This is a talk I gave on 30 June 2021 at the 16th Singapore Graduate Forum on Southeast Asian Studies. I am grateful to the Asia Research Institute for inviting me to speak on this occasion.
Decisions about what to research and how are complex ones involving questions about the trends in one’s academic discipline, the capacities and skills one has and wants to build, the audiences with which one wishes to engage, as well as a researcher’s social, political and ethical commitments. While seemingly a professional issue involving just the individual researcher, the decisions we can and cannot make are deeply dependent on the state of knowledge-making in the researcher’s social context. The decisions we end up with in turn shape the conditions of knowledge-production in our societies. For humanities and social science scholars working in societies that are not at the center of ‘global’ scholarship and/or where the humanities and social sciences do not have a deep tradition, there is special urgency to be cognizant of these dynamics. In this session, we will discuss these questions: What should scholars study and how? How do individual research projects connect to the larger enterprise of knowledge production? How should we think about the purpose of humanities and social science scholarship in contemporary times?
I’ll begin with a question:
What should scholars study and how?
What to study, and how to go about it, are major questions confronting all scholars but perhaps especially scholars who are just starting out on their journeys in research.
Our research topics and projects often feel quite personal. We are animated by something in our biographies and value systems, or something we’ve read or observed in our everyday worlds, and these are the initial sparks for projects.
“Do a literature review”—identifying “knowledge gaps”
When we take these sparks into our school settings—first as undergraduates and then as graduate students—we are encouraged to refine these initial interests and ideas into researchable projects.
What does the process of turning initial ideas and interests into research projects look like? In many instances, including when I teach, we ask students to consider what other scholars have done and what existing scholarship has revealed about a given phenomenon or case. As students, you have probably heard some version of this advice many times: “review the existing scholarship/do a literature review.” As an advisor, I myself regularly direct students to read, read, and read. And I encourage them to read with an eye toward figuring out how their questions and problems can be situated within the literature. A major task put to the student is to figure out what knowledge gaps they can fill with their research.
Knowledge gaps—I want you to register this phrase, because it is a concept I want to begin to unpack here.
Professionalization and the CV
Let’s first think more about the task of the literature review and what it actually entails for aspiring scholars. Graduate school training, apart from being technical training—training in the techniques for data collection and analysis—is also socialization and preparation for professional careers in academia.
Increasingly, we are compelled to think of this in terms of preparation of a CV, a curriculum vitae. What is a CV? It may include many things, but stripped down to what hiring committees actually scrutinize and care about, it is a listing of university degrees and academic publications and research grants. We may include many other things in it, but if we are honest about it, all the other stuff is gravy and if you don’t have a main dish there is really no point in having gravy.
Graduate school is increasingly about guiding students toward building a CV, and with these key components—publications and grants. What does the focus on publications and grants have to do with a literature review? I bring this up because I think we should recognize that when professionalization of a particular sort is important and when the CV is high on our minds, this shapes how we approach the task of reviewing the literature. The pressures of building careers mean that when people think of what they would like to work on, they must also think in terms of what can get published and where, and what kinds of projects will get funded and what will not. As advisors, indeed, it is also our duty to guide junior scholars not just toward finding a gap in the literature, but also a niche in the field that can get them jobs.
At first glance, there is nothing wrong with this picture. There are positive aspects to this mode of professionalization that centers publications and grants. It represents a shift toward more objective criteria for distributing rewards, more open and transparent targets and standards. This allows for a very important move away from academic fiefdoms, from unfair favoritism, from arbitrary exercise of power of seniors over juniors. Insofar as it pushes scholars to measure themselves against global peers, it also opens up more opportunity for individual scholars to be embedded in global discourse and overlapping disciplinary fields. This can be good for elevating scholarship and intellectual development overall.
But if we look more closely, there are also specific biases embedded in the professionalization process that are not neutral in terms of its effects on knowledge production.
Journals and rankings: what kinds of knowledge are legible/rewarded/encouraged?
