Reflections on Academic Reflection
By Julien Mittre
Quinn M., 1991 Self, sculpture by Marc Quinn, accessed 21 February 2023, http://marcquinn.com/artworks/single/self-1991.
“Why are you looking at that?” says the layman to the researcher. The researcher frowns, stands still and after much hesitation decides not to answer. Instead, he sinks deeper into the seemingly unworthy.
Let’s bring more substance to our researcher and add details on what he looks at – any resemblance with the author of this post is fortuitous. The researcher is a PhD student looking at “the evolution of Tunisian legal vocabulary and its consequences on gender issues”. Before even considering why this might be a worthwhile question to consider, it seems legitimate to ask whether it is a worthwhile investigation. Taken separately, the “topics” relating to that study seem important: legal history, Tunisian politics, gender issues are all fit for academic purposes. Why is it then that when they are combined, the overarching object of that PhD starts to seem oddly particular, hardly applicable, and fully arbitrary? More importantly, is the decision to study a particular topic ever arbitrary?
Very simply our researcher’s theme is a discursive construction. The critical theorist works on highlighting the constructed spaces that govern power relations. The research above mentioned does that – it seeks to highlight how legal norms impact gendered interactions, highlighting how the very format of legal discourse is not fit to promote a radically equalitarian version of feminism. Yet the work of the researcher is itself created in an environment with powerful norms: the academic world. In his course on discourse and power, the theorist Michel Foucault showed the necessity of undertaking a deconstruction of “official” discourses. In light of the scientific authority granted to researchers, their own discursive practices must also be evaluated and, potentially, deconstructed. Thus, the PhD researcher too, must reflect on why he is studying what he is studying, and what power dynamics enabled him to choose his subject.
We know the importance of the researcher questioning his positionality. How his gender, sexuality, social background, or ethnicity impact his work is a self-questioning essential to any social critique. The step that remains absent for most work, however, is the question of how being a researcher impacts the choice of his research. A “PhD student” or “an academic” is not a neutral entity. These qualifiers carry meanings that gives significance to what they do. The titles integrate them in a hierarchy of knowledge. Hierarchies fit in a structure that carries power and produces multiple consequences but here, I only want to explore how it impacts the question – “why are you looking at this?” that laymen so often ask. Positionality cannot only be understood through one’s individuality. On the contrary, it must be considered within a hierarchy of knowledge production both within the academy and the wider social world.
The question—“why are you looking at this?”— functions as an accountability mechanism. It carries doubt about the rightness of the academic in choosing his topic: it questions his independence. The researcher is expected to explain what he does and why. Put simply, laymen expect a justification – the authority of the academic status is not sufficient to defend his choices. Intellectual inquiry should welcome this kind of questioning. The Plato-induced attitude of keeping knowledge within “the academy” should not be admissible anymore, and by asking researchers why they study what they do, the public invades their sphere.
Secondly, the question can also be used by the researcher to question his own position as a researcher. How has my status as a PhD student impacted the scope of what I do and my analysis of it? These self-interrogations should be at the heart of any critical work that seeks to describe power relations. This is a work all researchers could, and perhaps should try to question their research questions and how they fit in narratives of power.
To end, let me go back to the imagined interlocutor who asks pesky questions. In response to the nagging question “Is the evolution of legal vocabulary in Tunisia worthwhile of study?”, the answer is yes if it highlights power relations and can contribute to removing barriers limiting emancipation. However, the choice of that topic, the role of the researcher in constructing and approaching it must also be assessed to disintegrate the power relations that his decisions necessarily incorporate. Our PhD student might not have the answer when it comes to why he is studying what he is studying – but part of his inquiry must be on finding an answer to the layman question. Why is he studying this topic and, more importantly, what impact does his studying it have on the power structure of knowledge production? He must accept, embrace, and encourage the idea that the social world will seek to deconstruct his research, in the same way that his research seeks to deconstruct some aspects of the social world. Society deconstructing academia is as important as academia deconstructing society.
 Foucault, M. (1970). L’ordre du Discours. Paris: Gallimard.
Julien is a University of Edinburgh PhD student in the School of Literatures, Language and Cultures working on the linguistics of gender issues within legal texts. He writes about interactions between the social world and individuals and their impacts on gender and sexualities.