Research must fight status quo 1

November 9, 2007

The Times Higher has done a great job in highlighting what has been happening with the previously unmentionable underbelly of the research assessment exercise process ("Exclusions from RAE see steep rise", November 2). While personal sensibilities and injustices matter greatly, it is arguably even more important to address wider questions about the proper place of the university and its activities in modern culture, and even about the very meaning of research itself.

Back in the academically freer 1970s, I naively thought that the philosophical battle between positivist and "post-positivist" methodologies had been decisively settled in favour of the latter, certainly in the social sciences. But the political battle was clearly far from won, and the fashionable ascendancy of the managerialist audit culture and the tyranny of so-called evidence-based practice indicate that "modernity" and its crass methodological concomitants are still alive and kicking.

Once research has been uncritically defined in a narrowly circumscribed, quasi-positivistic way, then the almost inevitable result is what postmodern cultural theorist David Harvey once called "status quo" theory - that is, theory and research that tend to accept and reinforce prevailing ideological assumptions and "regimes of truth", rather than being open to challenging and transcending them. The modern university, under the sway of the fashionable straitjackets of "policy relevance" and "economic productiveness", has therefore become a reinforcer of status-quo thinking rather than providing a free space in which new thinking and theorising can emerge. In such a regime, the value of radically innovative scholarship and critique is neither recognised nor valued to anything like the extent as it is in RAE-legitimised research. Under these somewhat dispiriting circumstances, perhaps Ben Anderson ("What a waste: 2008 rejects vent dismay", November 2) is right to wear non-participation in the RAE as a counterintuitive badge of honour; and he surely won't be the only one so doing, and by a long way.

Richard House, Roehampton University.

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