First, if we look more closely at publications, we see a few things: journal articles are favored over book chapters and books. And what is a journal article? The task embedded in writing journal articles is quite specific: journal articles have to carve out a singular and precise argument, and be quite clear about how this singular and precise argument contributes to one or two specific bodies of research. Again, there are some good things about this endeavor; for example, it fosters exchanges within specialized subfields in disciplines, and allows for deep discussions among insiders with knowledge and vocabularies that outsiders do not have. However, in practice, as the quest to publish in order to build a CV intensifies, and as the numbers of journals and publications increase to fulfil the need people have for filling their CVs, there is a way in which the carving out of very narrow arguments becomes more and more a game, a quest to be accepted for publication rather than a genuine exchange of ideas and contribution to knowledge advancement. The journal game sometimes compels us to try to be clever within a very small frame, to try to elevate rather small arguments into significant advancements.
Journals of course are not all the same—they are not equal in quality and rigor, nor in how they are regarded in terms of status and prestige. In theory, this allows us to calibrate our judgements and rewards accordingly. But look a little more closely and things again look more ambiguous. This should be especially apparent to those of us working on geographical cases that are at the periphery of academic scholarship. In the discipline of Sociology, for example, the U.S. is very dominant. Most of the journals ranked as top journals in Sociology are American journals. These journals, understandably, have limited interest in publishing works that focus on small cases, and certainly limited interest in questions and framings that fall outside of those that are resonant with U.S. audiences. If you work on cases that U.S. academics have no reason to be especially interested in, you will find yourself having to bend over backwards to fit your work into frames that are legible to them. There is value to trying to figure out what your work says at a more generalizable level, but it is also the case that some things that have to do with the specificity of your case, which actually do have value for those trying to understand more about the specific case, will be lost. In other words, there is value in abstraction, but for those of us working on cases where limited knowledge has been built up, there is also great value in saying things that are very specific to that case.
We can’t fault American sociology for being primarily interested in American society, so its focus per se is not what is problematic. What is problematic is that this specific bias becomes obscured when academics outside the U.S. are measured by metrics that take as standard some of these journals. It becomes problematic when we fail to recognize that using supposed global rankings and so-called universal metrics is not a neutral act. This is probably more pronounced in Singapore than in other Southeast Asian countries. Here, certainly the quest to become ‘world-class’ has meant a very strong orientation in the direction of these top-ranked journals.
Grants: money and the exercise of influence
Apart from publications, building our professional careers also means we need grants. The ways in which funding for research is organized will again look different in the different societies this diverse audience operates in. Somewhat universal is that research requires monetary resources. It is also the case, returning to the issue of professionalization and the CV, that the securing of research grants is an important part of what hiring committees in many universities look for.
Even as sometimes we as scholars are oblivious to it, funders everywhere know this basic truth: money is power. It works as an important lever for the management of and control over knowledge, itself another form of power. Governments, foundations, philanthropists want to fund things that are useful or important from their standpoint. Many have specific agendas, explicitly laid out in their grant calls. From the perspective of people/institutions giving out money, this is understandable. But when we look again in terms of a field of knowledge production, trying to locate the overall effects of research generated from grant funding, what do we see, what might the outcomes be? In the most extreme scenarios, where money-power is monopolized by states and/or corporations, certainly we should expect that many kinds of work cannot be done, certain research questions simply cannot be asked. But even setting aside extreme versions of this, money in the form of research grants mean that funders can set the agenda, shape what projects are worth pursuing and what are not. Over time, they direct attention toward certain areas of research and render them more legitimate, and away from certain areas, also delegitimizing them in the process. Where scholars are aware of power operating through this form, we may find ways to circumvent this. But where we don’t, we are easily lulled into thinking that grants are neutral forms of reward. It is in fact extremely difficult as individual scholars to either recognize or push back against the control of scholarship through money.
Knowledge production: context matters
There are probably variations in how things play out in different places and different disciplines, so you will need to consider the specificities of your geographical as well as disciplinary context to apply the arguments I have made. The general point I hope you’ll take away is this: knowledge production happens in fields of power.
This means that what is determined to be publishable and ultimately published, or worth researching and funded, is in part shaped by criteria and standards that are not neutral. For social, political, and historical reasons, they tilt in certain directions and away from others. As we try to become professional scholars, work to get jobs, promotions, secure grants, fill our CVs, we also learn that certain kinds of questions and projects are rewarded and others are not. Over time, we are incentivized to take our work in some directions more than in others.
