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Note: this blog post was also featured on Diverse Issues.
On Earth Day – April 22nd – droves of scientists are scheduled to march in Washington, DC, with satellite marches scheduled around the world. Many organizers and possible attendees have clearly stated that there is nothing political or partisan about the march. (They are just scientists after all!) Rather, they are taking to the streets to challenge the current presidential regime’s threat to scientific advancements, funding, and academic freedom.
Figuring out whether the very act of a political march is… well… political is perhaps a secondary concern to the longstanding debate over whether science itself is political. If science supposedly stays out of politics, and vice versa, why go political now?
Another tweep of mine, Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos (@OtherSociology), pulled back an important layer to these debates. “Why are they marching? Oh ‘Science is under attack.’ Read: now White male scientists affected, let’s march.” (Dr. Zevallos has continued to offer important critiques online.) Now the scientific profession is taking to political action – namely, against political interference – because the most privileged scientists (i.e., white men) are affected for the first time.
I should be clear that the concerns to be addressed by the upcoming March for Science are important, urgent, and noble. From the march’s main website: “Recent policy changes have caused heightened worry among scientists, and the incredible and immediate outpouring of support has made clear that these concerns are also shared by hundreds of thousands of people around the world.”
Scientists are unifying to emphasize the benefits of scientific advancement to all of society, of science education, of accessible scientific research, of public policy informed by science. The future of our nation – particularly in these tense and uncertain times – rests upon inclusive, accessible, and well-funded scientific research and teaching.
“The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue,” that same website continues, “which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter.” They are neither politicians nor activists. Heck, they don’t even bring their values, ideologies, identities, or subjective experiences into their labs. They are objective!
And, that is where many academics of marginalized backgrounds roll their eyes. Being able to see science as an apolitical enterprise is either the product of social privilege or naiveté (or both). To its core, science is an inherently political affair. The systemic exclusion and marginalization of women, people of color, queer and trans people, and working-class and poor people from the profession is a prime example of the political workings of science. Let me cite just a few examples.
Let’s reflect on who gets to become a scientist in the first place. Of course, we must note active, intentional efforts to keep marginalized students out, namely interpersonal discrimination and sexual violence. But, we must also note other factors that contribute to what is known as a “leaky pipeline” – the systemic “leaking out,” particularly of women and racial and ethnic minorities, at each stage in the scientific career pipeline. They are not equally encouraged to take the harder classes, to pursue lab assistantships and internships, to apply for graduate schools (especially the most prestigious programs), to apply for postdocs or present at conferences or any other opportunity that will advance their career.
Even outside of withheld support, marginalized students and scholars face the burdens of lack of role models like themselves, of stereotype threat, which undermines their confidence and, ultimately, their performance. Later, women who have children will be undermined by the “motherhood penalty” – being viewed as less competent and committed than women without children and men without or even with children. I would be remiss to gloss over the rampant sexual harassment that occurs in the sciences and other academic disciplines, with serial predators getting a free pass from universities and academic societies.
Besides getting in the door in the first place, politics are at play in awarding grant funding and citations. Researchers have documented racist and sexist biases in both domains, with women scholars and scholars of color being penalized compared to white men scholars. Women scientists are also penalized in co-authorships, which further hinders their careers. You can’t dismiss these facts as anything other than the curse of not being a white man in a racist and sexist profession.
So, suffice to say, my fellow feminist, queer, trans, and Black and brown scholars in the sciences were well aware of the politics at play within science well before Trump. I cannot help but see the parallels with the recent women’s march, widely attended by white heterosexual cis women who were surprised by the harsh reality of oppression as indicated by this new regime. Women of color, queer and trans women, and poor and working-class women already knew what was up in Amerikkka. Trump has picked a fight with the scientific community, and suddenly white heterosexual cis men scientists know what censuring is, what fear is, what suppression is.
I’m sorry to say that your march is too little and too late. But, if you’re going to march, be sure to bring a mirror. I implore you to take a hard look at the politics within your supposedly apolitical, objective science. These barriers to scientific advancement existed well before the Trump era.
I will close with a few items desperately needed for the March for Science agenda:
- Address bias in hiring, tenure, promotion, course evaluations, funding, citation rates, and other formal evaluations and opportunities for advancement.
- Eliminate sexual violence in the classroom, lab, department, and at conferences.
- Actively promote marginalized students and scholars in the sciences. Yes, that means diversity (numbers), and yes that means inclusion (climate); but, it also means real structural and cultural change.
- Stand up against political and public interference in the work of your colleagues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Perhaps Trump’s threat to the natural sciences is new, but, as a sociologist, I’ve long known threats to eliminate government funding.
