Tag Archives academia

17th Development Dialogue | A call to end the ‘social distancing’ of the sciences – in the COVID-19 era and beyond

17th Development Dialogue | A call to end the ‘social distancing’ of the sciences – in the COVID-19 era and beyond

The chasm that separates the different scientific disciplines remains deep as ever despite the evident need to address pressing global problems through transdisciplinary collaboration. C. Sathyamala and Peter A.G. van ...

Positioning Academia | Decolonizing academic minds: reflecting on what academics are getting wrong (and right) by Ton Dietz

Positioning Academia | Decolonizing academic minds: reflecting on what academics are getting wrong (and right) by Ton Dietz

When Linda Johnson and I shared responsibilities for the Prince Claus Chair in Development and Equity, we had many discussions that were close to the leading topic of the ongoing ...

Positioning Academia | Development must change in the face of injustice and inequality

Inequality is growing in most countries and deep-seated injustices continue to pervade our world—from the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on minority ethnic groups and the tragic death of George Floyd in the US, to reports of the collapse of the health system in Yemen. In the face of such embedded inequalities and injustices, what must we, as engaged academics, do to make our commitment to a more equitable and sustainable world real?

Through this series we are celebrating the legacy of Linda Johnson, former Executive Secretary of the ISS who retired in December last year. Having served the ISS in various capacities, Linda was also one of the founding editors of Bliss. She spearheaded many institutional partnerships, promoted collaboration, and organised numerous events, always unified in the theme of bringing people in conversation with each other across divides. This blog series about academics in the big world of politics, policy, and practice recognises and appreciates Linda’s contribution to the vitality of the ISS.

Changing how we ‘understand’ and ‘do’ development

As shown by contributors to the World Social Science Report on Challenging Inequalities, which the IDS led in 2016, multiple forms of inequality intersect to drive marginalisation and discrimination. In 2020, injustices and inequalities have been exposed and exacerbated in different ways through the disruptions and shocks that are shaping our era—from COVID-19, climate change and financial crises to conflicts, new technologies and closing political spaces.

These disruptions, which share many underlying causes, are both threatening collective futures and sharpening the vulnerabilities felt by particular people and groups. Long-dominant development models, such as those promoting economic growth, market liberalisation, globalisation, carbon-intensive industries and command-and-control planning regimes, are now under unprecedented challenge. But while these disruptions pose threats and challenges, they also offer opportunities to do things differently:  to ‘build forward differently’ and to rethink development as transformative change.

At IDS, we have identified three key areas in which a collective endeavour within, across and beyond the development sector is urgently needed. Each provides a valuable opportunity to develop our thinking with global partners, including colleagues at ISS, on how we can best collaborate to co-generate and mobilise evidence in ways that ultimately make a difference to people’s lives, and especially tackle the most extreme forms of inequity and injustice. We wish to:

1. Build and connect solidarities for collective action, locally and globally.

Responses to interlinked global challenges such as inequality, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate that knowledge, action, and leadership can emerge at local levels, as well as, or often in the absence of, action at state, national, and global levels. Neighbourhood quarantines, initiatives to provide food to the most vulnerablecommunity gardens, and local actions to eradicate plastic waste are just a few amongst myriad recent examples across the world.

More concerted efforts need to be undertaken to connect such local initiatives with national and global collective action, whether through building national and transnational alliances between social movements, encouraging government recognition and support, strengthening international financial, economic, health and environmental governance, or sharing science and data. For example, the World Health Organization’s repeated calls for global solidarity in relation to COVID-19 have been heeded by many, but international collaboration is still limited. Global partnership is an essential part of the equation in tackling global challenges—whether that’s finding treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, tackling climate and environmental vulnerabilities, or understanding and addressing institutional and systemic racism—and pressure needs to be applied to governments worldwide not to retreat behind borders.

ISS and IDS share a commitment to a universalist approach to development; we recognise that the time is right to look within Europe, to apply our frameworks, tools, and praxis of international development to new development trends in the Global North, including climate change, the global rise in populism, inequalities of many kinds, and health crises. A working group within IDS is developing partnerships and thinking around this through our European Engagement Approach.

2. Value diverse knowledge and expertise.

IDS and ISS are both committed to ensuring the representation of social sciences in responses to global shocks, and we advocate the need for expertise from across disciplines, countries, sectors and communities, and better ways of facilitating the collaborative generation and sharing of this knowledge and learning. Again, the COVID-19 response, and its interconnections with inequalities, is salutary. The mantra of ‘led by the science’ misleadingly presents science as a singular, uncontested, unbiased thing operating outside of politics and social norms. The range of disciplines drawn on in most national responses has been narrow, dominated by epidemiology and biomedicine.

Bringing wider forms of expertise to bear means, for example, challenging assumptions underpinning scientific modelling; drawing on social sciences to understand how the virus is spreading, between whom, and who is vulnerable and why; and complementing formal science with the knowledge and learning of local populations —as occurred so effectively in countries such as Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia during the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak.