Back to the literature review and knowledge gaps: ‘small case’ scholars take particular note
In my first year of graduate school, some time ago now—1998—we had a pro-seminar series in which faculty members of the department took turns to talk to us about the profession, sharing their stories about the paths and turns they had taken in their academic careers. I remember enjoying the series very much because it was a glimpse into a world I was not confident I could enter but that I wanted to. Because it took place more than 20 years ago, I have to admit that I have forgotten many details of what I heard. But I remember one session and one remark very well because, over the years, I have returned to it often. That day, in a somewhat rundown seminar room, everyone seated in chairs in a circle, the professor who was in charge told us about how, when he was a graduate student, he had started out wanting to focus on the study of Taiwan. Soon after starting graduate school, it dawned on him that one could not make a career from just studying a small case like Taiwan and he had pivoted and turned himself into a scholar also of China. Now that I am older, I know that there are probably layers to that remark. But this was then and I took it at face value. I remember immediately thinking: if this professor can’t make a career from studying Taiwan, is it possible that I can make one studying Singapore? The answer to me in that moment as well as numerous times over the years was both very obvious and very discouraging.
Let’s go back to the literature review and the notion of identifying knowledge gaps. What are we doing when we do literature reviews? What are we doing when we “identify gaps in the literature”? What is the nature of the “knowledge gaps” that we claim we are plugging? We have to think these questions while keeping in mind the specific biases and blindspots I mentioned earlier in relation to publications and grants. We also have to think these questions specifically as scholars working in or about cases outside of dominant ones, and perhaps some of us in contexts where the absolute numbers of humanities and social science scholars are quite small.
Those of you who have presented at international conferences or workshops may have had this experience: you lay out your case, you present various details about it, you brace yourself for difficult questions that you may not know the answers to, but what the audience ends up wanting to know is some minute detail anyone with a little knowledge about your case already knows about and would not find at all interesting or remarkable. You try to answer but it feels like only the most cliché and contrived responses are legible to this audience that cannot pinpoint where your case is on a map. Sometimes this can be useful—it can force you to pay attention to things that you take for granted. But quite often, it impedes progress. In my discipline of Sociology, we love to talk about generalizability, and we love abstractions and theory. But if you unpack intellectual discourse, the reality is that conversations about very general and abstract theories are only possible if the people involved in conversing already have enough shared ground, shared knowledge about concrete empirical realities, such that numerous small and basic facts about a case do not have to be revisited every time they speak about the case. When you work on a small case, every act of fitting your work into the so-called international realm involves you repeating the basics, highlighting the exotic, dwelling on the obvious, and rarely getting to the point where you can actually expand on your thinking or elevate the discussion through challenging or interrogating a detail.
Apart from the limiting effects this has on an individual scholar’s experience and intellectual growth, there are more important implications for the knowledge produced about societies outside the center of the field of power. There are many things that may have no payoff in terms of abstract, generalizable theory, and therefore little payoff in terms of publications in high-ranked journals, that may nonetheless be valuable for people actually living in a given society. In places where there are many scholars working in a field, as there are in American sociology, there is in fact a division of labor: some scholars do very applied research, others very theoretical work; some scholars focus on things with very immediate social-problem implications, others on areas that are highly esoteric; there is even space to study the outright fun and seemingly frivolous. Because there is critical mass, all of this adds up to a big picture of knowledge of their society that is rich, layered, complex, with plenty of space for contradictions and tensions between conflicting accounts of the same phenomena. I think I know a lot about American society precisely because such a large and varied body of work exists. In contrast, if you work on a small case, and there is not this critical mass of scholars detailing, describing, and analyzing various dimensions about your society, then there are major gaps in what your society knows about itself.
For those of us working in contexts of relatively small cases, and contexts where there is limited scholarship on our societies, playing the game of top-ranked publications or grants is one with consequences for leaving unplugged real knowledge gaps. The biases I earlier described are not generally tilting in the direction of nitty-gritty detail of small cases, or toward questions that have specific socio-political urgency but limited general theoretical pay-off, or in the direction of questions that may challenge the status quo or are a threat to powerful agents in our societies. What can add to understandings of a specific case—that fill certain knowledge gaps in our contexts—are not necessarily legible or encouraged or rewarded by either journals or funders.
What does this mean for our daily work as scholars? If the practices and habits we cultivate around the tasks of literature review and identifying knowledge gaps are strongly oriented toward publications and grants, and according to so-called international or global standards, we may conduct these tasks very rigorously, but within such narrow terms that we leave untouched the issue of what we really already know about a given society and what we do not.
