The Unbearable Whiteness Of Mesearch

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Victor Ray is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee Knoxville.

victor-rayI recently heard of a patronizing slander directed against scholars of color. Research that examines discrimination, racism or simply focuses on communities of color has been dismissed as “me studies” or “mesearch.”

The claim is that we are provincial, our problems are particular and we are stuck navel-gazing at nonuniversal issues. The neologism has roots in deeply held ideas about the inability of people of color to study their communities objectively. That is especially the case if the scholarship locates the problems of nonwhite communities in discrimination or racism as opposed to alleged cultural deficiencies.

Calling the research of nonwhites mesearch locates scholars of color as academic special interest groups that get in the way of the real, rigorous work performed by unnamed white academics. Mesearch, as epithet, simultaneously highlights people of color as incapable of objectivity while certifying the objectivity of the speaker.

My colleagues Phillip Ayoub and Deondra Rose have defended the utility and necessity of scholars of color studying their own groups. I thank them for this and regret that we work in an environment where such types of interventions remain necessary. (And if the comments on their article are any indication, we still need these interventions.) My concern is related to theirs yet distinct.

White scholars do mesearch all the time. In many disciplines, that is simply called the canon. Claiming that mesearch is a particular issue for scholars of color demonstrates a profound lack of self-awareness on the part of researchers in the social sciences and humanities. As scholars of whiteness such as Amanda Lewis have more than amply shown, whiteness maintains its power partially through its relative invisibility. White norms and culture are projected as universal standards, but it’s only whites’ socially dominant position that allows this work to be considered universal. Relations of dominance are built into what we think of as legitimate topics of study.

Take, for instance, psychology. Many people have criticized the discipline for drawing heavily from nonrepresentative college-age populations that are overwhelmingly European American. People of color tend to be such a small proportion of the sample that researchers have routinely dropped them from analyses. Yet, when such findings are presented, they are not usually discussed as the psychological dispositions of a dominant racial group — rather they are projected as general, universal psychological processes.

Or take the discipline of philosophy. As my undergrad philosophy professor Brian Van Norden and his colleague recently pointed out in The New York Times, in America, the discipline of philosophy has a deep Eurocentric bias. They argue that we should highlight this white bias by renaming the departments “European and American Philosophy” or “Anglo-European Philosophical Studies.” Such euphemisms sound slightly less abrasive than “White Philosophical Mesearch.” Of course, philosophers of color such as Charles Mills have been pointing out the bias in the discipline for years, showing that it impoverishes and distorts our basic understanding of the contemporary world.

These are important areas of study. I have taken courses in psychology and philosophy, and they have enriched my thinking and my life. The problem arises when people claim that they are a universal representation of the human condition. These areas of study are no more universal than African or ethnic studies programs. In fact, outsiders often criticize academe for studying topics that they may see as trivial, irrelevant or too specialized for “real world” application.

Some right-wing federal and state legislators regularly lampoon and deride research they don’t understand. We academics, as a group, usually rally to the defense of colleagues whose work is attacked as trivial. A core belief of liberal arts education is that insights can often arise from arcane knowledge or unpredictable connections between disciplines. Thus, scholars who claim that people of color are especially prone to conducting mesearch undermine a central principle of scholarship. That is, scholars have the autonomy and expertise to pursue questions they find interesting and relevant.

Ultimately, the relative invisibility of white normativity creates the illusion that white subject matter is universal and universally interesting. Ironically, scholars who locate the genesis of mesearch in the work of people of color would do well to adopt a technique forwarded by black feminists: reflexivity. As Patricia Hill Collins argues, all researchers, regardless of background, should be aware of and open about how their social position or personal biography might influence their assumptions.

“Objectivity” And Oppression In Academia

@grollman: Objectivity is a myth afforded to the privileged. (Source: Twitter)

@grollman: Objectivity is a myth afforded to the privileged. (Source: Twitter)

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.

Advice For Publishing Research On Marginalized Communities

SumerauNote: this essay was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column. Dr. J. Sumerau (@JSumerau) is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tampa. J. is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted. Zir teaching, research and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion and health in the experiences of sexual, religious and gender minorities.

Research on the Margins

Lately, I have had some conversations with other scholars who study marginalized communities about a topic that I have yet to see receive much attention in the academy. That is, what happens when, as part of studying marginalized communities, you find yourself: (1) studying a population that is almost completely absent from existing literature, and (2) needing to situate your study within a literature that does not include the population in question? How do you resolve this dilemma?

Not surprisingly, the problem arises from the processes of scientific study, publishing and debate as they play out over time. Scientific work, like any other humanly created endeavor, is both shaped and limited by the perspectives, standpoints and biases of the people who do it at different times, in different contexts and in different ways. As a result, it is easy to look back in time and notice that some subjects that seem obvious today are missing from earlier theories, fact statements, truth claims and entire disciplines.