But taking inequalities and injustices seriously means we also need to go further. We need to invest in equitable and sustainable research partnerships that value and strengthen the knowledge and expertise produced by institutions, universities, and communities in low- and middle-income countries, and to support moves to ‘decolonise’ development knowledge and practice, and foster cognitive justice.

3. Understand, address and challenge power imbalances.

Most important in changing the way we think about and do development is to understand, address, and challenge deep-seated power imbalances. Power relations underlie the causes of and vulnerabilities linked to health, climate, and economic disruptions. They lie at the heart of inequalities and injustices. Whether progressive economic, social, and environmental change takes place ultimately depends on political choice and mobilisation, involving citizens, states, and other actors in processes that will often be highly charged. Development can no longer be imagined as a technical matter, but must be treated as thoroughly political.

We must also move beyond limited applications of ‘thinking and working politically’ in aid programmes, to embedding understandings of politics and power, including the politics of knowledge, more widely and deeply in attempts to influence change and transformation. In doing so, we must look within our own organisations and institutions at how we create and prop up, consciously or sub-consciously, entrenched power relations, injustices, and inequalities.

And as academics and scholar-activists, we also need to reflect on and be humble about our own assumptions and positions. Whether through the ways in which we approach partnership, in relation to where and who we choose to engage with, in how we frame and teach development, or in how far we reflect equality and diversity across all that we do, it is time to match our commitments to a more equitable and sustainable external world with commitments to justice in our personal and institutional practices.

As academics and knowledge professionals committed to a more equal and sustainable world, staff at the Institute of Development Studies and the International Institute for Social Studies share the goal of collaborating across sciences, sectors, and communities to do research, learning and teaching that brings progressive change. Our institutes have a long history of collaboration, including through the Journal of Peasant Studies, the Land Deals Politics Initiative, the Wellbeing, Ecology, Gender and Community Innovation Training Network (WEGO-ITN), Robert Chambers’s and Richard Jolly’s Honorary Fellowships at ISS, and more. We look forward to collaborating with ISS and others in this vision of development. Read more about our commitments and priorities, and join us in solidarity around a search for social and cognitive justice in meeting challenges that affect us all.

About the author:

Melissa Leach is Director of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS).

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

Positioning Academia | Creating a safe haven at ISS for scholars at risk

Positioning Academia | Creating a safe haven at ISS for scholars at risk

While most academics can conduct research freely, a number of scholars around the world have been threatened due to the nature of their critical, yet crucial work in the field ...

COVID-19 | How COVID-19 exacerbates inequalities in academia

COVID-19 | How COVID-19 exacerbates inequalities in academia

The COVID-19 crisis has brought to the fore gendered and racialised aspects of precarity that were steeping in academia long before the virus emerged. The increased burden of unpaid care ...

COVID-19 | Will current travel restrictions help academics change their flying behaviour? by Lara Vincent and Oane Visser

With drastic restrictions on mobility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, international academic air travel for research, conferences, and defences has largely come to a halt. The sudden inability to hop on a plane and fly away makes us even more aware of how mobile academics have become over the past decades. The COVID-19 pandemic may provide the perfect opportunity to reassess and alter our travel behaviour now that we are forced to stay put, write Lara Vincent and Oane Visser.


Hypermobility is widely viewed as a cornerstone of contemporary globalised academics and a sine qua non for professional success in the increasingly competitive environment of higher education that requires the showcasing of research at academic conferences and elsewhere. Academics are pressured to be innovative and utilise travel to undertake and present distinguishable research (Nursey et al. 2019: 1). Data collection, conference attendance, and networking opportunities are three of the main reasons for international (short-term) mobility, all which are described by academics as essential for one’s visibility—and success—in the academia. This is consistent with the profession’s ranking as one of the three most mobile jobs in the world, with business executives and politicians filling up the other two spots (Mahroum 2000: 26).

Frequent air travel is gradually becoming an issue of debate in academia. Several European universities have introduced policies to reduce (the impact of) academic travel. In the Netherlands, a ‘climate letter’ drafted end 2018 by a group of prominent academics pushed for a progressive climate agenda to be adopted by Dutch universities, with strong support from the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU). In Belgium, Ghent University is one of the pioneers, with a travel policy that distinguishes ‘green destinations’ (with a travel time by train or bus below six hours) and ‘orange destinations (up to eight hours). For green destinations like Oxford, Frankfurt and Montpellier, flights are not offered anymore; for ‘orange destinations’, such as Geneva and Hamburg, train and bus are the preferred options.

But at most universities, it still seems business as usual regarding air travel. Unlike business executives and politicians, academics are deemed knowledge producers. The paradox between the abundant knowledge produced and circulated in academic settings about the far-reaching negative repercussions of climate change and continued frequent air travel by academics raises the question why the profession fails to move to more pro-environmental mobility.