Reconsidering ‘knowledge gaps’ and thinking differently about ‘professionalism’
To me, the most valuable aspect of academia and the scholarly life is the work of building and growing knowledge. In any given society, knowing about our shared past, understanding the problems of our present, and analyses that can help us think about our collective future, are absolutely crucial. As you can tell from what I have said, I am skeptical that current ways of organizing rewards and distributing resources really leads to this outcome. Being able to play the game as it is currently set up—conduct literature reviews and identify gaps that appeal to journal reviewers or attract grants from funders with agendas—does not automatically lead to fresh, deep, or useful insights.
If we actually care about building knowledge, we must think of knowledge gaps and professionalism in bigger and more expansive ways—beyond the narrow boundaries that are set up for us to think with. This is a lot harder than is probably apparent to you at this time in your journeys. Let me make explicit the source of challenge, since this may not yet be a part of your experience: much of what I have described are not just informal norms or loose guidelines that we can choose to follow or not follow; they are embedded into the everyday logics and practices of the institutions professional academics work in—universities, research institutes, think tanks. When you are working in an institution, you have certain obligations to abide by its rules, regulations, and standard practices; in any organization, you as an individual are located at a specific place in a hierarchy, usually with others above you who make demands you must oblige. Compared to many occupations, academics have certain freedoms, but institutional constraints remain very real for structuring the kinds of choices we can and cannot make. When your everyday life as an academic is oriented toward playing by a narrow game, you will have to actively and consciously find ways to broaden it against that grain if you would like to see different outcomes.
So now we come to the question of how.
Tools and conditions
What should scholars study and how? These are important questions to ask ourselves and each other. And we need tools and conditions that create opportunities for us to think expansively and holistically about these questions of what research to do and how. In the remaining time that I have, I’d like to suggest a few possibilities.
First, read widely and critically. Since I started by mentioning the literature review, it is appropriate to begin here when considering alternatives as well. There has been much talk in various humanities and social science disciplines about decolonizing knowledge. The principle at the core of this call is similar to what I have outlined: knowledge is never neutral—it represents standpoints, it reflects the existence and exercise of power. Destabilizing the notion of a universal position and singular narratives about the social world are ways of enriching our shared knowledge about past and present. For those historically located at the periphery of knowledge production, this decentering is especially consequential. It offers the potential for the margins and marginalized to understand themselves in different and deeper ways—not just as objects but also as subjects, not as those waiting for history to happen to them but as those who make history.
Reading widely and critically thus means at least two things: it indicates paying attention not just to the text in front of us but also to how a given text is situated within a wider field of knowledge production—its time, place, and purpose. This requires a kind of reading that goes beyond the page—paying attention to valence, tone, the said as well as unsaid, unpacking assumptions and biases and blindspots. It is a kind of reading practice that has to be built up over time, that requires attentiveness, and a willingness to revisit and rethink what we think we know. Second, given that many of us operate in contexts where there may not be a long tradition or critical mass in our disciplines, reading widely must entail reading outside of our own disciplines as well as outside of academia. I am by no means advocating giving up learning how to address specific disciplinary audiences, and figuring out how to speak as an anthropologist, or a sociologist, or a geographer, or a political scientist, or a historian, etc. This is a very crucial part of academic training. However, it is also important to pay attention to how there may be useful and relevant empirical observations and conceptual insights outside disciplinary fields, outside academia, and for those of you who have multilingual capacities, outside of the English language. It is very easy to say the words “read widely,” but it is of course not easy in practice, because this requires both an open-mindedness in approaching materials that are not obviously considered truths or findings in our own fields, as well as some willingness to reach into spaces where we encounter unfamiliar vocabularies. It requires a kind of sensibility that can at least tolerate, if not embrace, regular travel between ‘expert’ and ‘novice,’ ‘teacher’ and ‘student.’
I propose that to overcome these challenges we need a second condition: community. Many academics in the humanities and social sciences do our everyday work in solitude. Reading, data collection, analysis, and writing—these are tasks we can and often do alone. But to think expansively about knowledge production, against the grain of institutional logic, we need conversations, debates, sense and reality checks, and alternative norms outside of our places of employment. An individual academic, working within the constraints of our minds and embedded in the narrow logic of publications and grants, will find it extraordinarily difficult to step back, step out, consider things from different angles, pursue tracks outside of clear pathways, disturb, disrupt. We need others to work through challenges with, to help us see alternatives and possibilities. Also—because we are human—we need community to provide alternative sources of solidarity, affirmation, encouragement for pursuing tasks outside those that meet narrow criteria. Moreover, contrary to the delusions of academia, knowledge production is not in fact something any one person does as an individual academic. The spirit of competition that is encouraged in many institutions obscures the fact that nothing any of us produces as an individual is that important or significant, and that what is good for the individual academic may have little to no value to the greater good. Building and embedding oneself in communities of knowledge production can help us keep in view that the effort of accumulating knowledge is a collective one.
