What does public engagement with academic research mean in an increasingly polarised society?

The central question of The Public and their Platforms is what it means for research to be public, how this is produced and how this is changing. The etymology of ‘public’ highlights the dynamic character of this adjective, from the late 14th century “open to general observation” through to the Latin root “of the people; of the state; done for the state,” and “common, general, of or belonging to the people at large; ordinary, vulgar”. To be public in this sense is an outcome, brought about by mechanisms (ways of making public) which enable a cultural product (to use the most generic term) to circulate in a way which leaves it open to observation and available to the people. At risk of stating the obvious, academic research has not tended to be public in this sense, being primarily concerned with specialised conversations taking place within specialised communities. It is made public but within relatively closed circles, defined by specialised vocabularies and familiarity with obscure dialogues taking place in publications with limited circulations and few readers.

There are two reasons this landscape is undergoing a significant change. Firstly, the renewed focus on the ‘third mission’ of the university creates a pressure to make research circulate more widely in support of the public good, or at least so that specific end users might leverage the value seen to be latent within the research. Secondly, the uptake of social media platforms within and beyond the university creates a powerful set of mechanisms for making public which jointly constitute a new infrastructure of visibility, radically different from the media system which preceded it. Much like the impact agenda, this has provoked a polarised reaction in which enthusiastic boosters breathlessly invoke a brave new world of socially engaged research whilst critics predict the end of scholarship as we know it. What (often) gets lost in this dichotomy is a serious accounting of the systemic changes in how research circulates and is received, as well as what this means for researchers.

It’s increasingly likely that research will find a non-academic audience, in the sense of people who are not academics attending to and evaluating what would formerly have been assumed to be insular cultural products circulating solely within specialised communities. This might happen as a result of the direct activity of researchers (through tweeting about the work, blogging about it or being featured in other researcher’s tweets or blog posts) but we also see more and more examples of research being picked up by non-academics. In many cases these will meet the criteria of the third mission and involve interested parties realising the value within research.

However what is more interesting in many ways is the research being met by those who are fundamentally hostile to it. The literature on academics being harassed online tends to treat this as if it were a disorganised affair, even allowing for the phenomenon of networked harassment, however we see increasing examples of the contestation of academic research being undertaken in an organised and strategic way. For example consider this New Yorker profile of the activist who has driven the campaign against Critical Race Theory. My point is not the contestation of academic research is new, as can be seen by even the most cursory look back through previous decades at anxieties about socialist intellectuals, political correctness or, in a very different key, ‘micky mouse degrees’ subsidised by the tax payer.

What I’m suggesting is that the machinery of social media coupled with a more outward facing university amplifies the pre-conditions for this by making much more research public than was previously the case, while lowering the costs involved in contesting research to near-zero. In other words, there are far more invitations for non-academics to contest academic research and much more opportunity for them to do so quickly and easy. I don’t think this is inherently a bad thing, but what makes it undesirable is how this tendency is intersecting with the reward structure of social platforms by incentivising polemical attacks on academic research as a means to generate engagement, as well as its broader implication in processes of political polarisation. In a different climate, this could mean the realisation of the third mission in a cohesive and everyday sense, stimulating participatory forms of engagement and accountability of academic research. However in the present context it risks becoming something very dark indeed

2 responses to “What does public engagement with academic research mean in an increasingly polarised society?”

  1. Super interesting, Mark. Thank you. I have been tweeting about this recently and will continue doing so, for a group of colleagues at Leeds. I am also planning to include references to this, and your book when I get hold of it, in my forthcoming blog posts.

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