All 13 entries tagged Research And Society
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July 05, 2012
I had a conversation with a colleague a few months back that really stuck in my mind. She argued that in the media decisions that would never, ever be considered ethical in the academic world are taken on an everday basis. I believe the conversation revolved largely around the activities of journalists working in print media, but I found myself thinking about the relationship between media and research once again whilst watching a couple of reality television programmes this week.
The first of these was Make Bradford British, a somewhat controversial two-part Channel 4 show from last year. The idea was to bring together individuals from across Bradford's culturally and racially segregated neighbourhoods, so they could learn more about one another's lives and make a series of spurious claims about what it might mean to be British.
Much of the programme was quite contrived, but there were some powerful moments: reactions to the casual, unthinking racism of a white former police officer; the journey of a mixed-race landlady who came to recognise her own prejudices; the young working class white man who learned so much from living with a devout Muslim fellow several years his senior that he decided to turn his life around, cut down on drinking a make a better for his daughter.
All very moving, but I couldn't help but remain somewhat cynical despite enjoying both the programme and many of its messages. Just how did the producers think it was okay to cherry-pick eight people from an area full of cultural tension, and throw them into a house Big-Brother style for a few days before sending individuals to live with one another just to show what happened? Why did no-one seem to intervene when a participant was being verbally abused and then sexually assaulted by racists and Islamophobes on-camera? And did they not predict that fascist blogs would pick up on the show afterwards and attempt to use it to inflame tension?
I'd like to think that most researchers would never allow themselves to get into such a pickle, knowing that gaining consent from human participants is not enough. I've read enough dodgy studies to know that this isn't true, but I feel that we at least have a culture in which ethical considerations are taken very seriously indeed.
The second programme was episode three of Cherry Healey's How to Get a Life. I'm not going to lie: I watched this because a couple of my friends appeared in it, bearing their armpit hair for all the nation to see. However, I found myself once again thinking about the relationship between media and research during this show. Like Make Bradford British, it was powerful, engaging television, with deep personal revelations and a surprisingly serious interrogation of social norms. In addition, I felt it stood on considerably firmer moral ground, with a greater appreciation of what not to film and an approach (and subject matter!) that minimised the potential for harm.
This time around, I began thinking more about the differing truths told by research and the media. The issues at hand - feminism, bodily autonomy, tattoos, subcultures - were deeply familiar because they variously concern myself and/or my fellow PhD students in the sociology department. But where we might interview or survey many in order to examine themes of meaning or societal trends or, the show concentrated on individual experience.
Does this makes its conclusions less valid? I think not. There was a story to be told here, the truth of which complements the truths told by researchers. The same can be said of Make Bradford British. I feel that the real issue comes instead with the ethical decisions taken in the "uncovering" of truth, and this is perhaps an area where the media could learn from our world.
May 08, 2012
I spent the day on Friday attending 'Othering Academia: A (B)ull/s
hit Conference' put on by three postgraduates in the English department. I was expecting a day of laughs and lightheartedness about academia and the sometimes obscure or silly ways we talk about things - which I definitely got. But underneath it all, as we discussed in a roundtable at the end, it was actually a serious interrogation of what academic bullshit is, and how it functions within the academy.
Highlights of the day included Virginie Sauzon and Claire Trevien's paper 'A la recherche du Tesco perdu: The unbearable lightness/otherness of capitalism in Rimbaud', which was a hilarious sendup involving a supposed sexual liaison between Arthur Rimbaud and the founder of Tesco. Another favourite was Anirudh Tagat's 'Mine is faster than yours: Analysing speed of speaking from an economic perspective', in which Tagat completely made up his evidence and conclusions for our edification. Andrea Selleri's 'Vibrating subjects: Motorhead and the cunnilinguistics of the Other' also stood out as the day's most straight-faced piece of pure unadulterated bullshit. Well done, everyone!
However, all this came with a serious set of questions, which coincidentally have been coming up for me in the past few days anyhow. In the US there has been a bit of a furore this week amongst academics over a blog post in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Naomi Shaeffer Riley which dismissed and ridiculed the work of four young Black Studies scholars as irrelevant 'hackery'. What's interesting is that she essentially accuses these scholars of bullshit - of looking at topics irrelevant to the wider culture, and of doing so in a way that is based on left-wing ideology and is impossible to understand (although she has not taken the trouble to read the dissertations).
