THE Scholarly Web - 15 May 2014

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

May 15, 2014

The sheer numbers of academics contributing to Twitter feeds, Facebook profiles, blogs and the like show that social media can be a fertile place for scholarly dissemination. But as many scholars feel compelled to remain morally neutral in advancing evidence, how should academics present themselves?

Brent E. Sasley, assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington, and Mira Sucharov, associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, argue that there are “intellectual and social justice benefits to scholars embracing” non-scholarly identities on social media in a piece for the London School of Economics’ Impact of Social Sciences blog.

“All of us identify with one or more communities – ethno-national, political, ideological, and so on,” they write. “But because they are presumed to compromise objectivity, we have been socialized to believe that these commitments need to be put aside when we engage in scholarly work.” Social media, however, make this difficult, particularly when an individual’s “prior political or philosophical commitments” connect with their academic subject matter.

“The characteristics, expectations, and lack of boundaries in social media present clear opportunities for scholars to take advantage of their identities to press their claims and engage their communities in analytical dialogue,” the pair continue.

They cite three reasons for this. First, being well versed in their fields and trained to assess evidence allows scholars to claim a level of expertise that “even those passionate about an issue but whose job is not to study it cannot”. Second, because they “are insiders to our communities” – for them specifically, in Jewish liberal-Zionist circles in North America and, to an extent, in Israel – they “have a level of entry and acceptance” that may be denied to “outsiders”. Third, their academic views might not have been as readily accessible to “ordinary members of our community” because they are published in traditional scholarly circles.

While they accept that the “egalitarian nature” of social media can put some off – “anybody can call somebody else out on Twitter, and everybody can see it” – it allows other communities opportunities to “directly engage with us and therefore both be exposed to our arguments and perhaps to shape them”. From their own perspective, this means that they are no longer considering just the “why” questions but have been pushed towards “the precipice of what have colloquially been called ‘WTF’ questions” as people “seek not only to unravel scholarly mysteries, but to address issues of ethical frustration and moral outrage”.

“We recognize that for many…this goes against the very identity we are expected to hold as academics. In international relations…mainstream theorists such as realists, liberals, and institutionalists have long been thought of and, indeed, play on their presumed role as objective analysts working to improve life. But Marxists, post-positivists, feminists, and constructivists have increasingly raised questions about the inherent activist nature of scholarship.”

Joining in digital commentary may feel “risky” to those who have been socialised to remain “morally neutral”, but getting involved can be gratifying, they conclude. “We can now engage a broader array of questions. We argue, then, that wedding this engagement to a moral activism is entirely appropriate – even necessary.”

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