- Commit to reversing the adjunctification of academia and ending the exploitation of contingent faculty.
- Actively resist new and ongoing threats to academic freedom, including the Right’s new war against tenure. Even if you do not teach seemingly controversial subjects, your colleagues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences are all too familiar with political and public interference in their curricula and scholarship.
- Make peace with the death of the myths of meritocracy and objectivity in academia. Y’all are scientists; if you are too grown to believe in Santa Clause, then you are certainly too grown to believe that you leave your biases at home and that every scientist has a fair shot at succeeding.
- Even though you just teach science (not sociology), take note that the majority of white college educated voters cast their votes for Trump – the very threat against which you are now marching. These were students you educated, trained, and mentored and who, in turn, basically voted against science, truth, and critical thinking. Maybe you could take a little more responsibility in preparing the next generation for living in a diverse, increasingly global society?
- Next time you march, march for all academics – not just your damn selves.
Objectivity — a scholar’s supposed ability to remain impartial about the subjects she studies — is a myth. Like the myths of meritocracy and color-blindness, objectivity sounds good in theory, but it is impossible to use it in practice. Simply put, researchers are not immune to bias. While in many instances such bias can be dangerous, bias is not bad, per se.
Objectivity Precludes Certain Areas Of Inquiry
I am a sociologist in training, perspective, and practice. (Un)fortunately, in the process of recovering from the trauma of my graduate training, my consciousness about my discipline has grown, as well. It recently hit me that it would be more accurate to say that my degree is in “white sociology” or “Eurocentric sociology,” not sociology. The training I received pushed objective research as the only true form of research. But, being detached was not enough; it was not enough to naively attempt to leave my anti-racist politics and Black racial identity at home when I left for school.
Rather, objectivity also implied that research on race — more specifically, research that made central the lives of Black people — was inferior to more mainstream areas. I was told that a true sociologist takes on a subfield — typically a social institution like education or medicine — and, in the process, she might just happen to focus on a particular (marginalized) population. But, no one should be a sociologist of race, and certainly not an anti-racist sociologist. Sadly, for me, “just happens to study [X population]” did not extend to LGBTQ people. In my case, to be objective meant to move away from studying the very community I went to grad school to study. It has taken a couple of years post-grad school to finally return to topics I wanted to pursue back in 2007.
As a powerful and seductive ideology, objectivity serves as a tool for (privileged) gatekeepers of the discipline to devalue research on oppression and oppressed communities. To be objective, one cannot be too eager to study trans people, or Latino fathers, or women with disabilities. To study these populations whom the academy finds suspect or, at worse, unimportant, is to compromise one’s credibility as a true researcher.
Objectivity Is A Privilege
Early in grad school, a fellow student criticized my interest in the intersections among racism, heterosexism, sexism, and classism as “narrow.” In the years since, others have implied or explicitly said that my research constitutes “me-search.” That is, my scholarship is suspect because I am a fat Black queer non-binary sociologist who does research on multiply disadvantaged individuals (e.g., queer people of color), trans people, queer people, people of color, and fat people. In my case, this suspicion is heightened because my anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-cissexist, and anti-heterosexist activism is visible and publicly accessible. Mind you, my research is quantitative, rarely includes “I” or other first person references, speaks to mainstream sociology audiences, is published in mainstream sociology journals, and probably appeases the demand of objective research. My sins, however, are being fat Black queer and non-binary, and caring about the communities that I study.
My white cisgender heterosexual “normal weight” men colleagues are not suspected of bias. They are seen as the gold standard of objectivity. Their interest in topics that seem most interesting to other white dudes is somehow devoid of the influence of their social location. Their uncritical or, on rare occasion, critical perspective on a topic is seen as expertise, not bias. Even when these privileged scholars study marginal topics and/or marginalized communities, their work is taken seriously and remains unquestioned. I have yet to see a privileged scholar accused of having “narrow” interests or doing “me-search.” That is because objectivity serves as a device to police, devalue, and exclude the research of marginalized scholars.
I believe that the privilege of objectivity also includes the freedom from any sense of obligation to do work that matters, to do work that will liberate one’s people. “One could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered and starved,” DuBois remarked in his 1940 autobiography, Dusk of Dawn. Like DuBois, I wrestle so frequently with feeling that my publications that lie behind paywalls, only to be read by a handful of people in my subfield, are a complete waste of time while Black trans and cis people are being murdered by the dozens. Our privileged colleagues are not faced with the urgency of death, oppression, violence, invisibility, illness, and poverty of their people, so I can only imagine how much easier it is for them to (pretend to?) be objective, detached, and removed – experts on problems of the world, not of or in them.
Objectivity Perpetuates The Erasure Of Marginalized Scholars
Though my grad school coursework included 3 semesters of professional seminars, I have subsequently found it is neither enough professional development nor relevant to the primary concerns of many marginalized scholars. Instead of talking about how to select a qualifying exam area, I would have benefited from a reflexive discussion about the myth of objectivity in our discipline. Perhaps a less critical, and thus more palpable, topic would be “debates in the profession.” Indeed, whether objectivity exists and — to the extent that it exists — whether it is a good thing has been debated from the very start of the discipline of sociology. So, too, is whether sociologists should concern themselves exclusively with empiricism or also with making a difference in the world, or at least one’s communities.
To further raise my consciousness about my profession, I have started reading pieces by respected sociologists that have long been raising the concerns I have been struggling with privately. For example, Dr. Joe Feagin devoted his American Sociological Association presidential address (2001) to “Social Justice and Sociology.” Feagin raised a point that floored me. The rise of objective research by white men sociologists coincided with the erasure of the work and contributions of sociologists like Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. DuBois, Jane Addams — women and people of color in the discipline. Due to racist and sexist discrimination, these scholars’ work was already devalued; but, the shift toward “value-free” sociology further undermined their contributions in the discipline. Recovering their work, which in objective terms is simply a matter of good science, is an inherently anti-racist and feminist act.
Each instance of embracing objectivity, then, reinforces the erasure of women scholars and scholars of color. Each time I have taught the obligatory theory section in my introductory sociology courses, focusing on “the big three” — Weber, Marx, and Durkheim — I have been complicit in the erasure of W.E.B. DuBois, Harriet Martineau, and Patricia Hill Collins, and others who are not dead white men. The professor of my grad school theory course is complicit, too, by excluding any discussion of critical race theory, Black feminist theory, or queer theory; we focused, instead, on “classical” sociological theory. Each time I unquestioningly cited the (W. I.) Thomas theorem — what people perceive to be real is real in its consequences — I was complicit in the erasure of Dorothy Swaine Thomas, who was a co-author on the text from which this theorem comes.
To question whose perspective and scholarship is respected as central to the discipline would be suspected as activism; and, it requires additional work to learn and advance the perspectives and scholarship of marginalized scholars that one was denied in one’s own training. But, to consume and teach classical and mainstream sociological material without question is to reinforce the racist and sexist status quo.
I conclude by asking that scholars be brave enough to reject the myth of objectivity, and be willing to own subjective and scholar-activist work. But, a revolution of sorts in academe is necessary for this to happen. We must stop celebrating and so fiercely defending “objectivity” in graduate training, in publications, in grants, and in tenure and promotion. We do society and ourselves a disservice by standing on the political sidelines, complicit in our own irrelevance.
Many scholars have long criticized the notion that research, in any capacity, can be “objective” — free the personal biases of the researcher, and reflecting universal Truth. So, I will not take the time to review the argument(s) that research cannot and never will be objective. Instead, I would like to reflect on the benefits that come from the inherently subjective nature of research — at least in my own experience. While the “how” of the research process — how research was carried out — cannot be separated from the humanness of the researcher, I am more interested here in the “why” (why it was carried out and in that way).
Researchers Are Human
In much of my graduate training, and even at times now as a professor, I have agonized over concessions I feel forced to make in order to be successful. I have sometimes relinquished authenticity in order to appeal to the mainstream of my field(s). In other words, knowingly (or unknowingly), I have sometimes acted in a way that would keep me from standing out from the crowd. I am already marginalized in academia and society in general; I cannot totally shake the feeling that I must “fit in” somewhere.
Fortunately, I have been moving in the direction of accepting my uniqueness. Statistically speaking, I am a unicorn.* There are few people in the US — the world even — like me. And, my unique social location informs a unique perspective on the world. I do myself a disservice by working against my uniqueness. I do science a disservice by withholding a perspective that may challenge conventional and mainstream research. And, I do my students a disservice by advancing the same perspective they might find in every other course.
In embracing my unicorn-ness, albeit unevenly throughout my career, two unique lines of research were born. In one, which I started early in my career, I attend to sexual orientation as an important social status — one that likely shapes an individuals’ worldviews. There is good work that looks at the sexual, romantic, and familial lives of sexual minorities, and other work examines their exposure to homophobic and biphobic discrimination. But, these approaches have tended to focus at the surface level of this groups’ marginalization — what makes them unique (to be frank: sex and relationships) and the consequences of being stigmatized. It is my hope to highlight how else this status shapes our lives.
