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MONTHLY BLOG 121, BEING ASSESSED AS A WHOLE PERSON – A CRITIQUE OF IDENTITY POLITICS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)
[PJC Pdf/58]

One of series of Dissected Photographs by New York artist
© Michael Mapes

Friends: I want to be taken seriously as a whole person, assessed in the round. It’s positively good to feel part of a universalist personhood.1 Something that is experienced in common with all fellow humans. But how is that attitude to be encouraged, whilst simultaneously acknowledging the benefits that separatist identity politics can bring?

Social groups who have been marginalised – victims of an oppressive history – obviously gain a great deal by asserting their claims to general appreciation. Black Lives Matter. Of course they do: unequivocally and absolutely. It’s a proposition that draws strength from its utter truth.

One among the many challenges of identity politics, however, is the question of definition. Who decides who is or is not aligned with which particular identity? What happens when others persistently allocate you (for example, because of your looks) with a group with whom you personally feel little or no affinity? People of mixed ethnic heritage sometimes feel doubly excluded: their skins perhaps not dark enough for a ‘real’ Black identity, but not pale enough for a ‘real’ White one. Or perhaps children of mixed marriages may physically resemble one parent, whilst emotionally identifying with the other. What chance do such individuals have of asserting their inner sense of identity, when society instantly classifies them with the parent they physically resemble?

That point highlights another related problem of definition. An individual may have – indeed most do have – multiple identities. In my case, I could be described (variously) as a white, middle-class, heterosexual, childless woman, living in a stable partnership; as well as a Yorkshire-born Londoner, with English, British and/or European affiliations; as well as: an older person; as tolerably well-off; as a home-owner with a pension; as a coeliac (with a chronic gluten-allergy); as someone with short sight; as a professor; as an academic historian; as a bibliophile; as a left-winger; as an agnostic, reared in a cultural tradition of secularised Protestant Dissent; as a keen swimmer; as a music fan; as an amateur gardener; as a cat-lover; as someone with a sense of humour; … as an optimist …  Any of those characteristics might be used to ascribe to me a cultural identity. Some of them I would warmly endorse. Others would leave me cold, as being true (childlessness) but not being at all central to my self-definition. And yet another of those terminologies would fill me with horror. I am (or so the calendar tells me) an old woman; but I emphatically don’t self-identify as such.

There are clearly differences between what one might term ‘objective’ personal identifiers and ‘subjective’ ones. There are also different experiences in a person’s lifetime when some affiliations might assume more importance than others. For example, a sense of patriotic resistance is likely to be strongly aroused if one’s own country suddenly comes under unprovoked attack from a hostile overseas tyranny. And a sense of internationalism is conversely likely to be strengthened if one’s own country is engaged in aggressive and bloody militarism against a harmless and defenceless overseas people, whose sole act of provocation lies in their happening to inhabit strategically important or resource-rich territory.

In other words, people have multiple identities. Some of these are more important at some points in a lifetime than are others. And, indeed, some identities might seem to clash with others. For example, it is sometimes assumed that all people with capital assets should always strive to gain the maximum from their investments and to pay as little tax as possible. (Tax advisers often assert that explicitly).

Yet it can equally be argued that property-owners with a civic conscience – and also acting out of enlightened self-interest – should want to pay more taxes in order to reduce inequalities, relieve poverty, reduce environmental degradation, and promote a more harmonious and just society. These are matters of judgment, clearly. Not simply a reflex response to owning property. (One complaint about so-called ‘identity politics’ is that the concept may encourage electors to vote purely for their own immediate personal benefit rather than for wider civic considerations.2 But, in practice, voters have a multitude of concerns in play at any given point).

Identities are actually so intricate and simultaneously so personal that any cultural politics based upon stereotypical assumptions is offensive to the individuals involved. It’s annoying to be told what one is likely to think ‘as a woman’. It’s infuriating to be told that one is intrinsically and automatically a racist oppressor because of one’s light skin colour. That assertion leaves no scope for moral growth and change. White people in many societies may, for example, be initially unaware of their ethnic privileges and may share inherited prejudices about their fellow humans. Yet such views can be overturned, sometimes dramatically, sometimes gradually. As the former slave-trader John Newton wrote movingly from personal experience, in Amazing Grace: ‘My eyes were blind, yet now I see…’3

