or describe research  and social action? Tell us a little bit about your background and your experience in both of these areas.

JB: Research is social action; the fact that the question separates both presupposes “social action” as an “abnormal” aspect of research, while research is always and inevitably social action: an action performed in a real social environment, and infused with elements from a preceding state as well as leading to effects in a posterior state.

The question, rather, would thus be which specific type of social action research would be, and I understand your question as pertaining to what one could call “activist research”, i.e. research that is critical of existing social relations and attempts, at least within the boundaries of research, to amend or alter them, usually in favor of a more equitable or balanced idea of social relations.

Such activist research, I would argue, takes sides in the sense that, based on a preceding analysis of social relations, researchers decide to side with the weakest party in the system and deploy their research in an attempt to provide that weaker party with new intellectual tools for addressing their situation. These tools can be self-analytic – to provide an accurate analysis of the situation of systemic inferiority in which the group is placed – or general-analytic – a critical analysis of the entire system with its various positions and challenges; and such tools are invariably discursive: the forms of analysis provide new discursive, argumentative and representational tools.

Briefly describe academic knowledge or know‐how? Activist knowledge or know‐how?

JB: Knowledge is one, the discourses in which knowledge is articulated are the point here. “Activist”, as in the description above, represents a discursive scale level in which “esoteric” academic knowledge is converted into discourses of wider currency (“simpler” discourses, if you wish), without sacrificing the analytical accuracy and power of the academic discourses.

Do you see them as distinct? If yes, how? How do they overlap, if at all?

JB: Note that the function of both discourses is different; while academic discourse is there to circulate in and convince small circles of peers, activist knowledge must circulate in and convince far broader audiences and systems of mediation (e.g. mass media).

In your experience, how do these areas complement each other?

JB: Personally, I could never find sufficient satisfaction in “pure” academic work if it would lack the dimension of advocacy and appeal to broader and more complex audiences. Science does have the potential to change the world, so one should not be satisfied with just changing the academic world alone. As a scientist, we all have a duty towards the power of science: to use it carefully, justly and for the benefit of humanity, not just a small subset of it. Being a scientist, for me, commits us to these fundamental humanistic duties.

In my case, I complemented my “purely” academic oeuvre always with the writing of low-threshold, Dutch-language books (12 or 13 by now), converting research achievements into texts that could be used in grassroots mobilization, professional training or general-interest reading and instruction. This activity comes with a great deal of lecturing and debating for the audiences addressed by the low-threshold books, which is both a lot harder than academic lecturing (academics are usually very civil and polite towards one another), and a lot more rewarding (convincing and changing the minds of an audience of 300 schoolteachers, train drivers or longshoremen gives one a sense of relevance rarely matched by convincing a handful of academics).

For you, what are the tensions or conflicts between activism and academic work that you have come across? What would you do (or have you done) to resolve these conflicts or tensions? 

JB: The conflicts are diverse:

-No real career bonuses can be obtained for “advocacy” work, if it doesn’t come with “purely” academic aspects; a real problem, specifically for junior researchers. In my research group, we also “count” advocacy outputs.

-A permanent battle against stereotypes of the researcher as ivory-tower fellows out of touch with “reality” (we produce “theory” as opposed to “reality”). Easy to remedy: just talk about reality, show relevance in their terms

-Debate is far harder, more violent and sometimes highly unpleasant in the wider public arena; one must be able to withstand brutal public allegations, insults and accusations. It’s not a good place to be in for sensitive souls.

But let me also address the advantages and benefits. In my experience, a connection between research and activism improves research. If you wish to solve one single real-world problem of one single individual, you quickly discover the inadequacies of our toolkits and the demand to come up with better and more precise science. If I have ever made “breakthroughs”, it was because I had a sharp awareness of the fact that someone’s life literally depended on it. Believe me, that is a powerful engine.

What do you think are the most important and necessary ways in which research and social action could be linked, bridged, or integrated?

JB: All science should benefit humanity, general interests rather than specific ones. In methodology, we attempt to achieve this by means of generalization from isolated facts (i.e. theory). And too little is done, in actual fact, to make this mechanism into a general educational principle for all.

Are there any stumbling blocks or concerns you would have around projects that seek to bridge or bring together research and social action, and academic and activist worlds, to create modes of knowledge and collaboration? How might these be ameliorated?

JB: My very first answer addressed the presupposition underlying your question: the fact that “social action” is seen as separate from scientific action, and I see this as a major problem, an “ideology” if you wish, in which research is seen as in itself value-free (“objective”), to which “value” can be added after research, either as hard cash (licences, patents, industrial contracts etc) or as soft capital (impact on the nonacademic field, as it’s called nowadays). It is a crazy assumption which denies the fundamental sociological given of research: that it is, like any social action, a historically, socioculturally and politically situated activity. I always ask the question “why now?” when addressing research questions – how come we find this a researchable question here-and-now and not, for instance, in the 1970s of 1990s? The real answer to this question leads us into an analysis of scientists as people addressing problems from within a subjective position, defined only partly by “objective” facts of science and far more by the concrete social positions from which they attack questions and problems.

This is clearest (while often least understood) when we talk about research funding. There is a strong suggestion that external money is “neutral” in the sense that it does not pre-script research. In actual fact, it does script it substantively. If the EU opens a funding line on a particular topic, think of “security”, this funding line incorporates the current interests and needs of the EU (combating terror and transnational crime, for instance), excluding others (e.g. not combating these things). The “priorities” defined in such funding calls are always someone’s priorities, and rarely those of the scientists themselves. Scientists have to adjust to them, and this means that they have to adjust to subjective positions defined by funding bodies, within which they can then proceed to do “objective” research.

