Making Social Change Requires Academics to Take Risks

This year illuminates many things about the power of microscopic actions and decisions on the ground among everyday people to make impact on issues and systems that are massive, overpowering, or seemingly unchangeable. Among the massive global traumas, like systemic racism, climate change, and a deadly pandemic, perhaps the small works we do in the academy seem irrelevant. Still, and to use an overused phrase, the devil is in the details. We know that small acts of kindness, indifference, or evil can have effects far beyond their moment of enactment. Likewise, academic writing functions a bit like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the planet, eventually causing a tsunami on the other. While I don’t want to create destructive tumult in society, it is precisely within the micro and often seemingly mundane details that future structures are born. In the past few months, we’ve witnessed how micro interactions between teachers and children and the caring diligence required to influence learning became immediately apparent as soon as parents were forced to homeschool their own children. We have seen one micro aggression after another, especially grounded in deep racism, whether spoken aloud, uttered through the silence of consent, or buried in infrastructures and policies. We just discovered in the United States that every vote may actually matter and while this is no surprise to others around the world, believe me when I say that most of us USians have never believed we could make a difference.

So the phrases we use in our writing? The choices we make about where to publish? The ‘sample’ we choose to study? The arguments we make as academics? These matter.

Taking this to the level of the practice of general academic inquiry, we find ourselves at a critical moment in the world. To ask ourselves (perhaps once again): Why do we do research? Who is it for? How does it get performed and articulated? what difference are we making and if we don’t think we are making any difference in the big scheme of things, why do we think this way?

I just finished a project (Massive and microscopic sensemaking during times of global trauma) where the goal was not to further our understanding of science or the pandemic, per se. Rather, it was to hold a space for people to collaboratively work through what it meant to be living in a pandemic. This required them to be active, reflexive, and caring researchers of their own lived experience at the same time as they faced many meaningful and real distractions. My job as an academic shifted from “collecting data” or “writing up findings” to facilitator, troubleshooter, platform builder. Toward the end goal of greater awareness for the participants. And later, maybe this would/can translate to some sort of social change. It happens by taking seriously the ethic of care, but not in a prosaic or patronizing way.

There is a particular risk-taking stance that embraces that research will always have impact. Rather than trying to avoid impact and consequences, which is the typical conservative mode of thinking about the practice of science, it moves forward to find different value. The value of the outcomes have been immeasurable.