Research by Tom Storme of Ghent University on the contradictory nature of knowledge and action regarding air mobility stimulated Lara to conduct her ISS Research Paper on this topic. She found that many of the 20 academics interviewed about how they view their academic travel behaviour mentioned psychological discomfort due to the inconsistencies between their knowledge and behaviour. This can be characterised as cognitive dissonance and can only be relieved with a change in attitudes or actions to match the other (Festinger 1957: 7).

The academics interviewed at the ISS stated that not travelling was viewed negatively in the ever-changing world of academia where transnational connections enhance the ability to be socially and professionally visible. As a result, the interviewees dismissed their dissonance by predominately adapting their attitudes to match their flight patterns, such as by comparing academic flight emissions favourably to other industries, emphasising the lack of control over their actions, compensating emissions by becoming more environmentally conscious in their personal lives, or highlighting the essential societal value of the research that the travelling enabled. Changing travel behaviour by reducing flying was seen as impossible when you want to build an academic career.

Ironically, it seems that 2020 has forced academics to re-evaluate their reliance on cross-border travel. The grounding of aeroplanes due to COVID-19 has forced academics to review their reliance on air travel, behaviour that was previously imagined as virtually impossible. PhD defences are now suddenly done online, part of planned conferences are being shifted online, and some face-to-face research is being substituted by online and phone interviews. Will these trends stick when the airspace is opened, or will we divert to our old habits?

The move to confine individuals to their houses and limit travel to contain the coronavirus has also drastically reduced the carbon emissions produced by air travel. The world has seen a reduction in pollution levels with satellites images showing clear skies over cities that were previously impossible to view from space (Collins 2020: 1). The pandemic has unexpectedly unleashed or accelerated pro-environmental mobility policies in various cities. Mostly notably, Milan is drastically reducing car use to rapidly make space for laying out cycling infrastructure in order to stimulate people to avoid public transport where it is difficult to keep enough distance to prevent the proliferation of the coronavirus.

While air traffic is likely to rebound substantially after the pandemic has been contained, it seems that the global lockdown has enabled academics to re-evaluate their need for hypermobility in a world where the repercussions of climate change are acutely experienced—a change that was deemed almost impossible until early 2020. The pandemic has shown that it is possible to go back to ‘normal’ levels of mobility when compared to today’s hypermobility, but the academia that demands air travel as way to ensure success may also have to be fundamentally transformed to allow for academics to conduct and showcase their research  differently. More online conferences, conferences with a mixture of online and offline presentations, and organising (or selecting) conferences based on their accessibility by ground transport may be some of the ways to go.


Acknowledgments: A word of thanks to the ISS academics who shared their views in the interviews.


This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.


About the authors:

Lara VincentLara Vincent was part of the 2018/2019 Masters students who graduated in December 2019. While at ISS she majored in Agrarian, Food and Environmental Studies, with a specialisation in Environment and Sustainable Development.

Foto-OaneVisser-Balkon-1[1]

Oane Visser (associate professor, Political Ecology research group, ISS) leads an international Toyota Foundation funded research project on the socio-economic and environmental effects of -and responses to- big data and digitalisation in agriculture. He is an ISRF fellow for 2020-21.

 

#MeToo and the need for safe spaces in academia by Brenda Rodríguez, Bruna Martinez and Vira Mistry

#MeToo and the need for safe spaces in academia by Brenda Rodríguez, Bruna Martinez and Vira Mistry

We hope this article leads to a larger discussion about sexual harassment in academia and the urgent work of creating a safe and inclusive environment for all of the members ...

Fighting Climate Change: Is Academia Doing Enough? by Fleur Zantvoort

Fighting Climate Change: Is Academia Doing Enough? by Fleur Zantvoort

Sometimes our research takes us to unexpected places. I spent the last weeks gluing my friends to fossil fuel corporations, getting lifted up and “bureaucratically displaced” by riot police, and ...

Celebrating a year of blissful blogging: ISS Blog Bliss turns 1!

Bliss, the blog of the ISS on global development and social justice, turns one this week. Although the blog is still in its infancy, it is already showing great promise. The Bliss Editorial Board here reflects on the reasons why Bliss should be celebrated and outlines their wish list for the year to come.


Bliss, our blog about global development and social justice, celebrates its first birthday today. We don’t really have a frame of reference for thinking about whether we are doing a good job, and can thus only share why we have come to like the blog.

In the first 12 months of existence of our blog, 68 posts have been published. Two-thirds of these were written by staff and students of the ISS. The breadth of topics mirror the lively diversity in the institute, with topics ranging from economic diplomacy, humanitarian aid, women’s rights, epistemic diversity, deglobalisation, the Orphan Industrial Complex, populism, and much more.

