Area Studies is a field of inquiry that was founded on intervention by imperial powers. Regions have been constructed partly due to imperial geography. It was on the back of colonisation that scholars began to produce knowledge in European languages. For example, travelogues and ethnographies by imperial explorers in Russian, English and German are considered important representations of Central Asia. It was these and subsequent acts of intervention and colonisation that were the origins of Central Asian Studies in the West and Russia.
All of the above is widely acknowledged. What is somewhat less understood is that present-day academia also takes part in acts of intervention and produces hierarchies of knowledge. Material inequalities in global knowledge production result in a situation where academics from more affluent workplace contexts form international partnerships and go into “the field” to collect data. A whole series of difficult questions arise from a recognition of these power relations.
Is fieldwork unavoidably extractive and relationships with “partners” necessarily abusive? Is research driven by the political priorities of funders and authorities in the sending country? Are more equitable partnerships possible? How do researchers maintain independence from both local authorities and foreign funders? Are there different types of self-censorship and is it always condemnable or should self-censorship at times be exercised in order to allow collaboration?
Two panels at the British International Studies Association virtual conference on 18 and 19 June tackled these questions.
The first addressed those issues from the academic freedom and internationalisation perspective and included Katarzyna Kaczmarska (University of Edinburgh), Catherine Owen (University of Exeter), Yeşim Yaprak Yıldız (Goldsmiths, University of London), Bahar Baser (Coventry University), Stephen Wordsworth (Council for At-Risk Academics), and Teng Biao (City University of New York) with John Heathershaw (Exeter) as chair.
The second reflected on fieldwork, taking inspiration from a recently published edited volume Doing Fieldwork in Areas of International Intervention, and included Heathershaw, Kaczmarska, Owen, Daniela Lai (London South Bank), Katarina KušićKusic (Aberystwyth University), and Morten Bøås (NUPI), with Berit Bliesemann de Guevara (Aberystwyth University) as chair.
While all socio-political systems produce specific challenges to academic freedom domestically, some of those challenges arise from or become exacerbated by the growing internationalisation of higher education and research. Without denying the multiple positive aspects of internationalisation, it is an important juncture from which to look at academic freedom, field research and unequal power relations within and among academic communities. Internationalisation, through for instance student and staff exchange programs, facilitates the circulation of ideas and viewpoints globally but it is a long way before we transform power relations resulting from inequalities in global knowledge production. These, in turn, continue having detrimental effects that require both collective debate and individual reflection.
Scholars based at Western universities may, and indeed many times have, ascribed particular roles to academics either living in or coming from regions under research. These academics may have been abused as data collectors rather than approached as partners in research. Similarly, as one panellist observed, some scholars have extended ‘orientalist pity’ towards academics who workworking in challenging or oppressive contexts, treating them more as victims than as colleagues who can deliver within their specific area of research. The panel speaker reminisced that, following the post-coup persecution of academics in Turkey, all that was expected of Turkish academics was Erdogan-bashing with considerable disregard for their research specialisms. Many saw this ‘orientalist pity’ as unacceptable and believed it shouldn’t accompany well-founded concerns over academic freedom.
This ‘orientalist’ approach may resurface in relations scholars build through their fieldwork. Well-meaning researchers sometimes perceive local partners only through the lens of vulnerability and disregard research fatigue and/or exploitation in which they themselves are potentially complicit. A possible way forward suggested by one panellist is to spend much more time on relationship-building among various research partners and teams. It is also important not to assume academic communities elsewhere to be necessarily uniform.
The position of greater privilege enjoyed by academics based at universities in more affluent places requires constant reflection about practices that may exacerbate unequal power relations. Doing our best to create equal partnerships in research and engage with our partners abroad on even terms has to go beyond mere avoidance of abusing local scholars as data collectors. It requires not just acknowledgement but a stance against both global inequalities in knowledge production and national authorities that oppress independent scholars.
The discussion about fieldwork exposed not just its messiness, confusion and not so infrequent failure, but also the ethical dilemmas one faces when embarking on this type of research. Some panellists emphasized that doing fieldwork made them feel like interveners. Others resorted to self-censorship in order to protect their partners, themselves or access to the research site. While this may not be the same type of self-censorship as the one exercised routinely by academics who have to build their lives and careers under oppressive governments, it nonetheless sheds light on the often hidden aspects of the over-idealised image of the knowledge production process. At the same time, however, those challenges do not devalue fieldwork. To the contrary, being reflective and speaking openly about problems makes research more fruitful and its outputs more valuable.
In relation to internationalisation, questions were raised about potential limits to the universality of academic freedom. What some saw as the founding stone of any university, others proposed to see as relative values. Panellists also asked about the degree to which, and means by which, scholars should be aiming to help others increase academic freedom in their specific contexts. This question becomes even more complex if we accept that academic freedom is not solely about the right to produce research but also the right to secure autonomous platforms, including financially independent universities, working conditions that do not amount to casualisation, and publishing houses resilient to pressure exerted by governments capable of limiting access to lucrative markets.
Unequal power relations was a theme that ran across both panel discussions. Academia, like any other social institution, is not immune from relations of power that may be abused by academics, irrespective of the geographical location of their university. However, those power relations tend to have more detrimental effects when combined with scarce resources and authoritarian governments. Both factors may result in greater reliance on foreign or commercial donors and decreased attention to academic standards and academic freedom. They may also lead to the fragmentation of international research communities themselves.
The alternative to such fragmentation is solidarity. The requirement is global in scale but particularly acute in Area Studies for whom internationalisation is a condition of inquiry. Global solidarity means recognising that academic freedom is imperilled both from within by beggar-thy-neighbour competition between academics and from without by governments who repress critical scholars, or, more subtly, set the agenda for research funding according to their policy priorities. Calling out all such behaviours, in both South and North, East and West, is necessary to (re)build academic freedom in a global context.
Doing Fieldwork in Areas of International Intervention is available from Bristol University Press.The Academic Freedom Working Group of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group is drafting a Code of Conduct on academic freedom in the context of internationalisation. It may be contacted on: AcademicFreedomWG@gmail.com.