This highlights, to me, the complicated thing role that bullshit seems to play in the academy. As philosopher H.G. Frankfurt's now-classic essay On Bullshit suggests, bullshit is not the same as a lie - rather it's a statement that is made without regard to truth; the bullshitter, he contends, is more interested in gaining power for himself (and it is often a male-gendered thing, though not always) than in stating the truth.
Here are some possible uses of or contexts for bullshit, according to ideas that came out at the conference on Friday:
- Impressing funding bodies in applications
- Making what you're saying sound complicated or intelligent (although this might not always be done at the conscious level)
- Taking a simple pleasure in obscure language, or in the feeling of mastering it
- Lubricating social interactions amongst academics
- Applying a potentially complicated theory to a particular set of texts or artifacts
- Showing that you have achieved fluency in academic language (for. e.g. PhD students)
This last point seems especially relevant to the Black Studies case, because Schaefer Riley is essentially (beyond the obviously racist comments she makes, which have been eloquently discussed elsewhere) accusing these doctoral students of taking the language of academia too seriously. Yet, as someone pointed out today, the overuse of technical academic language often relaxes after an academic has tenure; bullshit contains an aspect of proving that you belong within the academic 'priesthood'. So in this sense, her picking on PhD students, which seems very unfair, is actually quite telling of the ideological structures of academic bullshit.
January 05, 2012
TMI ("Too Much Information") warning: this post contains links to discussion of "extreme" sexual conduct.
Were you aware that the "Obscenity Trial of the Decade" was underway? No? Well, neither was I. It's not like it's received any attention in the mainstream media (unless you count a belated comment piece in the New Statesman), which is a little odd really.
The case, which seeks to establish whether or not videos of consensual, legal sexual acts constitute "obscene" images that can "deprave" or "corrupt", raises fundamental questions about morality, personal agency, the rule of law, anal sex, the role of the state, and the rights of (sub)cultural minorities. The background and details make fascinating - if sometimes disturbing - reading.
However, I post here about the trial in order to highlight the social media coverage the case is recieving. With mainstream journalists out of the picture, #ObscenityTrial has begun to trend on Twitter thanks to the ongoing live coverage provided largely by two individuals in attendence: freelance journalist Nichi Hodgson, and postgraduate law student Alex Dymock.
I find Alex's role in reporting the trial particularly interesting because it shows how PhD research that might at first appear somewhat obscure can be of great relevance and importance to public life. Through social media, her knowledge and access has become available to the wider world.
I have no idea how relevant the trial is to Alex's actual research project, but it's surely - at the very least - an important tangent. I only hope that her academic advisors agree: "Finally alerted my own supervisors/department as to what I'm doing with myself this week," wrote Alex late last night. Well, I figure we've all been there, sort of.
As a final point, I was interested to read about the comments from Dr Clarissa Smith, Reader in Sexual Cultures at the University of Sunderland. Smith was wheeled out as an expert witness by the Defence to provide information on BDSM subcultures in what strikes me as a glorious moment for the academic world. It's so easy to spend too much time stuck inside our heads and/or the academic world, so I'm always pleased when academics (particularly those from the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences) are called upon as expert witnesses during legal or legislative proceedings.
December 06, 2011
If you happen to have passed through the centre of campus during the last couple of weeks you'll have found it hard to miss Occupy Warwick. Student activists have pitched tents outside the Arts Centre as part of a protest against what they describe as the "marketisation of education".
The occupiers largely exhibit the kind of bloody-minded youthful enthusiasm that is perhaps (stereo)typical of undergraduate protesters, but can their cause also resonate with PhD students? After all, we're not going to be effected by fee rises (right?) and many of us benefit from corporate investment in our research area. In fact, an injection of private money is just what many of our departments (and, by extension, we) need in this time of economic uncertainty.
For the sake of transparency, I'll admit my own participation in the protest at this juncture. I feel the aims and ideals of Occupy Warwick are deeply relevant to all members of the university body, as well as the wider public. As such, I've spent much of the last fortnight organising and publising occupation events during the day, and camping out at night.
Why would I put myself through this? After all, it's not as if it's terribly warm and sunny outside, and (sadly) I simply don't have the same energy that I did as an undergraduate activist. What keeps me going, and why do I care?
