Beyond public intellectualism: moving from ‘matters of fact’ to ‘matters of concern’ in research

This looks like a cool approach to research with communities! From

Last week I posted on being a public intellectual, or someone who engages with communities and society outside of academia, communicating research directly and also being influenced by communities in choosing research topics. I stand by all that. But I want to think further about the more theoretical work that community-engaged, public intellectual researchers do, where we DO communicate with other academics. How might our public intellectualism guide this work? And how does this work guide our public intellectualism?

There are two kinds of ‘community engaged academics’, in my experience. One is engaged with ‘community’, often city councils, business/industry, or local community groups in a research-service oriented way. In a first year course, for example, we get students doing research FOR communities which partially addresses a few questions the communities have come up with. Who are these communities? Normally residents’ groups. Who are actually normally not very representative of the spatial community in which they reside, to be honest.There is no critical look at what or who is a community, and who these groups might be representing.The role of the researcher is to produce ‘facts’ for the use of the ‘community’. This is really the way that most governments understand the role of social scientists.

[ASIDE: The residents’ group in my own suburb, for example, is mostly older people with very conservative leanings, focused on retaining house values, keeping students out of our suburb, including bike lanes. They sent a letter round asking us to consider voting for a certain conservative candidate who had helped them implement some of this annoying NIMBY behaviour by redirecting traffic in the rebuild in certain inconvenient ways. Only people of a certain age and orientation actually join, because the rest of us would go bonkers trying to engage in the meetings. They don’t even use the internet, as far as I can tell. What would it mean for me to produce social science facts for this group? How would they use these facts? ]

The other kind of community engaged academics are the ‘critical’ or theoretically engaged kind. They might also be doing research for communities, but they do not see their role as producing facts for community usage. They see their role, effectively, as changing the conversation, and even the language, used in and around a certain issue. For example, JK Gibson-Graham and Jenny Cameron’s action research in the LaTrobe Valley, working with marginalised groups to develop community-based initiatives for change. The difference is that the nature of community is not taken for granted, and the project is not about providing facts to ‘the community’, but working with communities in the realm of ideas and inspired action for change. To change the conversation, that is.

I think this kind of community engagement requires theoretical engagement. Behind every action-project or deliberative democracy forum, there are screeds of academic books and articles that are primarily theoretical: philosophical, pedagogical, critical, utopian, theological, political – and yes, geographical too. You might read something like The End of Capitalism (as we knew it) as primarily a theoretical text – it is pretty heavy in Laclau & Mouffe, Deleuze & Guattari and other scary french theorists among others. It is basically a sustained critique of the way the Left has thought about capitalism since Marx – arguing that the Left has built up capitalism into a monster that is everywhere that can never be overcome. Drawing on theories of performativity and queer theory (like Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick), Gibson-Graham argue that our research should be seeking out and highlighting economic diversity in order to show that capitalism is not the only thing existing, and that viable alternatives are here and now. The more we talk about them, the more ‘real’ and ‘possible’ they become for others (even if they are small!).

This theoretical conversation between academics, drawing heavily on the theoretical work of other academics, has not been unfruitful or pointless however. For one, the authors went on to write Take Back the Economy, which is for community groups and activists primarily. But also, the conversation has reframed the politics of possibility for many in the ‘Left’ and in community activism too. And it has changed the way academics interpret and write about community groups too. Are they always and forever ‘co-opted’ by the ‘neoliberal state’? Or are there possibilities for change emerging? In my own video exploring the post-quake situation in Christchurch, I argue that there are possibilities emerging here, drawing on Take Back the Economy (I am interviewed here by Katherine Gibson of JK Gibson-Graham, in fact). What possibilities does this open up for communities, community groups, and activists for change? Watch this space, I guess.

The point I want to make today, however, is that being a public intellectual, being a community engaged academic, and being the critic and conscience of society are not separate things. All our intellectual and theoretical work contributes to and informs our community engagement. And what we say and write about communities and community groups – the language we use and develop – have real-life effects. The ‘facts’ we produce do too, so we need to be critical about how we produce those facts and what kind of language we use to communicate them. Do we communicate fear and xenophobia, for example producing the ‘survey fact’ for a community group that 75% of people over 50 in X suburb feel unsafe walking home at night? (How would that fact be used? To implement no loitering by-laws?).  Or do we communicate possibility and action, for example, conducting community engaged research with youth in X suburb to develop cool ideas for night-time activities and building relationships with older people?

Bruno Latour argues that we should think of our job as social scientists not as producing knowledge to establish matters of fact, but as collaborating with others to produce knowledge around matters of concern. What matter of concern does your research address? And how might the questions you ask and the research you produce contribute to that in some way? To me, this is the realm of the new public intellectual: not just theoretically engaged but ontologically and epistemologically engaged! Making reality, not just reporting reality – and taking that responsibility very seriously.

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