Not too long ago I penned a piece for Inside Higher Ed and University of Venus’ Scholars Strike Back Series about the limited discussion around academics and public engagement. My core argument was simply that we need to not only focus on increasing positive public engagement but also combating public engagement that harms the public, which in my opinion also includes our research subjects. There was one part that has had me thinking recently:
We build our careers off of studying the social life and stories of other people and are submerged in a culture that, more often than not, treats people as opportunities for information extraction and exploits research subjects. Alternatively, if we taught scholars to engage in an ethic of equivalent exchange (an idea I borrow from a favorite TV show), giving equal value to what we are obtaining, we can make sure that their participation in our work will be worth their time. Research like that of Celeste Watkins-Hayes are examples of how scholars have given back without compromising their academic goals.
The idea of equivalent exchange is a concept that I borrowed from the anime show Full Metal Alchemist. In the show two brothers use alchemy (turning one form of matter into another) to try and bring their mother back. The first rule of alchemy in the show’s universe is that “In order to obtain or create something, something of equal value must be lost or destroyed.” Unfortunately they learn that there is nothing of equal value to a human soul. They end up mutilated as a result of this experiment and go on a journey to make things right.
Academics’ relationship with research subjects have historically been one that violated the idea of equivalent exchange. As researchers we ask people to give up their time and privacy to us for our projects. We take the results, analyze them, and publish them in books, policy briefs, and articles. We then use that published work to get grants, jobs, promotions, and tenure. What about our research subjects? They MIGHT get a $15 gift card or something similar. This is the continuous relationship that most of us have with those that we research and it’s a problem. In discussions about “the public” we care the least about those that more than any other group enable us to do our jobs and make a living. I believe that we need to engage more with the question of how we value research subjects and their communities.
As a researcher who comes from a poor black community I take cultivating in myself an ethic of equivalent exchange and valuing research subjects seriously. The burning question however is that when we put these values and ethics into practice, how do we know that we are being fair? I have not seen much of anything that discusses how much is enough when it comes to giving back to a community or subjects we work with (If anyone has something please send it to me!). Many scholars, including myself, are engaged as scholar-activists but I doubt many of us question whether our “activisty” activities or participation in related institutions is in fact a fair exchange for what we get out of it.
I don’t have a real answer to this question of how much is enough but I do have some thoughts on how we can get close to an answer. Power, in my opinion, plays a big role in this discussion. As researchers we have the power to set the agenda, and almost always we are the ones to initiate contact with our subjects. What this does is allow us as researcher to dictate to our subjects what we are willing to give in exchange for their information or participation. This leaves subjects in a positions of non-negotiation. If they don’t like the terms we have the power to simply move on to another person. In addition we often take it upon ourselves to decide what a community needs when considering what we can give back to them. In many ways we are engaging in the same exploitative engagement just with a healthy dose of self-righteousness on the side.
Community Based Participatory Research practices in some ways answer to this issue of power. For researchers engaged in CBPR the research process needs to include subjects and their communities from the beginning, allowing them to have input on how the research agenda develops. Even within this framework we still have the power as researchers to pull out of a partnership if we aren’t satisfied with the terms which means these “equitable” partnerships still retain an unspoken hierarchy. How do we dismantle this hierarchy? I believe that communities, especially oppressed ones, need to be taught that they have a right to make demands because they and the experiences and information they have is very valuable and the livelihoods of researchers depend on having access to it. In this way they can learn that they have power and learn how to deploy it in the interest of their community.
Although this is still an open issue I believe that researchers who have power and privilege over those that they research probably shouldn’t be the ones to determine what is fair in these relationships. These discussions about public engagement, research ethics, and fair exchange need to be expanded to include the people we do our research on. By include I mean giving them op-eds in Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed, allowing them to speak at workshops and conferences on public engagement and research ethics, and giving them more than 1 seat on boards that write regulations and guidelines on these issues. If we do that, I guarantee you that the way we do research will likely undergo some revolutionary changes, many of which are long overdue.
I would love to hear other thoughts on this topic. What do you think is fair? Should we have regulations about fair exchange? How do you give back to communities that you work in? Leave your thoughts in the comments.