We know our stats. We have had 13,000 visitors in the first year—more than 1,000 every month. Is this good or not? It pales in view of the intimidating numbers one has become used to for web-based platforms. But what do we compare the blog to? When we think of the average number of students in a classroom or participants in seminars, we are extremely happy and impressed if indeed 13,000 people have bothered to read at least one of our posts!

Making our research known

What inspired the blog is an urge to open the windows of our building and reach out about pressing issues that our research sheds light on. We defined our audience as people in policy, practice and the public at large. We are particularly pleased that we have had 1,000 visitors from India, and another thousand from South Africa and Kenya! We have actually had visitors from across the world due to the diversity of our articles.

ISS staff and students have also gotten to know each other’s work better through Bliss. We see each other every so often over lunch or in meetings, and we usually know the kind of project or topic colleagues work on, but rarely do we know the specifics of the research. It is really wonderful to get the occasional glimpse of what your neighbour at work has been up to and what insights she or he reached and wants the world to know about.

Pursuing social justice

One blog will not change the world, but it is wonderful that we can add our voices to the critical streams for positive change, global development and social justice that keep up and manage to trickle through all the often depressing layers of naïve, selfish, blinded, devious, scared, evil, commercial, unthinking, or fanatical messages that continue to condone inequality, violence and threats to our climate.

Our first year has brought some evidence that blogging can be fun and powerful. Dorothea Hilhorst, one of the Editorial Board members, wrote her first post for Bliss about a report on transactional sex in the DRC that she was quite proud of, but that had not gotten much traction in the two years after its completion. However, Bliss helped her to make known her work on transactional sex in the DRC. The topicality, the title, and the picture related to the blog article all added to the cocktail that made the post one of the most popular on Bliss. It importantly led to different follow-up requests for lectures, blogs and even an invitation to contribute to a special issue on sexual abuse in the aid sector. This just shows what impact Bliss can potentially make if it reaches the right audiences.

The year ahead

It would be tempting to present you here with links to our favourite posts, but there are too many, and each has its own merits. We invite everyone to identify their personal favourite and tell us in a comment. So, instead of listing our favourites, let us rather share with you our wish list for the year to come. Here are five things that we hope to see in the coming years:

  1. More series. We have had several series this year on deglobalisation, epistemic communities and humanitarian studies. Series have turned out to be an effective way of disseminating fresh messages while creating a continuing conversation about different faces and shades of an issue.
  2. More responses on topical issues and news related to our academic work. Many things happen in the world that our research directly speaks to, so our research can feed into ongoing debates. Just recently, for example, we had a wonderful post on the recent elections in Brazil.
  3. More frequent use of blogging to increase the societal relevance of academic work. ISS places a high premium on societal relevance. Although there are many meanings of and approaches to societal relevance (a blog article on the topic is to be published soon), blogging is definitely a wonderful way to go the extra mile and tell a wider audience about relevant findings from an academic publication.
  4. More discussion about issues that matter to academic work in a world where the nature and status of science and evidence is increasingly under discussion. Confusingly and interestingly, these discussions take place in different corners. They come from places that favour fake news and like to see science as just another opinion. But they also come from within the academe where we wonder how inequality and a lack of recognition of the value of diversity biases our work. There is lots of space for debate on our blog.
  5. More stories that give voice to people that may not easily be heard. To paraphrase comedian Hannah Gadsby: it is not laughter or anger that connects people and communities, but stories. Let Bliss be a place where connecting stories are being told!

The Bliss Editorial Board members are Sylvia Bergh, Dorothea Hilhorst, Linda Johnson, Rod Mena, Matthias Rieger and Christina Sathyamala.

Exploring masculinities: being a man in the #MeToo era by ISS Counselling Team members

Exploring masculinities: being a man in the #MeToo era by ISS Counselling Team members

A recent workshop on masculinities hosted by the ISS Counselling Team focused on ‘being a man in the #MeToo era’, drawing participants from the ISS and beyond. The workshop provided ...

Epistemic Diversity| Understanding epistemic diversity: decoloniality as research strategy by Olivia U. Rutazibwa

Epistemic Diversity| Understanding epistemic diversity: decoloniality as research strategy by Olivia U. Rutazibwa

How do we make sure that our efforts to diversify knowledge production go beyond a window-dressing/Benetton operation? How can we move beyond merely adding some colour and other markers of ...

Epistemic Diversity | From ‘do no harm’ to making research useful: a conversation on ethics in development research by Karin Astrid Siegmann

Ethical dilemmas are part and parcel of the research processes that researchers are engaged in. This article details a recent conversation between ISS students and staff in which they tried to make sense of some of the ethical issues that researchers face. While the ‘do no harm’ principle was emphasised as an overall yardstick, the discussion went beyond that, raising broader questions about epistemic and social justice.


With thanks to Andrea Tauta Hurtado, Zhiren Ye, Kristen Cheney, Roy Huijsmans and Andrew Fischer.


