Academia and social change
February 13, 2011, 4:46 am
Filed under: Editorializing | Tags:

I recently finished a book which rather well summed up my greatest fear as relates to academia:

“[O]ne of the authors was involved in a doctoral consortium in which an interesting exchange occurred. One of the professors leading the program asked the aspiring academics, ‘How many of you are studying in this field [social responsibility] because you want to use your results to engender social change?’ Nearly a half of them raised their hands. The professors leading the program were uniformly shocked, with one asking, ‘How, then, can you be objective? What if the results of your research simply do not support your beliefs in this area?’ At this point, science is abandoned and the enterprise becomes a plaything of ‘politics and religion’ …”
[Devinney, Auger, and Eckhardt in The Myth of the Ethical Consumer, 2010]

If I may make a request: academia, please reconsider. 

There are several problems with this critique of personal investment in the outcomes of research. First, one enters academia to learn and apply methods of research, not to justify particular outcomes or values. If the methods of research are valid and well applied, where is the problem? All research starts with a hypothesis, which the researcher then sets out to disprove. If the hypothesis fails to be disproved, then we gain slightly more confidence in its validity and try to disprove it in other ways and under other circumstances.

Second, what researcher is not vested in the outcome of his research? If a corporation is funding research, then certainly the same bias towards particular conclusions exists. If academic prestige or funding is on the line on the basis of particular outcomes, is there not also a bias? And so we have peer review and the FDA, among other checks and balances. The fact that one has a particular goal — to make the world a better place — is no more or less likely to bias the results than current funding scenarios. And what’s more, if the goal is truly to make the world a better place, then it does not serve that goal to fudge results, which become the basis for failed action, setting back the social movement in question in terms of finances, credibility, and time. (E.g. If an “ethical consumer” market segment does not exist as such, then it doesn’t much help anyone vested in the goal of ethical consumption to act as if it does, but rather to explore further conditions under which consumers may promote ethical corporate behavior — or to research alternatives to consumption as a corporate motivator.)

Third, if academia is off limits to those who would like the improve the world, then does that not limit the effectiveness of their respective organizations, in which the practitioners will lack the expertise required to make use of, or commission, related academic research? If marketing departments can employ psychologists, and banks employ economists, why deprive NGOs of PhDs?

I am reminded of an article from a year or two ago on how corporate culture was shocked when the younger generation came into interviews expecting to interview employers, as if the employer should be competing for the candidate’s interest. It’s also time that professors not be “shocked” that one might both have values (which they are not ashamed to express) and conduct legitimate and valuable academic research that does in fact leave the world a better place.


1 Comment so far
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In all honesty, the professors leading the program seem to be living a delusion. It may be an interesting concept to encourage the next generations of researchers to remain completely and totally ambivalent as to the results of their findings… but I don’t think it’s happening, in academia or anywhere.
We are not (yet!) robots…

Comment by Megwen

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