Africa Research: Role Model for Engaged Scholarship?

By Keshav Krishnamurty and Stephan Manning.

In professional academia, where you either publish or perish, finding examples of engaged scholarship is rare. By ‘engaged’ we mean experience-driven, problem-oriented, impactful. Last Friday, we had the privilege – as members of the OSC research group – to meet a community of scholars in Cambridge, MA, who care deeply about their work and impact – at the workshop “Africa in the 21st Century: Prospects for Secure Sustainable Development”. This event was organized by African PhD students of the UMB Global Governance and Human Security Program, and co-sponsored by Educational Divide Reform and the Academy of International Business US-Northeast Chapter.* This one-day workshop brought together PhD students and senior scholars of political science, business, sociology, health and environment to discuss pressing questions of peace and conflict, extraction of natural resources, and the future of business and development partnerships in Africa. Aside from showcasing the importance of research perspectives from Africa and the Global South, we were intrigued by the high level of involvement of presenters with their own research. Many experienced in their own lives the very conditions – poverty, discrimination, corruption – they are now studying and trying to change. What can we – scholars and students of organizations and business – learn from them and to what extent can their research be a role model for us? Let us give some individual thoughts and raise some questions going forward…

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Keshav: I make it a point to go to workshops like this as often as I can because I believe that the exchange of ideas leads to serendipitous connections. Right off the bat, I could see that the students presenting in this conference were people who were aiming to make an impact and had the capacity to do so all along. Business PhDs also take an interest in what they’re doing but quickly realize that they are very unlikely to make a difference outside of academic debates. Those of us who entered hoping to change business thinking and policy for the better can only do so very distantly unless we gain substantial recognition, which isn’t the case here. In contrast, some of the African graduates of the Global Governance and Human Security program were actually playing a key role in drafting policy after returning to their countries! And while so many of us are debating relevance vs. rigor ad nauseam, these students have shown how petty such a debate is. Instead of engaging in the latter, they focus right from the start on changing or creating government policies and potentially altering the lives of millions of people. While our presentations maybe tend to be more polished, jargon-laden and theory-heavy, their presentations are pretty straightforward but easily understandable and immediately relevant, and in some instances directly linked to their lives. Having seen a lot those debates in India, I can see how the situation in Africa is pretty similar. For instance, one student’s talk about how she wanted to spur privatization because the government was hopeless at running things is an attitude broadly shared by those who remember India’s pre-liberalization era. This makes me think that workshops and conferences like this one could lead to a mutually beneficial cross-continental policy exchange. Having exchanges like this between business scholars and different academic departments on a more frequent basis, would this result in business scholarship that is genuinely more relevant to and engaged with real-world problems?

Stephan: I was most intrigued by a very simple question raised by workshop moderators: How did everyone get interested in their research topics and how is everyone hoping to make an impact? Most business PhD students and scholars I know would probably respond that whatever they do was either suggested by their advisors or driven by what is currently en vogue in academic journal debates. It therefore blew my mind to hear how for example John Wambui, a first-year PhD student at U Delaware, got into researching the value of social networks in slums. As a child, John lived on the street as well as in a large slum in Kenya where he witnessed how social support networks often ‘made up’ for the harsh material conditions. Yet, city governments would rarely see the value of social communities in slums and instead either ignore or demolish them entirely and move inhabitants to ‘developed’ housing, which, however, can result in social isolation. John is hoping to use his first-hand experience to change people’s minds about slums. I thought to myself: no wonder it is difficult to find people like John among business academics – even among the more ‘critical folks’: most of us come from relatively privileged economic and educational backgrounds, so that our interest in change (if there is any) is more abstract and detached from our own experience. Also, our academic orientation towards ‘generalizability’ and ‘novelty’ is often counterproductive. Like John, most presenters focused on highly contextualized problems – and that makes sense if you seek change in a particular country. Also, the issues raised – health, poverty etc. – were often not ‘new’ at all. But why should they be? Let’s focus on the old ones until they are resolved! So maybe promoting more ‘engaged’ scholarship requires letting go of some artificial notions of ‘scholarship’ altogether.

We both agree that this workshop was an excellent demonstration of engaged scholarship. But how can we promote ‘engaged scholarship’ beyond specific contexts such as Africa? Is it about facilitating more serendipitous exchanges among scholars and policy-makers through such events? Is it about allowing for more ‘experience-based’ and ‘problem-oriented’ research projects rather than letting the choice of topics be dictated by academic debates? And how much should we care about standards of ‘novelty’, ‘significance’ and ‘quality’ of research vs. possibilities of actually making a difference?

