It’s been four days since every white supremacist in America got out the vote, and three days since the Klu Klux Klan announced its plans for victory parades to celebrate Donald Trump’s rise to power. And if there was ever a time to democratize research, it is right fucking now.
What do I mean by democratizing research, other than throwing around big words, as researchers often do, to make ourselves feel important?
First of all, I mean it’s time to talk explicitly about injustice in research, and to address research’s long history of dehumanizing and oppressing everyone but the privileged who proclaimed themselves researchers, and proclaimed their subjective, biased beliefs as objective truth. People in unjust and unearned positions of power appropriated science, and used what they stole to bolster their entitlement. For way too long, research findings, like history textbooks, had nothing to do with truth or what actually happened, just who was in power. And the idea that people in power can claim their narratives and their justifications as unimpeachable truth is just another way of perpetuating injustice.
And that’s in addition to the ways that research and science have been used to out and out oppress people, from the science used to build white supremacy’s reach –drapetomania and researchers who filled skulls with marbles-up through the “science” of Eugenics, Tuskegee, the Bell Curve, the evidence base for subjecting autistic children to traumatic “treatments” in the name of normalization, and the evidence supporting medicalizing and colonizing every last inch of our lives if we are not cisgender white men. And so many other examples I could stay up all night listing and still not get to them all. Name a system of oppression or a harmful social order, and we can find example after example of how research was used to create and enforce it, then justify it as necessary and attempt to dismiss resistance to it.
There’s the people who have been harmed by the research process itself (see Tuskegee, see the coercive birth control trials, see Medical Apartheid-and this interview with author Harriet Washington-as examples), but also the communities who have seen research and science used to discredit their realities and re-tell their stories. For example, when I lived in El Paso, we all knew that imperialism, poverty, segregation, racism, land theft, capitalism, environmental degradation/the active lead smelter, food deserts and exploitative policies made people physically ill and led to the higher rates of diabetes on the border. But along came research and proved “conclusively” that actually, simply being Chicano or Mexicano made you vulnerable to diabetes, probably cuz genetics or something, and, furthermore, Chicanos “lacked education about nutrition.” Suddenly, the problem wasn’t oppression and it’s impacts on people’s health; it was identity and (false) community ignorance. The story was taken and retold as a strategy for shifting blame and disguising a damaging social order. Much like Trump himself, the research establishment is a gaslighting abuser, and for that reason alone, we need to resist it.
When I say it’s time to democratize research, I’m trying to say that we need community control of the story, and we need to make sure that resistance, not oppression, is speaking.
Research is about telling a story, and documenting realities that must come to light. Much of the time, research is literally called “the evidence.” As in, “the evidence suggests that we pass this racist policy.” So we can either be leaving evidence that enforces injustice, or we can be creating evidence of resistance, of speaking truth to power, of winning.
For better or for worse, the research evidence is what people in power look to for “objective” reality, and research impacts how the story is told. To me, research is all about whose voice is heard, and crafting a platform from which to speak. And we gotta fucking make sure the platform is inclusive and intersectional as hell, and not built on the shoulders of the Klansmen and their victory parades, but instead amplifies the voices of our own communities and leaders and speaks truth to power. Because I really do believe that the truth sets us free, or at least part way free.
And really I mean that it’s time to think about how research can be taken to the streets, and how it can be used as a tool for justice, instead. So what would that look like, exactly? Glad you asked.
- Forever getting rid of the distinction between researcher and research subject (or even research participant). My highly bullshit training was in anthropology, and steeped in the imperialist tradition of white people showing up in “exotic” locales, observing people and communities and “creating” knowledge about them. I’m a good researcher, I really am, but there is absolutely no way I could ever know more about a community than the people who are members of that community, let alone create knowledge or evidence about them. Even outside of anthropology, traditional research has depended on a power dynamic of an all-knowing researcher who, video camera-like, observes and records as he (and it used to be almost exclusively hes) did things to research participants. Researchers had power and research participants had none. Researchers acted and research participants received. It’s a bad system. Instead, I want to see us let go of the idea that a researcher is like a camera, without bias, and is by definition above research participants. And we need to let go of the idea that research participants can’t understand the experiment. Everyone involved needs to be sitting at the same table. And the best research is conducted by people and community members directly impacted by whatever is being studied.
- Equalizing research processes, including letting go of our jargon and our need to feel like we are highly specialized, smarter than everyone else professionals.
- Community controlled research. This means that communities identify research questions, figure out how to answer them and share the findings. We need to be asking the right questions, and we categorically aren’t when people in unearned positions of power get to define the questions.
- Room at the table, and processes that support full inclusion and participation. As the saying goes, if you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu. And I’d take it further to say one can be seated at a table and still asked to eat their own flesh. Simply having “diverse” faces at the table is not enough; we need to have processes that amplify our voices and shut down the mediocre white men and department heads who talk over us. We need to make sure that everyone is actually heard and valued equitably.
- Complex questions. So much research is devoted to definitely answering a tiny, tiny question, because most questions are too complex to answer definitively. And that’s gotta be ok with us going forward, because we need to answer more than tiny questions. We need to tackle complexity and know that we will never know the entire answer, because life is just simply bigger than that.
- An end to knowledge for knowledge’s sake. It’s an internet age and information is out there. We need more than information. We need to stop devoting resources to research that tells us, for example, that people of color experience racism and people who are not male are more likely to be sexually harassed at work. Um, yeah. That is correct. But it’s so not enough, and we can do better. Action. We need action. And strategy. We need strategy. Research has to be about strategizing and spurring action, and figuring out our next strategic move for resistance.
This is only a partial list, and I don’t have all the answers. But it’s really time to be asking the questions. It’s time for research to step up.
With love and solidarity,
And, P.S., I want to give a major shout out to my students who spent this last semester designing some seriously kick-ass, equity and justice-focused research projects that they will be starting in January. Hell yeah, SWK 855, you are strategically cultivating some amazing resistance and leaving evidence, and I’m wicked proud.
Drapetomania-a historic “disease” afflicting enslaved people of color that caused them to attempt to escape slavery or otherwise subvert or resist the fuckery of white supremacy
Medicalizing-taking something that people experience as part of life, for example giving birth or getting old, (or even dandruff!-see here for some fake news that talks about dandruff as a medical condition and people who have it as dandruff patients, in order to sell shampoo), and making it into a disease or medical condition that medical professionals need to supervise