Scholars in Development Studies are quick to brag about how relevant their research is for the underdogs of society. The reality is that representatives of marginalised groups rarely knock at our office doors to ask for scholarly support. In fact, development research often does harm by justifying economic and social inequalities, reproducing stereotypes and stigma, and misrepresenting or even erasing knowledge about the lives of marginalised people.

How can scholars prevent such harm from being done through their research? This question was discussed by ISS students majoring in Social Policy for Development and staff members in a workshop on “ethical, integrity, and security challenges”. The discussion aimed to prepare ISS students for their fieldwork. While in our conversation the ‘do no harm’ principle was emphasised as an overall yardstick for our research, the discussion went beyond that, raising broader questions about epistemic and social justice.

Challenges to informed consent and ensuring anonymity

Roy Huijsmans’ example from his masters’ research on Dutch school-going children’s employment experiences illustrated that research participants’ informed consent is crucial, but also complicated by the power relations structuring the research arena. Teachers in his former school had facilitated meetings with their students. Several of these students, in turn, had expressed interest in and consented to participating in Roy’s study. When conducting telephone interviews with these children, however, in some cases parents became suspicious: who is that adult male calling their child? Roy’s experience raises the issue of whether it is adequate to understand informed consent individually. If not, what role do we give to the—in this case generational—power relations wherein consent is embedded? Can ethics protocols that require consent from parents or other gatekeepers alongside children’s own answer these questions?

In my own research, class-based power relations motivate special attention to research participants’ anonymity. Referring to a recent study on working conditions in South Asian tea plantations, I flagged that if workers’ and unionists’ statements could be identified, this could lead to their dismissal or worse outcomes. Our research team addressed this concern by not providing names—neither of people, nor of research locations. Andrew Fischer challenged me: would that really prevent identification? It is likely that few people are probably willing to stick their necks out as labour leaders, making those that do more easily recognisable.

One student followed up and asked how she could protect the identity of chemsex users— people having sex while using hard drugs—whose experiences she plans to investigate. Referring to the do no harm principle, Roy encouraged her to reflect on the consequences of research participants’ names leaking out: the Dutch government tolerates illegal drug consumption. Hence, in the current scenario, enforcement agencies are unlikely to arrest users. However, such political priorities can easily change over time. Andrew therefore recommended the anonymisation of transcripts, with their key to be stored outside the computer.

The quest for epistemic justice and diversity

In recent years, I have become increasingly concerned with the responsible representation of the lives, concerns and demands of the people who participate in my research, or, put differently, with epistemic justice. For instance, how will I represent the plantation workers who generously shared their experiences in our tea study? In a way that responds to the academic pressure to publish in highly-ranked journals with specific theoretical fancies? Or do research participants’ concerns guide my writing? This relates to questions that Marina Cadaval and Rosalba Icaza raise in their earlier post on this blog: ‘who generates and distributes knowledge, for which purposes, and how?’

Other participants in the discussion shared this concern for a fair representation. The student who engages with chemsex users’ experiences was acutely aware of the role of race in her research. In exploratory interviews, she learned how race shapes the exercise of power in chemsex users’ sexual relationships and how it either enables them to get support from or bars their access to the healthcare system. How to do justice to participants’ narratives without simultaneously repeating and reinforcing the underlying stereotypes?

For me, one way to deal with this quest for epistemic justice has been to engage in processes of activist scholarship, i.e. in collaboration and joint knowledge production with people who struggle for recognition and redistribution. Activist scholarship involves moves towards epistemic diversity, challenging the widely assumed supremacy of scientific knowledge heavily produced in Northern academic institutions. For instance, I have been involved in the campaign of a Florida-based farmworker organisation for making the Dutch retailer Ahold sign on to their programme for better working conditions in US agriculture. In dialogue with that organisation, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), I have written about lessons from that campaign for how precarious workers can effectively organise. Sruti Bala points out that this implies ‘to listen to articulations radically different from the frameworks that I may be trained in, but more than good listening is required in order for those articulations and insights to translate themselves into what we might call knowledge’. These processes of listening, dialoguing and learning didn’t lead to “consensus-based writing”, though. We had disagreements and I tried to make them visible in my writing.

Besides, there may be internal power hierarchies within the movements with which we collaborate. My colleague Silke Heumann earlier warned that through our decision of who participates in our research and who doesn’t, we run the risk of reinforcing existing power relations and of legitimising an elite’s perspective of a movement.

This approach may not be feasible for a masters’ thesis. What is possible in most cases, though, is to get research participants’ feedback on, critique and validation of how they understood our conversations or my wider observations about their lives. Time is a key resource in this effort to respect their knowledge as experts on their own lives. Taking time for research participants—rather than racing from one respondent to the next—enables us to conduct research in a more responsible manner. I want to integrate this principle more and more in my research due to the belief that this not only helps to prevent harm. Over and above that, it enables me to treat my research participants and their concerns with care. The more time I plan and spend for engagement with those who participate in my research, the greater the likelihood that it will embody epistemic justice.