In the other line of research, I have been more intentional in embracing my inner unicorn. I examine exposure to more than one form of discrimination (e.g., Black women’s experiences of race and gender discrimination), and the impact it has on health. In hundreds of studies on self-reported discrimination and health, I saw few that acknowledged that some individuals, namely those who are marginalized in multiple ways, face more than one form of discrimination. I have been pushing greater attention to the intersection among systems of oppression (intersectionality) in this line of research. But, as the intersectional theoretical framework has implicitly favored qualitative approaches over quantitative approaches, I now find myself pushing back on intersectionality to take seriously the quantifiable aspects of life at the various intersections. (This comes after feeling I should apologize to intersectionality scholars for doing it “wrong.”)
Speaking of intersectionality scholars, three come to mind who, in their own ways, embraced their unique perspective. Two, obviously, are the foremothers of the intersectionality perspective: Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (the legal scholar who originally created the theoretical framework) and Patricia Hill Collins (the Black feminist sociologist who elaborated and further popularized it). In her latest book, On Intellectual Activism, Dr. Collins discusses why she advanced Black Feminist Thought, including intersectionality — gaps she saw in how other scholars were examining the lives of people of color and women (as distinct, non-overlapping groups) among other reasons. Another researcher who has embraced her unique perspective and social location is sociologist Mignon Moore, who has 1) pushed intersectionality scholars to bring sexuality (back) into such work and 2) challenged prior work on lesbian couples and families that failed to look specifically at Black women.
Imagine if these scholars decided not to “go against the grain,” did not dare to advance scholarship that actually reflected their lives and communities. Would intersectionality be an increasingly popular theoretical framework in the social sciences? With no hope of studying their often invisible communities, would marginalized students decide against training in traditional fields like sociology, law, psychology, etc.? Or, would they even consider graduate training or an academic career? By honing one’s own unique perspective, and inspiring new scholars to hone their own, we advance science to reflect diverse viewpoints and approaches, and challenge existing ones that may be limited or even one-sided.
Personal Motivations For Research
No matter the perspective you advance in your research, another important component of our subjectivity as researchers is why we study what we study. Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega recently reflected on the role of emotions in his (and other scholars’) research. Though his work might be classified as positivistic in his approach, generally keeping focus away from him as the researcher, he embraces his personal motivations that influence what he studies and why:
It’s no secret to anyone that I have publicly declared my own research position and what drives and fires my research focus: I strive to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. I want to see poverty alleviated and, if possible, eradicated. I want to address global inequalities and inequities. My research is driven by an intense desire to increase access to proper sanitation. Water poverty pains me and I want to help reduce it. Informal waste recyclers’ frequently face inhumane working conditions, thus making them vulnerable populations. I am interested in empowering the disenfranchised, and thus I strongly believe that my research benefits from the raw emotions that I feel whenever I am faced with, for example, the realities of poor communities with little access to water.
I suspect most researchers are influenced, to some degree, by their personal interests and values — at least in choosing what to study. Women are overrepresented in research on gender and sexism. The majority of scholars who study race, ethnicity, and racism are people of color. I have heard those who have either suffered from mental illness or had relatives who did are drawn to psychology and psychiatry. Even aside from what some have called “me-search,” I suspect curiosity — some mystery from one’s childhood that propels a desire to study it deeply — drives other researchers’ work. Does anyone study something they do not care about at all?
I would argue that one’s passion for a particular topic still informs later aspects of the research process — not just in choosing what to study. For example, a researcher may be disappointed to yield a “null finding,” that something that concerns them was not found in their analyses. Of course, a good researcher would not intentionally manipulate their data or analyses in order to create a desired outcome. (And, a good researcher would already exhaust all alternative measures and analyses.) But, failing to find something you expect to find (either from personal experience or prior research) may push you to look a little deeper, to think more creatively about your analyses. If one found that Black Americans fared better than whites on some health outcome, one might double-check their data and analyses because so much prior work suggests otherwise; if that finding truly holds beyond thorough examination of alternative approaches, a researcher might pursue additional projects to find what explains this odd finding in hopes of eliminating racial disparities in health. A researcher who is not personally invested in what she studies might accept her results as is; she might not feel compelled to further unravel mysterious or provocative findings.
And, personal values and passions may influence what comes after our research is published. To date, publishing in peer-reviewed journals that are locked behind paywalls remains the norm for much of academia. There is little institutional reward (possibly even informal sanctioning) for making one’s scholarship accessible beyond paywalls and the classroom. But, some scholars do take the time to propel their work beyond these boundaries.
