How do we decide what we research? by Terry Cannon

T_Cannon_resAbout the author:
Terry Cannon is Research Fellow in Rural Futures, Institute of Development Studies at University of Sussex, UK.


This blog is based on the Development Research Seminar presentation by Terry Cannon, held on 10 October 2017 at the International Institute of Social Studies, during the 65th anniversary week of the Institute.

As ISS celebrates its 65th anniversary, I want to share some concerns about what we in development studies institutions are facing. Most of us might assume that we are ‘free’ to research what we want. ISS and similar institutions like my own at IDS work in what is loosely defined as development studies, and choose to research what we believe will support understanding of the issues involved. My concern is that we are increasingly deluded about our ability to make independent and self-determined choices.


Was there was once a golden age in which there was a complete lack of constraint in what we could research? No – the problem is rather a narrowing of scope, determined by changes that have happened in the last three decades in funding arrangements and institutional demands (for example the UK “Research Excellence Framework”), contractual pressures (e.g. for minimum publication outputs and external funding), and the emergence of what has been called the ‘neoliberal university’. These changes have been incremental, and have the appearance of rationality. But they are dangerous, and cumulatively they form a punitive framework in which staff are fearful for their place, their progression and survival within the system. It is also impossible for many younger colleagues to imagine that the world was ever different, or that a change to this system is even possible. Those who recognise some of the problems are forced – by the threats inherent in the system – to adopt a state of passive acceptance.

Bangladsh (140).JPG
Source: The author

When I mention the label neoliberalism, I am very aware that it is possibly misunderstood or seen as a knee-jerk, unspecific buzz word. I have little space to be more specific here, but will approximate it as an ideology that claims to be supporting free markets for the benefit of all, and yet fosters a situation in which wealth is transferred from the majority to the minority, while corporations increase their monopoly behaviour in very anti-market ways. Universities increasingly behave as corporations, competing for ‘customers’ and pushing down wages and conditions of their workforce (53% of UK academics are on casual contracts[i]), with cleaners and catering staff from outsourced companies at the ‘bottom’ of the pile on oppressive contracts and minimum wages. Meanwhile, in the UK the average salary of Vice-Chancellors (the “CEO” title of most university directors) is £274,000 a year.[ii] Universities have shifted from being institutions that support the social goals of the wider society into businesses that promote themselves. They are no longer capable of providing the role model for how society might be improved for the benefit of the majority, through ideas of equity, fairness and commentary on the excesses of governments.

What does this mean for development studies? My greatest fear is that the framework of institutional corporatism and funding models has undermined our ability to ask questions about what causes a problem. Poverty, hunger, vulnerability (to hazards or climate change) are not just ‘characteristics’ of different groups of people. But this is how they are increasingly portrayed, as with ‘lifting people out of poverty’, or ‘building resilience’. The SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) say nothing about what is causing problems of poverty, ill-health, hunger, poor water and sanitation and so on. But these problems are largely the result of processes of exploitation and oppression that must be understood and explained. In earlier times, that is exactly what development studies was doing.[iii]

Increasingly it is difficult to seek explanations for these problems: it is more awkward, and we cannot make ‘free’ choices to research them. Development studies institutions are now almost completely reliant on funding from governments and development banks. These institutions are often beneficiaries of the processes that are causing the problems, and have little desire to investigate their origins. The issues that we are ‘allowed’ to research often come ready-framed in ways that disguise the causes of the problems they supposedly address. NGOs are also sucked into this framework to ensure their funding pipeline is healthy, and have much less motivation than in the past to assess the power relationships that are involved in causing problems. This is very relevant for us in development studies, because we work a lot with international and local NGOs.

Bangladsh (87)
Source: The author

And a great deal of previous research is also largely ignored, because it is ‘awkward’: class analysis (which is a primary basis for understanding poverty and inequality) that was a significant source of explanation in the past (for example in relation to land tenure in much of Asia and Latin America) hardly gets a mention. Structural problems faced by women and girls are now dealt with through ‘female empowerment’. Donor conditionality on ‘gender’ expects development organizations to change oppressive male behaviour entrenched for centuries through projects that last just a few years. Vulnerability is addressed not by understanding what leads people to suffer from a natural hazard or climate change (processes related to class, gender, ethnicity, age and belief systems), but by focusing on technical fixes and not challenging the status quo.

In my work in Bangladesh, staff involved in adaptation or disaster risk reduction projects rarely discuss land tenure and landlessness as a cause of vulnerability. The donors and NGOs know that they cannot deal with the root causes and so engage in a game of mutual patronage to fulfil each short-term projects and then move on to the next (IFRC 2014 p.203). While these two related issues are more in the realm of NGO and DRR institutions, my argument is that development studies falls into similar traps. We are in danger of ignoring the processes within power systems that are the causes of many of the problems. When we are coerced and motivated to engage in research that comes with ready-made framings that discourage or make it difficult to identify what is causing a problem, do we become part of the problem rather than making arguments for what would be a proper solution?


[i] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/nov/16/universities-accused-of-importing-sports-direct-model-for-lecturers-pay

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/feb/23/university-vice-chancellors-average-pay-now-exceeds-275000

[iii] See my blog on the myth of community: http://vulnerabilityandpoverty.blogspot.nl/2014/04/why-do-we-pretend-there-is-community.html

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