Whose Side Are We On? On being an activist academic

Featured

In asking whether sociologists should have values or be value-free Howard S Becker famously asked ‘Whose side are we on?’ His conclusions were that we should be on the side of the powerless and oppressed: that as academics, social scientists had a duty to examine social structures and the effect they had on ordinary people.

At the time that was a significant challenge to the academy. Founded on principles of reason and rationality, most disciplines tried to represent themselves as free from moral or political imperatives. Particularly in the wake of World War Two, where German scientists and engineers were co-opted into carrying out science to further Nazi ideals, the independence of the academy from political taint was held to be vital.

However, what Becker was pointing out was that the academy does not exist in social isolation. It is part of the social fabric of a society: educating its elite, informing discourse and policy. We make moral and political choices all the time: in choosing who we educate and how, what we research and what we don’t. To claim moral neutrality in the name of academic independence is simply to hide the fact that we are part of the elite and reinforcing their power.

I work in social policy, specifically around issues of gender, disability and age. Feminism, disability rights and gerontology all have a moral and ethical framework that expects academics to challenge power relations: particularly to challenge misogyny, ableism and ageism. If in our research we do NOT aim to highlight and tackle oppression, then we are accused of being ‘academic parasites’: using people simply for our own reputation and to reinforce our privileged position. Many social science and humanities disciplines expect a critical stance from their academics: to examine and critique the world not just as we see it, but to acknowledge and reflect on our own place in the world we research.

So when I engage in research that involves gender, disability or age I always engage in it as a political process. I am not just interested in analysing the social policies pertinent to women, disabled and older people. I am interested in finding out what social processes oppress them, and how those can be tackled. And I always try to reflect on my own position in that research: not just as an academic, but as a woman, a disabled person and a carer.

Many academics are also activists. The campaigns against climate change, to protect endangered species, to prevent domestic abuse, to tackle racism in policing were all founded on academic research, to name but a few. Academics also have a long history of crossing the divide to the third sector –  in my field the Fawcett Society, Inclusion Scotland and the National Carers Organisation have all been led by academics. There is also a long history of academics becoming politicians: Harold Wilson and Enoch Powell were former dons, and over 20 current MPs hold PhDs.

The current ‘impact’ agenda further supports close collaboration between activism and the academy: in the last REF, over 45% of impact case studies from my own discipline involved working with policy makers, and over half the universities entered reported ongoing collaborations with the third sector. Evidence-based policy and practice attempts to use research to inform social policy in proactive ways, and academics are usually very enthusiastic about its possibilities.

However, activism has its dark side, particularly in the age of social media and the resurgence of right-wing politics. As an openly feminist woman in academia I attract the usual misogynistic attacks in mainstream and social media. During the 2014 Scottish referendum I was carrying out independent research funded by the ESRC on what the different outcomes might mean for care policy and gender equality. I found that nations who had better gender equality outcomes, and used social care policies for that purpose, had gender equality enshrined as a national value in their constitutions. As a potentially newly independent country, Scotland could have that, and thereby acquire a powerful lever to effect policy changes. (Of course that alone would not make an independent Scotland a gender equal country and I was careful to stress that too). This finding marked me as a politically motivated independence supporter (I wasn’t) and attracted a fair amount of social media attacks from ‘cyberyoons’ (social media commentators against Scottish independence). Some took the trouble to track down my institution and make a formal complaint – which luckily my institution carefully replied to in my defence. I took it as a mark that I got ‘cybernatted’ almost as often as I got ‘cyberyooned’ that I was getting the balance of academic impartiality about right.

When I recently crossed the divide from activism to politics and ran for election in the 2017 snap general election, representing the Women’s Equality Party, I did so to highlight the gender-blindness of the main political parties. I campaigned on areas I knew about: social care policy, violence against women and women’s political representation. I was stalked, harassed, had frighteningly explicit pieces written about me in newspapers, and one men’s rights activist issued death threats on his website and targeted not just me but also my colleagues and students.

It’s hard to say whether that was because I was a woman, or a feminist, or a politician (all of whom regularly are the victims of hatred on social media). But my political opponents in particular hated that I was drawing on 25 years of research in my campaigning. In one hustings, after I had criticised the ‘dementia tax’ policy of the Conservatives, my opponent shouted at me ‘NO-ONE KNOWS THE SOLUTION TO SOCIAL CARE, NOT EVEN THE SO-CALLED PROFESSOR!’. Actually, I do know A solution based on years of comparative social policy research, and I earned the title ‘Professor’ through my international reputation for my research. But hey, all’s fair in love and war and politics.

