Academic questions for the British Academy

Matthew Reisz considers different styles of scholarship and whether we are forced to choose between them

October 4, 2017
Tattoo artist
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Interviewing its new president, Sir David Cannadine, for Times Higher Education has made me reflect on the British Academy.

It is undoubtedly a formidable institution whose fellows have for generations included most of the leading figures in the social sciences and humanities, whose events are invariably learned and stimulating and whose receptions are full of intellectual dazzle. So it is certainly something to be celebrated and treasured. But despite moves towards greater diversity to shake off its rather patrician image, it remains very much the home of traditional high scholarship, sometimes at the expense of more radical and cutting-edge voices.

The Academy has been long extremely eloquent in arguing that social scientists have a major role – and should have an even greater role – in helping our nation and the wider world face up to today’s vast global challenges. When it comes to ageing, climate change and privacy, for example, there is no question that the fellows of the BA possess vast expertise that policymakers ignore at their peril.

But take a rather different issue. Almost all of the people I know with teenage daughters are concerned about questions of body image. Although it can probably be exaggerated, this strikes me as a genuine problem about which social scientists might well have important insights to offer. But they need to be experts in pornography, advertising, hip-hop, tattooing and so on. There is plenty of research going on in such areas, but I think it is safe to say that it seldom leads to a fellowship at the British Academy. I have certainly never met any such people among the many fascinating characters I have got talking to at events in Carlton House Terrace.

One can also put the same point more generally. Along with research written in a fairly detached, impersonal style, much stimulating work in the social sciences and humanities today is concerned with issues of identity – whether around gender, race, class, sexual orientation and a number of other categories – and incorporates a strong political and sometimes activist perspective. We should surely value both forms of scholarship. There must be room both for academics trying to reconstruct palace intrigues during the Byzantine Empire and for academics examining transgender rights.

In choosing a president, an organisation is inevitably sending a message to the world. Cannadine is an extremely wide-ranging and distinguished historian who has just produced a highly readable account of 19th-century Britain. Four years ago, he published a lively polemic called The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences, which argues that we all have multiple identities and that none of us is fundamentally female, or English, or Christian, or working class, to the exclusion of many other things. He also told me clearly that he is “all for a free trade in ideas”.

Nonetheless, no one reading The Undivided Past could doubt Cannadine’s hostility to identity politics, and to feminism and Marxism as ongoing intellectual projects. When I put it to him that such attitudes might be uncongenial to many researchers who are hoping to become fellows of the British Academy, he defended himself forcefully. I am not so sure that the question can be wished away.

Matthew Reisz is books editor at Times Higher Education

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