My primary reason for occupying arises from my concern for the future of the entire higher education sector in the United Kingdom. I believe that universities should first and foremost be centres of learning, where research and teaching is undertaken for the sake of public good rather than private profit. The tuition fee rise last year was just the start of a concerted attack upon the idea of a public university. The fee rise was accompanied by massive cuts, with the teaching budget for the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences entirely scrapped. Now, the government is planning further changes that will see universities run more like businesses and less like - well, universities.
This is a terrible move because the logic of neo-liberalism hardly entails a better environment for research and teaching. An example of this can be found in the University of Warwick's existing system of internal markets, whereby departments are expected to spend a portion of their budgets upon hiring rooms. The intention, presumably, is to force departments to budget wisely and spend their money efficiently. The reality is an inefficient system where many PhD students (and, for that matter, administrative staff) are crammed into crowded offices (if they're lucky enough to get one at all) whilst other rooms lie permanently empty because departments can't "afford" them. Meanwhile many of the departments worst effected compete with one another for a decreasing amount of space.
Moroever, if research budgets increasingly rely upon private funding, we can expect research itself to increasingly reflect corporate interests. After all, why would you want to pour money into the university system if you didn't expect to see something in return? This has already been happening for years, and it's bound to get worse, with research increasingly driven by private prioritity instead of academic inspiration.
The stated objectives of Occupy Warwick broadly address these twinned issues: marketisation and cuts. The points are admittedly somewhat vague and almost hopelessly idealistic, but in being so they push for a discursive shift in how we understand the university system in the UK. Many will argue that the occupation's objectives are impossible to achieve, with sacrifices necessary from the University in order to maintain a high level of research and teaching. However, the whole point of the objectives is that they resist the logic of "the cuts" altogether, and ultimately call upon the University to oppose the government's ideological committment to austerity measures that hit the public sector and the poor, rather than those who caused the economic crisis in the first place.
A second powerful reason for the occupation is that it provides a visible symbol of dissent. The Warwick environment is centred around the spending of money, from the millions invested in shiny new buildings (to be used only by private companies and economically "useful" departments) to the overpriced food we're expected to buy from University outlets. Meanwhile academic, administrative and interpersonal hierarchies govern our everyday experiences. In contrast, Occupy Warwick reflects the wider "Occupy movement" in rejecting the necessity of both profit and leadership. The occupation is an environment in which food, bedding and decision-making are shared, and undergraduates, postgraduates and staff come together to debate and discuss an alternative approach to the University "experience".
This brings me neatly onto my final reason for occupying: the space has provided a fantastic base for interdisciplinary conversations during the past two weeks. As a friend of mine (currently working towards an MSC in Physics) recently noted, if we'd organised the occupation's thirty-plus talks and workshops as a formal conference we'd have reason to be extremely pleased with ourselves!
Occupy Warwick will be packing up its tents tomorrow. However, the campaign for a better university system will continue well into the new year. If you feel our message is relevant to you, why not get involved?
October 31, 2011
The HEFCE has just released an announcement on the maternity leave issue!
According to the announcement, 'researchers may reduce the number of outputs in a submission by one, for each period of maternity leave taken during the REF period'.
This is excellent news for women, and for academia as a whole - it's a step in the right direction for more sensible employment policies that allow people to have lives.
Now if only they could do the same for men who have children...
October 26, 2011
In a Media Studies mailing list I subscribe to, there's been quite the debate going recently about women in academia. It was kicked off by a senior female academic who took exception to a conference programme that did not include a single female speaker. At first I was a little taken aback by this, because there are many prominent women professors in Film Studies, and indeed I've been to more than one research event that had few or no men. Surely days of counting up the numbers like this are behind us?
Yet in subsequent postings and articles, it's become clear that a lot more is left to be done to make sure women are included to the same levels as men in research culture. Indeed, reading about this stuff has actually felt as though something that was invisible has been made manifest to me.
For one thing, as this recent Times Higher Education article points out, taking time off to have a baby still puts people at a significant disadvantage in the REF. Since primary childcare (as well as care for other relatives, such as ageing parents) still overwhelmingly falls on women, this affects women far more than men and brings down women's chances of meaningful career advancement - which is reflected in the fact that 80% of full professors today are men.
