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MONTHLY BLOG 126, Does classifying people in terms of their ‘Identity’ have parallels with racist thought? Answer: No; Yes; and ultimately, No.

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)

Specimen HC1
© Michael Mapes (2013)

It’s impossible to think without employing some elements of generalisation. (Is it? Yes: pure mental pointillisme, cogitating in fragmentary details, would not work. Thoughts have to be organised). And summary statements about fellow human beings always entail some element of classification. (Do they? Yes, individuals are more than the sum of their bits of flesh and bones. Each one is a person, with a personality, a consciousness, a name, perhaps a national identity number – all different ways of summarising a living being). Generalisations are therefore invaluable, whilst always open to challenge.

Yet are all forms of classification the same? Is aggregative thought not only inevitable but similarly patterned, whatever the chosen criteria? Or, to take a more precise example from interpersonal relationships, does classifying a person by their own chosen ethnic identity entail the same thought processes as classifying them in terms of oppressive racial hierarchies?

Immediately the answer to the core question (are all forms of classification the same?) is No. If individuals chose to embrace an ethnic identity, that process can be strong and empowering. Instead of being labelled by others, perhaps with pejorative connotations, then people can reject an old-style racial hierarchy that places (say) one skin-colour at the top of the social heap, and another at the foot. They can simply say: ‘Yes: that is who I am; and I exult in the fact. My life – and the life of all others like me – matters.’  It is a great antidote to years of racial hatred and oppressions.

At the same time, however, there are risks in that approach. One is the obvious one, which is often noted. White supremacists can use the same formula, claiming their group superiority. And they can then campaign aggressively against all who look ‘different’ and are deemed (by them) be in ‘inferior’. In other words, oppressors can use the same appeal to the validity of group affiliation as can their victims.

There are other difficulties too. So reverting to the core question (how similar are systems of classification?) it can be argued that: yes, assessing people by ethnic identity often turns out, in practice, to be based upon superficial judgments, founded not upon people’s actual ethnic history (often very complex) but upon their looks and, especially, their skin colours. External looks are taken as shorthand for much more. As a result, assumptions about identities can be as over-simplified as those that allocate people into separate ‘races’. Moreover, reliance upon looks can lead to hurtful situations. Sometimes individuals who believe themselves to have one particular ethnic affinity can be disconcerted by finding that others decline to accept them into one particular ‘tribe’, purely because their looks don’t approximate to required visual stereotype. For example, some who self-identify as ‘black’ are rejected as ‘not black enough’.

Finally, however, again reverting to the core question: No. Identity politics are not as socially pernicious and scientifically wrong-headed as are racial politics.1 ‘Identities’ are fluid and can be multiple. They are organised around many varied criteria: religion, politics, culture, gender, sexuality, nationality, sporting loyalties, and so forth. People have a choice as to whether they associate with any particular affinity group – and, having chosen, they can also regulate the strength of their loyalties. These things are not set in stone. Again, taking an example from biological inheritance, people with dark skins do not have to self-identify as ‘black’. They may have some other, overriding loyalty, such as to a given religion or nationality, which takes precedence in their consciousness.

But there is a more fundamental point, as well. Identities are not ideologically organised into the equivalent of racial hierarchies, whereby one group is taken as perennially ‘superior’ to another. Some individuals may believe that they and their fellows are the ‘top dogs’. And group identities can encourage tribal rivalries. But such tensions are not the same as an inflexible racial hierarchy. Instead, diverse and self-chosen ‘identities’ are a step towards rejecting old-style racism. They move society away from in-built hierarchies towards a plurality of equal roles.

It is important to be clear, however, that there is a risk that classifications of people in terms of identity might become as schematic, superficial and, at times, hurtful as are classifications in terms of so-called ‘race’. Individuals may like to choose; but society makes assumptions too.

