Brain on a Stick? The Personal and Political in Academia

By Sharon Cornelissen

Now the pressing deadlines of the semester are over, it is time to reflect and make up the balance. Aside from being an ideal time for personal reflection, it is also a good moment look back at the public debates about higher education this year. These debates, which mostly took place online, centered on two topics that particularly caught my attention: the question about the disappearance of the public intellectual (with the related issue of the public relevance of social science – particularly urgent after the federal decision to cut 22% of NSF funding devoted to social science research), and the issue of the pervading stigma connected to mental health in higher education. While these debates took place next to each other, to me they point at an enduring tension in academia – the ivory tower complex with its ideal of the ‘objective scientist.’

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To what extent should we wish to keep viewing academia as insular from real world intrusions and concerns?
What is the relation between the pursuit of objectivity in science and subjective concerns (both private and public)? 

These questions hark back to Weber’s infamous twin essays Science as a Vocation and Politics as a Vocation, and Bourdieu’s somewhat cynical description of the academic field, which describes academics caught up in internal battles for power. I wondered what I could contribute to this debate.

Fieldworkers have perhaps most acutely confronted questions on the relation between objectivity and the personal and public. Within the ethnographic literature, it has long been recognized that fieldwork is highly personal, and that it is not just impossible but perhaps even undesirable to draw the boundaries between academic questions and personal involvement. The objective and subjective realm are not heterogeneous realms, essentially different, with subjective concerns constantly threatening to invade objectivity (i.e. Durkheim 2008 [1912]).

Rather, ethnography teaches us that great scientific work can often be highly personal at the same time. No ethnography is conceived of and written based on a perspective from nowhere. For example, while coincidence and contingency seem to play a large role in the selection of field sites, ethnographers often also indicate that they felt drawn to a field site by personal affinities. Elijah Anderson, for instance, said that his first ethnography, A Place on the Corner, allowed him to hang out and form adult relationships with men not unlike those whom his father associated with. His scientific project to understand the black men who hang out at Jelly’s Corner, a corner tavern and liquor store, was highly personal and allowed him reflect on his own background.

Rather than barriers to scientific knowledge, ethnographers can mobilize their personal characteristics and political outlook to better understand their subjects. Hence, rather than purifying science, ethnographies rely on reflexivity both on part of the fieldworker, and the readers who are presented with an honest account of the data collection, personal characteristics of the researcher, and the findings. Hence, ethnographic knowledge production relies on, rather than expurgates, the personal and political.

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Based on reading a draft of this blog, Winston Chou (a fellow graduate student), constructed the typology above. All colored boxes are part of the academic field proper, exemplified in the purple box ideal of the ‘objective scientist.’ The activist  (who expresses subjective concerns in the public realm) is seen as outside the field. While the public intellectual threatens to contaminate the ideal of the objective scientist by bringing in public elements, the issue of mental health should be placed in the box of the private scholar, who contaminates science by bringing in subjective, personal elements.

Consequently, the decline of the public intellectual and the mental health stigma in academia both flow from the ideal of a purified academic field, haunted by the image of the objective scientist. Both are inspired by incomplete attention to the total persons that we all are – rich in both the public and private concerns that inspired us to turn to science in the first place.

 

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