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Academia: Retract or Attack?
Thursday's Child Is Indecisive
I’m wrestling with whether to sign a letter requesting that an article in African Studies Review be retracted. So here’s a window into my indecision.
I generally am very cautious about putting my name on letters. I want to be sure that I know exactly what’s going on and whether I support what’s being called for.
In this case, I entirely agree with the letter-writers that the article they’re focusing on is deeply flawed. It’s an essay by two University of Wisconsin faculty (one a full professor, the other a postdoctoral fellow) calling for more extensive use of “autoethnography” by scholars in African Studies. (Mara, K., & Thompson, K. (2022). African Studies Keyword: Autoethnography. African Studies Review, 1-27. doi:10.1017/asr.2022.58)
The concept of “autoethnography” (studying yourself as if you were an ethnographic subject) has been around for a while, and it is to a significant extent a relabelling of a more ordinary mode of qualitative social science where the researcher feels obliged to actively discuss or narrate their own presence at the site of their research or to describe their own uncertainties and thoughts in relationship to what they witnessed, heard, participated in or investigated. At an earlier moment, anthropologists and to some extent historians as well talked about “reflexivity”. In places where those disciplines had been tied to or used by European imperial rulers or by white-dominated administrative and juridical authorities, to take a “reflexive turn” in your scholarship was often thought to be a way to reckon with that poisoned inheritance, but it is also a basic part of any qualitative research of any kind: you have to say something about how came to learn what you learned, to situate your knowledge.
The letter asking for a retraction centrally focuses on what its writers consider to be an ethical violation by the African Studies Review authors in their own research and the way that the letter-writers think the article encourages similar ethical violations. In short, what they argue is that the authors spoke with groups of people in their research sites (one working in Zanzibar with Swahili women, one working on Rwandans living in Canada) without disclosing at the time that these conversations would be used to produce autoethnographies, that is, knowledge that focuses on the subject position and identities of the researchers themselves. The letter-writers also argue that there is something fundamentally wrong with two white scholars granting themselves the permission to be the subject of their autoethnographies and valorizing that mode of writing, which both recenters the subject of African anthropology or history on white researchers while also not acknowledging that African researchers often aren’t able to or invited to enter “into privileged, secret, or sacred spaces outside of their own communities to write about other people’s lives in such a manner”.
I think these are very valid concerns, though to some extent any interpretative work done later on interviews or conversations generated during ethnographic or historical research is often something that neither the researcher nor the other participants may have anticipated as a product of the conversation. That’s part of the point of doing that research, to develop a new understanding of something through dialogue. Sometimes it takes years to fully grasp an implication or aspect of a discussion, and often one discussion takes on dramatic new significance much later after other discussions. But there’s a big difference between saying “I’m here to talk to you about agriculture in your community, is that ok?” and “I’m here to talk to you about how I feel about growing beans and what I can learn from you that will change my own feelings”. Folks might be perfectly ok even with the latter in many cases but it’s a different kind of thing to be asking of people.
To put this less hypothetically, the authors of the article mention (but don’t discuss) a well-known autoethnographic study by Paul Stoller called In Sorcery’s Shadow in which Stoller apprenticed himself to a sorcerer in Niger—a standard “participant-observer” strategy but in Stoller’s view one that required unusual attention to his own experiences and reflections in the process. In ethical terms, what’s important is that Stoller told his sorcerer mentor that he was going to write about his own experiences and put himself into the center of the account and got permission to do that. The letter writers are correct that this is an important step.
The letter-writers are rather polite actually in describing their dismay with an essay that is trying to inaugurate what it sees as a new genre of scholarly writing in African Studies via encouraging white Euro-American scholars to focus extensively on themselves while ostensibly writing about African cultures, societies or histories. I understand all too well why being a white scholar writing in African or Black Studies seems more than ever to be a tenuous position to be in, but the answer to that dilemma is most definitely not “well, let me focus more on myself”. There’s a reason why I hesitate to write in my blogging about Africanist scholarship, and that’s because a lot of my blogging is in my voice, about my experiences, and my thoughts. When I’m writing as an expert on African history, I want the focus to be on the subject of my expertise, which is not me.