It is this myth about research – that it is in itself only “good” or “excellent” if and only if it is “value free” – that poisons the debate and the climate on science and society these days. It enables scientists to escape their accountability for what they are doing, and denies them the dialogue on effective social effects of which they should be very much part.

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We need to change, but don’t know why

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Jan Blommaert 

Students of the University of Amsterdam have occupied a number of university buildings, protesting against the lack of democratic transparency of their university’s decision-making practices. Inevitably, this local issue broadened into a larger issue of vision – the vision on academic training and research articulated for some years now by the Dutch government. And an even broader issue can be pasted onto that: the vision articulated by the EU regarding these matters, developed over the past decade and easily summarized in a number of key terms. Universities are suppliers of finished products for a labor market defined almost exclusively by private enterprise interests; research likewise needs to be immediately economically profitable – it needs to lead and contribute to “economic growth”, and note that “growth”, too, is defined almost exclusively in terms of private enterprise interests. As for science itself, it needs to be “value free” and “objective” as a practice, and “valorized” afterwards in terms of economic parameters – “value” becomes sales, the amount of money that can be made through a scientific product which, in itself, is not value-laden.

This definition of vision has, over the years, led to shifts in baseline funding structure for universities, to a logic of profitability at the level of university policy and management, and to so-called “hard choices” between disciplines and programs that were judged to be useful in light of this vision, and those that were useless. The latter, by and large, include the Humanities – it is not greatly pleasurable to be a professional philosopher at Dutch universities these days – and students are encouraged by means of “price setting” tactics (fee structure and student loans) to choose useful programs.

The vision is fundamentally anti-scientific, as it tends to exclude or marginalize exactly those forms of scientific activity that cause growth, if you wish, in science: explorative and speculative research, theory formation and hypothesis building. It replaces them by an ethos that stresses what is already known as the “safe” basis of academic training, rather than the limits of what is known and the principles of how to transcend them. The contemporary equivalent of Albert Einstein – a speculative and hypothesis-forming scientist not doing much useful stuff – would have a hard time finding an academic job these days. Output measuring systems, “valorization” appraisal and external funding targets, annual evaluation cycles, competitive assessment between peers – the organisational effects of this vision on academic practice – would prevent swift career mobility if he/she were appointed at all.

Critical response to these developments has been rife: the past years have seen a flurry of opinion articles in newspapers, public debates and grassroots activism combating this shift in vision both in individual universities, faculties and departments and in broader public fora. Often, such responses were quickly dismissed as reactionary – academics complaining about these changes simply opposed change in itself, it was claimed, they preferred the comfort of status quo (not questioning, of course, how comfortable the present status quo actually would be). Discussions on fundamental assumptions – the presuppositions used in debate – are thus evaded. There is hardly any substantial discussion in which the actual academic “producers” are involved; consequently there is hardly any debate on the particular nature of academic products and the specific conditions of production they demand. Generic management technique is enough, it seems.

Let us for a moment accept the vision and its assumptions. Debate on them has proven futile, as we have seen. Let us for a moment accept that academia needs to change into a better performing system of production, guided by management technique and defined by criteria of immediate economic usefulness; still one question needs to be answered.

Change defines a trajectory between two points: an anterior “inferior” stage and a posterior “improved” stage. Official documents never cease repeating this: universities need to “improve”, they need to become “more” of X and cease to be Y and Z, they need to “do better” and “score higher” on criteria set by management. Fine, but what exactly are the anterior and posterior states? Simply put: what is “wrong” and “inferior” about the present state of universities, and what would be the “ideal” and “improved” state we need to move towards? In business terms: what is the “target” of change?

To be more precise: if universities today host good numbers of “eminent” and highly performing scientists (and precisely those are often put in charge of the brainstorming for change), what is it that makes their past performance insufficient now? If their work belonged to an “inferior” culture of academic work, in which ways was it wrong? What is it in the present criteria for academic excellence that warrants redefinition? And in view of what? For this is never addressed: what is “good science” in this new vision? What are the criteria for excellence of the future world of science?

Current answers to this are recognized to be grotesquely unsatisfactory, even by those who define them. Increased numbers of articles in so-called “top” journals, and victories in battles over competitive funding (often overly narrowly defined in terms of funding sources) are offered as “objective” criteria for measuring quality – while Diederik Stapel “objectively” proved them false. So they are offered without much conviction, by lack of better stuff, even if almost everyone realizes that they have passed their sell-by date. And as for the “rankings” of individual universities in several international lists: even hard-nosed academic managers only mention them with sarcasm. Intellectually, no other criteria are offered.

So, please, let us have this intellectual debate and talk about academic relevance in terms of contents; let us stop hiding behind the curtains of so-called “measurable” quality and discuss the science that society really needs in the future. I say “society”, because private enterprise is just one of the stakeholders in this development – universities in the EU are currently overwhelmingly funded by society at large, not by private enterprise, so ownership entitlements are an issue here as well. Let us talk about what this society needs as “surplus value” generated by science. In doing this, we may rediscover that science has a value different from the sales figures it might yield, a value lodged in the work of science itself, not in its managerial and marketing handling and packaging.

What exactly are we currently doing wrong? And what exactly should we do better, in which specific ways? These are justified questions which even neoliberal policymakers and academic managers cannot dodge, lest they alienate the people who have to actually perform the change in their daily practices. Any decent manager will agree that a workforce lacking ownership of transforming processes will also lack the necessary motivation and direction for effective change. And that such directionless change is a recipe, not for improvement but for disaster.

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