Research management

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Engaging in controversial topics in teaching and research

Sensitive subjects such as trolling and sexual assault require a careful approach at all points – from examining your motivation before you begin and setting up support to sharing findings, writes Ekant Veer

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1 Aug 2023
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Research management

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Academics have a special and fundamental role as the “critics and conscience” of society, which in Aotearoa New Zealand is protected by the Education Act. Academics have the right to explore controversial topics freely; however, this right comes with responsibilities. Engaging in controversy, even under the protections of academic freedom, means we should be careful in our attitude and approach to examining and sharing our expertise in topics that might raise an eyebrow.

While I haven’t purposefully looked for controversy, I have been known to engage in difficult conversations and address topics that others might not feel comfortable discussing. I’m drawn to the areas of marketing that we need to talk about but often don’t. This includes researching, teaching and supervising students engaging with issues such as mental well-being, race, sexual assault, trolling, online hate groups and other difficult topics.

Where to begin when dealing with sensitive topics

If you’re thinking of researching, supervising or teaching controversial topics, start with your institution’s policies on sensitive research. Let the norms of your institution guide you and, if in doubt, ask for support.

Consider, too, the following points before engaging in a topic that might be considered controversial, especially if you are supervising research students or mentoring early career researchers.

  1. Why do you want to work in this area? A sordid fascination with the macabre may be enough motivation for you, but is it the right motivation? Do you have the skills, knowledge, experience, access and insight to do justice to the topic? If you’re unsure, seek guidance from someone with known academic experience and expertise in the field you’re entering.
  2. How will this affect your own reputation in the field? For better or worse, there will be people who treat you differently if you start working on controversial topics. Early in my career I was naive about how others’ perceptions of my work would affect their perceptions of me personally. I still receive hate mail from people who have been offended by my actions – I stand by the rigour and rationale of what I’ve done, but the work is not without consequence.
  3. What support do you have before getting involved? And what support networks will you have in place while doing the work? Even the most resilient person will need help. If you are supervising a student carrying out research in a controversial area, support the person as much as you support the research. Check in on your team and make sure they check in on you. Seek support early and often. It is almost impossible to separate yourself from your work. When it comes to teaching these topics, be ready to provide health and well-being support, especially if there are triggers in your work.

Sharing controversial research and its findings

How will you disseminate this work in a respectful and meaningful manner? Be aware that some research outlets might be wary of publishing controversial topics. There is no way to know what will happen until you start trying to get your findings out.

How to engage with controversial topics in research and teaching

If, after critically considering the above points, you still want to engage with unconventional or controversial topics, keep in mind the following points. This list is not exhaustive but it is one I return to year after year.

  1. How do I show respect for this topic? If you do not feel you can authentically engage with a topic and share it with the world in a respectful way, my advice is to turn back now. This is particularly true when engaging with people who might face stigma or intersectional prejudice. They do not need you and your work adding to their challenges.
  2. Stay reflexive in your supervision and teaching of this topic. Keep thinking about how this topic affects you and others. And be mindful of the impact you have. Honour the topic but also those around you. I get excited about my work and sometimes will passionately talk about topics that others are not ready or willing to engage with. You don’t need to shy away from the work you’re doing, but remember that we are all on different journeys and we need to ensure everyone is comfortable taking that journey with you. I remember one year I was presenting research findings on furry culture and one of my research students walked out. He said he “just wasn’t prepared for this discussion today”. That has stuck with me, and I reflect on ensuring I don’t flippantly take for granted how a conversation affects others.
  3. Do no harm. It’s a phrase bandied around all too often but it’s important, and this includes doing no harm to yourself. I have extracted myself from difficult situations when I realised I couldn’t personally cope. I have wasted time, money and energy on topics that have not landed because I was not strong enough to continue that work. Do not force your students to carry out work they cannot cope with. Do not harm your participants by probing beyond what they’re ready to do.
  4. Avoid unethical research practices. This should go without saying, but ensure there is rigour and transparency in your approach to these topics. One person’s unethical approach can further stigmatise the field of enquiry and make it difficult for future studies in this area.

Why radical research has value

Without controversy we all play in the mainstream. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we need the radicals to explore all aspects of our world, not just the mainstream ones. Exploring all our society has on offer means embedding ourselves in the spaces and places that some don’t feel comfortable exploring. An academic lens not only allows us to take a rigorous approach to enquiry, but carries a level of respect that can help destigmatise these “controversial topics”. It’s not for everyone, but those who want to play on the margins should do so in a mindful manner, fully aware of both the rewards and costs involved.

Ekant Veer is professor of marketing in the department of management, marketing and tourism and associate dean of postgraduate research at Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury, New Zealand.

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