oDR: Opinion

When “the field” is your institution: on academic extortion and complaining as activism

What happens when an institution fundamentally lets you down? Part of our new series on Central Asian scholars and their activism.

Elena Kim
7 October 2019
Welcome to our new series on how academic research is conducted in Central Asia
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Illustration: Tatyana Zelenskaya

In today’s globalised and competitive world of academia, old and emerging divisions and hierarchies have made producing knowledge ethically and collaboratively a serious challenge.

In early 2019, the Antipode academic journal published an article entitled “Subcontracting Academia: Alienation, Exploitation and Disillusionment in the UK Overseas Syrian Refugee Research Industry”.

The authors, Mayssoun Sukarieh and Stuart Tannock from the University of London, analysed a UK-funded research project on refugees in Lebanon which, inter alia, aimed at building global partnerships and local capacity. In the article, they highlighted how, for the Lebanese research assistants involved in the study, these goals engendered drastically different outcomes, resulting in “alienation from research projects, sense of exploitation during the research process, and disillusionment with the UK university research sector”.

Sukarieh and Tannock’s concerns are about the need “to give better recognition to the work, concerns and interests of research assistants; but also the importance of understanding how the political economy of university research shapes research process, products and impacts that academic research can have on the broader global, social environment. These impacts may be far less positive than those now regularly promised in research grant applications.”

Their analysis is relevant to many other parts of the Global South, as, for instance, similar effects mark the everyday professional lives of Central Asian women scholars. I shall use my own story to show how these women have learnt to challenge these outcomes in ways that are complex and nuanced. At the time of the events, several years ago, I was an early career independent researcher hired to carry out a project in a European research institution. Contractually, I was expected to conduct data collection in my home country, Kyrgyzstan, return to the host institution, and use these data to produce publishable research outputs with funding from the government of the European institution’s home country.

I wanted to fit, to be accepted. But this only increased my alienation. I became disappointed and disillusioned with academia

As frequently is the case with ethnographic research, during “fieldwork” I encountered an unexpected set of observations, turned them into an analytical article, and published the results in an edited collection by a well-known publisher. The publication was prepared during my free time and independently of my intensive work-related data collection, at no expense to my funder. The paper was produced with the active participation of a scholar-colleague of mine, who was listed as co-author. We presented it at international conferences and were thrilled about this small academic success. None of us suspected that this would bring considerable institutional backlash from my host university. Especially, given the fact that all the required ethnographic material was collected in required quantity and quality.

Given all this, upon my return to the host institution in Europe, I anticipated positive reactions and praise for my productivity from my line managers. Instead, the day after my “back-from-the-field” presentation, I was called into the office of one of my supervisors. He was a senior scholar and administrative staff member, who proceeded to give me a harsh reprimand. I was blamed for lacking respect to my host institution, and told that if my publications were to be co-authored, they had to include representatives from the host institution rather than outsiders. My supervisor peremptorily concluded: “It is our government that pays for your capacity building, not [my co-author]. So, if you do it again, you will be sent home immediately.”

All I remember after that was the overwhelming feeling of shame and guilt that haunted me for weeks. I thought I was a failure: I had failed as a team player, as a colleague, as a social scientist, and as a human being. I thought of myself as an ungrateful person and not an intelligent one.

With these doubts and questions about my worth, I continued working in this institution for two more years, delivered the required outputs and left with ambiguous feelings of relief, guilt and “unfinished business”.

More the rule than the exception

I am now a university professor, but this experience has stayed with me. The main reason is that colleagues around me have to endure the same kind of experience time and again. With time, I have ratcheted up the courage to ask questions when I find myself in similar situations. This is because I believe that academic integrity means that scholars are recognised for the work they do. If someone did not contribute to an article, their name should not appear as co-authors. Or so I thought.

Rather than an exception, the incident I described seems to be the rule: it is part and parcel of the global political economy of academic research. In this system, for example, supervising junior researchers is generally poorly paid, but senior researchers benefit from such supervisory arrangements given the unstated expectation that they will be added as co-authors to their supervisees’ publications. The latter count towards senior staff’s promotion, pay raises and general professional developments. This kind of understanding of individual people’s actions as institutionally organised has been my way of dealing with these kinds of injustices. My way of engaging with my place of work has been to analyse these gaps systematically, present my findings in public fora, and publish my analysis. In this way, my institutional home(s) has become my “field”.

Canadian feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith has promoted the idea of knowledge as institutionally organised. Her ideas have helped me to understand how injustice and inequality, including what I myself experienced, are not so much attributes of other people’s personalities, but are the products of particular institutional systems that acknowledge and value some knowledge, while it ignores and devalues other knowledge. The influence of these systems on individual behavior is not immediately apparent, which is why it is the researcher’s goal to uncover it. This is how my engagement with academia at home has been shaped.

The warning about “being sent home immediately” was actually a threat. There was nothing about care or concern

While doing this, I have had to deal with some sense of constant self-blaming as a chronic whiner. Independent feminist scholar and activist Sara Ahmed’s project on complaint, however, has changed that. Ahmed argues that, by complaining, we identify problems that are shared, and this inspired me to think of my complaints as a form of activism. Complaining, formally or informally, has become my way to embrace my trauma, to better understand my intellectual subjectivity and how I evolved into the kind of professional I am today. It has become a helpful tool for me to identify and understand the roots of discriminatory practices.

In-depth personal analysis must become part of any conversation about knowledge production in the context of global and local relationships between individuals, institutions and states. Personal experiences are inherently institutional, and institutional regulations inherently have personal impacts.

The warning about “being sent home immediately” was actually a threat. There was nothing about care or concern. Instead, it was a reference to my source of funding and my dependence on the institution’s resources. This was a piece of career advice for me not to engage in independent research and not to comply with academic integrity. I was told that senior staff should be listed as co-authors regardless of whether they contributed to the work or not.

Ahmed calls this the “institutional promise of happiness”, i.e. don’t complain and your career will advance. I was expected to smooth things over. So I did. I wrote an additional publication and added senior staff names as co-authors. I wanted to fit, to be accepted. But this only increased my alienation. I became disappointed and disillusioned with academia. I now realise that I was attacked, threatened and discriminated against on the basis of my citizenship, my financial status and my funding schemes. I became entangled in the global divide between the Global South and the Global North, between “developing” and “developed” states. These binary worlds were linked through a linear distribution of the financial flows from the North to the South to promote the latter’s development and welfare.

My contract with my host institution was predicated on these relationships. It required me to be a citizen of a developing state and, once the work was done, to serve as a carrier of this “development and welfare” for my country through my acquired knowledge and skills. As such, I was indebted to the Global North. I did not receive a salary for my work. Instead, I was awarded a scholarship or “financial support”. I was a paid resource, and thus expected to deliver with no independent initiative. I was accepted under the premise that I would be thankful, compliant and silent. When I was not, I was seen as a threat to the system.

In a 2004 article, Diane Reay argues that “the appropriation of the contract researcher’s intellectual labour is normative, routine practice within the academy.” This recognition is a good basis for further action.

As complaining makes shared problems visible, audible and readable, we engage in a new form of resistance, a new movement. I join this movement because I believe Ahmed’s promise that when complaints do not seem to lead anywhere, they can lead women like me towards each other.

This has already happened. This series of articles began as a collection of personal complaints from various women scholars and activists doing research and living in Central Asia. As Ahmed predicts, what complaint reveals can be explosive and ultimately come back to haunt institutions. This is my way of asserting my agency: complaining is how I push back against disempowerment and challenge abuses of power in academia.

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