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Oh, academia

2013 October 31

I recently went to a journal club where we discussed some recent commentaries on the future of social epidemiology. The articles, and my colleagues’ reactions to them, provoked me to try to summarize my frustrations with the academic world.

Though some disciplines are better than others, academia generally adheres implicitly to the positivist ideal of a universal body of knowledge which is always making progress, represented by the sum total of every peer-reviewed paper ever published, in which we talk about what “we” know and what “we” don’t know, “we” being a depersonalized, universalist abstraction that ignores questions about who exactly knows, and who gets to decide what counts as valid knowledge. When individuals can’t find an idea in the literature, they get to claim that “we” don’t know about it, i.e. that nobody knows about it. We consider ourselves as contributing to a collective resource for all humanity, “more” knowledge being an unquestionably good thing.

We might critique research for not being scientifically valid, or not being practically useful, but we rarely critique it as harmful: we fail to notice how this system* sidelines the perspectives of the already-marginalized, denies the validity of other forms of knowledge, and leaves all our privilege-derived assumptions and prejudices unchecked and propagating. It reinforces the power of the upper classes (the ones who have better access to graduate-level education) to frame the problems and solutions that are taken seriously by the rest of society, and is therefore one of the mechanisms that maintains inequality. I am not saying academic work is useless; indeed, I plan to spend most of my life doing academic work. I am saying it has major problems which are generally being ignored.

Many anthropologists seem to get this; most epidemiologists (in my admittedly limited experience) don’t. They may be very nice people who do useful work, but it is hard for me to feel like I can engage productively with them when they don’t share my anger about this. So far, going to journal clubs and critiquing articles from this perspective has not felt like a very productive strategy. I feel like I am seen as that angry, bitter guy who flings around wild accusations, my concerns falling on mostly deaf ears. So I’m open to suggestions!

*People working strictly within the natural sciences on the microscopic or cosmic scales can probably claim a relative distance from this problem, even though their work is also ultimately embedded in that same social system and still ultimately impacts people. But as soon as you are studying people directly, these concerns become paramount.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. 2013 October 31 07:09

    One approach to try (which you might be doing already) is to share with your colleagues what you think would be better approaches to doing research. In my experience, it’s easier to engage with people who critique “the system” if they present feasible alternatives.

    • 2013 October 31 07:32

      Participatory research, when done well (i.e. done humbly), is the feasible alternative. Recognizing the expertise of diverse others, even if they are “unscientific”, and being more careful about the assertions we make, is the feasible alternative. But it’s that humility that is the key ingredient. If I know someone is starting from the premise that alternatives will be assessed mainly in terms of their scientific rigour, trying to frame my alternative to meet that criteria is kind of missing the point (even if I think it can be done). I want them to rethink their whole epistemology. Though I guess exposing them to the kinds of humble perspectives I like, whether through the work of others or just by being an example, is one way to do that.

  2. 2013 October 31 07:34

    Great post! I think I share many, if not all, of your concerns although maybe not always to the same degree.

    With regard to use of the word “we”, such is the nature of some personal pronouns (and many other pronouns). We/they/you are explicitly stand-ins for groups of people that make it so we don’t have to continuously refer to which group we’re talking about all the time. That can be really useful but it’s also true that we (who?) often use these personal pronouns in a way that can be quite vague as to whom we are referring to. In this case, though, I kind of felt it was clear we were referring to academic social epidemiologists but, you’re right, it was not made explicit. I didn’t feel like anyone was trying to make claims about the state of knowledge outside that realm. That’s just my perspective though.

    I was about to write a whole bunch more (mostly about perpetuation of inequalities and the potential for knowledge to be harmful which is where our views probably overlap the most!) but I think it’s bad form for comments to be longer than the original post. Let’s grab a beer and talk about this!

    In social epi journal club, we usually leave the last session of the semester open for interesting discussions we wouldn’t normally have. For instance, we had a debate a couple years ago about whether epidemiologists should be activists or not. I think the ideas you bring up here would be perfect for that kind of session. Would you be interested in leading something like that?

    • 2013 November 1 06:24

      I might be, after we grab that beer! You are right that I might be overinterpreting the intent behind the words I hear; as a relative newcomer I am probably missing some important subtext/context. But this is how the discourse of epidemiology comes across to me. And if I am going to raise these deeply critical generalizations in person (which is always a lot trickier since one lacks the benefit of adequate reflection before speaking), I would definitely appreciate some discussion beforehand so I can clarify the goals and figure out how to effectively communicate my concerns.

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