The general moral is that classifications are unavoidable. But they always need to be checked and rechecked for plausibility. Too many exceptions at the margins suggest that the core categories are too porous to be convincing. Moreover, classification systems are not made by individuals in isolation. Communication is a social art. Society therefore joins in human classification. Which means that the process of identifying others always requires vigilance, to ensure that, while old inequalities are removed, new ones aren’t accidentally generated instead. Building human siblinghood among Planet Earth’s 7.9 billion people (the estimated 2021 head-count) is a mighty challenge but a good – and essential – one.

ENDNOTES:

1 For the huge literature on the intrinsic instability of racial classifications, see K.F. Dyer, The Biology of Racial Integration (Bristol, 1974); and A. Montagu, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (New York, 2001 edn). It is worth noting, however, that beliefs in separate races within the one human race are highly tenacious: see also A. Saini, Superior: The Return of Race Science (2019). For further PJC meditations on these themes, see also within PJC website: Global Themes/ 4,4,1 ‘It’s Time to Update the Language of “Race”’, BLOG/36 (Dec. 2013); and 4.4.4 ‘Why is the Language of “Race” holding on for so long, when it’s Based on a Pseudo-Science?’ BLOG/ 38 (Feb. 2014).

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MONTHLY BLOG 125, WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A WHOLE PERSON? WHY WE SHOULD ALL BE ARTY-SMARTY.

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)

Fig:1 Specimens
© Michael Mapes 2021

Having declared my wish to be appreciated as a whole person,1 I got a mix of replies – some testy, some curious – asking what personal ‘wholeness’ actually means. It’s a fair question. Referring to a ‘whole person’ certainly sounds a bit ‘arty’ – or, for more severe critics, dangerously ‘arty-farty’. The terminology, sometimes dignified as ‘holistic’, commonly appears in handbooks to alternative medicine, which may range from sound sense to the wilder shores of snake-oil healthcare. So … is being a whole person somehow a concept which is abstruse or ‘fringe’ – or perhaps simply redundant?

My answer is emphatically: No. Being understood as a whole person is a positive need, which is the quintessence of humanity. It expresses how individuals should properly relate together, both individually and collectively.

On the way to that conclusion, however, it’s necessary to accept the parallel need for generalisations, abstract statistics and collective identifications. For certain purposes, overviews are essential. When talking about global population pressures, it would take far, far too long to itemise and salute the full personality of every one of the 7.8 billion living individuals who inhabit Planet Earth, according to the latest estimates for December 2020.2

To take but one example of collective analysis, many medical research programmes work by investigating generic patterns among thousands of case-histories. In that way, linkages between genetic heritage and specific maladies can be tested – and at times proven or (bearing in mind the role of trial and error) at other times refuted. Similarly, treatments and palliatives can be assessed by group trials. My own gluten allergy, known as coeliac disease (sometimes spelt as ‘celiac’), turns out to be partially, though not automatically, heritable.3 When I first got that information, years ago, I checked my family history and worked out, from corroborative evidence, that the weak link was being transmitted via my father’s mother’s branch. I then conveyed the news to every relevant relative, to much initial bemusement and some derision. Over the years, however, as many siblings and cousins have been diagnosed as coeliacs, they universally tell me that they are glad to be forewarned. It’s an excellent example of how aggregative analysis can help individual understanding.

There are also countless other instances. Targeted advertising works by identifying people with specific consumer profiles. So does political blitzing. In some cases, such as social class, the personal identifications are usually (though not invariably) made by others. But in other circumstances, individuals are invited to classify themselves. On bureaucratic forms, for example, there are often questions about age, gender; ethnic identification; religion; or any combination of those factors.

It’s true that responding truthfully can be tricky, if people don’t accept the options provided. Traditionally, British army recruits who self-defined as ‘atheists’ or ‘agnostics’ were entered as members of the established Anglican church, because there was then no space on the form for non-believers. But, for many purposes, the people, who are processing the data, want broad aggregates, not individual vagaries. They don’t mind a few exceptions and mistaken classifications. And often big, general groupings will suffice – though not for projects attempting to make fine-grained investigations into (say) people’s real religious beliefs, which furthermore may fluctuate during a lifetime.

