Feet first into a fray

April 9, 1999

Academics must make sure their voice is heard about world events, Renee Hirschon urges

Not long ago, at a farewell party for Barbara Harrell-Bond, an anthropologist and founder of the Refugee Studies Programme at Oxford, colleagues were discussing the significance of the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

We were divided in our assessments of its significance, but we all agreed that it had heralded an era of greater instability and uncertainty than was first anticipated - this was before refugees came flooding out of Kosovo.

In 1988, a volume devoted to refugees in 20th-century Europe, Refugees in the Age of Total War, edited by Anne Bramwell, treated the subject as past history, noting that Europe no longer generated significant numbers of refugees. At that time it seemed unlikely that the end of the cold war might result in disastrous developments in Europe.

But, as the region formerly known as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is torn apart, this complacency has been shaken. The ramifications of Nato's continuing bombing campaign produce ever-widening concern at the extent and degree of human misery and destabilisation.

Academics working in the field are dismayed at the disregard for reasoned opinion expressed before the war that might have prevented some of the grosser mistakes from occurring.

Radical contemporary change, encompassed in the buzzword "globalisation", has provoked questions among many academics about the nature of their work.Education must be one of the most potent forces for raising awareness, for disseminating information, and for influencing opinion. Our responsibility as educators in a world order undergoing change is therefore accentuated. As teachers and researchers, we must question our role in the community and the rationale underlying our research.

In the physical sciences, debates about the ethics of genetic engineering or of medical interventions are difficult to evade. My own field of social anthropology is relevant because it can help deepen human understanding and build bridges between people.

Knowledge of history is critical to our grasp of contemporary issues, helping us to avoid the tendency to produce (and reproduce) oversimplified explanations. In all fields, there is little room for moral inertia.

But achieving greater understanding depends on the willingness of scholars to make their voices heard and their research accessible to the general public.

The Refugee Studies Programme has been getting together practitioners, policy makers and refugees for years. Ways of disseminating academic knowledge could include setting up specialist think-tanks, commissions or a forum of workshops using interactive media technology.

The crisis in Kosovo, where history seems to be sickeningly repeating itself, highlights this need. Lessons are available from Vietnam, Cambodia and Iraq, for example, on the effects of bombing campaigns on local morale.

Greater sensitivity to the Serbian peoples' self-image and their account of history might have produced better results in dealing with and anticipating the actions of their leadership.

Many accounts of the crisis are laden with stereotypical images, with such oversimplified explanations - such as polarised depictions of contesting parties as "goodies" and "baddies" - that they have drastically distorted public understanding.

Indeed, they may have acted to mislead those who form policy and those who inform the public. In last week's THES, Stephanie Schwandner-Sievers noted how important it is for academics to prevent "simplifying". In this endeavour it is important to maintain standards of rigorous research together with efforts to make it more accessible and widely disseminated and to reach those who can affect policy so that they become better informed.

We need have no illusions that those who wield power will necessarily adopt the views of academics, but we should recognise the need for change in the relationship between academia and the outside world. After all, this world is undergoing profound change through a technological revolution, offering many possibilities, as well as greater need, for improved communication across boundaries of all kinds.

When 19th-century anthropologists left their armchairs and got off the veranda, their direct engagement with local life through participant-observation produced a new wealth of information and insights. Letting down the drawbridge and allowing freer access might well become a situation of revitalisation for all of us - both inside and outside the ivory tower.

Renee Hirschon is a social anthropologist and research associate, Refugee Studies Programme, Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford.

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