Why do you need an audience? (popularizing scholarship)

Academia is often referred to as an ‘ivory tower’, where walls seperate wizards from commoners. Wizards you see, like to speak to other wizards. Of course this is a huge generalization and many academics… sorry wizards…  have broken out from the walls to find recognition outside. But should they have to? As my research has progressed I have had a number of discussions with academics who do not see any benefit to pushing ones work out from the university. Is it a concern if a researchers work is uninteresting? What criteria can we put on ‘good’ research? Who should benefit?

the positions

There is an idea that all scientific knowledge is important, and that we can never really know what will be important down the road. Just because it’s popular now doesn’t mean its ‘better’. As opposed to pushing for more popular research projects, most teachers I’ve encountered have recommended I find and stick to something I find stimulating. What’s popular today probably won’t be tomorrow.

Many cultural anthropologists, and probably sociologists,  have been pushing for more collaborative research practices (what other disciplines push for this?).  All academics are involved in collaboration, ie: they read and comment on each others work, prop each other up, etc… But in the context of cultural anthropology it’s about collaborating with communities and people involved in the research project. The idea is that social science can work to benefit the communities involved just as much as the academy.  In order to do this a research project must remain flexible to other interests.  Ie: your idea was to study kinship in a small remote community, but when you get there you learn the community is being pushed off their land for a huge hydro project. What do you do? Stick to your guns and study their kinship patterns, or talk with the community and do a project that helps to inform and raise awareness of their land claim issue?

Whoa, isn’t that activism? Yup. So am I lost as a social scientist? Perhaps.  But such is the way of academia – researchers follow trends, and jump on bandwagons [like interdisciplinary studies of the internet for example]. The fight between ‘pure’ research (popularity? who cares.) and activism (popularity helps) has been a long one – as Tsing describes:

“In the late 1990s, scholarly trends were moving away from an endorsement of activist projects and experiments. Practitioners and scholars often gravitated to different styles for discussing programs. Where practitioners focussed on the strengths and weaknesses of particular projects, scholars tended to place these projects in longer histories and wider geographies of knowledge and power.” (Tsing 2004:264)

And the fight continues among students and teachers today. The program I am in is setup to give students a taste of each ‘side’. For us students it’s like a game of chess, where we are pawns. Who’s perspective will win? Probably neither, or at least no one has yet. The battle itself seems to be whats important. Tsing describes how such a tug of war worked out in the end:

“In the process of the discussion, I found myself provoked to think differently. On the one hand, scholarly colleagues challenged me to consider the real dangers of too easy a generosity toward programs for “community” empowerment. On the other hand, community advocates made me consider whether scholarship had stopped working well as a public interlocutor.” (p.264)

So these opposing perspectives can come together quite nicely in particular contexts. The ongoing war in the academy has a transforming effect on the way researchers see things. I can never quite find my bearings, and I find it reassuring to know the constant back and forth and the dramatic oppositions are part of the game. Further, they aren’t really in conflict. They often go hand in hand (ala, research online communities and publishing, and advocate OA.).

Now where was I going again? Ah yes. The audience. As Tsing comments, scholarship has trouble generating public interest which makes it questionably useful as a tool for activism.  But this isn’t always the case, and when academics do get popular they are sure to draw fire. For one, academics have little experience marketing themselves. Because of this, they have very little control over what topics become popular. Popularity in turn has a powerful influence in funding circles. So getting an audience can also be away of fighting for money, and this is one thing most academics agree is a bad thing (along with selling yourself out to the military).

Over at Teaching Anthropology, Pamthropologist discusses the effect of public opinion on research, looking at what kinds of research become popular and how. Specifically they talk about how public interest can skew and guide research (just as much as a hundred million dollar Minerva program, a pentagon/military program funding academic research). She quotes the original listserv post by Bob Muckle, who wrote:

Not unexpectedly, as almost all lists of top discoveries in archaeology are apt to do, they describe stories that tend to appeal to the public’s imagination of the things archaeologists do, with a clear bias towards pyramids, well-known civilizations, historical figures, and human biological remains.


I think that as the media itself is increasingly driving archaeological research, especially that which focuses on things that make good television, archaeologists are going be faced with increasing challenges connvicning people of the value of lithic waste flakes, potsherds, and rusty bits of metal.

So here the need to appeal to public opinion is a concern for researchers, just as the lack of relevance to the public in scholarship is a concern for advocates. Audience here is one of the big differences, where we can find a kind of “friction” discussed by Tsing.

So back to the blogsphere and the internet – how will appealing to ones collaborators change research? Are there pitfalls to encounter? This ties into my previous post on reader interaction where I discussed the role reader comments can have in skewing the image readers have of a blog. More importantly however, I think blogging ones research is a way to take back some of the foreign media’s control over what research becomes popular. If academics got more excited about their work in public, I’m sure that passion would transfer to others. Blogging research can help correct the bias emerging out of popular science publications like National Geographic. But that is also asking academics to market themselves, and who wants academia to be a popularity contest?

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2004. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton University Press.

random notes from reading:

[Universal of the day: Montreal is cold.

Particular detail of the day: Montreal is cold.]

Universal + Particular = Montreal is cold.

See how well they work together?

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