‘We are tear­ing each other apart rather than work­ing to­gether to pro­duce bet­ter re­search’

THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION - Pamela Prick­ett is an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Am­s­ter­dam.

The rise of the ide­o­log­i­cal right to the high­est po­si­tions of power has put academia on the de­fen­sive. So­cial science is most fre­quently in the cross hairs for bud­get cuts, with pro­po­nents ac­cus­ing its prac­ti­tion­ers of left­wing bias. And so­ci­ol­o­gists of­ten get tagged as the worst of­fend­ers, push­ing a po­lit­i­cally cor­rect, leftist agenda that is in­tol­er­ant to other views.

Are to­day’s so­ci­ol­o­gists more lib­eral than the typ­i­cal voter? Prob­a­bly, but that isn’t new. So­ci­ol­ogy has long been a dis­ci­pline that pro­duces re­search with an eye to­wards so­cial re­form. So at­tempt­ing to ar­gue that so­ci­ol­ogy is po­lit­i­cally neu­tral would prob­a­bly be a waste of en­ergy.

But I worry about a dif­fer­ent more in­ter­nal threat to so­ci­ol­ogy. The sub­ject’s ten­dency to em­ploy de­con­struc­tion as a method of crit­i­cal in­quiry has turned in­ward, and we are tear­ing each other apart rather than work­ing to­gether across dif­fer­ences to pro­duce bet­ter re­search.

The di­vi­sive­ness is ob­serv­able at con­fer­ences, in peer re­views, on blogs and even in fac­ulty meet­ings. What does it say that in the spaces where we come to­gether as col­leagues we feel com­pelled to ex­pose each other’s sup­posed fail­ings – some­times with glee? Women and peo­ple of colour face the worst forms of in­tradis­ci­plinary polic­ing (the ten­ure- and pro­mo­tion-deny­ing kind). Ad­mit­tedly, vit­riol also comes from out­siders, but crit­i­cism from within is more com­mon. Sim­ply put, we won’t have to worry about the far­right bring­ing us down be­cause we’ll do it to our­selves.

Ex­ac­er­bated by fund­ing cuts and the ne­olib­er­al­i­sa­tion of the uni­ver­sity, we are be­com­ing a loose af­fil­i­a­tion of in­di­vid­ual en­trepreneurs in com­pe­ti­tion for fi­nite re­sources. So­ci­ol­ogy isn’t the only place where the squeeze can be felt. At­tacks have turned per­sonal in other dis­ci­plines. But so­ci­ol­ogy, bet­ter than any other dis­ci­pline, should know the value of com­mu­nity and so­cial sup­port in hard times. We should see the prover­bial writ­ing on the wall and arm our­selves with the tools to fight back, im­ple­ment­ing lessons learned from thou­sands of re­search stud­ies that show how com­mu­ni­ties per­se­vere amid struc­tural ne­glect or de­cline. In­stead, we learn early in our train­ing to pull down our peers so they don’t climb higher than us. Just like crabs in a bar­rel.

Three years out of grad­u­ate school, I can still feel the wounds. It was boot camp with­out the broth­er­hood that builds cadets into armies. With no for­mal mech­a­nisms to scaf­fold a spirit of con­struc­tion, stu­dents learn that the eas­i­est way to earn a rep­u­ta­tion is to de­con­struct each other. A mem­ber of my co­hort once took me out for drinks un­der the guise of cel­e­brat­ing my birth­day, only to spend an hour de­tail­ing ev­ery­thing that I had said dur­ing our first-year cour­ses that he deemed stupid. Rather than be­ing geared to­wards help­ing a peer new to the dis­ci­pline to think more so­ci­o­log­i­cally, his cri­tique turned per­sonal.

En­coun­ters like this crip­pled me. I ex­pected harsh cri­tiques from fac­ulty mem­bers, but I did not ex­pect the peo­ple I saw as equals work­ing to­ward a com­mon goal to throw them­selves into feed­ing an in­tel­lec­tual anx­i­ety built on fear and in­tim­i­da­tion.

Af­ter my se­cond year, I stopped talk­ing as much in class. I lim­ited my at­ten­dance at work­shops and con­fer­ences. I re­treated from the de­part­ment un­less I had meet­ings or teach­ing du­ties. The worst thing I did for my ca­reer was to leave un­fin­ished pa­pers col­lect­ing dig­i­tal dust for fear of be­ing crit­i­cised for them. Luck­ily, I even­tu­ally found a part­ner, Marie, in the same po­si­tion, and we made a pact to write ev­ery day, read each other’s (very dif­fer­ent) work, and of­fer only con­struc­tive crit­i­cism.

Marie liked to quote Madeleine Al­bright’s com­ment that there should be a spe­cial place in hell for women who don’t help other women. Her ex­plic­itly fem­i­nist sup­port gave me courage to send in-progress work to my ad­viser, who did his part by read­ing (mul­ti­ple) drafts with an eye to­wards build­ing me up as a scholar. But there was still much neg­a­tive noise I had to fil­ter out to move for­ward.

French so­ci­ol­o­gist Bruno La­tour de­scribes cri­tique as “a po­tent eu­phoric drug” be­cause when you de­liver a cri­tique “you are al­ways right!” So­ci­ol­o­gists, my­self in­cluded, get hooked on this drug early in their ca­reers. But I can’t help but won­der how much fur­ther along in my devel­op­ment as a so­ci­ol­o­gist I would be if grad­u­ate school fos­tered a cul­ture of con­struc­tion, har­ness­ing the in­sights of so­ci­ol­ogy to teach peers to do more for each other, not less – to de­liver cri­tiques that mul­ti­ply rather than sub­tract, to bor­row La­tour’s words.

As an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor, I have started to ex­per­i­ment with ways to use cri­tique to cre­ate a more con­struc­tive en­vi­ron­ment. When we dis­cuss a read­ing in class, I tell my stu­dents that they have to say some­thing use­ful they learned from the re­search be­fore they can launch into crit­i­cisms. Like a game of build­ing blocks, you can build big­ger and higher if you don’t knock down the other blocks as you go.

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