Furthermore, before getting back to the universalist concept of personhood, let’s also acknowledge that identity politics are not just invoked these days for the purpose of warm, affirmative rectifications of historic injustice. Separating people by group classification may well provoke a serious backlash. Black Lives Matter is currently opposed by a number of far-right white supremacist groups. Interestingly (on the theme of complex identities), the all-male Proud Boys in the USA include members of mixed heritage, including the current leader who identifies as Afro-Cuban, while their collective ethos is one of aggressive pro-Western, anti-feminist and anti-socialist masculinity.4

Underlying these divisions, however, there remains the universalist concept of common personhood. There are communal human characteristics and communal interests. It is thus not always relevant to enquire about the detailed personal circumstances of each individual. Being a person is enough.

Such a view was expressed with clarion force in 1849 by the young author Charlotte Brontë. She first published as Currer Bell, deliberately choosing a name which concealed her gender identity. Writing to her male publisher, she urged him to forget the conventional courtesies between the sexes.5 Those niceties too often implied condescension from the ‘superior’ male to an ‘inferior’ female. She wanted to be judged on fair terms. So Brontë urged upon him that:

to you, I am neither Man nor Woman – I come before you as an Author only – it is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me – the sole ground on which I accept your judgment.

It was a spirited invention from a budding novelist to an established figure in the world of publishing. Charlotte Brontë’s claim thus falls within the history of personhood, and within the history of meritocracy too. And these are themes of great relevance and topicality today. Interest in individual personhood (or self) is coming up on the ropes, alongside the huge publishing boom in studies of ‘identity’. Evidence can be found in debates within philosophy,6 ethics,7 animal rights,8 theology,9 politics,10 psychology,11 law,12 anthropology,13 social welfare,14 economics,15 electoral history,16 literary studies,17 even contemporary poetry18

Becoming vividly aware of past and present injustices – and the need for systematic redress – is certainly a necessary stage in today’s identity politics. It’s understandable that people who have been stigmatised for their gender; sexuality; religion; nationality; ethnic identity; class position; personal disability; or any other quality need to express solidarity with others in like circumstances – and to get respect and contrition from the wider society, It’s also true that sometimes a counter-vailing mantle of universalism can be used as a smoke screen to hide sectional interests. Yet it is to be hoped that, in the long run, a celebration of truly shared and egalitarian human personhood will prevail. In the meantime, dear friends, please judge this communication as coming not from someone representing any one of the separate descriptive categories listed in paragraph four (above); but from a whole person.

ENDNOTES:

1 A slightly shorter version of this text appears online in Academia Letters (Jan. 2021): ; and it also constitutes PJC Pdf/58 within personal website as item 4.3.9. [Items 4.3.6 and 4.3.7 have earlier meditations on the same theme].

2 M. Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, London, Hurst & Co., 2018; A. Stoker, Taking Back Control: Restoring Universalism in the Age of Identity Politics, Sydney, NSW, Centre for Independent Studies, 2019; T.B. Dyrberg, Radical Identity Politics: Beyond Right and Left, Newcastle upon Tyue, Cambridge Scholars, 2020.

3 Words from the hymn Amazing Grace (written 1772; published 1779) by John Newton (1725-1807), reflecting the personal experience of this former slave-trader turned evangelical Christian clergyman and abolitionist.

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proud_Boys.

5 C. Brontë, Letter dated 16 August 1849, in M. Smith (ed.), The Letters of Charlotte Brontë, Vol. 2: 1848-51, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 235.

6 D. Parfit, Reasons and Persons, Oxford, Clarendon, 1984; E. Sprague, Persons and their Minds: A Philosophical Investigation, London, Routledge, 2018.

7 G. Stanghellini and R. Rosfort, Emotions and Personhood: Exploring Fragility – Making Sense of Vulnerability, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013.

8 C. Hutton, Integrationism and the Self: Reflections on the Legal Personhood of Animals, Hong Kong, Routledge, 2019.

9 E.L Graham, Making the Difference: Gender, Personhood and Theology, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

10 F. Brugère, La politique de l’individu, Paris, La République des Idées, Seuil, 2013; A. Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Cambridge, Polity, 1991.

11 R. Jones, Personhood and Social Robotics: A Psychological Consideration, London, Routledge, 2015.

12 J. Richardson, Freedom, Autonomy and Privacy: Legal Personhood, London, Routledge, 2015; W.A.J. Kurki, A Theory of Legal Personhood, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2019; L.M. Kingston, Fully Human: Personhood, Citizenship and Rights, New York, Oxford University Press, 2019.

