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Charli Carpenter: hanging out at the advocacy-academia “divide”

January 29, 2013

Many thanks to Charli Carpenter for her recent article, the prodigiously titled: “‘You Talk Of Terrible Things So Matter-of-Factly in This Language of Science’: Constructing Human Rights in the Academy.” She explores the intellectual, ethical, and career dilemmas that political scientists get into when they do research on and with people they care about. Such reflections in a high-profile journal are important because the discipline seems to ignore such things. Anthropologists have written and agonized for at least half a century about encounters in the field, and the role that their knowledge production plays in politics and governance. Somewhat strangely, political scientists have not. And IR scholars in particular remain at a remove from the human beings they study – either by focusing on institutions (states and international organizations) and data sets. We don’t often discuss, in public, the harm or help we might be doing to our research subjects. Carpenter does here, with admirable honesty.

The article begins with a great anecdote. Her research is on the absence of international attention to children born of war-time rape. After presenting early results, a senior faculty member told her: “You’d better stop talking to international organizations about this issue until you publish…Otherwise, before you know it, you will no longer have a puzzle to explain, because these children will be on the agenda” (363).

Carpenter was startled by the suggestion that her academic work might in fact be norm entrepreneurship. She was even more surprised at the value judgment implied by the comment—that publishing an interesting paper on the phenomenon was a higher priority than bringing attention and assistance to a profoundly disempowered group. Carpenter’s article therefore explores the impact of engagement with human rights advocacy on her academic role, and the opportunities (and limitations) for an academic to engage in human rights advocacy.

Among her interesting observations:

  • She notes that while “calls for calls for greater reflexivity in the discipline are now commonplace, they are rarely implemented in mainstream IR research. Even rarer are empirical studies of the IR discipline as a site in which global politics gets constructed” (364). Tellingly, when she tried to include a chapter on this topic in her book Forgetting Children Born of War, Columbia University Press insisted it be cut.
  • Other pressures she faced in the IR discipline: to avoid “should” questions and focus on “why” questions (a bias she admits to imposing on her own students), to avoid publishing with a commercial press (even if it means the work will get a much larger audience, including policymakers and the human rights community), and to avoid asking questions that require methodological approaches not favoured in IR.
  • Carpenter felt that the ethics review board process failed to provide guidance in interviewing vulnerable populations (by contrast I found UBC’s BREB quite helpful). But while she lacked assistance through formal channels, she seems to have worked things out over time—which I suspect is a common path.
  • Very interesting was her attempt to ‘give something back’ to the community she was studying (organizations who assist children born of war). She is inventive in doing so: ranging from giving out copies of her publications, to sharing contacts, to reviewing grant applications, to consulting for UNICEF. “It seemed unethical to me to study a human rights non- issue without contributing to well-intentioned efforts to turn it into an issue” (369).
  • Rather than a simple theory-practitioner divide she “encountered practitioners willing to listen to me as an academic, and academics hungry for me to articulate a clear policy stance” (371).
  • Communicating with audiences outside of academia required new skills – such as putting together glossy policy documents (and the funds to publish them), hitting one’s talking points on radio interviews, and blogging (Carpenter is a key contributor to the Ducks of Minerva). In addition to these different skills are the different form of impact she sought.
  • Most interesting was her observation that by actively engaging as a part of the advocacy community, she struggled to maintain forms of objectivity, but at the same time gained great insight into the obstacles that advocates faced. Had she wanted, Carpenter could have drawn on writers from John Dewey to Pierre Bourdieu to Iris Marion Young to explain theoretically why this experience of position-taking is relevant and epistemologically robust. But she would likely come to the same take-away lesson: “that interfacing with the policy community in order to disseminate research findings itself constitutes a form of participant observation that can supplement and enrich earlier research findings derived from multiple other methods” (376).

Carpenter’s attempt to advance a cause and an academic career is estimable, but also daunting. I was struck by how much extra work it required, beyond the usual demands of academia. It doesn’t appear that this additional labour receives institutional recognition–she didn’t mention how policy documents contributed to getting tenure, or how public advocacy got her time away from teaching. Maybe that’s as it should be. But the “dual role” she played reminded me of the one the one now ‘enjoyed’ by women who seek to have vibrant careers and be devoted mothers—you can have both, so long as you have great support and little need for sleep.

And she finds time to be a Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica nerd!


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