Institutions slap down those who speak up, argues campaigning scholar

September 3, 2009

Scholars who embrace the role of the "public academic" are not only insufficiently rewarded for their efforts, they are often punished for them, too.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, an American professor who campaigns against human trafficking for the illegal trade in vital organs, has said that the reward system for publicly engaged intellectuals is "a fallacy".

Her comments come as UK academics face growing pressure to take on a public role, with plans in the pipeline for research funding to be linked to public engagement.

The proposals mooted for the forthcoming research excellence framework could lead to funding being allocated on the strength of television or newspaper work.

Writing in the journal Anthropology Today, the professor of medical anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, says: "Scholars who want to reach diverse publics - through popular writing, speaking or participating in social activism - are not only under-rewarded by their universities, they are often penalised for 'dumbing down' anthropological thinking, cutting social theory into 'soundbites', 'vulgarising' anthropology, sacrificing academic standards or (in the US) for playing to the anti-intellectual, illiberal American popular classes."

Professor Scheper-Hughes says her engagement with the media and her participation in parliamentary hearings and on United Nations and World Health Organisation panels is counted by her university as "community outreach", "on a par with giving a lecture on the cultural origins of Hallowe'en to local primary school students".

"This academic reward system is based ... on a fallacy," she says.

Professor Scheper-Hughes is one of the founders of Organs Watch, a project that aims to make the global trade in human organs a pressing social issue.

She said her involvement with the organisation had led to her being excluded from meetings, ridiculed, called a liar and branded, among other things, a "medically unsophisticated naif caught up in urban legends of blood-sucking, organ-stealing monsters" and an "organs terrorist".

But, she says, her interventions "eventually bore fruit".

She argues that the goal of public anthropology is to make issues public, rather than simply respond to issues publicly.

Academics who are politically engaged with their work are "very much like the first generation of working mothers", forced to do "double time", she says.

This includes "keeping up with the expected home-front duties, with the expected rate of scholarly productions of books, articles and graduate students, participating in academic meetings etc, while simultaneously doing human rights work, serving on international panels, giving keynote speeches in places and at events that don't matter a hoot to one's peers".

Despite the difficulties, Professor Scheper-Hughes warns against academics waiting until they are "safely tenured" before jumping into the "public fray".

"If you do, you may find you have lost what I call 'the habit of courage'.

"But protect yourself by keeping up with the expectations of the academic home front. And don't complain about being overworked and underpaid. Just be glad they don't pull you off the stage and haul you off to jail for speaking your mind, and for being what academic administrators sometimes call a 'loose cannon'," she advises.

She also argues that the privilege of academic freedom in a "flawed but still viable" democratic society includes the chance to be engaged in national and global struggles against injustice.

She played a key role in the recent arrest of an alleged organ-trafficking ring, exposed by an FBI sting, which could prove to be the first documented case in the US.

"If anthropology cannot be put to use as a tool for human liberation, why are we bothering with it at all?" she asks.

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