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three questions for activist-scholars

I am not opposed to scholars being politically active, nor using their scholarly skills to tackle public issues. Still, I am a proponent of the compartmentalization of scholarship and activism. Values are important, but so is science and that has to be done in a way that does not bias your research or undermine your claims to truth.

When you mix the two – activism and scholarship – you get some real problems. To illustrate, a series of questions:

  1. Let’s say you are an activist-scholar and you are on a job search committee. Someone applies, has a strong CV, and says they are an activist-scholar… for the other side. Do you seriously consider them or toss the application?
  2. Let’s say that you are on television defending your research and a critical journalist says, “Why should I believe what you say? Don’t ‘activist-scholars’ just dress up their opinions in data? They say in public that politics and science can’t be separated so whatever they say is under suspicion.” What do you say? This is McCabe’s Query.
  3. Do you think activism should be part of consideration for tenure and promotion? If so, how would you vote for someone who does work for the other side? Should a progressive scholar-activist vote down someone who, say, works at the American Enterprise Institute? Why doesn’t that count for tenure for this person?

I think there is righteous joy in saying that everything is political and making your political preferences coincide with your work. That should be resisted. If we blur the boundary, we invite all manner of problem. If you care about promoting your values, professional integrity is your friend and we should do all that we can to cultivate it.

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Written by fabiorojas

December 4, 2019 at 12:35 am

Posted in uncategorized

11 Responses

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  1. It’s not clear to me what you mean by activist-scholar. Terry Engelder at Penn State is a geologist that has promoted fracking. Is he an activist scholar? Most economists advocate for more “free markets” Are they activist scholars? I think it is safe to assume that the research questions that preoccupy us have some underlying value system that motivates them. What is the line that is crossed that classifies an academic as an activist? If I refuse to participate n a “manel” ( https://www.owen.org/pledge/ ) am I an activist?

    Liked by 2 people

    Dror Etzion

    December 4, 2019 at 2:20 pm

  2. Well, this post is responding to discussions among sociologists. There is a strand of thought that sees a big overlap between scholarship and activism. The argument is that there is no meaningful distinction between scholarship and activism. All intellectual work is implicitly political and politics requires allied scholarship.

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    fabiorojas

    December 4, 2019 at 6:37 pm

  3. Careful what you wish for. Ceding ground on public engagement in order to sidestep contention further erodes the role of academics in society. At that point, our work really becomes “academic” in the pejorative sense of being irrelevant to the real world. It might be helpful to imagine, and advocate for, expression of values AND professional integrity at the same time.

    Liked by 1 person

    Dror Etzion

    December 4, 2019 at 7:35 pm

  4. @Dror, not really. See Abbott 1981 on the status-purity paradox. See also this thread https://twitter.com/ewzucker/status/1170793174962495491

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    Derrick

    December 5, 2019 at 5:52 pm

  5. In that thread, Zuckerman writes: “As I note in that essay, great things come form impurity. The point of this is to better understand why it’s generally so *hard* to be impure.” In other words, it’s hard, but not misguided. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Let’s step up!

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    Dror Etzion

    December 5, 2019 at 7:00 pm

  6. No one said it is misguided. But our legitimate authority as academics comes primarily from our scholarship.If we lose that, we end up fully undermining our credibility to speak to the public. More often than not, academics who advocate for an activist-scholar model does wishy-washy activism (and use their scholar identity as a justification for their lite-activism, because they got other stuff to do such as research, you see) and weak research (because, activism!). The antics and rhetoric is an insult to both the committed activists and the serious scholars.

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    Derrick

    December 5, 2019 at 7:31 pm

  7. Super, we seem to be all agreed then, that good activism and good scholarship are, in theory, not incompatible. You have shifted into an empirical argument (“More often than not …”) and I imagine that you are a good scholar, so that you probably have data to back that up. I hope to see it published, and especially would like to see the measure you use for “wishy-washy activism”.

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    Dror Etzion

    December 5, 2019 at 7:47 pm

  8. @Dror, Sure thing, I will spend my next five years trying to get that study published.

    In the meantime, do continue to enlighten us sociologists with bromides such as “let’s step up,” “it might be helpful to imagine, and advocate for, expression of values AND professional integrity at the same time” etc etc. Obviously we lack such imagination, and of course no one in our discipline have never thought about these issues before, you see. Keep it coming, we’re all ears.

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    Derrick

    December 6, 2019 at 4:03 am

  9. It seems this thread might be degrading into animosity, but I’ll take you at face value. I can point you to this: Etzion, D. & Gehman, J. 2019. Going public: Debating matters of concern as an imperative for management scholars. Academy of Management Review, 44(2): 480-492. Thoughts and comments are appreciated.

    Please, let’s not create unnecessary turf wars. This is orgtheory, not soctheory or mantheory, so no need to preface comments with disciplinary affiliations, perhaps?

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    Dror Etzion

    December 6, 2019 at 3:27 pm

  10. I identify as an activist-scholar. I also believe there is an important distinction between activism and scholarship. While I agree with those who argue that true objectivity is not attainable–that there is no “view from nowhere”–I believe we ought to use rigorous methodological standards in our research projects to try to limit the impact that our personal biases and ideologies have on our findings. And it is this rigor that should address question #2. However, none of this extends to what we do with the findings once we have them.

    Now, I do not believe all of my activism is relevant to my work. When I attend a protest, for instance, I do not do so as a sociologist. But some of my activism is directly related to and draws on my scholarly expertise. For instance, we can use our scholarly expertise, as I do, to testify in legislative hearings about what the state of the scholarship in our areas of expertise tells us. For example, in Spring 2019 I was part of a group of faculty advocating for the extension of our state’s Promise Program to the 4-year public comprehensive college at which I work. While we did this advocacy to support our students, for me it also drew explicitly on my expertise as a scholar of higher education, and I used that expertise in testifying three times in front of legislative committees, meeting with executive branch staff, etc. Why shouldn’t that effort be part of my work portfolio?

    As for your question about how we judge people on “the other side,” well, that implies first of all the fallacy that there are two sides to every issue. This is not the case. If a climate scientist, for example, is an activist arguing that there is no global climate change, they reveal themselves not just to be an activist but also that they are failing to reach appropriate conclusions using the tools of their discipline. If a sociologist tried to argue that there was no racial inequality, or that racial inequality was due solely to biogenetic factors, I would similarly evaluate them as being unsuited to carry out the work of our field. But there are other kinds of disagreements that do not get at the core competency of the scholar to work in or teach their discipline. And nearly all of us who see ourselves as scholar-activists or activist-scholars respect, work alongside, and vote to tenure/promote those who disagree with us. For example, prison abolitionists work in departments alongside those who believe prisons play an important role in society (and sometimes even alongside those who believe that mass incarceration has had benefits). They judge their colleagues not just on their findings, but on the quality of their work–which may include the way they engage with their critics.

    Finally, everything IS political. The longer I live, the more clear that is to me. Why? Not because my ideologies have gotten stronger or my joy in professing them greater. But rather because I see more clearly the workings of politics in shaping our lives. Politics shapes where we can live, whom we can love, whether we have the opportunity to pursue education, what kinds of occupational opportunities are open to us, how much we need to fear the police, whether we can control the basic functions of our own bodies, and even whether we will survive our medical crises intact. Politics is present every day even inside our most intimate relationships. There is, as I said before, no view from nowhere. Your politics will inevitably shape your scholarship in some ways. The honest thing is to acknowledge that, seek to do the best work possible anyway, and not pretend you are somehow immune to the realities the rest of us are structured by.

    Liked by 3 people

    Mikaila

    December 9, 2019 at 3:59 am


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