* We would like to thank the workshop organizers Abigail Kabandula, Jeremiah Asaka and Timothy Adivilah, their academic mentors Tim Shaw and Jane Parpart (UMass Boston/U Ottawa), and the EDR support team Jay Jinseop Jang (Director) and Yuliya Rashchupkina. Check out the workshop program!

** Picture taken from: http://edrworld.org/africa-in-the-21st-century-prospects-for-secure-sustainable-development

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6 thoughts on “Africa Research: Role Model for Engaged Scholarship?

  1. I think the workshop “Africa in the 21st Century” is a textbook example of what research should achieve. As stated in the blog post, most of today’s scholars have the privilege to come from a economically well-developed background with access to outstanding educational facilities which leads to the outcome that many of these scholars take a rather detached view on the topics they conduct research on (especially considering issues like poverty, social inequality etc.). Therefore, I think researchers should focus more deeply on developing different approaches and personal experiences in the their fields of studies, as a slight degree of personal involvement leads to more applicable on-hand solutions to problems and broadens one’s overall view. However, it is not only important that researchers should be more engaged in obtaining personal experiences, but also that people that already have personal experiences, as for instance John Wambui, are encouraged to opt for careers in research. In conclusion, I think it all boils down to the requirement of putting research topics into a more “contextualized” setting, particularly if the research tries to tackle current issues.

  2. Like Professor Keshav says, “I make it a point to go to workshops like this as often as I can because I believe that the exchange of ideas leads to serendipitous connections.” Where do those “serendipitous connections” appear? It will most likely occur when people are from different countries with different religions, education, and economy. People share similar education background and living environment can hardly be “engaged” to have more “creative” thoughts because they all have similar common sense and mind set. I totally agree with Professor Manning, that: “most of us come from relatively privileged economic and educational backgrounds, so that our interest in change (if there is any) is more abstract and detached from our own experience.” Compare to those students who are from poor countries which are lack of food, education and health care. “Most of us” do think too “abstract and detached”, such that food and housing are to realistic to not even considered as problems.
    People usually are engaged when the problems are much related to their real life experiences, especially when they struggle to survive. Those “life problems” can be touched, seen and sensed. On the other hand, most scholars not necessarily “solving the problems”, and even “creating problems to solve”. Their minds are in the air, break away from gravity, and travel to the very depth of the universe. Who engages them? The God? Or the human nature itself? This can be debatable. But, what we can determine is that when people are facing problems related to their real lives, they “would like” to solve it for their own good.
    Today’s people or scholars may not be as curious as Einstein and Newton, and they may not pay attention on their own life experiences, instead they interested in the problems that are very “far away” from them. This is, indeed, the reasons why they are so hard to be “engaged”.

  3. One of Prof. Manning’s conclusions is that shedding artificial notions of ‘scholarship’ would promote more ‘engaged’ scholarship. It could mean that setting aside all egos (artificial notions) helps one to be free of personal biases, and any other hindrances to generate an original idea that could solve real problems. The workshop’s research proposals were inspired by each and everyone’s personal life experiences furthering the thought that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. As all these projects focus on the real needs of local communities, collectively, they could provide solutions for the betterment at the regional or national level. As Prof. Manning sees, it is the ‘experience-based’ and ‘problem-oriented’ research projects that can provide meaningful solutions, and not the topics dictated by academic debates. Better solutions are found based on sound rationale, and life experiences like that of John Wambui whose social surroundings induced him to carry on the networking project. As Keshav observes, instead of focusing on the ‘polished, jargon-laden and theory-heavy’ language, the workshop attendees presented their ideas in a straight forward manner in a way everyone can understand. Such interactions stimulate a healthy discussion that could further help solve problems in the society.
    The message from this workshop is that there are genuine individuals working on real projects based on inspirations from life experiences. Therefore, these proposals are bound to succeed, and when they are connected well, they might very well solve their community problems. In contrast, the presentations at the UN conference on climate change in Paris appear ‘polished, jargon-laden and theory-heavy’ with so much of discord among the participants and they have a lesson to learn from this African Research workshop.

  4. This was a great platform that can bring an academic, social, political and economic shift to the African narrative!

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