Researchers are heroic truth tellers

Matthew Reisz considers the researchers who keep on top of the issues we most want to avoid

January 9, 2020
Bogota
Source: Anne-Kathrin Kreft

Like the best journalism and some of the best fiction, an important function of some academic research is to take us to places we don’t want to go, but should.

For example,  who doesn’t shy away, most of the time, from thinking about homelessness, conflict in Africa or sexual violence during war? But because these are crucial issues to our societies, it is vitally important that someone tackles them head-on through courageous investigation and robust analysis, often at considerable emotional cost to themselves, and reports back to the rest of us.

Alongside activists and investigative journalists, academics have an important role to play in explaining the complex problems of our time. 

Times Higher Education's Outer Limits series, devoted to “academia beyond the comfort zone”, allows us to celebrate some of these researchers’ achievements. In the past nine months I’ve had the extreme privilege to report on three such academics who are pushing boundaries in their fields. 

The latest was with Anne-Kathrin Kreft, who was recently awarded a PhD by the University of Gothenburg for her research on women’s groups in Colombia mobilised around women’s rights and support for victims of sexual violence during the long-running civil war that ended in 2016. Although the activists were inspiring, many of their stories were harrowing and Kreft was led to a greater sense of the “structural” factors behind male violence towards women far beyond Colombia and even war zones.

This work proved very disturbing for her and, even yet further removed from the material, I found this one of the most upsetting articles I’ve ever written.

Towards the end of last year, Steph Grohmann, research fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Homeless and Inclusion Health, told me about her research on squatting. In the early stages of a PhD, a “revenge eviction” meant that she herself was made homeless. In The Ethics of Space: Homelessness and Squatting in Urban England (HAU Books), she offers a horrifyingly vivid account of the daily realities. But she also demonstrates how squatting “communities” once provided each other much mutual support and how the windy but seemingly banal rhetoric about “the Big Society” of the UK's coalition government proved terribly damaging. Its combination of analysis and insider testimony gives Grohmann’s work eye-opening power.

I was equally impressed by Ruben Andersson, associate professor of migration and development at the University of Oxford. In researching No Go World: How Fear Is Redrawing Our Maps and Infecting Our Politics (University of California Press), he didn’t put himself on the line in quite the same way. Indeed, a central part of his argument is that Western NGOs, aid agencies, policymakers, journalists and academic researchers tend to congregate in places such as Bamako, the capital of Mali, and (for very understandable reasons) do not get close enough to the more dangerous areas where they are really needed. Yet, Andersson argues, “peacekeepers hiding behind bunkers” and “aid workers working at a remove from the field” seldom prove very effective and may in fact exacerbate some of the acute challenges we face around migration and terrorism.

The work of these researchers gives us invaluable insights into topics that we need to know about and can play a role in helping us find solutions. If any academics deserve the label “hero”, it is surely researchers like these.

Matthew Reisz is books editor and a reporter for Times Higher Education

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