There are numerous terms for such public scholarly efforts (e.g., public intellectualism, public sociology), though Dr. Collins has the best articulation of such work in On Intellectual Activism — “speaking truth to power” and “speaking truth to the people.” In her own career, she has balanced the two strategies of intellectual activism — advancing knowledge through theoretical and empirical work, and advancing knowledge beyond the Ivory Tower. I see what one does post-publication as either the simple advancement of one’s career (“publish or perish”) or the advancement of a community or society (or both).
Embrace Your Inner Unicorn
To be clear, agreed-upon standards of careful, thoughtful, and rigorous theorizing and empiricism is a must. But, the pressure to maintain the same frameworks or perspectives considered traditional or mainstream in one’s field likely hinder the development of new ways of thinking, maybe even new ways of doing research. It is a shame, in my opinion, that critical, radical, novel, and cutting-edge scholarship is too often discouraged, not supported, not mentored, not funded, not published, or even professionally punished.
Can we stop pretending objectivity exists? Can we stop pretending we, as researchers, are soulless, experienceless, identityless, valueless automatons? Conformity is overrated. And, I would argue that it is bad for science and education. Please, rather than suppressing who we are as humans, let’s embrace our unique perspective and experiences — the very things that likely propelled us into academia in the first place. Since many marginalized students do not even see themselves reflected in their training — lack of diversity among faculty, narrow perspectives advanced in courses — we owe it to future generations to push out the boundaries of science and education. Hell, we’re always already dismissed as “biased” anyhow!
* LGBT-identified individuals comprise of 3-4% of the US adult population, half or slightly less than half are men, and one-third of LGBT people are of color. We’re already below 1% of the population here. Narrow that to multiracial gay men. And, add the layer of education, that 1% of the population receives PhDs. Like I said — I’m a frickin’ unicorn.
Earlier this year, in the midst of working on my dissertation, I found blogging to be a healthy refuge through the loooooong days. It provided me a space to write without the persistent editing (and censoring) I must do in traditional academic writing. So, like Jeff Kosbie, I wrote a blog post on defining my career as a sociologist for myself — specifically a career that will be informed by my passion to make the world a better and just place (see below). Also, check out Michelle Kweder’s piece, “Why I’m not waiting for tenure to change the world…”
I hope you’ll be inspired!
Being forced to watch the world whirl by me as I worked on my dissertation was tortuous: two cases on same-gender marriage heard by the US Supreme Court; horrendous media coverage of an already horrendous rape case in Steubenville, Ohio; a racist attempt at anti-racism in music. And, just as I came up for air, the good news of finishing was overshadowed by the tragic bombings in Boston. I tried by best to keep up, but, obviously, I have been way too busy to chime in.
But, one good thing has come out of the selfish time of dissertating — well, besides an awesome dissertation. My mind has been boiling over with questions about research and academia in general. In attending college, I learned; but, now (almost) with a PhD in hand, I see how I have learned how to learn. And, increasingly, that critical eye has turned back on itself, raising questions about knowledge and science.
What is “knowledge”? What is “science”? Who defines it? Who has access to it (and who doesn’t)? Are the multiple types of knowledge and science — and, if so, are they equally valued in academia and society in general?
On Activism And Academia
As I near the completion of my graduation training, I feel both more qualified as a scholar, but also more empowered in defining my scholarship for myself. And, I will tell you, the latter sentiment is largely a product of self-teaching, not so much my graduate program. I alluded to this in my essay on blogging as a form of intellectual activism.
I have received mixed reactions to my essay, “Blogging For (A) Change.” Initially, many were excited, supportive, and noted that they share my sentiments. I was not surprised, since these warm responses were coming from my primary, intended audience — fellow sociologists of color and anti-racist sociologists. (It was an essay for the ASA‘s Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities.) But, given its potential relevance to all scholars, I also provided the essay as a blog post.
Thereafter, I began to receive more cautioned responses. In addition to private exchanges, I was honored to be the subject of another blog post by Dr. Fabio Rojas: “why activism and academia don’t mix.” Fabio explains:
Why do we “beat [activism] out’ of graduate students? The answer, in my view, is that academia and activism are simply different things. Every activity has a bottom line. In politics, it’s votes. In business, it’s money. In religion, it’s souls. Activism is about promoting social change, which is a different bottom line than academia, which is knowledge generation.
Beyond the differences in the goals of academia and activism, Fabio notes that the latter is neither rewarded nor institutionally sanctioned within the former. And, he clarifies that, ultimately, academics do have a role in social change — the production of knowledge. A few other sociologists chimed in with comments to emphasize that the commitment of a scholar of color to the advancement of one’s community or people of color in general does not necessarily imply that one is an activist.
