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Politics of Research

English 127
Research Writing

We often think of politics as being exclusively about government and the electoral process.  However, we can distinguish between politics with a big 'P' and politics with a small 'p.'  Consider politics with a small 'p' as having to do with power relations in a particular context or relationship.  For example, we can talk about the "politics of the media," the "politics of a classroom," the "politics of desire," the "politics of the workplace," etc.  You may also have heard phrases like "gender politics," "racial politics," "cultural politics" or "sexual politics," each of which are categories of analysis where we are invited to identify and interpret the relations of power.

So what do we mean by the "politics of research"?  This category suggests that we should be aware that research is rarely a neutral activity that seeks to find objective truth.  Rather, we have to recognize that not all players within the research context may have the same objectives, nor are they all necessarily empowered equally.  For example, researchers might seek to study, investigate and scrutinize prisoners, including their eating habits, psychological motivations, sources of conflict, etc., whereas we do not hear of prisoners studying university professors! 

After you have identified the range of parties (groups, individuals, communities, constituencies, sectors, organizations, etc.) that have a stake within a particular (narrowed) topic area, the following questions should help generate some insights about the politics of research:

  1. Who is researching whom?
  2. What is the relationship between the researcher and those being researched?
  3. Whose interests are served by the research?  To what uses might the research be put?
  4. Who is funding the research?  With what objective(s)?
  5. Who is the intended audience for the presentation of the research results?
  6. Whose voices, experiences, authority and interpretations get to be represented and/or heard?
  7. Who gets to define terms and frame the research question?  Through what process?
  8. Would the various parties have competing research agendas, methods and objectives?
  9. Are those being researched the "objects" of study or "subjects" of study, that is, do they have a substantial role in determining how the research process unfolds or even the opportunity to research themselves?

You may be able to formulate additional relevant questions, depending on the topic area.  Also consider the politics of research in relation to the "ethics of research" as discussed in The Craft of Research (pp. 83, 273-276).