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Public Engagement and the Invisible Public
May 13, 2014 - 10:54pm

The latest post in our on-going Scholars Strike Back series is from William Jamal Richardson, a Ph.D. Student in Sociology at Northwestern University. Richardson argues that the “public” in the public scholarship debate needs to be expanded, and calls for academics to take more responsibility in how research is consumed, especially when it comes to the marginalized communities from which academic research is drawn.

Many people in academic and policy circles are familiar with Nicholas Kristof’s critique of academia’s lack of involvement in what he calls “today’s great debates.” In these discussions there are two major assumptions made about public engagement: 1) That “public engagement”= constructive engagement that encourages responsible public policy, social justice, and social change. 2) That “the public”= policy makers, politicians, non-profits, and other institutions.

These assumptions limit the scope of discussion and encourage us to ignore serious problems with our already existing practices of engagement. There is actually a good deal of engagement by academics with the public, but much of it is harmful rather than constructive. In addition, public engagement is not only about those who consume research but also those on whom the research is conducted. Thus Kristof opened up a discussion where he ultimately misses the point: for poor communities of color, marginalized scholars, and many critical scholars the priority problem is not the lack of constructive public engagement, but rather the abundance of harmful engagement.

Using my home discipline of sociology as an example, one can see a long history of academia reifying oppressive social institutions and policy. The classic example is the American Eugenics movement, which used academic “findings” to facilitate imperialist and racist policies throughout the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. We are seeing a resurgence of concepts of biological race in sociology, undergraduate education on race, and race-based medicine. Sociology has also contributed throughout the 20th century via its research on poor communities of color to racist or otherwise harmful urban policies. Urban renewal, gentrification, and TANF are but few of the policies that fed off of sociological theories such as the culture of poverty. We must also recognize the public engagement of academic institutions outside of research. University at Buffalo for example has been criticized for its medical campus expansion that is threatening to uproot a number of working class black communities in inner city Buffalo, NY.

Engagement with the public includes our research participants. One can observe how academia is indeed continuously engaged with the public, in this case research subjects, in ways that we ought not encourage. This is evident when we observe how academics engage with indigenous peoples and African Americans when doing research in their communities. Indigenous peoples have developed resources to resist continuous exploitation of their communities for research purposes. Alexandra Moffett-Bateau describes a common occurrence when she researches in communities of color, “But occasionally, a woman would tell me about a book or article she encountered that depicted her friends and neighbors as culturally deviant or a welfare queen. Time and time again, when I introduced myself to residents, the initial reaction was one of distrust, fear and at times, even sadness.”

The issue of academic public engagement is not simply an issue of being present in policy discussions and debates, but also about what academics actually do when they enter public spaces. As mentioned by others, marginalized scholars and those from fields such as African American Studies and Gender Studies have been speaking up on the issue of how academics engages with communities and the public and rectifying the damage of harmful research practices for years. Kristof and others ignore these efforts, likely because residents of public housing, indigenous people, and other marginalized people aren’t the “public” that should matter to academia; instead, academics are encouraged to consider “political diversity” in their public offerings. I suggest that, rather than pander to political interests, we should encourage academics to expand the notion of the public itself, taking a more critical approach. For example, as a master’s student who entered academia with knowledge of the history of exploitation of communities of color, I find the lack of ethics training for sociologists - beyond concerns about plagiarism and basic adherence to IRB - to be a problem. We build our careers off of studying the social life and stories of other people and are submerged in a culture that, more often than not, treats people as opportunities for information extraction and exploits research subjects. Alternatively, if we taught scholars to engage in an ethic of equivalent exchange (an idea I borrow from a favorite TV show), giving equal value to what we are obtaining, we can make sure that their participation in our work will be worth their time. Research like that of Celeste Watkins-Hayes are examples of how scholars have given back without compromising their academic goals.

In addition to our relationship with the public that we collect our data from, another way to deal with harmful public engagement is to take more responsibility for how our research is used. Again, there is little training for academics on how to properly disseminate their research to the public. It is a well-known problem that policymakers and news writers often misinterpret research findings or ignore them because they don’t fit their preconceived ideals. Academic institutions need to develop ways to allow academics to speak truth to power, being less concerned with being accepted in certain policy circles, and more concerned with telling the truth about the (social) world. Because the dynamics of the neo-liberal college campus rarely encourage this kind of activity, we have seen the rise of blogs as spaces for this kind of truth-telling. Examples of this include Conditionally Accepted and the The Society Pages, along with this blog and my own work with the Rebel Researchers Collective.

The purpose of this post is to shift the debate about public engagement in a way that furthers the argument of my fellow scholars: we are indeed engaged, but that engagement often goes uninterrogated and unchallenged. As an advocate for marginalized people within academia, I believe that a real discussion about public engagement includes the responsibility of academics to first engage with the public that is both the sustainer of our work and the one most vulnerable to the consequence of how our work is consumed and used.

William Jamal Richardson is a Ph.D. Student in Sociology at Northwestern University. His research uses postcolonial and African-centered perspectives to explore dynamics of racial residential segregation, use of knowledge by social movements, and knowledge production in academia. William is also editor-in-chief of the scholar-activist and social justice website Rebel Researchers Collective.

If you are interested in participating in our Scholars Strike Back series, please contact assistant editor, Gwendolyn Beetham.

 

 

 

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