Fearing that I may have been mistaken in speaking for other scholars of marginalized backgrounds, I posed the question on Facebook: “Was I wrong in assuming many academics are also activists, even at heart?” For the most part, my scholarly friends suggested no, with many suggesting that they, too, are activists. But, there seems to be good reason for the skepticism that some have expressed.
Activism And Academia Can Mix, But…
Let me start by removing the question — “can one be an academic and an activist?” — from the table. Yes, it is possible. There are a handful of people who have suggested that this is the case for them; I strongly suspect that there is at least a sizable minority of scholars for whom this is true.
And, history suggests that it has been done. In the last subject of my leisure reading, Stalking the Sociological Imagination, I was reminded that some of the founders of sociology were activists, including W. E. B. DuBois and C. Wright Mills. (Some who are discussed — for example, Talcott Parsons — were simply the unfortunate subject of McCarthyism despite maintaining a generally non-activist career in sociology.) Before that, I was reading Dr. Patricia Hill Collins‘s On Intellectual Activism.
But, as Fabio pointed out, activism — here, meaning any efforts toward social justice or social change outside of research, teaching, and (academic) service — is not rewarded in academe. For most academic jobs, one is hired because of their qualifications in this academic “Holy Trinity” – research, teaching, and service (usually in that order, especially at research intensive schools). The same goes for tenure, promotion, and most of the other academic opportunities that scholars pursue (e.g., grants, awards).
But, let’s be clear that the sentiment that one shouldn’t be an activist is a separate matter from whether one can be an activist. In addition, lack of professional reward implies what is valued, not necessarily what is devalued. You can be a drag queen, baseball player, stamp collector, or whatever other activities you like outside of work even though the academy will not pay you for it.
Activism And Science Can Mix, But…
A second issue is whether activism and science, in particular, mix. As one of my friends pointed out, the primary concern is that the biases of someone with activist leanings pose a threat to the objectivity required in science. For example, if a researcher wishes to advocate for the legalization of same-gender marriage, what would she do if her research suggested that children of LGBT parents really do fare worse than those of heterosexual, cisgender parents? But, a few things need to be unpacked from the science vs. activism dilemma:
First, sorry folks — “objective science” is an oxymoron. Humans, who are biased in all sorts of ways (e.g., passions, interests, experiences), do science. Scientists typically study the things they find interesting or about which they are passionate. Sometimes we get sleepy and make mistakes.
This is where the peer review process comes in. While it is not perfect. we gain more confidence when new studies have been vetted by other scholars in that subfield. When done right, a researcher should be well aware of prior research to aid in research design, analyses, and interpretation. The roles of anonymous reviewers and the journal’s editor(s) are to verify all aspects of the study. So, if a researcher submitted a study heavily laden with political motivations, with little sound science or major ethical concerns, the reviewers and editor should catch it before it gets published.
A third issue is the failure to acknowledge other problematic biases in research that do little for society as a whole. In particular, I am referring to the “publish or perish” dictum that places great emphasis on where one’s articles are published, and how many publications one can obtain in a certain period of time. Not only do I worry that this pressure poses a threat to scholars’ health and well-being, I sometimes fear that scholars’ motivations for prestige and quantity lead them to overlook bigger contributions to theory and to society in general.
Another unspoken consequence of this pressure is the number of studies that have been tweaked or totally abandoned because researchers yield “null findings” — for, it is the significant findings that get you published! My point here is that science is not perfect, whether activists are doing research or not.
Activism, Academia, And Research Can Mix, And…
I argue that it is important to weigh the benefits of the mixing of activism and academia, too, before we jump to a decision on this mixture. If activism reflects one’s passion for a particular social or political cause, then the work of activist-oriented scholars may benefit academia on the whole because of their unique motivation about the subject and the extra care they take in their work. In addition, this activist flare may bring a creative lens to one’s scholarship. Just think of where the social sciences be if Patricia Hill Collins never pursued an academic career, deciding instead to continue working toward educational reform. Would some other sociologist have applied and extended Kimberlé Crenshaw‘s legal scholarship on intersectionality?
Indeed, for some scholars (myself included), one’s research, teaching, and service are interdependent. There is a sort of synergy among these three components of our scholarship that is greater than the sum of research + teaching + service. For example, I experienced a great sense of mutual influence among my research (discrimination and health, LGBT health), teaching, and my work as a co-facilitator for “Boyfriend Lessons” — a series of workshops for bisexual, trans, and gay young men on health and well-being (particularly sexual health). I brought to the latter insights from others’ and my own research to articulate how the health of queer men is shaped and constrained within a bi-, trans-, and homophobic context. These insights have also been articulated in my blogging for Kinsey Confidential. When I taught Sexual Diversity in 2009-2010, I often shared my Kinsey Confidential blog posts, as well as news of current events, to spark discussion and “warm up” the class for the day’s lecture. My teaching, my service to the community, as well as my personal experiences and interpersonal connections, in turn, have influenced my research.
