Is Academia Broken? Parochialism

It seems more and more apparent that the words ‘real research’ encroach in to judging academics’ contributions to knowledge.  It’s a thinly veiled insult that doesn’t demean the recipient, but shows the insecurity of the deliverer.  The idea that someone’s work is more ‘real’ than another’s is laughable.  There may be more appropriate ways of carrying out research to answer a chosen research question, but determining one person’s work as being more important than another’s simply because they do not use your chosen theories or methods is simply not true.  In my mind, this animosity between academics can be explained by one of two factors: A disagreement as to what constitutes valuable knowledge, and a lack of respect for alternative expressions of knowledge, which is often driven by parochialism and ego defence.

What is Valuable Knowledge?

Anything (yes, anything) that advances knowledge, even just a tiny, tiny bit, is valuable.  Yeah, even the stuff that seems obvious is valuable – it may not be valuable to you, but it is valuable.  It is valuable to the field – it is valuable as a set up to a larger study – it is valuable to the individual who created the knowledge – it is valuable – the value may not be high, but it is still valuable.

Don’t dismiss a piece of work just because someone has used a methodology different to your preferred one to create the knowledge.  Argue that the chosen methodology is poorly carried out or that the methodology has been applied inappropriately (e.g. using qualitative methods to create findings that are generalizable to a population or an inaccuracy in how a model is calculated).

Equally, don’t dismiss a piece of work because it isn’t using your pet theory. Not every piece of knowledge needs to be framed around a singular trend that you (and your colleagues) are touting.  However, this aggressive defence of one’s own preferred methods and theories seems to be increasingly common and, in my mind, seems to stem from a simple foundation – the academic system promotes parochialism – so much so, that academics are fighting with one another about what the best way to create knowledge is.

Parochialism and Ego Defence

Why are some academics so defensive of their own turf? Why do they care so much about defending how they create knowledge to the extent that we attack others for deviating from their course – as if the chosen course is the best and only course? Because the academic system encourages an aggressive publication game – and to ensure that our chosen research path is publishable, some academics feel it necessary to attack anything that could be seen to counter their world view.  Rather than excel in one’s chosen field, it’s often easier to discredit those in different fields.

The idea that one’s life work could be carried out in a different (and potentially better) manner is difficult for some to swallow – especially when academics are known for their eccentricities and egos.  We are so closely tied with what we do, that an attack on our work is counter-volleyed with a salvo of attacks in defence because an attack on our work is like attacking our creation– our children – and our poor, indefensible children need to be defended – well, that seems to be the justification for acting like an ass.  But our work is not who we are – our work is not our children – our work is simple that – our work.

So, who fired first? Does it really matter?! What matters is that life is too short to care about what others think of you, especially if the other group has little or no bearing on your career.  IF you face defensiveness from an editor of a leading journal or your Promotion & Tenure committee, then you have a different battle on your hand.  Knowing how to defend your work (and promote its benefits) is a crucial skill – but jumping in to every fight in order to promote your value is draining and likely to build heightened animosity between groups who are all trying to do the same thing – create valuable knowledge.

So, when should academics bite?  When you see someone using the wrong methods to answer a chosen research question; when you see someone using a method inappropriately; when you see theories inappropriately applied; when you see holes in the research, and, when you have evidence of research fraud.  Just because someone does something differently isn’t worth your time or effort.  If your entire career teeters on public opinion of your research, then perhaps re-evaluate your career direction (and life priorities).

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2 thoughts on “Is Academia Broken? Parochialism

  1. Ekant, i think the problem lies at a different level of analysis than simply the vagaries of institutional power/knowledge games in academia. It seems hard to ignore Lasch’s arguments about the generalisation of narcissistic trends in western culture as well as the generalization of self-help culture. But these in turn are the echoes of the divided capitalist self’s desire to overcome the split that capitalism induces between human being as impersonal units of abstract labour power and sensuous consumers of the glut of material sources of distinction.

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