The upshot is that, for some – even for many – purposes, individuals are statistics. However, just as it is often necessary to generalise, so at other times it’s crucial to go beyond generic categories and impersonal labels to encounter living humans, in all their often glorious and sometimes maddening diversity.

In medical treatment, for example (as opposed to aggregative medical research), there is now a simmering debate about the need for holistic medicine.4 That approach entails understanding the mix of mental and physical factors in human wellbeing. It moves beyond concentrating simply on the immediate cause of any malaise; and asks about the cause of the cause (or, in other words, the underlying root cause). In the case of undiagnosed coeliacs, they suffer from disturbed guts, aching bones, exhaustion and (often) depression. Yet they don’t need a soothing bromide. They need a biopsy or blood-test to get a full medical diagnosis and help in adopting a gluten-free diet.

Taking a holistic approach also means that clinicians should ensure that their own practices are humanised. In other words, the prevalent medical system should not make doctors unhappy, as they strive to heal their patients.5 Other areas where holistic approaches are actively proposed include many forms of therapy and social care.6 Help for people with mental health issues is also claimed to benefit from a whole-person approach7 – rather than just palliative medication. And similar hopes apply to assistance for individuals recovering from trauma.8 Indeed, ‘holistic’ interventions are credited with improvements in many diverse fields: from sports coaching;9 to sexual therapies;10 to business management;11 right through to cyber-security.12

Needless to say, invoking the concept of ‘holism’ doesn’t guarantee its effective use. Nonetheless, these usages indicate an interest in considering issues ‘in the round’. Picking on just one symptom; one solution; one approach; is unhelpful when dealing with the greatest intricacies of life. Practical people will snort that it’s best, at least, to get on with one big remedy, without having to wait to figure out the whole. But single interventions so often have unintended consequences, unless the big picture has been properly configured and understood.

Above all, it’s in child-rearing and education where it’s particularly crucial to assist all individuals to develop as a whole and rounded people.13 No-one should be pre-categorised by prior labels. And especially not so, if the labels carry pejorative meanings. No children should be simply dismissed or excluded as ‘difficult’. Such terminology makes tricky situations worse.14 (And equally children can also be over-praised, giving them a false impression of the world and their own abilities).

Being typecast negatively is particularly damaging. For example, women often used to be dismissed as ‘feather-brained’ air-heads. As a result, many did not trouble to activate their talents, especially in public view. Worse too, some clever women used voluntarily to play the game of ‘Oh it’s only silly little me!’ Then later, when, they wanted to be taken seriously, they found that they were trapped in the role of ‘dumb bimbos’. Their subsequent struggles to break free often proved to be very destructive – breaking up family relationships, which were founded upon false identities.

Quite a few people do, in practice, manage either to avoid or to ignore being stereotyped. But no youngsters should have to face being typecast, whether by gender, sexual preferences, ethnic heritage, religion, accent, appearance, social class, bodily abilities/disabilities. or any other category that humans can invoke.

Instead, all should, from very young, have a chance to develop their personalities and talents to the full. They should be not only properly fed but also warmly loved, to give them inner confidence. They should be given reasonable framework rules, but also great encouragement to innovate. Every person should also have a chance, when young, to explore the entire range of special human skills: including not only literacy and numeracy but also art, chess, drama, handicrafts, music, riding, all forms of sport and swimming. (And please add any skills that I have temporarily overlooked). Not that everyone will become a superstar. That’s not the point. It is that all should have a chance to find and develop their talents to the full – to have a lifetime of nurtured learning to become rounded and fulfilled personalities.

