In my 20 years of doing research that is framed either directly or indirectly by Norwegian authorities, I have come to the conclusion that even, or maybe especially, in Norway where there are close links and allegiances between research and government and where the shared assumption often is that ‘we all want what’s best for people’, there are considerable risks when scholars aim to produce research that is intended to be relevant to stakeholders and society.
In order to get funding and recognition, researchers are subjected to demands to do research in a way that is explicitly relevant to society in the short run. Such short-term relevance is also valued within research institutions and among researchers, and the evaluation of research often uses ‘impact’ as a marker for quality. The value of being relevant is heralded in many contexts, but the drive to be relevant may be problematic as this creates a situation where it may be difficult to steer free of becoming embedded in administrative or political agendas. I have experienced politicians and bureaucrats staying at an arm’s length distance to ensure the independence of my research, but I also have experience with meddling, threats and disappointment.
In my Identities article, ‘Taking on the categories, terms and worldviews of the powerful: the pitfalls of trying to be relevant’, I describe some such experiences. Much of my experience as a researcher is as a migration scholar; migration is a field that rapidly moved from the margins to the centre of both society and social science scholarship in the last ten years. This mandates that we have to think about what that entails for the framing and need for our research, but also for our practices and ability to take a critical position in our own work.
A couple of years ago, I shared a paper-in-progress with some colleagues. I got a lot of wonderfully kind and collegial feedback, but I noticed that something was amiss between my own home base of sociology and other disciplines that theorise emotion. At the mere mention of the name Lauren Berlant, two people reeled back in their chairs, rolling their eyes and groaning in exasperated derision. The centring of Stuart Hall's work in my paper perplexed one colleague, who explained that 'we've transcended Hall with Pierre Bourdieu and Jeffrey Alexander'.
Bourdieu and Alexander, I couldn't help noticing (especially by contrast to Hall), are decidedly less adequate for understanding race and, to a lesser extent, gender. And unlike Bourdieu and Alexander, who are claimed in the name of sociology, Hall and Berlant can be considered cultural theorists, though they've significantly influenced social theory. The encounter I've just described sits where these two terrains of struggle meet: disciplinary politics and politics more broadly. I want to suggest that it would be fitting to bring the same principles that guide better political praxis into our inter/disciplinary engagements.
The haste with which some sociologists of emotion dismiss interdisciplinary fields such as cultural studies, critical race studies, and postcolonial studies is in one sense perhaps not surprising. Despite the significance of emotion in the organisation of every aspect of social life, keyword searches for recent publications on emotion within prominent journals in these fields produce surprisingly scant results. Other concepts, such as 'attitudes' and 'lived experience', feature more prominently. For emotion theorists seeking an excuse to bypass interdisciplinary work, the lexical differences seem sufficient. 'There's nothing relevant for me here. This isn't how “we” do it.'
But why, I wonder, would we stop digging just when we're about to reach the treasure? It is at precisely this point that questions worth asking begin to arise. Why do some scholars use 'attitudes' where we would use 'emotions'? How has the word 'emotion' operated in the lives and intellectual traditions of the people who've produced this work, and why do these other terms work better for them? Power is almost certain to be involved somehow – either its exercise or resistance to it – and it's a wasted opportunity to allow conceptual divergences to function as walls rather than doors.
Charles Taylor has influentially argued that a politics of recognition demands the genuine possibility of transformation by all parties to a relationship. In order for social scientists to answer the questions that make our work worth doing, we must be open to having our own concepts transformed by our dialogues with other disciplines. The field of feelings is as broad a church as academic knowledge production can furnish. An examination of the work of even the most dedicated disciplinary purists will betray the influences of cultural theory, psychoanalytic theory, neuroscience, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, history, political theory, and interdisciplinary fields such as feminist, postcolonial, critical race, psychosocial, and science and technology studies. The benefits of these interdisciplinary engagements for our work are reason enough to embrace them, but perhaps even more importantly, an aversion to scholarship which is 'not how “we” do it' can, depending on who the 'we' is or isn't, be haunted by the spectre of the same Orientalism that social scientific work ought to root out – in praxis as well as theory. Despite institutional pressures to champion our own disciplines, a sound intellectual politics demands that we inhabit the surprisingly vulnerable liminality between confidence in our conceptual tools and openness to changing our minds about them.
Blog post by Lisa Kalayji, University of Edinburgh, UK