Clearly as a society we value academics getting their hands dirty and engaging in the real world. The ESRC funded me specifically to find real world solutions to real world issues to help policy makers prepare for possible constitutional change, not sit in an ivory tower writing academic theories that no-one outside the academy would read or understand. The current REF will apportion 25% of its research funding on the basis of the non-academic impact the research has. We want and need our academics to use their knowledge for the greater good, and sometimes using that knowledge is a consciously political act.

But we need to protect them. If we value their expertise and their independence, we need to ensure that they are able to not just research the risky subjects, but take the risks necessary to get their findings into policy and practice. Academics should never be censured for taking activist or political positions on things they know about.

However, as academics we also have an ethical and moral responsibility to not step outside the boundaries of our research or claim knowledge we don’t have. The current problems with Personal Independence Payments for disabled people can be directly traced to psychological academic theories being misused in a social context. The depiction of Scottish independence supporters as far right nationalists can be directly traced to a misuse of political and historical theory about nationalist movements particularly in the twentieth century. The list goes on.

We should expect protection from our institutions and from society, we should fight for the things we know to be ‘true’ based on our research, we should fight to keep our independent critical stance. No matter what Michael Gove thinks, we need experts now more than ever in tackling some of the complex social issues that face our society. But we should not claim to be experts in everything or to have the ‘right’ answers, or to think that our status as elites gives us permission to ride roughshod over the electorate, or third sector activists, or people who are experts in things as a result of their lived experiences. We should lend our expertise to amplifying their voices: we SHOULD still be on the side of the oppressed. Otherwise we are simply reinforcing our own privilege.

#Holocaust memorial day and #Brexit

I grew up in Vienna, a city with a long and chequered history of anti-Semitism. I studied history, and part of that we had to visit Mauthausen concentration camp. My present family are Jewish enough that my husband and children would have been sent off to the camps. (I probably would have been exterminated earlier as a disabled and mentally ill person). So the Holocaust is close to me.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The horrors the Allies discovered as always led us to say ‘never again’.

The EEC (now EU) was founded in a post-War spirit of economic co-operation. If we grew our economies together, if we moved and lived in (then) 7 and now 28 countries, then we would see each other as friends and neighbours, not as distant strangers that we could commit genocide against or go to war with. It’s been the single most successful anti-war and anti-genocide economic and social policy experiment since 1945.

And on Friday, we in the UK are going to leave. Already we have seen a dramatic rise in racism and xenophobia. Friends, colleagues and families are leaving because of the toxic environment and those that live here now feel unsafe and unwelcome. This is how anti-semitism started in Berlin in the early 1930s. Not with invasion and jackboots, but with the scapegoating of people for a national economic disaster and the entirely legal systematic othering, blaming, and ultimately genocide.

I am not being dramatic when I say there are clear and worrying parallels here. We see the EU and foreigners being scapegoated and blamed for systematic social policy failure that was the responsibility of the post-2008 austerity regime, not the EU. We see rights and freedoms being taken away and that being welcomed by the electorate. We see opinions and hatred that 10 years ago would have been seen as dangerous and unwelcome as part of the mainstream of policy and media.

German children in the 1960s started asking their parents, what did you do in the war? What did you do before? Did you oppose fascism, did you enable it, did you carry it out?

What are WE going to say when OUR children ask us in 20 years time, what did you do in Brexit? Did you oppose it, did you enable it, did you carry it out?

And I hope to the goddess that we are not living with concentration camps of refugees, that the rights and freedoms being taken away are not extended further, that the unthinkable does not become commonplace.

Because history has shown us where that ends.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-51265139

black metal train rails
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Policy Transfer and Learning

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

(podcast download)

‘Policy learning’ describes the use of knowledge to inform policy decisions. That knowledge can be based on information regarding the current problem, lessons from the past or lessons from the experience of others. This is a political, not technical or objective, process (for example, see the ACF post). ‘Policy transfer’ describes the transfer of policy solutions or ideas from one place to another, such as by one government importing the policy in another country (note related terms such as ‘lesson-drawing’, ‘policy diffusion’ and ‘policy convergence’ – transfer is a catch-all, umbrella, term). Although these terms can be very closely related (one would hope that a government learns from the experiences of another before transferring policy) they can also operate relatively independently. For example, a government may decide not to transfer policy after learning from the experience of another, or it may transfer (or ‘emulate’) without really understanding…

View original post 816 more words

Travelling as a disabled professor: Ableism in academia and Nordic welfare

asian people
Photo by Asad Photo Maldives on Pexels.com

This week I had to ask the Department of Work and Pensions Access to Work scheme to fund me taking my disability assistant to a conference on long term care in Copenhagen. They asked why I needed to go, and to take her. I explained that part of my job as a professor to attend international conferences, and that due to the fibromyalgia I couldn’t navigate my way through unfamiliar places, and I needed help with transport.