13 L.P. Appell-Warren, Personhood: An Examination of the History and Use of an Anthropological Concept, Lewiston, Edwin Mellen Press, 2014.

14 P. Higgs and C. Gilleard, Personhood, Identity and Care in Advanced Old Age, Cambridge, Polity, 2016.

15 N. Makovicky, Neoliberalism, Personhood and Postsocialism: Enterprising Selves in Changing Economies, Farnham, Ashgate, 2014; reissued London, Routledge, 2016.

16 M. Lodge and C.B. Taber, The Rationalising Voter, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013; L. Mechtenberg and J-R. Tyran, Voter Motivation and the Quality of Democratic Choice, London, Centre for Economic Policy Research, 2015.

17 J.L. Gittinger, Personhood in Science Fiction: Religious and Philosophical Considerations, Cham, Switzerland, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

18 Z. Olszewska, The Pearl of Dari: Poetry and Personhood among Young Afghans in Iran, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2015.

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MONTHLY BLOG 105, Researchers, Do Your Ideas Have Impact? A Critique of Short-Term Impact Assessments

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)

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© Victor-Portal-Fist (2019)

 Researchers, do your ideas have impact? Does your work produce ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’? Since 2014, that question has been addressed to all research-active UK academics during the assessments for the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which is the new ‘improved’ name for the older Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).1

From its first proposal, however, and long before implementation, the Impact Agenda has proved controversial.2 Each academic is asked to produce for assessment, within a specified timespan (usually seven years), four items of published research. These contributions may be long or short, major or minor. But, in the unlovely terminology of the assessment world, each one is termed a ‘Unit of Output’ and is marked separately. Then the results can be tallied for each researcher, for each Department or Faculty, and for each University. The process is mechanistic, putting the delivery of quantity ahead of quality. And now the REF’s whistle demands demonstrable civic ‘impact’ as well.

These changes add to the complexities of an already intricate and unduly time-consuming assessment process. But ‘Impact’ certainly sounds great. It’s punchy, powerful: Pow! When hearing criticisms of this requirement, people are prone to protest: ‘But surely you want your research to have impact?’ To which the answer is clearly ‘Yes’. No-one wants to be irrelevant and ignored.

However, much depends upon the definition of impact – and whether it is appropriate to expect measurable impact from each individual Unit of Output. Counting/assessing each individual tree is a methodology that will serve only to obscure sight of the entire forest. And will hamper its future growth.

In some cases, to be sure, immediate impact can be readily demonstrated. A historian working on a popular topic can display new results in a special exhibition, assuming that provision is made for the time and organisational effort required. Attendance figures can then be tallied and appreciative visitors’ comments logged. (Fortunately, people who make an effort to attend an exhibition usually reply ‘Yes’ when asked ‘Did you learn something new?’). Bingo. The virtuous circle is closed: new research → an innovative exhibition → gratified and informed members of the public → relieved University administrators → happy politicians and voters.

Yet not all research topics are suitable to generate, within the timespan of the research assessment cycle, the exhibitions, TV programmes, radio interviews, Twitterstorms, applied welfare programmes, environmental improvements, or any of the other multifarious means of bringing the subject to public attention and benefit.

The current approach focuses upon the short-term and upon the first applications of knowledge rather than upon the long-term and the often indirect slow-fuse combustion effects of innovative research. It fails to register that new ideas do not automatically have instant success. Some of the greatest innovations take time – sometimes a very long time – to become appreciated even by fellow researchers, let alone by the general public. Moreover, in many research fields, there has to be scope for ‘trial and error’. Short-term failures are part of the price of innovation for ultimate long-term gain. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the history of science and technology contains many examples of wrong turnings and mistakes, along the pathways to improvement.3

An Einstein, challenging the research fundamentals of his subject, would get short shrift in today’s assessment world. It took 15 years between the first publication of his paper on Special Relativity in 1905 and the wider scientific acceptance of his theory, once his predictions were confirmed experimentally. And it has taken another hundred years for the full scientific and cultural applications of the core concept to become both applied and absorbed.4 But even then, some of Einstein’s later ideas, in search of a Unified Field Theory to embrace analytically all the fundamental forces of nature, have not (yet) been accepted by his fellow scientists.5 Even a towering genius can err.

