A Response to “Responsible Research Practices,” Part 3: Do No Harm

hippocraticoath This is an installment in an ongoing series on the American Academy of Religion’s recently released draft statement on research responsibilities.
An index of the
complete series (updated as each
article is posted) can be found here.

The previous post — concerned with a group of Academy members who, I argued, are necessarily absent from the draft statement on responsibilities (why necessarily? If they were explicitly acknowledged it would likely undermine our ability, as an Academy, to advocate for academic freedom) — was implicitly about the lack of systematicity of this draft document. Although I am, of course, unaware of what the committee discussed, what they produced and distributed does not suggest they itemized a complete list of the groups to which they think a researcher owes something (i.e., has responsibilities). After all, church hierarchies are oddly absent from the document despite many members within our big tent surely working in private religiously-affiliated schools that sometimes require faculty to sign and follow a statement of faith (which likely has a direct impact on what they teach and study). But acknowledging this to be one such constituency likely undermines some of the ways that the AAR seeks to authorize itself as an academic organization.

The absence of self-awareness for what, in principle and in practice, the Academy is therefore seems to be a strategic necessity to make a document such as this work.

This lack of awareness, coupled with undefined terms that nonetheless carry helpful rhetorical weight, is also evident, I believe, in the second bullet point. It reads as follows:

AARpromotegoodBecause my opening post in this series has already identified what I take to be the significant problems of assuming that we, as researchers, ought to promote an undefined quality simply termed “good” I will not dwell on that in this post. Instead, what reads like a riff on either the Hippocratic Oath (a portion of which is pictured above) or the American Anthropological Association’s far more detailed 2012 statement, prompts me to ask a question that relates to the other side of that coin: what constitutes “harm”? Moreover, what counts as exploitation, dishonesty, and discrimination? Again, if this document is meant to be more than just something to report, if queried by some outside body, that we have it and, instead, to have effect in members’ careers, in practical situations, then offering undefined terms to signify what the committee seems to see as grave infractions of our professional role as researchers will not do.

But, much like the previous post (which likened the use of overly broad technical terminology to the catch phrases used by campaigning politicians, inasmuch as a lack of specificity has strategic effect), we again find that there is something to be gained by not defining our terms. For it would not be difficult to find someone who would argue that the institution of higher education is exploitative at its very core, i.e., that without capitalizing on unequal power relations the institution would cease to function. Most recently, we saw this at the University of Toronto’s graduate teaching assistant’s strike last winter — a situation where such factors as current wages, benefits, job security, and insufficient funding throughout a grad student’s career at U of T were identified by the strikers as, dare I say, constitutive of exploitative conditions. While some might call this the inevitable context of any apprenticeship, the startlingly poor job market in the Humanities (i.e., the public cuts to universities that have prompted many schools increasingly to rely on non-tenure-track labor) makes plain that a two-tiered system is already well in place in North American academia; for now an ever-smaller number of faculty enjoy the perks of the tenure and research stream whereas large numbers of grad students or unemployed Ph.D.s are hired at a fraction of the regular faculty salary, on seasonal or limited term contracts, to generate the credit hours that helps to justify the entire institution’s existence.

So here we have another contradiction at the heart of our enterprise: while we take a strong stand against exploitation when defined narrowly, as applied to how we treat our research subjects (for that’s the context of the second bullet point, I believe), the institution’s very existence and the way it creates time for many of us to carry out this research presupposes it.

(Aside: I won’t even bring up this notion of epistemic violence that some claim we do whenever we study people in ways other than how they themselves talk about their own worlds [a translation that risks demeaning the people whom we study]. Unless we assume they are transcendental signifiers, this position would require us to take seriously that the words “religion” along with “culture” and “economy,” not to mention “mitochondria,” “house,” and “word” itself, are all alien imports to many of the groups we study [and that those words aren’t even native to English, since it comes from somewhere else too!], thereby making the very idea of scholarship, maybe even communication itself, a possible source of harm.)

Now, I hardly think that the AAR will solve this; in fact, as with any professional association, apart from hosting an annual conference and producing a number of publications, I’m not sure what the AAR’s actual sphere of action and ability to have effect is. So, again, I’d inquire just what such a statement on research responsibilities is meant to accomplish. But inasmuch as we are an organization of people who claim to pay attention to the details, it would be nice to see some awareness in this document of the deeply self-implicated nature of the field…, an awareness of implication that would likely make it more difficult to make the sort of broad claims that we find in this particular bullet point.

So, yes, I’m all for avoiding harm. Who isn’t? Talk to hunters and they’ll quickly tell you all about the conservation projects they’re involved in, such that their killing isn’t killing at all; it’s culling the herd — so I should add that it’s likely that we will each define these terms in deeply self-beneficial ways so as to live up to the rigorous requirements and noble standards of such documents. After all, medical doctors who take the oath cause all sorts of harm all the time (for starters, just consider chemotherapy…) — but we get around the problem by defining that harm away, since we understand it merely as “a side effect” and thus in the service of preventing something we judge to be even worse (though, come to think of it, not all cancer patients see it that way, of course, and some opt not for chemo treatments given that the cure is itself too harrowing). Or, to put it another way, I have no doubt that U of T’s senior administration and the faculty who would be teaching significantly heavily loads and writing far less were it not for the armies of poorly paid teaching assistants all over that campus don’t feel like they’re exploiting anyone. No, they’re likely just giving them opportunities.

Which brings me all the way back to that second bullet point: Harm according to whom? Or, as Bruce Lincoln phrased it, twenty years ago, in the fourth of his “Theses on Method“:

Who speaks here…? And to what audience?