Academia and Social Change Part I: The Problems of Access and Academic Distancing

There’s something a little a little odd, almost absurd, about being in an academic program that ostensibly exists for the purpose of ‘social change’. At the very least, academic study is not what usually comes to mind with those words, and the link between what I’m doing reading journal articles at my computer and actual change happening in the world is a little harder to trace, a little more circuitous than other forms of social change work. That said, one of the main purposes of this year for me was to try to figure out how best I can contribute to ‘social change’ and to see if academia was an effective way for me to do that. Now, a little more than halfway through this experiment (or to be more precise quasi-experiment, if I’m going to be putting my degree to good use), I think I can comment a little on the value and the dangers of what academia can bring to social change work. Beware: this is likely to be even less coherent than my typical posts, so if you just had a big meal or get nauseous easily you might want to step off this ride.

This post was partially motivated by a recent essay on the blog youngist titled “Why Liberal Academics and Ivory Tower Radicals Make Poor Revolutionaries”. The author makes the argument that true change is not going to come from academia, because academia tends to draw from the experiences of marginalized peoples without doing much for them, and is moreover supported by and housed in institutions that are rooted in (and sometimes the progenitors of) deep oppressions. Both are excellent points, illustrating some of the ways that the very foundations of academia make it resistant to change; I definitely recommend reading that piece (I’ll wait!).

Building on that piece, I wanted to also touch on a few things I’ve noticed in my time in academia that make it hard for even the most well-intentioned academics to translate their work into positive change. The first is the issue of knowledge translation. The knowledge produced by academics so rarely reaches the actual members of the communities that it both draws from and purports to serve, and even literature that is dedicated explicitly to community engagement, community interventions or even activism often can’t be accessed by those that would be able to put that research into practice by the simple fact that journal subscriptions are expensive (and moreover, who’s going to know to subscribe to the ‘Journal of Implementation Science’ anyway? Who even knows that ‘Implementation Science’ is a thing?). Academia and academics do a fairly good job of speaking to each other – though even that communication often breaks down when you move across of disciplinary boundaries – but are just now trying to figure out the best way of speaking to anyone else. It’s an issue of particular relevance to academics in fields relating to social and medical interventions, who are increasingly calling for practices to be ‘evidence-based’: it’s unclear how that’s supposed to happen if no one can access that evidence.

Fortunately, that issue of access is something that more and more academics are becoming aware of and trying to address (albeit in their own highly specified jargon-filled way, with conversations of ‘knowledge translation’ and ‘process evaluation’). Something that will be even harder to change is an attitude, a pattern of academic distancing that is linked with the positions of societal privilege that academia and academics continue to occupy. During my time in school I’ve been to a number of colloquia, seminars and lunchtime talks in which grad students and professors engage deeply and intelligently with ideas of social change, equity and social justice, nuanced and conflicting ideas of gender, race, history and politics, all with the same curiosity and concentration that one might use to confront a particularly challenging crossword puzzle. Between nods, sounds of realization, and enthusiastic exclamations of ‘really fascinating work!’ I’ve gotten the sense that even academics who are interested in social change work – and particularly those who themselves are in positions of privilege because of their gender, race, etc – have a tendency to view it as an intellectual problem and nothing more.

I think there are two main dangers in this. First, this distancing removes a lot of the urgency and sense of need that motivates action; once the problems can be viewed as primarily intellectual, it becomes possible and indeed seemingly necessary to focus on developing better theories and models to understand these issues, rather than focusing on how existing knowledge can be made functional for those who need it. Second, equating research on social justice and equity issues with any other intellectual question fails to recognize the value that research on these topics have in creating spaces for silenced voices. One moment in particular exemplified this for me: after a talk in my department on gendered differences in experiences of poverty, one (male) professor asked the speaker (his colleague) if her focus on gender was too narrow of an academic perspective. In seeing this focus on gender as just another academic framework, the commenter was ignoring the fact the experiences of women in poverty in particular have been so often ignored or silenced, and so focusing on them had both an academic and social value (fortunately the speaker was incredibly effective at pointing this out in her response). It’s this pattern of distancing, stemming in part from the fact that so many academics are in positions of privilege themselves and so don’t have to experience the struggles that they study which such academic rigour, that makes the movement from academia to social change a particularly difficult one.

So if it is this hard for academia to contribute to social change directly (and this isn’t even mentioning the hierarchies of knowledge that it produces, and that I’ve talked about a bit earlier), what value can it have for social change work? This post is already long enough as is, so my (tentative) responses to that question will have to wait, but for now I will say that I think there are some productive ways that academia can contribute to ongoing struggles. For that to happen, though, academics need to be able to be critical about how their work is used, who uses it, and how to avoid keeping their (academic) distance.

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