It is equally unsurprising that looking back tends to reveal that those previously missing subjects often initially found their way into disciplines when, for example, members of such groups achieved access in scientific careers and opportunities, members of such groups became more visible or recognized in the mainstream, and/or members of such groups found themselves under attack as a result of emerging legal and political campaigns. Although such previously missing subjects existed beforehand in the natural world we all share, it typically took some type of external catalyst or impetus from people who experienced them for science to notice and slowly incorporate the subject into existing theories, fact statements, truth claims and disciplines.

While I could choose from any number of examples over time, an area I have worked in for years now provides a typical case. As revealed in narratives, archival documents and other materials, sexual minorities have been active within mainstream religious traditions and in the creation of their own religious traditions for at least a century. Yet scientific studies of religion, sexual minorities and sexualities in general did not really take any notice of them until the 1970s (with a couple of examples) and the 1990s (with a couple more examples). Further, the handful of studies in those decades did not really lead to an actual field of scholarship until the 2000s and the present decade. Before massive religious and sexual rights movements and events, and without the presence of many scientists who were open about being members of sexual minorities, this aspect of our world simply did not find voice in the scientific construction of it.

Some people will look at such patterns and argue that science is self-correcting, so no problem exists. Others will look at the same patterns and argue that science itself is problematic in a similar way to other mainstream institutions because it often serves as a self-sustaining vehicle of those in power. But I do not intend to get into those debates here. In fact, I can argue either side quite well, and I know others who can do the same. Rather, I return to the question at the beginning of this piece: What do scholars do when they find themselves in between existing scientific norms and attempts to study things that contradict or otherwise do not fit such norms?

I won’t pretend to have any absolute answer to this question, and I am not even sure whether one could fit all cases. At the same time, I have run into this dilemma at times studying transgender experience (in literatures built primarily upon cisgender assumptions and focus to date), bisexual experience (in literatures built primarily upon monosexual assumptions and focus to date) and nonreligious experience (in literatures built primarily upon religious assumptions and focus to date).

Here, I offer three ways in which I have managed this dilemma in those research areas, and I invite others to offer any additional strategies.

Use the absence of marginalized populations in science to demonstrate the importance of the study. In an article focused on transgender experience with religion, for example, I outlined the ways that religious, gendered and gendered-religious scholarship rest upon cisgender samples, assumptions, populations and findings. To accomplish that, my collaborators and I analyzed existing literatures in these areas for the ways they created a science of cisgender religion instead of a science of religion.

The bright side of this approach is that the existing literature bias provides the justification for studying an unconventional topic. The downside of it, however, is your chances of being published depend heavily upon journal reviewers’ and editors’ willingness to handle the bias you have just pointed out in a productive way or to consider pointing out such bias as a contribution to scholarship in your field. In fact, I have already experienced reviewers and editors who do accomplish these two things, and others who instead reacted in a much more negative way.

Bypass academic journals in favor of other publication options. Academic journals rely upon gaining acceptance from others who may have vested interests in the status quo, so it may be useful to seek other outlets. That is why it is common for members of marginalized groups and scholars studying marginalized communities to much more heavily cite and quote academic books from various presses, academic book chapters from various edited volumes and even academic and activist blogs and other informal writings. Since such spaces are not entirely dependent upon the perceptions of people already enmeshed within existing academic norms and assumptions, they often provide more room for new, challenging and critical ideas, data and arguments. In such cases, scholars may first publish, or find a citation in, scholarship outside the journal process and then use that publication or citation in later endeavors within it.

Focus the work on conceptual development rather than the population in question. Studies of members of dominant groups are often accepted on their own terms, but focusing on marginalized populations often draws negative reactions, accusations of “me-search” and questions about resonance or importance to the broader (read: dominant) world. As such, one way that studies of marginalized populations find publication involves framing them as conceptual.

For example, it is not a study of bisexual Black cisgender women, but rather a study of the ways some people manage emotions in relation to disparate racial, sexual and gender norms. When the population is not deemed mainstream enough to warrant observation or not often part of existing survey data or analyses, a conceptual angle (i.e., a way this “unusual” population relates to the mainstream) may be useful for demonstrating to outsiders the value of the case. Further, once a few of those pieces are published, researchers may draw upon a combination of them to argue for a (insert name of discipline here) field of study on this population — as has been done many times in the past with other marginalized populations.