 

This article forms part of a series on Epistemic Diversity. You can read the other articles here and here

csm_5abd70057687ec5e3741252630d8cc66-karin-siegmann_60d4db99baAbout the author: 

Holding a PhD in Agricultural Economics, Dr Karin Astrid Siegmann works as a Senior Lecturer in Labour and Gender Economics at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam in The Hague, the Netherlands. She is the convenor of the ISS Major in Social Policy for Development (SPD).

Epistemic Diversity | The challenge of epistemic poverty and how to think beyond what we know by Sruti Bala

Epistemic Diversity | The challenge of epistemic poverty and how to think beyond what we know by Sruti Bala

Researchers face the challenge of engaging with the topic of epistemic diversity. We know that we should consider diverse knowledges in our research, but how can this be operationalised? This ...

Epistemic Diversity | “I am where I think”: research and the task of epistemic diversity by Marina Cadaval and Rosalba Icaza

Epistemic Diversity | “I am where I think”: research and the task of epistemic diversity by Marina Cadaval and Rosalba Icaza

Epistemic diversity in research is sorely needed in the academia. But what is epistemic diversity and why is it so important? This post—the first of a series on epistemic diversity— ...

The university of paleness by Willem Schinkel

In a recent attempt to address the underrepresentation of female professors in the Netherlands, the Dutch government made extra funds available to universities to appoint women. To the dismay of many people at Erasmus University, the university refused to fill over half of the available positions and sent the money back. This triggered Willem Schinkel’s personal essay in which he explains how he feels alienated from a university whose masculine dominance is closely tied to its corporate character.


 

If an alien from an exoplanet came to Erasmus University, or to any other university in the Netherlands, and if that alien considered the composition of the university in terms of gender and race, it would most likely draw one of two conclusions. One, this space has been invaded by white men. Two, the model that best describes the spread of white men through institutions of higher learning is that of some kind of plague or epidemic. Of course us earthlings would be quick to explain to our alien friend that the unequal distribution of men and women, of white people and people of color, is normal – even though it is not a normal distribution in the statistical sense! You see, we would tell this alien, the principle that governs our distribution over institutions of knowledge and power, is what we call quality. To which the alien might rightfully respond: ‘I see. And what is the principle that governs the distribution of your quality?’

At this point in time, I don’t think administrators at Erasmus University have a good answer to this question. Recently, our university refused government money for the appointment of so-called Westerdijk chairs for female professors. The dean of the Rotterdam School of Management, Steef van de Velde, made a classic patriarchal move and wasn’t shy about it: in an interview with Erasmus Magazine he said he hadn’t appointed any women because he wanted to “protect” them. After all, an appointment on a Westerdijk chair would be perceived as “stigmatising”, since people would think ‘that they needed this type of appointment because they could not get an appointment on their own merits.’ Moreover, he said, this was not at all a question of money – the RSM has plenty and doesn’t need such money to appoint women. To top it, he said there were plenty of upcoming women in tenure tracks – and why give some women some money (in Dutch, he spoke of a “sweetener”, or douceurtje) and others not?

This kind of reasoning and rhetoric is an affront on so many levels, including the level of intellectual discussion befitting a university. I have no intention to counter it with all the good reasons for the appointment of women. I don’t think it’s my place in particular to make that case, and I also think that the case has been made over and over again. We know all the arguments – that is, if we choose to pay due attention to the scientific study of “diversity” – but they run aground in the morass of the white male dean-dominated powerhouses that university faculties are in this country and elsewhere in the world. So this essay is not a case for diversity. If anything, it’s a case for a university that may be gone, and that more likely may have never existed.

The alien in my hypothetical example might assume that an invasion had occurred. And in a way, of course, the invasion has always already taken place. We are in a state of occupation. Getting serious about undoing it is what is called “decolonising the university”. Here’s another way to think about what it means that our appointments are so one-sided. If I often feel alienated from the university  it has something to do with the model of living together we embody.

The university, like any other setting, is always also one answer to the question how to live together, how to be social, how to practice sociality as being in the world together. And I guess it just keeps on being disappointing that this – the current composition of the university – is the modality of sociality that keeps on being reproduced. Ours is a conditioned stupidity. It is conditioned by an imagination limited to market-based modes of finding value in life. But being so conditioned is not a condition; it is a constraint that is enforced, but over which we might have control.

