What the ‘grievance studies’ hoax is really about

The elaborate prank that saw spoof papers accepted by social science journals reveals more about the hoaxers’ politics than the shortcomings of ‘grievance studies’, says Alison Phipps

October 4, 2018
Man lifting weights in a gym
Source: Alamy
Outlandish papers: topics in the hoax included ‘rape culture’ in urban dog parks, fat bodybuilding and men anally penetrating themselves with sex toys

An article titled “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship” has recently been published in Areo magazine.

It describes what Helen Pluckrose (editor of Areo), James A. Lindsay (who holds PhD in physics) and Peter Boghossian (an assistant professor of philosophy) term a “reflexive ethnography” of particular academic fields, in which they wrote 20 Sokal-style hoax papers and submitted them under pseudonyms to peer-reviewed journals.

The papers cover a variety of topics including “rape culture” in urban dog parks, fat bodybuilding and men anally penetrating themselves with sex toys.

The authors report that seven were accepted and four of these published online, while seven were “still in play” when the hoax was revealed, and six “retired as fatally flawed or beyond repair”.

Pluckrose et al. claim to be “left-leaning” scholars who position themselves against what they pejoratively call “grievance studies”. This encompasses a variety of disciplines including sociology, anthropology, gender studies and critical race studies. Their key target is described as “social constructivism”, which seems to consist of any attempt to demystify categories usually defined as “natural” (so they actually mean social constructionism).

Some of the tenets they take issue with are: the idea that gender inequalities are not to do with biology, the idea that obesity is a “healthy and beautiful body choice”, specific theories such as standpoint epistemology, and specific methodologies such as autoethnography.

There’s nothing wrong with academics holding each other up to scrutiny – it’s healthy and necessary. But despite their claim to be engaging in “good-faith” critique, it’s clear that Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian actually aim to undermine fields that they have political – not scholarly – objections to.

First, there is plenty of scholarship within “grievance studies” that does not take a social constructionist perspective, and plenty outside it that does.

Second, as they have targeted only journals in “grievance studies” fields and not others, there is no way to know whether the problems they identify are specific or more general across the sector.

Indeed, despite their professed mission to restore methodological rigour where they feel it’s lacking, their own study incorporates no control group at all. Most of the hoaxed journals are gender studies ones, and Boghossian has targeted gender studies before. This was with a hoax piece entitled “The Conceptual Penis as Social Construct”, submitted to a journal which turned out to be pay-to-publish.

The current hoax features papers that are certainly outlandish. But some are simply based in premises (eg, social constructionism) or political principles (eg, trans equality) that the hoax authors find problematic.

For instance, a paper titled “An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity” argues that establishments such as Hooters help to construct problematic forms of masculinity (whereas the hoax authors seem to think that men are just biologically programmed to like looking at breasts).

In their description of the aims of this particular hoax, they say: “To see if journals will publish papers that seek to problematize heterosexual men’s attraction to women.” Well, yes – problematising heterosexual attraction is a key premise on which gender studies scholarship is based.

Like the hoax itself, the authors’ reporting of it is also riddled with misrepresentation. Editors of one of the targeted journals tell me that the paper submitted to them was recorded as a desk reject and did not go out to reviewers and was not, as the authors claim, given a revise and resubmit. Pluckrose et al report that they received four invitations to peer review other papers “as a result of their exemplary scholarship”, but neglect to mention whether these were merely autogenerated from a list of previous submitters to the journals in question.

The exposure of the hoax ends with a demand that all major universities review various areas of study (gender studies, critical race theory, postcolonial theory and other disciplines such as sociology and anthropology) “in order to separate knowledge-producing disciplines and scholars from those generating constructivist sophistry”.

This is a chilling statement that will certainly feed right-wing attacks on gender studies such as those that have recently happened in Hungary, as well as the targeting of feminist and critical race scholars by the alt-right. Pluckrose et al claim that this is not their intention, but given their various misrepresentations, you’ll forgive me if I don’t believe them.

As a scholar in “grievance studies” myself, I think the hoax says more about conditions in the sector than anything else.

Pressure to publish has created an increasing volume of submissions (and arguably also a drop in standards). Unpaid peer review often has to be squeezed in between swelling workload demands.

If we’re truly worried about academic rigour, we might want to start there.

Alternatively, we could think less about the flaws of “grievance studies” and more about how academic work has contributed to legitimate grievances by bolstering neoliberal economic reforms or neo-imperialist foreign policy.

To me, that’s corruption of scholarship.

Alison Phipps is professor of gender studies at the University of Sussex.

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: The ‘grievance studies’ hoax betrays a big beef

Reader's comments (6)

I’m finding that this counter argument actually gives more evidence to the hoaxer’s claims. This is not a statement to show the hoaxers claims are unfalsifiable, but more that the amount of motivated reasoning and projection in this counter argument speaks to the hoaxer’s point. The author could not even help keeping her own ideological beliefs out of her response; a response to the claim that academics in her field are ideologues. Sargon’s Law has to apply here. Sargon's Law: "Whenever an ideologue makes a negative character judgement on someone else, the judgement is more likely to apply to them instead."
The article points to a long building separation between the social and physical sciences regarding the strength of the knowledge base and the methods used to achieve foundational knowledge. If this is not rcognized by the public, support for all the sciences will weaken. If what social scientists do is termed "science", then physicists need to find a new name for what they do.
Shock as people who set out to trick other people are able to trick other people. It's pathetic. Why not take on approaches, modes of argument and views you disagree with openly, for example in a real journal article. In the week that the US president mocked a woman who claimed she had been sexually-assaulted, this is a worrying conservative and chauvinistic backlash.
Two words: replication crisis
Close down all social studies departments. They have no real scientific empirical foundations. As left wing thinkers such as Chomsky and Pinker have pointed out.
There is much that is wrong in the statements made above, whatever the motivations of the hoaxers - whether worthy, or whether they just felt like stirring the nest for more puerile reasons (who knows). Like it or not there are many left-wing (and left-leaning), socially liberal people that also have a significant issue with some of the sweeping generalisations made when identity politics and the social sciences collide and critical, scientific enquiry loses. They are not all 'actually right wing' and 'trying to fuel the alt-right', or even closet patriarchs or whatever. However the alt-right etc, if they want to attack, will look to attack at the weakest point and it does help them do that if someone else does the work of pointing it out for them. You can't always blame the messenger - this is a challenge for the social sciences (and some of the critical discourses within the arts) to address and I would suggest is not about any innate problem with the disciplines themselves but is about a level of groupthink and homogeneity of thought that dampens the critical discourse within them. Thats no different than the situation in economics pre-2008, where valid critiques of neo-liberal economics struggled to get heard and we've seen the disastrous results of that. What the author seems to be saying is that we should be considering what to publish based upon whether or not it feeds neo-imperialist policy etc i.e. that politics, not science drives what academics should produce. That's no longer science, not even social science, and is an anathema to the critical perspectives that should be the core of academic enquiry. Of course social science is political, and yes it can do great things in the pursuit of equality, freedom from oppression etc. But it won't succeed unless the questions are asked without already having decided all the answers. And no discipline should be based on the premise of problematising something (that's a political agenda: a solution looking for evidence to support it). If you're findings identify it as a problem, that's different, and then you need to be willing to defend your case ideally from debate within the discipline as well as from mischievous physicists. That said another author could have put up a far better defence of the discipline, and of course a clever writer could hoax an article convincingly in all sorts of other disciplines, and that great contributions to the social sciences (and the progress of humanity) are being made from within all branches of the social sciences. But the author undermines that case and her peers here.

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