competitors, raptors and leeches…

by pasdelabas

So what I am about to write is best written when I am angry. Which I am not at the moment. But when I’m angry I don’t write things down.

I have had quite a long association with academia and received funding myself to pursue research. Now I am no longer so closely associated with academic work and to seize the universities in a very negative light. Much of the work I do is some sort of community work; elements of it are very similar to services provided within social services. I work with disadvantaged communities and the University, or rather academics within the University, hunt out groups like this in order to pursue research. At one level, often at a personal level of the academic’s commitment, this work is done by them in order to aid social mobility, bring issues to the attention of policymakers, impact on policy or simply raise consciousness of the issues faced.

This seems very straightforward but increasingly I perceive University academics as leeches, sucking blood from a body and putting back into it by extension simply a product to cauterise the wound or rather to keep the blood flowing without causing pain. Not causing pain is a reasonable ethical position but the aim of the leech is to extract blood and not to assist the body in question. University academics are by and large middle class intellectuals almost by definition. In order to validate much of the work they do they require disadvantaged people upon whom they exert their expertise. Poverty is very attractive. Difference is interesting. However what is it that they give back to those who are the subject of their research? It feels far more like they are preying on the poor and the different.

Another primary motor of academic research, perhaps the primary motive of academic research is entirely self serving. Like in all other areas of paid work people look for ways of being paid. Institutions search for rationales which justify their existence. The explanations which are given for researching those in poverty are heavy with a long history. Anthropology for example is well known for sharing origins with colonial practice. The anthropologist, possibly the academic in general, can appear to be a missionary. Their aim being to bring the word to those living in darkness. What is it that they are giving apart from the word? Rather like a colonial explorer who returns to the provincial town and populates the local museum with artefacts taken from a generous tribe, what does the academic do other than steal or at the very least borrow from another?

The power relations that exists between the universities and the population is it studies are powerfully uneven. The University represents the status quo, indeed quite simply the state. Whilst there is in the ether the heroic notion that one can succeed without a university degree, nevertheless, the absolute majority of people in positions of power have completed a university or equivalent education. Academic research always has to return something to academia itself which academia can judge of being of value. But how can the academia give value to the community that is studying unless it prioritises the needs of, perhaps the desires of, that community itself.

So I don’t express this very well because I don’t feel bitter and angry. I’m not naive and I know that my practice also expects a financial return for what I do. However something that universities don’t really take account of is the fact that people want them because of their money. They are seen as the holders of money yet they don’t even offer that in return for research because it might cloud the theoretical independence of the research. Research work should start with one question which is: what can we do which is of value to this group?

So as I work in community projects both voluntarily and with the aim of generating a partial income for myself, I perceive academia as a competitor, some sort of raptor circling the sky looking for a cluster of injured beasts.