What I am suggesting amounts to cultivating an ethos that centers scholarship as vocation and promotes alternative modes of acting professionally. It is about building a set of beliefs and principles around actively looking for and really identifying knowledge gaps, and about cultivating everyday practices of reflection on the purpose of scholarship. If I am right about the constraints of universities in the contemporary world, it requires cultivating a kind of ethos that holds at arms-length the criteria, reward systems, and incentive structures of many of our institutions. “What kind of scholar do I want to be” is a different question from “what sort of career do I want”; “what article shall I submit to a journal” is a different question from “how are my findings useful to others in my society.” I am not asking you to reject the questions you are compelled to ask to build a career, but I am suggesting that it is important that those are not the only questions you ask. It is important to create some space between what is required of us to build our individual careers and what is required of us if we would like to contribute to the greater good of knowledge production. It is where this space exists, where we do not conflate the two, mistake the former for the latter, that vocation lies.
At this point, I should probably emphasize that, in addition to the variations that exist across disciplines and geographical locations, there are different seasons in the work of scholarship and our life course as scholars. At different points, we find certain options and choices open to us and others closed. In other words, we face different limitations and possibilities at different times. These shape how freely we can pursue scholarship that can contribute to meaningful knowledge production. Maintaining perspective on this is, I think, important to staying the course and not rushing to do everything at the same time. A lot of tasks that make up any given profession require time, daily practice, and hard work to master. Cultivating a commitment to knowledge production in its broad sense also and still has to be accompanied by learning best practices in our fields in terms of theory-building, or data collection and analysis. If we can do this—apply a certain kind of long view and patience—while reading widely and critically, building community, and cultivating vocational ethos, I think we will also be better positioned to identify and take up on opportunities when they appear.
What to study and how?
The decisions we make as we answer this question may feel like very personal ones, but they shape the conditions of knowledge-production and the state of knowing and understanding in our societies. For humanities and social science scholars working in places that are not at the center of ‘global’ scholarship and/or where the humanities and social sciences do not have a deep tradition, there is special urgency to be cognizant of this.
Working on various cases in Southeast Asia, we are working on cases where there is still much room for exploring new questions and angles, and cases where there is still a lot that is unsaid because it cannot yet be said without reprisal. These are constraints but also opportunities. Given the existing conditions in the field of knowledge production, these opportunities cannot be leveraged without conscious, consistent, and collective effort.
This past year and a half, I have found it very difficult to think about my research and in particular to write about it. I discovered that the act of writing, for me, requires a dose of delusion—a belief that writing matters, that the abstract world of ideas can have positive impact on the material state of reality. It is a difficult belief to sustain when so many tragic things are happening in the world. The interesting thing I also discovered, though, is this: while I cannot quite hold on to the belief when I look at my own work, I can still and genuinely believe it when I look at the work of others, and particularly when I look at scholarly work in its totality.
One of the things I am involved with is a website and platform for promoting scholarship on Singapore, called AcademiaSG. The past year and a half, through this unusual time we are living in, we have been publishing commentaries by academics on issues that concern Singapore society, including those relating to COVID-19; we organized webinars where scholars discussed subjects on which there is as yet limited societal consensus—governance, politics, inequality, racism; and we hosted junior scholars keen on sharing ongoing work to seek feedback. Witnessing the labor of colleagues in various disciplines and at different times of their careers and noticing how, when we bring ideas and people together, that this adds to enriching our ecosystem of social discourse, my doubt fades: scholarship matters.
I received a list of your research topics two days ago, and reading it, that too was how I felt. Scholarship matters. When I look at the list in its entirety, at the rich and varied range of questions you are curious about, that you care to devote years of your lives to, and that will enrich your societies, it is hard not to feel awe. So thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. I hope your time at ARI, through this program, will be a productive and meaningful one, with many insights and relationships you can take with you as you figure out what kind of scholar you want to be.