Saturday, 12 December 2009

Response to Stephen Walt re: academic freedom

http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/12/07/social_science_and_the_public_sphere

I can only respond to this argument with incredulity. I would very much like to hear from Prof. Walt (a) some examples of this pointless research he is so disapproving of and (b) a specific defence of just how Prof. Walt's research benefits his 'fellow citizens' in such obvious and complete ways that it goes without saying that his is of the 'good' kind that should be encouraged (and given more funding).

Here in Britain, the government's new research rules stipulate that 25% of all research funding for institutions will be assessed on the basis of its 'economic and social impact'. No one knows quite what that means; most agree it is a stupefyingly reactionary policy masquerading as 'common sense'. Everyone, from Nobel prize winning chemists to cultural studies professors are disgusted. It is a populist move born of total ignorance as to how research works right across the academy from physicists who never know which speculative, almost incomprehensible hypothesis will turn out to be valid in 25 or 50 years to the likes of political science where the most ostensibly 'practical' and 'policy relevant' research projects are actually the least 'political' because they invite little or no critical thinking as to the current state of affairs but take it either (a) as a permanent and unchanging, dare I say 'natural', situation (I'm looking at the so called 'realists' and their crippling ahistoricism here, and that means you too Walt!) or (b) as something which it is not the place of academia to criticise - that is to say, that the study of politics should not be political.

Nobody wants to see universities churning out pointless, introverted, apolitical research but where exactly is this research? If anyone can point to the research that actually deserves this label I will gladly join the chorus (I'll sing tenor), however I think that this sweeping characterisation, without putting too fine a point on it, is hasty, overbearing and, frankly, rude.

It is difficult to argue against Prof. Walt's argument seeing as he doesn't specify any research in particular that is of this meaningless 'ivory tower-ish' quality, however I suspect that those studies against which his populist, common-sensical broadside is directed are of the self-styled 'critical' sort that, I believe quite rightly, refuses to engage with the 'cult of relevance' because they wish to place the state of polity (and the polity of the state) under scrutiny - i.e. they do not take for granted that the problems we face as humans (rather than citizens and patriots as Walt's argument seems to suggest) are born of a lack of, in Robert Cox's terms, 'problem solving knowledge' - they do not assume that political problems can be solved by qualitatively 'better' knowledge which can be simply operationalised within existing political structures. Instead they stress the importance of of 'critical knowledge' - that is, knowledge that challenges the way policy is made and the environment in which it is enacted not just what policy is in this extremely narrow sense implied by the call for 'policy relevance'.

In short, from what is an obviously (and this is not a criticism as such - I am aware this is a blogpost not a journal article but Walt does have form on this sort of argument...) thinly argued and sparsely articulated pronouncement it is difficult to mount a concerted and articulate reply, however, my opinion (for what it is worth) can be summed up thusly:

(a) I do not believe that there is a great deal of literature that conforms to the stereotype Walt articulates here. I especially do not believe that there is a great deal of this literature published in mainstream U.S. international relations journals.

(b) I believe that these disapproving broadsides against certain kinds of ('critical' rather than 'problem solving') scholarship emerge from an intellectually conservative, establishmentarian position that Prof. Walt himself occupies. It is primarily an argument that seeks to enclose legitimate debate within a sphere of comfort for such conservative points of view. It is a move that seeks to exclude alternative points of view simply because their conclusions are not directly and unproblematically applicable to present polity. It therefore valorises and naturalises present polity as the only possible political structure. Now, to argue for this permanent perfectionalism is one thing (and I would be interested to engage positively in this debate), however to dismiss all those who argue against this political articulation because they are, simply, 'irrelevant' to its own ways of functioning is quite another.

That said, I do not dispute that there are serious weaknesses in many areas of contemporary scholarship, particularly in IR. As it happens, I would locate the position Prof. Walt occupies among those weak positions along with, chances are, many of the positions taken up by those researchers Prof. Walt has deemed 'irrelevant'. I am an equal opportunities critic.

Of course, I should stress again that I am aware that this is a blogpost and academic rigour is in this sense unnecessary. However, as I said before, Prof. Walt has form on this sort of argument and it is an argument that is gathering pace on this side of the Atlantic precisely because of its populist, common-sensical (yet covertly ignorant and establishmentarian) appeal. I would gladly engage with this sort of argument in a sustained and coherent way.

I must, therefore, (again, for what little it is worth) respectfully but totally refute the claims made in the above blogpost as reactionary, conservative and posing a serious threat to the possibility of diversity within academia at present.

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