Around this time 20 years ago, I met an elderly gentleman who’d had what sounded like an exceptionally interesting and unusual dissertation-writing experience. A couple of recent coincidences bring the encounter to mind and so inspired this little causerie.
His name was Harmon Bro, and he was in his late 70s when we met. He’d spent the better part of 50 years as an ordained minister and Jungian psychotherapist. If anyone ever looked the part of a Jungian archetype, it was Harmon, who personified the Wise Old Man. In 1955, the University of Chicago Divinity School awarded him a Ph.D. after accepting a doctoral thesis called “The Charisma of the Seer: A Study in the Phenomenology of Religious Leadership.”
It was based in part on work Harmon did in his early 20s as an assistant to Edgar Cayce, “the sleeping prophet.” Despite minimal education, Cayce, it is said, could give long, extemporaneous discourses in response to questions posed to him while he was in a trance state. Among these “readings” were medically sophisticated diagnoses of people miles or continents away, as well as detailed accounts of ancient history and predictions of the future.
Cayce died in 1945, but he left a vast mass of transcripts of his “readings.” By the 1960s, publishers were mining them to produce a seemingly endless series of paperback books extolling Cayce’s powers. Insofar as the New Age can be said to have founding figures, he was one of them.
Harmon was clearly a believer in Cayce’s miraculous powers. I was not (and am not) but have always enjoyed the legends by and about him. As a schoolboy, for example, he would put a textbook under his pillow and absorb its contents while asleep. He graduated (so to speak) to the Akashic Records -- an ethereal library documenting life on Atlantis and in ancient Egypt, and much else besides. He could also see into the future, but the track record is not impressive: China did not convert to Christianity in 1968, nor did Armageddon arrive in 1999. Cayce also predicted that an earthquake in the 1960s would cause California to sink into the Pacific Ocean. It remains attached to the continental United States as of this writing.
Harmon didn’t take skepticism as a threat or an insult, and anyway I preferred listening to arguing. He stressed how very improbable Cayce had been as a subject for serious scholarly attention in the 1950s -- at the University of Chicago, no less. It took three or four tries to get his topic approved; by the time the dissertation was finished and accepted, it felt like every faculty member concerned with the history and psychology of religion had weighed in on it. He happily lent me a copy (when anyone expresses interest in a decades-old dissertation, its author will usually have one of two responses: pleasure or horror), and from reading it, I could see that the scrutiny had been all for the best. It obliged him to practice a kind of methodological agnosticism about Cayce’s powers, and he demonstrated a solid grounding in the social-scientific literature on religion -- in particular, Max Weber’s work on prophetic charisma.
But by 1996, Harmon Bro was not at all happy with the institutions routinizing that charisma. The man he’d known and studied had an ethical message -- “love thy neighbor as thyself,” more or less. The New Age ethos amounted to “love thyself and improve thy karma.” You didn’t have to share his worldview to see his point.
The timing was fortunate: we grew acquainted during what proved to be the final year of Harmon Bro’s life. His obituary in the Chicago Tribune in 1997 made no reference to Cayce, but looking it up just now leaves me with a definite feeling of synchronicity: Harmon died on Sept. 13, which is also the date I’m finishing this piece. A message from Harmon, via the cosmic unconscious?
Probably not, although it was another and even more far-flung coincidence that reminded me of him in the first place. On Friday, the journal Nature Communication published a paper called “Terahertz time-gated spectral imaging for content extraction through layered structures,” which the science-news website EurekAlert kindly translates into laymanese as “Researchers prototype system for reading closed books.” Not by putting them under a pillow and sleeping on them, alas, but it’s impressive even so.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Georgia Tech Institute of Technology collaborated in developing a system that uses bursts of terahertz radiation (“the band of electromagnetic radiation between microwaves and infrared light,” says EurekAlert) to create images of the surfaces of individual pieces of paper in a stack. Ink in a printed letter absorbs the radiation differently from the blank page around it; the contrast between the signals reflecting back are fed into an algorithm that identifies the letter on the page. The prototype can “read” the surfaces of up to nine pages in a pile; with more work, reading at greater depths seems possible. The story quotes one of the researchers as saying, “The Metropolitan Museum in New York showed a lot of interest in this, because they want to, for example, look into some antique books that they don’t even want to touch.” The signal-sorting algorithm may yet enable spambots to defeat captchas. (Which arguably represents grounds for halting research right away, though that is unlikely.)
The train of association between breaking technological news from last week and the memory of one of the more generous and unusual people to cross my path is admittedly twisty and random. On the other hand, reading by terahertz radiation seems like another example of Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
While most social scientists write about their own experiences and worldviews to some degree, some consider scholars whose work falls into mainstream topics of inquiry to be more respectable than those who study more marginalized issues such as ethnic studies, women’s and gender studies, and queer studies. As such, scholars studying such marginalized topics must overcome a number of obstacles to be taken seriously and for their work to be deemed relevant to their field.
In particular, recent commentaries have criticized scholars who engage in “me studies” -- the investigation of issues that are closely related to the researcher’s own identity or otherwise play a prominent role in their own life. Highlighting what he views as the shortcomings of studying the “oppression” of one’s own group, Joseph Heath, a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, for example, has suggested that such research can essentially invalidate a scholar, calling into question the training, professionalism and the quality of their work.
Yet even the classic works philosophers often revere were produced by scholars oppressed by the social and political systems they analyzed. From thinkers during the Enlightenment to scholars of black political thought, some of the most powerful intellectual contributions to society have been generated by so-called me scholars.
