Are Academics Irrelevant? The Sequel

Blogged recently on the question above, (after an earlier snipe) and have stumbled, via an Aussie called James Whelan, on an American called Randy Stoecker.

His 1999 piece for “American Behavioural Scientist” (yeah, I know, who knew?) is quite useful indeed.

With the subtitle “Roles for Scholars in Participatory Research,” he outlines what Participatory Research is (and isn’t).

Participation is part of a broader social change strategy. For Rahman (1991b) “Domination of masses by elites is rooted not only in the polarization of control over the means of material production but also over the means of knowledge production…. These two gaps should be attacked simultaneously wherever feasible”. likewise, “Involving research subjects as partners in the entire research process also increase the potential to distribute the benefits of the research process more equitably” (Maguire, 1987, pp. 38-39). The research process must increasingly shift the power and control of decision-making into the hands of community members. This is very important for women, who are often left out of PR by male-centred language, women’s unequal access to participation, too little attention to obstacles of participation, women’s unequal access to project benefits, and an absence of feminist theory and gender issues (Maguire, 1987, p 46).

Ok, so none of this is earth-shattering stuff that you’d not get from Gramsci, Susan George and Saul Alinksy (quoted by Stoecker). But Stoecker writes well, has experience that he has reflected on and asks the right questions.

He reckons academics can have three roles- the Initiator, the Consultant and the Collaborator. Crucially, he makes no blanket pronouncements about which is “best” or “right”. He says, sensibly, that it depends on the terrain, the goals.

And he’s alive to the difficulties.

But collaboration is hard. Rahman (1991b) worries that “it is not easy to establish a truly subject-subject relation at the very outset with people who are traditionally victims of a dominating structure” (p. 17). Community members are not used to the “talk” world of academics, and they are often skeptical of it. And real collaboration takes a lot of time – for meetings, for accountability processes, for working through the inevitable conflicts – that may be in especially short supply for community group members. The collaborative approach may be less efficient than the consultant approach, asking community members to participate in ways theat they are not interested in or do not have time for. Maguire (1987) reminds us that “while researchers may be able to invest their total work time in a PR project, participants continue their regular life activities. On the other hand, does collaborative participation go far enough in changing existing knowledge relations? If the collaboration generates new knowledge and understanding for both community members and academics then perhaps so, but if the collaboration is just each doing what they do best then maybe not.

Look, the last word on all this was said by the young Susan George, way back in the day-

Study the rich and powerful, not the poor and powerless. Any good work done on peasants’ organisations, small farmer resistance to oppression, or workers in agribusiness can invariably be used against them. One of France’s best anthropologists found his work on Indochina being avidly read by the Green Berets. The situation becomes morally and politically even worse when researchers have the confidence of their subjects. The latter then tell them things the outside world should not learn, but eventually does. Don’t aid and abet this kind of research. Meanwhile, not nearly enough work is being done on those who hold the power and pull the strings. As their tactics become more subtle and their public pronouncements more guarded, the need for better spade-work becomes crucial. If you live in an advanced country, you undoubtedly have the social and cultural equipment to meet these people on their own terms and to get information out of them. Let the poor study themselves. They already know what is wrong with their lives and if you truly want to help them, the best you can do is to give them a clearer idea of how their oppressors are working now and can be expected to work in the future.

Susan George (1976) How the Other Half Dies: The Real Reasons for World Hunger, p. 289

And didn’t someone say that it’s the responsibility of intellectuals to expose lies and tell the truth?

But Stoecker’s still worth a look…

About dwighttowers

Below the surface...
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