Even though I'm not that keen on having children, I believe this affects me deeply - and it affects male academics too. I'm reminded of the saying I read recently, in a completely different context, about inclusivity in the political process:
What is done to non-whites under the guise of racism is a test run for what they will eventually do to you. [Saw this here.]
This is an excellent argument for why we need inclusivity at all levels of higher education - and of society: because aiding and abetting a system which leaves people behind will eventually leave you behind too. And I think this is happening: my (male) partner, for example, is a lecturer who is increasingly frustrated at the impossibility of having both an academic career and a life. I know that hard work is required for achievement in any career - I'm cool with that - but do we really want a system run by and for only the few people who are able (and willing) to make this level of sacrifice? Who are that disconnected from the world as most people live it? I think this is actually a major reason that people talk about the Ivory Tower of academia - because we allow these institutionalised barriers to entry, of which the lack of family-friendly career advancement policies is most definitely one.
(Also, the fact that women are still punished just for speaking out about the inequalities they face is in itself a sign that the system is broken. See herefor a great article on this.)
And speaking of care duties, the same article points out that pastoral care for students still overwhelmingly falls to female academics - a kind of work that is invisible and unvalued as far as career assessment is concerned. I have often noticed with dismay the way achievement in teaching is downplayed and dismissed - I mean really, the primary justification for our existence, when it comes down to it, is teaching, yet we are given almost no training in it and basically nobody gives a damn whether we're any good at it or not. Yet I had never really thought about this in gendered terms before. It's far more socially acceptable for male professors not to give a damn about their students than for women to behave the same way - an attitude which I'm certain women feel in their course evaluation forms, for example.
This sheds some light on a dynamic I've noticed between myself and my (female) supervisor, whom I've noticed before seems especially keen to make sure her time is respected - as though she's afraid of being seen as too soft or too approachable, which would mean taking on additional pastoral duties. Sometimes this grates on me, but I feel like I totally sympathise now: she's just determined not to be shouldered with extra work simply because she's a woman. Maybe she's allowed this to go too far occasionally, but it's easy to go too far and overcompensate when you've come of age in a system that is set against you at every turn.
However, this brings me to another point which is not so positive: I think some of the worst is done by women to other women. I think some senior female academics feel a little threatened on some level by the prospect of other, younger women achieving in academia - especially if this is because the younger women encounter less resistance and fewer difficulties than she herself did. Kind of like the joke that was going around the interwebs a little while ago about a banker, a Tea Partier, a progressive, and 12 cookies: The banker takes 11 cookies, splits the last one in half, then says to the Tea Partier, 'This progressive guy is trying to take your half a cookie'. I think there's sometimes a similar dynamic at work between female academics: oppressed by the broader system, they argue over crumbs rather than taking on the system itself.
I want to end on a question, plus an anecdote about a friend of mine.
The question is this: Do you have any experiences specifically as PhD students - or as early career researchers trying to transition into a full-time academic job - about the gender dynamics of our current culture in higher education?
And the anecdote is really an example of what this might look like: my friend - a very intelligent, ambitious, dynamic woman and definitely not one prone to complaining - confided in me how hard she was finding it to stay connected to her department after submitting her thesis. She had noted, too, how this differed with male colleagues, who are often helped along with part-time teaching jobs in the department, where the women were expected to 'just get on with it' and find a job on their own steam. I think this illustrates just how deep-rooted and also how hard to perceive sexism can be in the academic workplace: her department has several prominent female members of staff including the head of department. It's not a clear-cut, provable case of sexism - but that's the whole problem, right? It never is.
So I'm left with the old adage, which still FEELS true, even if I haven't got any statistics to back this up:
Whatever women do they must do twice as well as a man to be thought half as good.
August 09, 2011
I've been following the news quite heavily since the weekend and obsessively since last night as riots break out across England. I have many friends in London and Birmingham and am concerned for their safety. I'm a shamelessly political individual and have strong views on the way our country is run, but regardless of blame (and I'm very much inclined to blame certain authorities and social institutions for this mess as well as the morons running around setting fires to people's home) the whole sitution is just plain disturbing.
With events of this consequence ongoing, my research seems almost insignificant. I genuinely believe that academia can make the world a better place in a roundabout way, but I'm honestly not sure how to concentrate on my work when the news and social media are bombarding me with distressingly urgent information. If I were to turn off the internet and work from books and saved articles for the afternoon I'd still be massively distracted by the knowledge that country is still in a gigantic mess.
