Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Reply to Michael Dawson re: academic freedom

http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/12/07/social_science_and_the_public_sphere#comment-94856

@Michael Dawson:

My point was hardly that everything published in academic social science journals today is hunky-dory (if you permit me the phrase), nor that there are not serious weaknesses across the (intellectual) board. I myself would not accept the familiar chant you adopt of 'po-mo must go!' as I find many of these theories, if engaged with, are very important; perplexing perhaps but then I get that when I read anything by a hardline rational choice theorist (no less taxing on the terminological front). That said, there is a fringe orthodoxy concerning this sort of (po-mo) work that is somewhat intellectually stagnant, but that's another matter.

In fairness while I did have the po-mo 'critical' brigade partly in mind when I wrote the above, the only name I made reference to was Robert Cox who surely could not, save for causing him extreme offence, be associated with postmodernism yet he would likely share many of my criticisms, I think, with regard to the dangers of reification of objects of study (the state, human nature, etc.) and the strictures (and structures) of academic discipline that restrict the possibilities of knowledge production. One might legitimately disagree with him and all that he stands for but I don't think one can deny his rigour or the vitality of his thought, nor the space he holds open for critical thought. It was this sort of critical-ness I had in mind primarily.

By the way, I know Walt did not mention anything to do with 'critical' theory, I brought this up as a following-on point from my interpretation of Walt's comments, which I interpreted as relating to this point - and this I stand by.

I appreciate your candor, however.

To reiterate: my point (insofar as I intended to convey it) was that to reject in a somewhat ambiguous manner whole swathes of academic literature without naming any names (as your reply also fails to) is not only unhelpful vis-à-vis constructive debate but is in fact dangerous for academic freedom because it plays into the gaping jaws of an increasingly loud narrative which pronounces that the overarching structures of current political life are fine (even natural) and the only valid research paradigm addresses the production of ways of doing things within these wider structures.

In other words: "We've got the polity sorted, go make us some policy". ("Nothing to see here, move along!")

Given the economic, ecological and political problems that we all face, regardless of our nationality (it was this that perhaps irked me the most in Walt's post - the suggestion that academics owe a duty of deference to their nation rather than to their scholarship; this is a dangerous road), we have to consider that the things we take for granted might be involved inimically with the problems we actually face. Narrowly 'policy-oriented' research cannot address this kind of thing (not that such research is without value, of course - I do not believe this at all).

By way of rearguard defence: I would not by any means say that there are no articles published in decent journals that fall below standards I would consider acceptable. I simply consider it hysterical to suggest that this is some sort of cancer that can and must be removed; that there is 'good' research and 'bad' research and that someone (or anyone) should deem which is which so generally without giving good reasons as to why. I do not consider it the role of anyone - a nobody grad student like me or a well-known and respected, tenured, Ivy League professor like Walt - to say what is of value and what is not in such a sweeping manner (throwaway blog-post or not). Ascertaining the value of these things requires much more carefully defined terms and, dare I say it, more rigour.

There seems to be a number of issues that have become merged here and part of that might be my fault. There is a legitimate concern over excessive methodologism; I would accept that and see now that this is perhaps what others were getting at while I waxed tangential. On that I say this: it is important to be self-reflective on how academic knowledge is produced, surely no one would deny this, yet, I agree, in some quarters this becomes all encompassing and the Academy closes in on itself as the weight of its own intellectual circularity reaches a singularity at which point no life nor light escapes its pull (if you allow me the poetics - its late). This problem, if we accept for a moment that it is such a thing, cannot be addressed by wholesale rejection of nameless literatures.

I repeat the main point I was trying to make: I think this is, simply, dangerous. There are forces at work (not all that 'dark' perhaps but no less real or severe for their existing out in the open daylight) that are attempting and have attempted (with a lot of success, it must be said) to restrict the possibilities of academic knowledge production.

I am not a rudderless idealist when it comes to university life, as it happens. I wouldn't even accept that 'knowledge is a virtue in itself' - I just think that you can't always predict what will become valuable. I will defend to the comment word-limit, however, this assertion: universities should not be reduced to being simply and solely places for turning young people into economically utilisable units and turning unreflectively accumulated data into deferentially served-up policy for the same old ways of doing things. Prof. Walt would probably agree with this I'm sure. He just might not agree, and this is my point (if there actually was one after all this), that the manner of his post (I feel fairly silly for expending all this energy on one blog-post, but, alas, it is done) plays into this denigration of the institutionalised production of high-level, high value knowledge.

I do not think prof. Walt 'conservative' or even uncritical on the whole. He is a lone critical voice on a number of issues and I commend him for this and wish others had the same moral fibre. If I thought otherwise then I probably wouldn't read this blog. I just value academic freedom. And this is under threat. Plus it is, of course, possible to be refreshingly outspoken on, say, Middle Eastern politics and conservatively un-self-reflective on other issues such as, say, the historical contingency of realpolitik. But that's a whole other can of worms...

Bottom line(s): Even if there are some elements of academic research that wouldn't be missed if they disappeared, these cannot be fairly singled out as if they carried some distinguishing, essential feature; this kind of question is much to important to jump to such conclusions.

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