So whatever happens, let it be obvious that our “diversity”, that is, the composition of our togetherness, is a choice. And the university as it is produces what might be best called a form of paleness. By this I mean a uniformity and homogeneity, a desire for and expression of an order of looking and working alike, an order of whiteness and masculinity, in which “I don’t recognize this picture of the university” even counts as an argument. This paleness is of course a form of whiteness. But the paleness I’m alluding to is also an intellectual desolation or drabness, an achromatics of thinking. And it is a submission to neoliberal procedural routines in the ways we work, as well as a general appreciation of mediocrity sold as “excellence” – remember that, after appointing men on half the positions available, we’re tapping into the lower tiers of intellect and creativity if we continue to appoint men.

And what a bleak picture it is to see those with a ticket to inclusion! What has happened when students (they are not to blame for this!) don’t even think to criticise the curriculum set by the order of pale sameness? What has happened when technocratic markers of achievement that are “evidence based” take precedence when in fact most have no clue what a genuine spirit of inquiry would be, what intelligence might be as a mode of sociality beyond individuated IQ indicators, or how study might be a shared venture to recompose the world in ways that subvert the pale order of sameness to which we currently sacrifice ourselves, but mostly others, for the noble cause of producing “knowledge”?

If anything is clear, it’s that the university is invested in state and corporate power, including criminal fossil fuel companies, and divested in diversity. And when we keep on seeing how diversity basically functions as what Sarah Ahmed calls a “non-performative”[1] – something designed not to produce its stated goals – the only way to move forward is to step up our critical reflection on, and our subversion of, the university at large. The point is thus not to consider the university as basically fine as it is, and to just grant access to it to a greater number of people, or by people of a variety of gender and “race”. It’s not about letting others get a piece of the pie, of sharing in the otherwise unchanged corporate paleness that marks the university today. Much more fundamentally, it is a matter of living as such, of living together. After all, this is what we do on campus: during the day, ours is a specific modality of being together, a selective, tilted, and pale form of intimacy. So the question who gets to be there is pertinent, and concerns us all.

[1] See: Ahmed, S. 2012. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, Durham: Duke University Press.


An earlier and longer version of this piece was published in Erasmus Magazine: https://www.erasmusmagazine.nl/en/2018/05/19/opinion-the-university-of-paleness/?noredirect=en_US


willemschinkeloverracismecensuurenpolitiekecorrect-0-0-820-540About the author:

Willem Schinkel is Professor of Social Theory at Erasmus University Rotterdam and a member of the Young Academy of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW).

 

 

Trump’s ‘doublespeak’—why academics should speak out by Jeff Handmaker

Trump’s ‘doublespeak’—why academics should speak out by Jeff Handmaker

U.S. President Donald Trump in January 2018 delivered his first State of the Union Address (SOTU). At first glance, he sounded more presidential than ever following his tumultuous first year ...

How to make sure that research has a durable impact? Examples from DRC by Dorothea Hilhorst and Adriaan Ferf

How to make sure that research has a durable impact? Examples from DRC by Dorothea Hilhorst and Adriaan Ferf

About the authors: Adriaan Ferf coordinated the DRC programme of the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium. He has over 40 years of experience with policy studies and evaluations of development and humanitarian ...

Scholars at Risk: precarity in the Academe and Possible Solutions by Rod Mena and Kees Biekart

About the authors:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Rodrigo (Rod) Mena is a socio-environmental AiO-PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam. His current research project focuses on disaster response and humanitarian aid in complex and high-intensity conflict-affected scenarios.

kees-biekart_Kees Biekart is Associate Professor in Political Sociology at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. His area of expertise is in NGOs, social movements, civil society, and foreign aid, in particular in relation to Latin America.


The environment in which scholars are expected to produce societally relevant knowledge seems to become increasingly insecure. An estimated six hundred cases reported over the past two years of academics being subjected to arrests, threats, physical or verbal abuse, violent assault, prosecution or job losses have led us to raise the question: How safe is the academic milieu for scholars? This article, based on the Scholars at Risk seminar organised by the ISS in September 2017, discusses the precarious situation of academics and presents alternatives to current risky environments, particularly strategies both at the individual and institutional level for protecting scholars at risk.


Can the academic environment really be typified as a safe and secure space for scholars? While in some contexts academics may work freely and without fear, worldwide the reality can be quite different. Statistics show that academics are increasingly facing uncertain and insecure conditions, with almost six hundred cases reported over the last two years of negative actions taken against academics, including arrests, threats, physical or verbal abuse, violent assault, and prosecution. Such actions result primarily from negative perceptions of the research topics and ideas that scholars teach and research, the position that academics hold in society, the locations in which they conduct research, and their interactions with other members of society. The Academic Freedom Monitor has verified that in recent years, more than 800 attacks on staff and students in higher education have taken place globally; this number does not include cases remaining unreported primarily due to fear or the embarrassment associated with stigmatisation.