Needless to say, such a humanist project is expensive in terms of human labour and money. Classes should be small; and individual attention paid to each learner.15 But, from another point of view, the costs can be justified on many grounds – not least by providing work for people whose jobs have been automated. Education for the ‘whole person’ should not be an optional extra. Instead, it’s a supreme economic as well as social, political and cultural good.

Planet Earth does not need ‘partial’ and undeveloped minds and bodies. It needs the fully-charged brain-power and person-power of 7.8 billion people. There are enough global problems, many of our own making, for us all to resolve.

To repeat, the aim is not to turn everyone into a prize-winner. But behind every summary statistic, there should be a human being who is supremely well in mind and body: in other words, a whole person. Effective knowledge entails both aggregation/generalisation and disaggregation/particularisation. One early reader of this BLOG sniffed that this line of argument is indeed ‘very arty-farty’. Yet enlightened scientists are today calling for a rounded education, adding balance and creativity from the Arts and Humanities to the necessary scientific specialisation and technical knowhow.16 To live well and to safeguard Planet Earth, humans need to be not arty-farty – but really arty-smarty.

ENDNOTES:

1 See PJC, ‘Being Assessed as a Whole Person: A Critique of Identity Politics’, BLOG 121 (Jan. 2021) – pdf/58 in PJC website www.penelopejcorfield.com; also published in Academic Letters (Dec. 2020): see https://www.academia.edu.

2 https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/world-population-projections/ [accessed 4 May 2021].

3 For the latest updates, see variously https://www.nature.com/subjects/coeliac-disease [accessed 4 May 2021] and reports from the American Celiac Disease Foundation in https://celiac.org/about-celiac-disease/future-therapies-for-celiac-disease/ [accessed 4 May 2021]. There are also numerous personal guidebooks, gluten-free cookery books, and clinical textbooks on the condition.

4 See e.g. A.C. Hastings, J. Fadiman, J.S. Gordon, Health for the Whole Person: The Complete Guide to Holistic Medicine (New York, 2018).

5 E.K. Ledermann, Medicine for the Whole Person: A Critique of Scientific Medicine (Shaftesbury, 1997); D.R. Kopacz, Re-Humanising Medicine: A Holistic Framework for Transforming Yourself, Your Practice and the Culture of Medicine (2014).

6 See e.g. A. Burnham (ed.), Together: A Vision of Whole Person Care for a Twenty-First Century Health and Care Service (2013).

7 C.L. Fracasso and others (eds), Holistic Treatment in Mental Health: A Handbook of Practitioners’ Perspectives (Jefferson, NC, 2020).

8 L.A. Prock (ed.), Holistic Perspectives on Trauma: Implications for Social Workers and Health Care Professionals (Toronto, 2015).

9 E.g. R. Light and others, Advances in Rugby Coaching: A Holistic Approach (2014).

10 J. Adams, Explore, Dream, Discover: Working with Holistic Models of Sexual Health and Sexuality, Self Esteem and Mental Health (Sheffield, 2004).

11 C-H.C. Law, Managing Enterprise, Resource Planning … and Business Processes: A Holistic Approach (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2019).

12 D. Chatterjee, Cybersecurity Readiness: A Holistic and High-Performance Approach (Los Angeles, 2021).

13 C. Mayes, Developing the Whole Student: Bew Horizons for Holistic Education (2020).

14 M. Jewell, Are Difficult Children Difficult or Just Different? What if We Can Change to Help Them? (2019).

15 See e.g. C. Mayes, Developing the Whole Student: New Horizons for Holistic Education (2020); J.P. Miller and others (eds), International Handbook of Holistic Education (2018); and D.W. Crowley (ed.), Educating the Whole Person: Towards a Total View of Lifelong Learning (Canberra, 1975).

16 J. Horgan, ‘Why STEM Students [i.e. studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] Need Humanities Courses’, Scientific American (16 August 2018): https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/why-stem-students-need-humanities-courses/ [accessed 7 May 2021].

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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)

Clenched Fist
© 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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