Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Academic freedom is the anchor to social science scholarship

Trained as an agricultural engineer in the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), on the underlying technology and mechanics of agricultural innovations, I was drawn to the social sciences because I stumbled into the early realization that any design of technological solutions is incomplete without taking into consideration the societal, cultural, and contextual dimensions that constitute technologies and their uses. Working with poor rural and urban communities, one of the early lessons I was taught by community leaders who had developed their wisdom through the grueling and committed community work was this: narrowly technical solutions to problems of marginalization and inequality erase, often strategically so, the very underlying causes. This simple yet profound realization, mostly emerging from the communities I found myself conversing with, drove me to the social sciences, and more specifically to communication as it offered a pragmatic anchor to developing solutions to the problems I was interested in.

As I went through graduate school and in my early career as an Assistant Professor, I found the answers to the challenges of marginalization and inequality at best incomplete, and in most instances, constitutive of the status quo. Moving back and forth between the theorizing of communication as a vehicle of social change and the practical struggles of communities at the margins, I felt challenged by the vast gap between the empirical evidence grounded in community life and the distant top-down theorizing that was imposed on communities, often by local elites, drawing on theories manufactured in Western sites of knowledge production and funded mostly by Western agencies (state development agencies, private foundations, private corporations etc).

This challenge formed the critical foundation as my students and I worked on formulating the key tenets and applications of the culture-centered approach (CCA), embedded in community life and in the rhythms of community organizing. The many journeys of collaborations with communities that were often at the very margins of the knowledge systems that generated theories about these communities became the basis for articulating conceptual tenets that challenged the foundational categories of social change communication theory.

Any challenge to the status quo is on one hand, ridiculed by the power structures that perpetuate the status quo. On the other hand, the constitution of an academic community founded on the principles of argumentation enable the possibilities of new thought to emerge through reviews that critically engage the scholarship. The work of the CCA had similar experiences through its journey. In many instances, manuscripts were rejected because they offered arguments that were critical of the disciplinary status quo. Reviewers often noted how manuscripts did not engage with the dominant bodies of work, ignored these bodies of work, or misrepresented them in the critiques offered. In many other instances, reviewers noted the novelty of the arguments being made, attended to the evidence being presented, and considered the openings for the field created by the manuscripts.

This process of debate based on arguments, of going back-and-forth with evidence, was enabled by the fundamental commitment of scholarship to academic freedom. The very principle of knowledge production is grounded in freedom to explore new ideas, to challenge existing norms and diktats based on evidence, and to create new conceptual frameworks based on critical engagement with the evidence available to the scholar. Without the fundamental guarantee of freedom, knowledge would continue to be regurgitated within narrow domains of beliefs held by those in power who control the circuits of knowledge production.

This is particularly salient in the social sciences. The goal of the social sciences to generate truth claims, albeit fragmented and tentative, about social systems only becomes possible through a fundamental societal commitment to academic freedom.

In societies that don't value and safeguard the very foundation of academic freedom, conducting social science scholarship is impossible.

In other words, societies that don't fundamentally value academic freedom are not equipped to guarantee social scientists the basic integrity of scientific work. In such instances, the claims that are manufactured by charlatans posing as social scientists are meant to keep the status quo intact, singing the praises of power, obfuscating empirical evidence to tell the stories of power, and often carrying out the public relations work for powerful actors through the manufacturing of evidence that suits powerful actors.

The work of social science becomes one of maintaining and reproducing power rather than being ethically committed to generating truth claims anchored in empirical evidence.

For social sciences to carry out the work of generating truth claims therefore, the first and foremost work of social scientists is to actively lend their bodies to the struggles for academic freedom and to continue working to maintain the spaces of academic freedom.

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