In many ways I'm lucky to work in a context where I can get away with effectively taking off hours at a time. On the other hand, this is my time and the work needs to be done; I'd really rather not be distracted. But how can I not be?
I'm also aware that the impact of this hand-wringing upon my psyche utterly pales in comparison with the impact that the rioting has had upon the lives of so many people.
July 13, 2011
A double-whammy of good news (or at least, for reasons I'll detail below, things I consider to be good news) in the last week: first the News of the World was cancelled - although there is some small tragedy about what Murdoch and co. did to a 168 year old institution - and now News Corporation have dropped their takeover bid for BSkyB.
Predictably, my Facebook feeds and general conversations with friends have a shared viewpoint on this - these are Good Things, for lots of reasons which aren't worth going into here. However, the researcher in me is starting to wonder - is it a good thing that the vast majority of people I interact with share very similar views on these big issues?
I overwhelmingly interact on a day-to-day basis with academics and PhD students, though certainly not exclusively so - prior to university, I came from a very non-academic background, and I still have a great many friends who never went to university and/or now have "proper" jobs. Regardless, most of the people I talk to about politics, theology, philosophy etc. are at the very least at MA level, and mostly at Warwick which, historically, has its own political biases. These friends and colleagues come from all walks of life, and certain issues remain hugely contentious, but by and large I know that I can say "Hurrah! The News of the World is dead!" and few of the people I interact with will disagree with the sentiment. However, I know that when I next go home, various friends and family will be looking for a new Sunday paper.
I love having shared issues and views, and there's some comfort in being able to get fired up with the people around you. However, Warwick can be a bubble, and the part of me which puts a lot of stock in objectivity, representative polling, empathy, and cross-cultural and cross-social dialogue worries about how easy it is to squirrel oneself away into a pleasant little liberal bubble.
Take the referendum, for instance. I campaigned on behalf of the "Yes to AV" movement, and got extremely excited in the run-up to the election. Sure, I was aware that the polls weren't looking so ambiguous, but buoyed up on enthusiasm and the fact that I knew literally nobody who held the opposite view gave me a sense of empowerment that ended up being quite crushed. It made me take stock. If I as an academic want my research to ultimately mean something, and yet I'm that out of touch with the temperature of the nation, how do I avoid disappearing into this nice, safe ivory tower?
This is a question of principle rather than a practical one, but I'm interested: has anyone else ever felt out of step in this way? Is it a good thing to consolidate and feel comfortable in our views? Or do we need to be making more effort to seek out different voices and ideas? Does the best research come out of an environment of reassuring familiarity, or do we risk being too insulated?
June 30, 2011
Hi all. I went to the discussion yesterday in the Wolfson exchange on how the internet has changed media. It highlighted the massive impact it has had on news, advertisements, and physical media. However this got me thinking about the impact of computers and the internet on PhD life (from a science point of view).
I remember asking my supervisor how he did literature searches in his PhD and he explained how he would spend hours in the library archives searching for literature. He would have to spend quite a while checking the new journals as they came in also. Since there was no Igor Pro, graphs were hand drawn (!) and must have taken an age to plot. Also collaborations must have been much harder, particularly trans Atlantic, since you couldn't just skype or send the latest word copy of a paper draft!
I think it is easy to forget how easy we now have it compared to the past, searching web of knowledge from the office, reading advance articles in your pyjamas whilst eating breakfast. Data is easier to manage, copy and plot, with many programs making analysis much simpler. I am glad I am doing my PhD at this point in time and not 25 years ago!
April 29, 2011
Oh Royal Wedding madness! How you have cut into Summer Term and kept all the undergraduates at bay for another week of sweet, sweet bliss. Count on the royals.
Actually, a friend pointed out to me today that I am the same age as Kate Middleton. Just to think - I could have been marrying a prince right now rather than living in a PhD ghetto house with 21 other cash-strapped postgraduates and working feverishly on a book-length project that no one will ever read...
OK, so you caught me at a bad moment.
Seriously though, how do people feel about the royal wedding? Academics tend to be such crabby, cynical left-wingers. We tend to view the masses as easily duped. Is this what's happening today, or are we genuinely putting this down for a moment and letting our inner princesses get the best of us?
I am seriously quite divided on this point.