My assessor said ‘I didn’t know disabled people could be professors.’

Of course, I only thought of Professor Stephen Hawking twenty minutes after that – at the time I was too gobsmacked that the someone working for Access to Work (whose purpose is to support disabled people IN WORK) was surprised that disabled people could be academics. It, after all, a job that involves a lot of sitting down, and lends itself to the kind of practical and physical support that Access to Work can easily fund.

But the ableism didn’t stop there. Because I needed her to be with me at the conference to help me find my way around, and negotiate things like lunch queues and taxis back to the hotel, my disability assistant needed to be registered. Access to Work were obviously not going to fund her full conference fee: she was there to help me, not listen to papers on long-term care policy.

However, there was no way to register an assistant. At a conference designed specifically for academics to share research on care policy and practice, no-one had considered that a disabled person *needing* care might attend.

As part of preparing for her attendance, my assistant checked whether the boat trip planned as a social event would be accessible for me. Yes, she was assured, the gangplank was level, and there would be assistance on and off the boat. Well, good job she checked, and decided to accompany me, because access to the boat was down some very narrow and dangerous steps which I could not navigate without her help.

Copenhagen is the capital of a country which prides itself on its universal welfare state and delivery of long-term care. Citizens of Denmark have the right to access support services if they need them: unlike in the UK there is not a presumption that families will provide care and the state will only step in if families are not available or able to care.

However, in my experience of navigating airlines, transport and generally being in public as an obviously mobility-impaired disabled person, this meant Copenhagen was, in fact, curiously inaccessible. This inaccessibility stemmed, I think, from the assumption that a disabled person should not be *out*, working, but should be at home being cared for. And that if they were out, they would have a professional care worker with them.

Shops were frequently inaccessible due to steps, and when I attempted to enter using my crutches (and at times shuffling upstairs on my hands and knees because honestly, my desire for Danish pottery to take home as a present for my daughter is far stronger than any sense of personal dignity or shame), NO-ONE offered to help me. At cafes, noticing that I couldn’t balance a tray and crutches, not a single server offered to carry my tray for me. Taxi drivers seemed genuinely puzzled as to how to accommodate me and my crutch, and in fact I didn’t see a single wheelchair user or wheelchair accessible taxi the whole time I was there.  Disability assistance at Copenhagen airport seemed to rely on the presupposition that you would have a carer with you to phone the wheelchair operators when you entered the building, as information directed me to line up in an enormous queue to check my luggage in and then ask for assistance at the check-in desk. ‘The WHOLE REASON I have booked disability assistance is that I CANNOT queue or stand for long periods’ I irately told the airline staff, who seemed to think this was not their problem. ‘Could you PLEASE call disability assistance here RIGHT NOW to help me before I fall over and block the queue?’

I have travelled extensively since my mobility and memory have worsened, and in my experience, this is very common in Nordic welfare states, and very UNcommon in neoliberal Anglo Saxon regimes. In the UK, Canada, the USA and Australia, in similar situations, shopkeepers, waiters, taxi drivers, airline workers and other customer focussed personnel fall over themselves to help me. Not only that, but they seem to be able to speak to me and ask me whether they can help, and what kind of help I need, rather than either assuming they know, or asking my disability assistant.

It’s a good job that intellectually and professionally the conference was amazing, because from the point of view of an ethnographic participative study of ableism in action, it was first class. I only wish I had thought to get funding and ethical approval to write it up.

I campaign and research and write extensively about the need for a comprehensive social care system to support disabled people. If we could rely on proper support, I often argue, just as we in the UK can rely on the NHS to treat and where possible heal us without bankrupting us, then disabled people could work, could volunteer, could parent, could participate as full citizens in society without having a burden of gratitude to a piecemeal network of families, friends and supporters. If we could rely on properly funded care we could flourish.

I still wholeheartedly believe that, and my research and personal experience still supports that belief. But every time I have an experience like that in Copenhagen (and similar ones in Oslo, Stockholm, Gothenburg and Helsinki, just to prove it isn’t a uniquely Danish thing) I wonder if the paternalism of the Nordic universal welfare state isn’t somehow stifling co-operative and support in civic society. Shops don’t need to be accessible if disabled people have carers doing their shopping for them. Staff don’t need to be helpful if everyone has a paid helper with them. And I wonder if somehow we have lost the idea of *mutual* care and support: the emotional part of caring that links us all in a harsh world.

I think we all have an obligation to be caring and respectful towards each other, and not just assume that is someone else’s job.

woman on black folding wheelchair
Photo by Judita Tamošiūnaitė on Pexels.com