Activism and Objectivity in Political Research

I agree with the main argument of Michael L. Frazer’s “Activism and Objectivity in Political Research (Perspectives on Politics 2023, 21(4), 2023, pp. 1258-1269). Objectivity is usually a red herring. What we need is “active engagement with inconvenient evidence.” Frazer uses the word “evidence” to encompass both empirical data and conceptual or normative arguments. Evidence is inconvenient if it complicates or challenges our prior beliefs.

As Frazer argues, engagement with inconvenient evidence strengthens both research and activism. Therefore, the valuable question is not whether activist academics should or can be objective, but how any kind of thinker should engage with inconvenient evidence.

People who are both scholars and committed activists have the advantage that they know what they stand for, which can help them recognize which evidence they should wrestle with because it’s inconvenient. However, their engaged stance may make them resistant to such evidence. In contrast, a highly detached scholar may be less aware of implicit assumptions that need to be challenged, yet more comfortable exploring diverse views. I happen to value both kinds of colleagues.

I would add that scholars can be activists in many different ways. For example, I have served on about 30 non-academic boards or committees that make collective decisions. Sometimes in these deliberations, I present inconvenient evidence. This can be my particular contribution as an academic–someone who has the time and scope to explore a range of ideas. On the other hand, sometimes I hold back because I am sensitive to group dynamics and I believe that the organization has value even if I can’t completely endorse its current theory-of-change. Besides, tact is a virtue.

Sometimes I refrain from publicly expressing views that would challenge the public stance of a group to which I belong. On the other hand, involvement with a group may make me aware of current assumptions that I then want to study critically. In such cases, being an activist scholar actually promotes my engagement with inconvenient evidence. But I may choose the slower and quieter medium of academic scholarship or a seminar room to explore complications, so that I don’t disrupt the immediate needs of a group. Exiting and publicly disagreeing always remain options.

Belonging to groups involves literal accountability. I could be removed from a committee. A fiduciary board assesses staff and makes decisions about personnel and budget. Speech in this context has tangible implications and raises many ethical considerations.

The situation is very different if one’s activism consists mainly of addressing public audiences as an individual writer or speaker. Forcefully saying simple things may attract the most attention, but fame is a lure and temptation. I often wish that public intellectuals would be more humble and less certain.

We may also be hired to play a role within an organization, whether that is an academic entity like a university or a nonprofit or government agency. Then we are responsible for the effects of our public speech on our colleagues and students or clients. The organization may need to engage with inconvenient evidence, but introducing difficult ideas may not be timely or appropriate for a given employee. For instance, when you have positional authority over someone else, it can be wise to hold back one’s skeptical thoughts.

I would start with a view much like Frazer’s–and I appreciate his literature review–but I would then explore what “engagement with inconvenient evidence” means for people who play various roles in various social contexts. Often the genuine virtue of intellectual humility is in tension with other valid needs, and the question is how to negotiate those tradeoffs. To make matters even more complicated, many of us play multiple roles, and we fall on continua rather than within discrete categories. For instance, one may be more or less open to inconvenient evidence of various types while spending various amounts of one’s time and energy performing various functions in settings as diverse as a department meeting, a lecture room, a team writing a grant proposal, a community meeting, a political campaign, and a protest action. Both the ethical and epistemic issues are quite diverse and hard.

See also: making our models explicit; analytical moral philosophy as a way of life; du Bois: “Organization is sacrifice.”; Civically Engaged Research in Political Science; Henry Milner, Participant/Observer: An Unconventional Life in Politics and Academia

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.