Scholars at Risk

In order to better understand the risky conditions scholars increasingly face, in September 2017 the ISS and the UAF co-organised a seminar titled ‘Scholars at Risk’, named after a project of the Foundation for Refugee Students UAF and the Scholars at Risk network (SAR). During the seminar the programme coordinator of the Scholars at Risk project and an academic who in her professional capacity had faced threats engaged in a discussion of their experiences and possible solutions to this problem facing the academe. Three topics discussed during the seminar are of particular interest:

First, the discussion emphasised that the phenomenon of risky academic environments does not just affect developing countries or institutions, but occurs globally. Northern scholars are also subject to pressures, threats and limitations on freedom of expression in their research and corresponding publications. When transgressing certain societal boundaries, restrictions and sanctions ensue. For example, in Eastern Europe and in Russia, cases of the imprisonment and prosecution of scholars can be cited; however, in the rest of Europe academics most commonly face the threat of job loss. However, in many northern countries justice systems generally operate more effectively, allowing scholars to denounce threats or seek support in threatening situations.

Second, scholars in diverse fields are affected. Precarious environments do not only affect social scientists and scholars in the humanities – mathematicians, biologists, doctors, and engineers are also constantly targeted. Last year, a NASA physicist conducting research at the University of Houston was detained in Turkey and accused of being a spy for the United States government and a member of the Turkish Gülen movement. This academic is still detained and awaiting a possible prison sentence of up to 15 years [1].

Third, the effects of risky academic environments stretch beyond the confines of the academic space, threatening familial security, forcing scholars and their families to seek refuge, and obstructing scientific advances and knowledge generation. Freedom of expression is also limited, as public discussions and discourses, social reflection, and freedom of thought are reduced, impeding efforts to strengthen democracy. It is hence evident that it is a serious and potentially dangerous phenomenon affecting society-at-large and the foundations whereupon societies are built – science, technology, and critical and reflective thought.

Scholars_At_Risk
Source: Getty Images via Times Free Press

Moreover, persecution is not only restricted to scholars, but also affects physical spaces in which they work. Universities, laboratories or observation centres are also attacked, destroyed, or limited in their operations. The non-academic staff working in these spaces, including translators, facilitators and administrative staff (and their relatives) are increasingly confronted with violent situations or are threatened due to their work. The problem hence can be said to directly affect the entire higher education community.

When confronted with this reality many scholars face, many people may ask whether the academic space, then, is shrinking, especially when viewed alongside the other harsh realities of the modern academic world, including the pressure to publish in high-impact journals and the dictation of research topics by research grants. While we do not know whether the academic space is actually shrinking, we do know that it is rapidly transforming. Academics are confronted not only with the risks mentioned above – their freedom of access to information is also under fire. Conducting research in countries suffering from violent conflicts often implies physical risks for academics, alongside the possible destruction of historical information or reduced capacity to produce new knowledge.

 

A Possible Way Out

After sketching this scenario, the obvious question that arises is how this situation can be addressed. Certainly, no easy solutions can be presented, but a number of steps can be taken in an attempt to create a safer working environment for scholars. The 2017 Free to Think report of Scholars at Risk states that scholars first have to cast a spotlight on the situation, advocating for change and urging states, civil society and leaders to ‘recognize publicly the problem of attacks on higher education, their negative consequences, and the responsibility of states to protect higher education communities within their territories against such attacks’ (Scholars at Risk 2017).

Within our academic communities, safe spaces will have to be created where affected people can publicly and freely discuss their situations. Moreover, we need to engage and urge our academic institutions to become part of organisations and networks protecting and assisting scholars at risk. After all, should it be so difficult to host scholars who seek protection? The academic community is responsible for providing protection to scholars and will have to create mechanisms to support affected people and their families. While ethics committees of research institutions focus on the safety of research subjects, the safety of researchers still does not enjoy sufficient attention.

Scholars also must reflect on the impact of their activities on others. While the full responsibility must not be placed on academics, we, as scholars, can also be proactive by taking measures such as avoiding hazardous situations, protecting our data, engaging with our informants, and by improving our interaction by means of the internet (through emails, web-based research and the use of cloud storage). The abovementioned are only some of several measures that we can take to actively protect ourselves from those people and situations putting us at risk. Especially scholars working or residing in repressive settings known for putting scholars at risk should know which options are available to them to avoid persecution. The global community will concurrently have to advocate for change. Manuals such as the ‘Security guidelines for field research in complex, remote and hazardous places’, although focusing primarily on one component of academic research, can provide valuable information on how to prevent and reduce risks scholars can face.

In conclusion, we as scholars need to engage in an on-going discussion on how to become more aware of scholars at risk and of the actions we can take to help our colleagues. Very likely, much more can be done to protect and support fellow scholars who cannot or are hesitant to speak out, or who have gone into hiding. A safe academic environment moves beyond support for affected scholars, since we all benefit from the academic freedom our predecessors have fought for. After all, how can we cherish academic freedom if some of us are unable to speak out freely?


[1] http://monitoring.academicfreedom.info/reports/2016-08-05-nasa-university-houston