Knowledge is a fluid and ever-debated resource which has many different applications over time. Applied subjects (such as engineering; medicine; architecture; public health) are much more likely to have detectable and direct ‘impact’, although those fields also require time for development. ‘Pure’ or theoretical subjects (like mathematics), meanwhile, are more likely to achieve their effects indirectly. Yet technology and the sciences – let alone many other aspects of life – could not thrive without the calculative powers of mathematics, as the unspoken language of science. Moreover, it is not unknown for advances in ‘pure’ mathematics, which have no apparent immediate use, to become crucial many years subsequently. (An example is the role of abstract Number Theory for the later development of both cryptography and digital computing).6

Hence the Impact Agenda is alarmingly short-termist in its formulation. It is liable to discourage blue skies innovation and originality, in the haste to produce the required volume of output with proven impact.

It is also fundamentally wrong that the assessment formula precludes the contribution of research to teaching and vice versa. Historically, the proud boast of the Universities has been the integral link between both those activities. Academics are not just transmitting current knowhow to the next generation of students but they (with the stimulus and often the direct cooperation of their students) are simultaneously working to expand, refine, debate, develop and apply the entire corpus of knowledge itself. Moreover, they are undertaking these processes within an international framework of shared endeavour. This comment does not imply, by the way, that all knowledge is originally derived from academics. It comes indeed from multiple human resources, the unlearned as well as learned. Yet increasingly it is the research Universities which play a leading role in collecting, systematising, testing, critiquing, applying, developing and advancing the entire corpus of human knowledge, which provides the essential firepower for today’s economies and societies.7

These considerations make the current Impact Agenda all the more disappointing. It ignores the combined impact of research upon teaching, and vice versa. It privileges ‘applied’ over ‘pure’ knowledge. It prefers instant contributions over long-term development. It discourages innovation, sharing and cooperation. And it entirely ignores the international context of knowledge development and its transmission. Instead, it encourages researchers to break down their output into bite-sized chunks; to be risk-averse; to try for crowd-pleasers; and to feel harried and unloved, as all sectors of the educational world are supposed to compete endlessly against one another.

No one gains from warped assessment systems. Instead, everyone loses, as civic trust is eroded. Accountability is an entirely ‘good thing’. But only when done intelligently and without discouraging innovation. ‘Trial and error’ contains the possibility of error, for the greater good. So the quest for instant and local impact should not be overdone. True impact entails a degree of adventure, which should be figured into the system. To repeat a dictum which is commonly attributed to Einstein (because it summarises his known viewpoint), original research requires an element of uncertainty: ‘If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called “research”, would it?’8

ENDNOTES:

1 See The Research Excellence Framework: Diversity, Collaboration, Impact Criteria, and Preparing for Open Access (Westminster, 2019); and historical context in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Research_Assessment_Exercise.

2 See e.g. B.R. Martin, ‘The Research Excellence Framework and the “Impact Agenda”: Are We Creating a Frankenstein Monster?’ Research Evaluation, 20 (Sept. 2011), pp. 247-54; and other contributions in same issue.

3 S. Firestein, Failure: Why Science is So Successful (Oxford, 2015); [History of Science Congress Papers], Failed Innovations: Symposium (1992).

4 See P.C.W. Davies, About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution (New York, 1995); L.P. Williams (ed.), Relativity Theory: Its Origins and Impact on Modern Thought (Chichester, 1968); C. Christodoulides, The Special Theory of Relativity: Foundations, Theory, Verification, Applications (2016).

5 F. Finster and others (eds), Quantum Field Theory and Gravity: Conceptual and Mathematical Advances in the Search for a Unified Framework (Basel, 2012).

6 M.R. Schroeder, Number Theory in Science and Communications: With Applications in Cryptography, Physics, Biology, Digital Information and Computing (Berlin, 2008).

7 J. Mokyr, The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy (Princeton, 2002); A. Valero and J. van Reenen, ‘The Economic Impact of Universities: Evidence from Across the Globe’ (CEP Discussion Paper No. 1444, 2016), in Vox: https://voxeu.org/article/how-universities-boost-economic-growth

8 For the common attribution and its uncertainty, see [D. Hirshman], ‘Adventures in Fact-Checking: Einstein Quote Edition’, https://asociologist.com/2010/09/04/adventures-in-fact-checking-einstein-quote-edition/

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