But, this comes with full knowledge that service that is not serving the academy does not “count” professionally. And, again, I stress the importance of the peer review process for publishing research. How I get to the research process in the first place, and what I do with research once it’s published are undeniably influenced by my commitment to social justice. While it also influences how I do research, I based my decisions and interpretations on existing theory and research, and have my work vetted by other scholars, just like my non-activist colleagues.
Now, About The Elephant In The Room…
I keep harping on the matter of science, despite its imperfections, because there are some ways in which academia and activism do not mix. Well, there is one big way, and that is when scholars shirk standards of ethical, empirically- and theoretically-based science all together.
The scandal surrounding a 2012 study by University of Texas Austin sociologist, Mark Regnerus, has been at the background throughout my public dialogue on activism and academia. Since this story first emerged as I entered the job market, I decided to stay silent on the scandal. And, even once I secured a job, things had grown to a level that I felt it was best to let those protected by tenure to chime in. But, this case is likely the example of the concern that skeptics have raised.
Besides my fear of professional consequences, a further complication is the concern that calls for academic freedom must acknowledge that the political pendulum swings both ways. If I wish to have more space for scholars to blog, speak to the media, and use their research for public “good,” I must recognize that some will be doing so for causes that are not my own, or are even counter to mine. Sure, Regnerus should be free to blog (as he does), no matter his conservative views.
But, this case stands out because there is evidence that he did not draw upon existing theory and research throughout his research design (namely, how he defined “families with lesbian parents“). Further, to some extent, the peer review process was usurped. Even if this paper was not used in political efforts to oppose same-gender marriage, this is simply bad science.
The harmful mix of this bad science and his conservative activism is further apparent in the use of this study (which should have been retracted all together) to encourage the US Supreme Court to deny legal recognition of same-gender couples. Even when the American Sociological Association spoke for the discipline to say there is no empirical evidence to cause concern for the well-being of children of LGBT parents, he co-signed on an amicus brief that said otherwise, largely based on his and another flawed study. Unfortunately, his singular voice and study were reframed in the actual SCOTUS case as evidence that sociologists have yet to reach a consensus on LGBT families.
Bad science + activism = public harm. The peer review process should have prevented the study from ever being published. And, in being responsible scholars, greater effort should have been made to balance supposed mixed findings: 50 studies say X, but, there is one that says not X; here’s why we the latter study is important (or not). (The ASA brief did this, and further stressed why Regnerus’s study is flawed and irrelevant to LGBT families. Regnerus et al. did not do this in their brief to the Supreme Court.)
I believe that scholars can be activist-academics or activist-leaning academics or academics from 9-5 and activists on the weekends. But, this is with the caveat that scholars should be responsible and ethical in how they do research and what they do with it, and how they teach and on what topics, how they serve academic and non-academic communities.
Academia Needs Activism
A final point on the activism-academia mixture is that they need each other. Activists need the work of researchers to make a case for social change, particularly to change laws and policies. Researchers, in turn, benefit from their work being carried beyond the pay-walls of academic journals.
But, beyond the notion of active activists and passive academics who simply do science and produce knowledge, academia benefits from activist efforts to bust down barriers to the ivory tower. Despite his undeniable contributions to sociology, W. E. B. DuBois was not welcomed into the discipline because he was Black. Eventually fed up with the racism of sociology and the academy in general, he turned more exclusively to activism, co-founding the NAACP.
Recently, I have learned of other marginalized scholars who were either kept out or whose contributions were ignored. Today, I began reading Imagine a World: Pioneering Black Women Sociologists. I am embarrassed to admit that I have never heard of the five Black women sociologists featured in the book: Jacquelyne Johnson Jackson, LaFrancis Rodgers-Rose, Joyce A. Ladner, Doris Wilkinson, and Delores P. Aldridge. But, considering that the discipline has not been (and still is not) immune to the prejudices and discriminatory practices of the outside world, why would I?
The most mind-blowing revelation I have had on this matter is the obvious erasure of Dorothy Swaine Thomas. She co-authored a book with W. I. Thomas, from which “his” famous quote comes: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas 1928: 572). Yet, Dorothy is rarely given credit for the “W. I. Thomas quote.” Sadly, what was originally outright sexism that drove the discipline to erase her contribution, my generation of scholars is never taught about her just because our teachers do not know otherwise.