While the aforementioned approaches are by no means exhaustive, and each one has its own benefits and drawbacks, they may serve as initial solutions for researchers who find themselves studying groups or phenomena currently missing — mostly or entirely — from the scientific literature or the specific assumptions and facts of their discipline. Based on existing scientific records, this dilemma is not new and not likely to go away. As such, it may be useful for scholars studying marginalized topics and communities to continue discussing, sharing and working on strategies for expanding the topics and populations recognized within and between varied scientific disciplines.

Cisgender Scholars Conduct “Me-Search,” Too

SumerauNote: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. J. Sumerau is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tampa. J. is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted. Zir teaching, research and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion and health in the experiences of sexual, religious and gender minorities.

Cisgender Me-Search

Earlier this year, I ran into a colleague at a conference who asked me an interesting question that I had not yet considered. This colleague had read my blog post about the exclusion of transgender people and their experience from the vast majority of nationally representative social scientific surveys, as well as two peer-reviewed articles of mine that have come out in the past year mentioning this topic.

After reading those pieces, thinking about them and discussing them with others, my colleague sought me out at the conference and asked, “Since transgender people are missing from most data sets, and most social scientists are not transgender that we know of, would most social scientific research today be considered me-search?”

Like most people I have met who study populations they are or were a part of in some way, shape or form, I have regularly heard the term “me-search” thrown around online, at conferences and otherwise throughout my time in the academy. Generally, people use the term as a kind of slur to attack the credibility or importance of research done concerning communities that the researcher has a connection to or is part of beyond their scholarly work. My colleague noted that many cisgender survey researchers spend their whole careers using surveys that only have cisgender respondents or have no way of measuring the possible existence of transgender or nonbinary people in the data set.

As the person spoke, I realized that I have seen the same thing myself. If me-search refers to people who study populations they are a part of outside of their scholarly work, then most survey work done by cisgender scholars — and thus most of social science — fits the definition of me-search.

In the conversations I have had and essays I have read on the subject over the years, however, I have only seen the use of the term “me-search” directed at scholars who study marginalized communities that they are part of or connected to in some way. This realization led me to wonder why this term is directed at members of marginalized communities and scholars studying marginalized populations even though, in many cases, members of dominant groups and scholars using mainstream surveys are doing the same thing. That might be a reflection of societal patterns whereby dominant norms and populations are constructed as more objective and free from questioning, while marginalized norms and communities are constructed as other and met with increased scrutiny. Whatever the source of the discrepancy, its existence suggests a number of important questions that practicing academics should ask themselves.

For example, if social scientists believe that studying one’s own community is problematic, then why do so many cisgender people use surveys that only contain other cis people, and thus only study other cis people? Further, why do they do so without talking about their own cisgender identity and experience as a potential limitation and bias of the study and its results? Is it only problematic if it does not fit their assumptions, lifestyle or background?

If, in contrast, social scientists do not believe studying one’s own community is problematic, then where did the term “me-search” come from, and why does it show up so often in conversations about only some contemporary research practice? Further, why is this term viewed as negative if the vast majority of social scientists are doing it throughout their careers? Is it only negative when it involves giving marginalized communities a voice in scientific traditions?

Finally, if the people who decry me-search believe studying one’s own community is in fact problematic, where are their passionate campaigns to do away with or change our existing survey designs? Put another way, why aren’t they decrying the cisgender me-search that makes up the bulk of contemporary survey work?

Whatever answers may arise from these questions, the point is that a fairly obvious double standard seems to be operating within scientific communities. If, for example, people study their own community but that community occupies a dominant social location, then their work tends to be considered mainstream or legitimate science. But if people study their own community but it occupies a marginalized social location, then their work may be decried or attacked as me-search or not as scientific.

What do we make of this double standard? What does it say about how our own assumptions shape what we do or do not define as legitimate science? And how might we move past this double standard in the future?

I am not going to pretend that I have answers to these questions, but they might be useful starting points for important discussions within the academy. I personally see no issue with me-search related to any social group. Following feminist, queer and critical race theory and other critical scholarly traditions, I think science depends on a mixture of perspectives, methods, lifestyles, experiences and backgrounds if it seeks to capture the world that we all share. Rather, the problem for me arises when some scholars who study groups to which they belong are celebrated while others are attacked or dismissed for doing the same thing.

Put simply, if me-search is a problem, it needs to be addressed when cisgender people or members of other dominant groups conduct it — instead of only when members of marginalized communities do so. If, however, it is not a problem when members of dominant groups study the populations they belong to outside their work, then the term “me-search” — like any other mechanism of inequality — should be done away with, for the betterment of us all.

Objectivity Doesn’t Exist (And That’s A Good Thing)

Source: Steve Jurvetson

Source: Steve Jurvetson

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).

Top 3 Reasons Students go to Grad School

Top 3 Reasons Students go to Grad School, by Race/Ethnicity

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!

___

NOTES

* 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.