In that respect, I also think the article is a bad example of a bad genre of academic writing. It’s a kind of historiographical review whose main purpose is to validate the authors’ claim to methodological and theoretical novelty and to claim credit for launching or initiating a new genre or form of writing—to say “why have we not written autoethnographies! We should write autoethnographies! Here’s what they look like! Here are some examples!” But scholarship by white, Black diasporic, African, South Asian and other identified authors about African societies, cultures and histories is suffused with attention to reflexivity. First, in quite ordinary and quite necessary and practical ways. Our archives are built off of imperial or apartheid administrations, and it’s important to explain where we read through those archives and the conditions in which they are kept or not kept. We have to talk about postcolonial states and their approach to knowledge production and maintenance and about how or whether we were able to get access to those materials. Nobody asks an American scholar how they were able to look at records from the 1950s in College Park, Maryland, but it may be very important to know how an American—or for that matter Nigerian or Zimbabwean—scholar was able to look at materials created by members of the Progress Party in Ghana before and after the Second Republic. Reflexivity in this sense isn’t anything special or new or innovative, it’s just a basic condition of scholarly labor in this field and many others.
But also, as is often the case in this genre of “We’re calling for a new thing that we call [term]!” the christening of the new form requires a foreshortened and unreflective engagement with what has been written before in order to intensify claims of novelty and innovation. If I had peer reviewed this piece, one of the things I would have insisted on is that the authors actually do some detailed engagement with the work of scholars like Paul Stoller, Adam Ashforth, David Iyam and others who have written in various ways about themselves in relationship to their research and who have all laid out a much richer set of concerns, issues, tensions and flaws with that kind of extensive self-reflexivity. Equally, though, I would have argued that they needed to acknowledge a much wider range of memoirs, autobiographies, personalized research notes, travel narratives, etc. by scholars in this field, almost none of which are referenced or discussed. I think that a deeper and wider range of reference might have forced the article’s authors not only to reconsider the “call to a new form” but also might have acquainted them with the deep problems involved in centering a researcher (especially a white researcher) as the main subject of work conducted in an African society or with an African diasporic community.
Which leads to my only real uncertainty here. There’s an argument that says you use peer review—and retraction—primarily to stop work that has serious factual errors from being published, and secondarily to make sure that work that is published is making some form of substantive contribution and is also properly acknowledging the work of other scholars and other knowledge producers. That argument often says, “But peer review shouldn’t be used to stop something that is philosophically, interpretatively, substantively wrong: what you do with that kind of publication is critique it, perhaps harshly, as part of the public work of scholarship”. I suppose that’s a version of “negative findings” in the humanities and the social sciences, an argument that we should allow work that is going to be repudiated by scholarly consensus to be published because that repudiation is itself part of how we make knowledge collectively.
I’m not sure how I feel about that. (Hence my indecisiveness about this letter.) If it were me, I think I’d rather have a peer reviewer stop me before something appears if it’s going to turn out that after it appears a lot of people will harshly criticize it. We don’t get paid to publish scholarship, we accumulate reputation capital. You don’t want to actually lose reputation unless you’re absolutely sure that what you have to say is valid and important and that people will appreciate it in time. Or if you’re someone like Bruce Gilley, quite happy to lose reputation among actual experts in the actual field that you’re ostensibly publishing in so that you gain reputation in far-right circles. I am certain that these two authors are not of that mindset. But it’s out there now and the accumulated issues around it might be sufficient to trip over all those lines I mentioned in the last paragraph: issues with method and methodological ethics, issues with how it envisions ‘autoethnography’ in relationship to this field, issues with its accuracy in characterizing the historiography of reflexivity in the field, issues with not really engaging the references it cites. Or maybe a critique of the article—including the letter calling for its retraction—is a more appropriate response.