Via Political Theory, a new online journal called The Art of Theory (great name), first issue includes an interview with Michael Sandel, and an essay by Sharon Krause on moral sentiment and human rights. It promises to be “a journal of essential political questions and candid interviews with leading scholars”, and is run by doctoral students from polisci and political theory.
There has been lots of comment about the story in yesterday’s Observer suggesting that the AHRC had been ‘ordered’ by the government to fund research on the Big Society in order to secure it’s funding settlement. Lots of complaints, lots of gnashing of teeth about infringements of academic freedom, the erosion of the Haldane Principle, and the like. But something about this story doesn’t quite ring true. Firstly, there is an odd delay involved – the Research Councils received their settlements before Christmas, when they published their Delivery Plans. So why it took humanities scholars so long to notice the substance of the AHRC’s delivery plan is a little unclear. Second, the agendas around community, cohesion, fairness, and the like are not new, post-election issues, and nor is the impact agenda – again, it seems like some people haven’t noticed the general drift of funding policy which has been going on for a while.
But the main thing lacking from the discussion I’ve seen so far is any acknowledgement that the ESRC’s delivery plan hardly mentions the Big Society at all – one mention, in passing. The relevant ‘priority’ area is dubbed ‘A Vibrant and Fair Society’. Now one might suppose that the social sciences would be more likely to be targetted to deliver research knowledge on the Big Society if there was such a coordinated intent by ‘government’ – the difference between the two Research Councils in this respect seems to suggest that this might be about the internal decisions at the AHRC, who reject any suggestion of undue influence. One might still bemoan the fairly brazen aim of the AHRC to ‘contribute’ to ‘government’s Big Society initiatives’, without having to buy into the idea that this reflects an inappropriate meddling by politicians. The credulity invested in The Observer story seems to indicate a naivety on the behalf of some academics about how research funding does work, and specifically a lack of awareness amongst people in the humanities about just how proactive the arts and humanities bodies have been with ‘instrumental’ agendas of public engagement and impact for some time now.
A couple of final thoughts. First, isn’t this a story about the way in which University issues are reported, which might be a matter worth discussing in more detail. And second, what would be so bad with funding research on ‘the Big Society’ – wouldn’t that be an opportunity to do lots of research on Alinski, the histories of mutalism and co-operatives, the relevance of inequality to civic participation, and the like?
Oh, and where I live, of course, the Research Councils are one of the major public sector employers in town, after the Borough Council and the NHS, suffering like the rest of us from funding cuts and efficiency savings.
Via Anne Mosher on twitter, news of a new blog by historian/geographer Bill Cronon at the University of Wisconisn-Madison, called Scholar as Citizen, which seeks “to reflect on ways that scholarly methods and habits of mind can help us ask better questions and thereby offer constructive approaches for better understanding why current events unfold as they do.” Cronon’s first post earlier this month put recent political events in Wisconsin in the wider historical context of conservative ascendancy in US politics over the last 30 years or so, including a ‘how to’ guide for anyone interested in researching this process of right-wing assertion further. He has a new post discussing the political reaction to this first one, from the state Republican party, who have used freedom of information legislation to request his emails since the start of the year. All sounds very nasty, a clear attempt to intimidate him and seek to chill public criticism. And it does remind me, this week when UK-based academics have been involved in strike action, with all its inconveniences and interruptions, that we should be aware that these sorts of rights for academic and other public sector employees are the target of very explicit political assault in the USA at the moment.
These are the three things that caught my eye during a 5 minute scroll through Twitter this afternoon, while very definitely not working: George Steiner reviewing a French book about American theory-wars about French Theory – Steiner is a smart grump on these matters; an essay on book hoarding [they aren’t just objects, they are pieces of one’s mind]; and Christopher Newfield reflecting on the ongoing unmaking of the Public University in the USA. I think I need a hobby.
In response to David Held’s account of his involvement with the Libyan regime, John Keane has published an open letter at openDemocracy raising further questions for Held. This is one of the smarter interventions in the whole affair, it seems to me, because amongst the specific issues of ‘who’, ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘why’ that Keane raises about money, PhDs, plagiarism, etc, he ends with a set of questions that transcend the specifics of this case. His ‘parting question’ is the ‘least tangible but most concrete of all’: “do you think the LSE Libya affair has done damage to the scholarly credibility of research programmes in the area of democracy?” Keane raises interesting questions (and not just for Held) about the extent to which research on a concept and practice which has such powerful normative force, undertaken in a spirit which wants to do justice to the values and promise behind this force, might always lend itself to the possibility of ‘perversion’ or ‘misrepresentation’. One response of course to Keane’s line of questioning on this issue is to dismiss all such research as hopelessly naive and idealistic. But that is hardly his intention. His question does raise some important issues about the relationship between broadly normative and more worldly analyses of democracy and democratization, however – and of how to temper the idealism of the former with the realism of the latter without reducing the real-world force of the normative content of ‘democracy’ in its various registers and forms to mere ideology and hypocrisy.