In social science, the category of me scholars would capture a great number of thinkers who devote their time and skill to grappling with questions related to justice and equality. As actively engaged me studies scholars, studying identity-related inequalities in human rights and citizenship, we cannot help but notice that marginalizing scholars who embrace this type of research would replicate the marginalization that they typically face in the academy and in society more broadly.
Professionalism and the Question of Rigor
Heath and others have also contended that scholars who ostensibly research their own identity and oppression may receive less-than-rigorous evaluation when presenting their research. The claim that scholars of me studies are treated gingerly and thus produce lower-quality work is the most troubling critique. Me studies are among the most vigorously tested social science scholarship that we have encountered, and they are widely regarded as making valuable contributions to our understanding of society. (See also, for example, writings by Matthew Evangelista, former chair of the department of government at Cornell University, on the relevance of peace studies, a field that has faced similar criticisms surrounding its rigor.) These studies do, indeed, benefit from careful vetting and criticism -- from scholars who identify with the me group as well as those who do not.
It is also important to consider the implications that follow from the common claim that political correctness precludes certain questions when evaluating and critiquing a me study. Just because a me scholar studies oppression related to race, gender or LGBT politics, for example, does not mean that they are prohibitively sensitive to constructive criticism. Nor does it mean that the questions they research necessarily reflect their personal views or interests.
Take, for example, the study of social movements. A common research design examines the emergence of Movement X in Context A but not in Context B. Despite the fact that social-movement scholars sometimes study an oppressed group with which they identify, that identity should not shield them from the type of careful criticism of research design that is part and parcel of high-quality scholarship. Nor should it preclude a critical observer from asking any relevant question. Scholars can and do critique the theoretical insights, research design, methodology and data collection of me scholars.
Do other scholars who encounter me scholarship shy away from asking tough questions as a matter of political correctness? Critics argue that a fear of offending could result in a disruption of the academic tradition of peer review and critique, preventing colleagues from offering the constructive criticism that is part of our collegial responsibility as faculty members. While we do not doubt that some scholars may feel a measure of discomfort when critiquing the work of colleagues who study the oppression of groups from which they hail, we would dispute the notion that scholars fail to actively engage with them. To the contrary, me scholars benefit from first-rate mentoring and are subjected to the same vigorous criticism that would meet any work of scholarship.
Let us not forget that, like their counterparts, scholars who study their own oppression must successfully clear hurdles of academic course work, methodological training and blinded peer review. In fact, they may encounter more intellectual challenges and obstacles than others in their efforts to obtain the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve entry into the ranks of professional scholars. The irony is that, once there, they are often relegated to second-class citizenship by virtue of their commitment to taking seriously issues like inequality, discrimination and oppression.
The Ghettoization of Me Studies
Failure to appreciate the value of me studies provides a powerful example of intellectual hegemony in the academy. Although the academy has been enriched by the work of me scholars in areas like ethnic studies, women’s and gender studies, and queer studies, research shows that topics of study concerning oppressed groups are both marginalized and dismissed. In the area of LGBT scholarship, for example, a 2010 study revealed that more than 20 percent of international relations scholars felt that LGBT topics were not acceptable for study within their subfield, despite the rapid global changes surrounding LGBT rights during the last decade. That signals to me scholars that their research has to be above the benchmark to be taken seriously in the field.
And while such evidence suggests that me scholars struggle to make their voices and research heard, they often occupy the margins of academic spaces like conferences and other venues. Mainstream conferences often have special me panels, consisting of papers on a certain group, even if other, broader panels would provide a more suitable platform to engage people doing more theoretically similar work.
To be critically engaged, the topics of me studies research should have a more prominent place at the table. We would argue that the problem is not that me scholars are getting a free pass. Rather, it is that broader disciplinary environments often fail to fully engage those doing identity-related work. Furthermore, bringing me studies questions to the table would also attract non-me studies scholars to also study these important topics.
The Danger of Dismissing Me Studies
It would behoove us in academe to take seriously the benefits of me studies research. Coupled with vigorous training and readily available constructive criticism, studying topics one identifies with may yield particularly robust scholarship -- not weak or otherwise compromised analysis as critics suggest. (A multitude of scholars have made this point methodologically. See, for example, here, here, here and here.)
Consider, for example, qualitative research, where firsthand understanding of a group may enhance a researcher’s ability to connect with research subjects. Moreover, a shared identity may promote richer data analysis, facilitating analytical insight that could be lost on others. In quantitative studies, contextual knowledge can make sense of intriguing findings.
That is not to say that topics and issues involving oppressed groups should only be studied by oppressed people. Rather, we simply hope to debunk the notion that scholars of me studies produce low-quality work that makes negligible contributions.
Social science research has the capacity to help improve society. Lawmakers and citizens, more broadly, draw upon our work to inform their understanding of crucial topics like inequality, behavior and social change. If we invalidate me studies scholars and dismiss the value of their work, who will carefully analyze issues related to their marginalization? And, given that academe has far to go in terms of its diversity, will we simply ignore these issues until a critical mass of different, “neutral” -- and therefore “qualified” -- and interested interlocutors emerges?
The fact is that me studies scholars continue to produce broadly valuable, intellectually rigorous research and, thus, do a great service to the academy. Rather than quibbling over the value of me studies, our time would be better spent thinking about the implications of dismissing this type of work for social science and the scholars who engage in it.
Phillip M. Ayoub is an assistant professor of politics at Drexel University. Deondra Rose is an assistant professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.