On the limits of academic freedom

Researchers often struggle with how they are categorized by others

Researchers should be free from constraints that prevent them from the pursuit of scientific truth – this is an idea that universities all over the world like to pride themselves on. However, even the purest, most basic research is subject to pressures which are never exclusively scientific. Researchers are subject to a number of social constraints as they compete for resources, pursue careers, and network with others. In a nutshell, research is a social practice – a practice which does not only turn around ideas.
In my own career, I am often reminded of the social aspects of research when I interact with other researchers:I find it painful to be defined by a limited set of academic career parameters!

Imagine me, a sociologist who earned a PhD in France, was supervised by a linguist, and worked in German sociology departments for more than ten years before being appointed in a linguistics department based in the UK. Therefore, whenever someone ask about my background, I never know exactly what to say. I have tried to makeup labels, such as “a social scientist from Europe working on language”, “a British-French-German sociologist-linguist”, “a hybrid multidisciplinary something”, and other cross-functional characterizations. Dealing with these categories can be stressful since it is difficult to appear credible if you are not seen as a member of a specific community.

So, what did I do? I did what researchers usually do when they come across a problem.

I wrote a research proposal, asked for money and was lucky enough to obtain funding from the European Research Council. With my research team, which is based at Warwick (UK) and EHESS (France), we now examine how researchers are socially positioned through academic categories in the social sciences and humanities. Depending on the social context, some academic categories (such as a unique profile or recognized experience in teaching and management) can be very important for researchers pursuing academic careers. Oftentimes, academic categories are established spontaneously as researchers talk or write about one another. Other times, they are attributed in formal exams or procedures (i.e. certificates, titles, and jobs). While some categories are specific to a person, such as expertise in a certain area or one’s position in social circles, other categories are applied to many researchers (such as institutional status: “associate professor”; or disciplinary field: “historian”). Academic categories are usually consolidated in discursive practices, such as through written communication (e.g. publications) and speech (e.g. presentations), which is why we have adopted discourse analytical perspectives on academic researchers.

There is no such a thing as a perfectly free researcher as researchers are always involved in power struggles over how they are categorised by others.

While every researcher is subject to social dynamics among researcher, not everybody has the same chance of participating and succeeding in the game of academic categorizations. If this game keeps us from pursuing certain ideas, the opposite can be true as well: sometimes the need for meaningful social categories drives us to go into incredible lengths as researchers, explore new areas (such as academic discourse analysis) and study new objects (such as research as a discursive practice).  

As a leader of a British-French research team, I am still somebody who is difficult to be pigeon-holed. I am viewed as a linguist in the UK, as a sociologist in Germany, and as a mixture of both in France. Yet, since I now can claim that I am a discourse analyst conducting research on academic researchers, my interlocutors no longer seem to stumble over my categories. After all, to get a conversation going, you need to know who you are dealing with, especially if you want to talk about ideas that you really care about.

Johannes Angermuller

Professor of Discourse and Principal Investigator of the ERC DISCONEX team at the University of Warwick/ Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris

Image: Helsinki University, Porthania, fot. by: Klaus Wagensonner, Flickr

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