Over recent weeks, I was repeatedly challenged to think through the practical contexts of my research, and how I engage with them. I have been invited to an evaluation of Muslim Indians' socio-economic standing and citizenship rights a decade after the Sachar report. I continue to collaborate with activists, journalists and other academics through Data{Meet}. And I have been applying for faculty jobs, many of which now ask for a statement on "policy relevance" or "impact" (especially in the UK, for obvious reasons). Frankly, these are not exactly the terms in which I usually frame my work - so I decided to write up my discomfort with them, in an attempt to clarify my own stance. Comments welcome...

Once I began to think about it more explicitly, I realized that my discomfort surely does not stem from lack of familiarity. My first work experience was with the local grassroots NGO CARAVAN in Pakistan. There, I was very much on the receiving end of advice, and the experience primarily left quite an impact on me. Next came an internship with Germany's largest donor organization, Misereor, for whom I drafted the policy on religion in conflict. This was very much a collaborative endeavour, though it ultimately led nowhere (it wasn't such a smart idea to let an intern tackle an issue so close to the institution's self-understanding, I guess). Last but not least, I worked for the German embassy in Bangladesh just before the country returned to free elections after two years of technocratic rule. In this position, I was asked to liberally disseminate "advice" to all kinds of stakeholders (close to the point of unduly intervening in domestic affairs).

This list already shows how power hierarchies are inevitable in the interaction between researchers and the practical contexts in which they work. At its best, this interaction should really be a bilateral, cooperative process, however. In my own case, I think this has at least two consequences:

Firstly, I work in two practical contexts - India and Europe - and partly see my role as a translator between both. Consequently, my aim is to work with Indian NGOs or adising the Indian government as much as it is to interact with German media and public debate in the global North (I earlier blogged about why India is a particular apt comparative case for debates about religion). This also implies an effort to build long-term relationships in both contexts, learning the language, and being (at least partly) led by the breadth of what's locally relevant - rather than engaging in some sort of country hopping, following purely my own agenda.

Secondly, if I am giving advice, I should also be able to listen - and don't try to smooth over the disagreements between academic and practical perspecties. Hence my Gujarat book about (and partly addressed to) peace activists for example included a rather critical postscript by an eminent activist, the admirable Gagan Sethi, who recently masterminded the Conflictorium in Ahmedabad. I fought hard with my publisher to give him that unconditional and unedited space. This is not to deny that I still control the bulk of epistemic power, nor that my voluntarily giving up that power in a small attempt to "give voice" really changes underlying hierarchies. This should not prevent us from making an effort, though.

If the interaction with one's practical contexts is a bilateral and cooperative endeavour, however, this should also show in the words we use to denote such interaction - and here lies perhaps the root of my unease. Words won't do away with hierarchies (might even obliterate them), but they can frame them in new light. The more I worked in India, for instance, the more I came to avoid the term "identity" (with its statist implications) in favour of "belonging" (a relational term, and a verb). Similarly, I think it matters whether one speaks of conflict "against" each other or of struggle "for" shared aspirations (which might have conflictive consequences). And in the same vein, I am uncomfortable with terming my interactions beyond the ivory tower in terms of "policy advice" or "impact" - though I am fine with "public engagement" or indeed "cooperation".

So for me the bottomline is this: academic research has a practical context, is informed by practitioners, and also informs them. This interaction is structured by power imbalances in multiple ways. Hence the words we use to talk about this do matter - they can obliterate, increase, or soften such imbalances. Which is why I am not afraid to continue to engage practitioners in my research and writing - but hesitate to call this "having an impact" (unless, of course, when I desperately need money from the ESRC). What do you think? Feel free to comment below...

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