These revelations have fueled my aforementioned interests in the sociology of knowledge and sociology of science. It is a scary thought that what is taken as Truth is based on science done overwhelmingly by privileged scholars (i.e., middle-class white men) sometimes based on samples that do not reflect members of marginalized groups. Marginalized scholars are excluded or their work is undermined (sometimes as a result of the exclusion). For example, there is a slow growth of studies on sexuality published in the top journals in sociology, yet such scholarship published in sexuality journals is regarded as unimportant to mainstream sociology or it is dismissed as “mesearch” if conducted by an LGBT scholar. (Because the work white middle-class men do, even on themselves, is Objective Science and Truth.)
It is unsurprisingly to me, then, that some minority scholars who were initially interested studying their communities (for their advancement or liberation) end up doing work on the sociology of knowledge (e.g., Patricia Hill Collins) or critiquing research methods (e.g., Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva).
In sum, I reiterate that it is possible to be an activist and an academic. If responsible, one’s work in one domain can benefit the other. And, for some, the synergy among all aspects of your activist and academic selves cannot be compartmentalized into research, teaching, (academic) service, and community service or activism. The question is not whether you can be. And, frankly, I think it is time to move beyond asking whether you should be an activist. Some people just are.
I conclude, then, by suggesting that it is time to recognize the reality of activism in academia, and better appreciate the good it does for it. Arguably, science would remain limited and exclusive without activist efforts to end discriminatory practices in education.
Moving forward, the question should be how to support students and scholars who are activists at heart (because you never know what impact they can have in society!). I call for ending the practice of “beating the activist” out of graduate students. It is no secret that many students come into graduate programs, especially in the social sciences, with the hopes of making a difference. It is time to support them as they are.
My Kind Of Sociology
And, I am working toward my own self-defined sociology, even after six years of “beatings” in graduate school. You may have noticed that I renamed my blog, My Sociology. This was the name of my very first blog. By the title, I do not imply that I own sociology (though we could debate whether it can be or is owned, and by whom). Rather, I take the position that there is no one, singular way to do sociology nor to be a sociologist.
Seeing the doubt that students from marginalized backgrounds experience, particularly in graduate school, makes it particularly important to support activist-leaning academics. A narrow image of successful scholars is purported, and the disconnect between one’s social justice desires and what they learn in graduate school persists. So, too many — just too many — scholars of color, women scholars, first-generation and working-class scholars doubt themselves, questioning whether an academic career is right for them, and, frankly, whether they are right (read: good enough) for academia.
There are a number of examples of sociologists, whether or not they identify as activists, who serve as inspiring role models, folks who pursue their own kind of sociology:
- DJ Elaine Harvey and Sociologist Mignon Moore UCLA sociologist Mignon Moore and her partner Elaine Harvey have presented their relationship and love to the world to inspire other LGBT folks (especially those of color) and change minds on same-gender marriage. Her work on Black lesbian families (including an article in American Sociological Review!) has advanced the intersectionality theoretical framework to (re)visit the intersections among race, gender, and sexuality. Also, she uses an innovative method (interactions at social events and private parties) for her research.
- Dr. CJ Pascoe, best known currently for her book Dude You’re a Fag, serves on the research advisory board for Lady Gaga’s anti-bullying organization, Born This Way Foundation. She co-edits a blog, Social (In)Queery, on gender and sexuality research.
- The entire Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) organization.
- Northwestern sociologist Aldon Morris, who has propelled the DuBoisian tradition in sociology.
- The entire Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP) organization.
- Monique Carry, a dear friend, who brings together research, education, and activism in her advocacy for Black LGBT youth. She co-founded the All My Children Project, and works as a behavioral scientist for the CDC.
- Patricia Yancey Martin, who has advanced a structural conceptualization of sexism.
- Sociologist and filmmaker Dr. Tukufu Zuberi.
- ASA President Cecelia Ridgeway, who has developed an interesting approach to understand how interpersonal interactions create, reinforce, and recreate macro systems of inequality.
- Tressie McMillan Cottom. Awesome. Badass blogger. Does some great work on the privatization of higher education.
- Sociologists Lisa Wade and Gwen Sharp, who run and edit the popular Sociological Images blog.
- Minnesota sociologist Christopher Uggen, whose research, teaching, blogging, and community outreach aim to make knowledge about crime and punishment, disenfranchisement, discrimination, and health publicly accessible. He was one of the founding co-editors of Contexts magazine, and now edits The Society Pages.