Can Europe Make It?

Objectivity, neutrality and the call for virtuous anger in academe

The problem with this perception of academic research as objective, dispassionate and free from emotion runs deeper. Neutrality, especially in social sciences does not exist.

Umut Bozkurt
6 August 2015
Dozens protest in Rome, Berlin, London after the suicide terror attack in Suruc.

Dozens protest in Rome, Berlin, London after the suicide terror attack in Suruc. Demotix/Stefano Montesi. All rights reserved.“I am sorry, if it sounded too emotional” said a female colleague of her newspaper article on recent events in Turkey. The same sentence was used by another female colleague, this time a Greek Cypriot, within a few days. She too apologized if her article “sounded too emotional”. My Greek Cypriot colleague wrote about the trauma caused by the 1974 war in Cyprus on herself and her family. She talked about the ravages of nationalism and divisive politics in Cyprus and ended on a hopeful note expressing her belief in reconciliation and the unification of the island.

My friend from Turkey wrote on the recent Suruç attack that killed thirty three activists that were on their way to Kobane to deliver aid. In her moving article she expressed her anger and sorrow over seeing young activists being killed by the “monsters nourished by the Turkish government” for daring to think that they can fight to bring about a change for the better.

As I reflected on the history of the region and observed the recent events unfolding in the Middle East, the sentence “I am sorry if it sounded too emotional” kept echoing in my head. These two women who are academics are clearly talking from within a context that defines academic research as objective, rational, dispassionate and free from emotion. Academic discipline often limits you, even when you are not writing an academic article and even though you are writing on a subject that triggers emotions such as anger or sadness. So their concern about “sounding too emotional” is informed by this critical distance in academia towards our emotions.

Academia understood this way obviously has a gender dimension to it. Last month, when Nobel Prize-winning scientist and academic Tim Hunt made remarks that implied that women were too emotional for the academic life and that they were distracting in the workplace, his comments sparked a lot of criticism for being sexist. But in a way, Professor Hunt’s comments reflected the widely accepted notion of academic research as objective and emotion-less. It also reflected a long-held idea, maybe not so explicitly stated these days due to political correctness, but definitely experienced by many female academics, which held that women are particularly unsuited to academia. As women, we have come a long way from the times when we were not admitted to universities. Yet this does not mean that sexism does not exist in academia. It manifests itself in different ways. Various bits of research have shown that female academics are cited less than their male colleagues and that they are evaluated less favourably by students in comparison to their male colleagues.

Yet the problem with this perception of academic research as objective, dispassionate and free from emotion runs deeper. Neutrality, especially in social sciences does not exist. Not only do all researchers have biases and their work is not independent from power relations, but the objectivity claim itself may mask the very inequalities and exploitation that is at the heart of the system.

For example one of the factors that explains the dominance of realist theory in International Relations (IR) is related to the way it portrays the world as it is grasped by ‘common-sense’. The key assumption of realism is that the state is the principal actor in IR and the environment which states inhabit is a conflict-ridden place. Each state aims to maximize its own interests. The underlying methodological assumption of realism is positivism, a philosophy that has a commitment to a scientific understanding of social regularities. Positivist scholars argue that only “factual” knowledge gained through observation (the senses), including measurement, is trustworthy. Being informed by positivism, realism has managed to dominate the field by dismissing the alternative views as normative or value-laden. Such critical theories are negatively compared with the so-called ‘objectivity’ of this realism.

However realism itself is neither objective, nor neutral. It became the central tradition in the study of world politics in the postwar era. Realism offered some kind of a manual for maximizing the interests of the state in a hostile environment and therefore was particularly well suited to the era which saw the rise of the US to become the new global hegemon.

Even though the unrivalled hegemony of realism came to an end at the end of the cold war with the rise of alternative theories, it still has a widespread purchase in academia as well as the media. A worldview shaped by positivism constantly whispers that we need to make a distinction between “what is” and “what ought to be”. A true scientist, we are told, needs to deal with “what is” happening. “What ought to be” questions are normative questions and hence they need to be left alone.

Such a distinction means that we need to accept the already existing world order as it is. And we shall not question it. We shall not ask challenging questions such as : why is there such an exploitation, such violence in the existing order? Can we not envisage another world and ultimately aim to change things for the better? We may ask ourselves, is there an unchanging, transhistorical “what is”? We may know that today we are living in a world where slavery was abolished after long long struggles, and that in that case, yesterday’s “what ought to be” became today’s “what is”.

Banishing the emotions from academia is also part and parcel of this dominance of positivism over the social sciences. Objectivity and neutrality by definition excludes emotions such as anger. It is all about engaging in “value-free” evaluations in the name of “objectivity”. Yet as it was first conceptualized by Aristotle, there is something virtuous about feeling angry about certain situations. Unlike many other ancient, medieval, and modern thinkers Aristotle does not consider anger uniformly or even generally bad. For Aristotle, anger is at its very core a moral issue and there are times when we ought to get angry -- to feel the emotion and to act upon it. In borrowing the concept from Aristotle, I want to say that virtuous anger is so very justified in the face of exploitation, injustices and violence inherent in this order.

I remember watching Angela Davis at a speech she delivered at New Orleans in February where she has been granted an award by the International Studies Association for being an activist scholar. Davis underlined how academia in the US is so disconnected from wider struggles. Her remark triggered an interesting discussion. Young scholars spoke about how they felt under pressure to do certain things in order to find secure, full-time jobs in academia, and how voicing dissent and activism are not included in this ‘to do’ list.

My reflections on academia today leads me to ask many why questions. Why should academia turn into such a sterile medium of knowledge production which is so disconnected from the wider struggles in every society? Why not acknowledge our biases and think about how we position ourselves with respect to power structures rather than claiming that we are neutral and objective? Why should we banish emotions and anger from academia? Why shall I not feel angry over observing how the Turkish government saw the Suruç bombing as nothing but a cynical excuse to wage war not against ISIS, but against the Kurdish guerilla organisation PKK, dragging Turkey into a civil war, and the US backing this up in return for Turkey’s help in the fight against ISIS?

Why shall we settle for the “what is” question, and not ask the “what ought to be” question? And, maybe lastly; why shall we not let our anger in the face of this injustice, violence and exploitation bring us together to envisage another kind of an order?

If you enjoyed this article then please consider liking Can Europe Make it? on Facebook and following us on Twitter @oD_Europe

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData