Political Economy and the Social Structure of Science

Underlying what we have said is a set of ideas about power relationships in our society. AR is about the transformation of power relationships in the direction of greater democracy. Yet most of the experience we have of the world is of authoritarianism, command and control systems, bureaucracies, narrow spe­cializations, separation of reflection and action, and sanctions against those who oppose these systems. John Dewey posed the issue well when he affirmed that life, thought, and action are all part of one larger whole, but everyday experience makes it appear that the world is composed of a pile of indepen­dent, self-serving atoms that continually crash into each other.

^that makes an integrated whole system appear to be a set of independent bits and pieces? The answer AR gives is that the cause is power relationships and, thus, without an analysis of power relationships, AR is impossible. The political economy of capitalist societies, of science as an activity, and of acade­mic institutions are all necessary elements in any attempt to understand the dilemmas that AR seeks to overcome. It also explains the continual effort by power elites to marginalize AR activities in all social arenas.

AR explicitly seeks to disrupt existing power relationships for the purpose of democratizing society. It also instrumentally seeks to incorporate the great diversity of knowledge and experience of all society’s members in the solution of collective problems. AR asserts that societies, because of authoritarianism, use only a tiny portion of their knowledge and capacities to confront important problems. The reasons for this are the desires of the few who currently control key resources to retain that control and the fundamental lack of respect that elites have for the capacities of nonelite members of society. Given these inter­ests and the resources at their disposal, these elites create and maintain reason­ably loyal bureaucracies that operate by categorizing the citizenry in infinite ways (deserving/undeserving, criminal/good, heterosexual/homosexual, male/ female, black/white/yellow/red, and so on). According to these classifications, the resources controlled by elites are then doled out to the categories, who in accepting them, are accepting the elite’s hegemonic definition of them. This kind of bureaucratic distribution in the pseudo-name of welfare creates a dyadic relationship between the subordinate individual and power structures, discouraging rebellion and collaboration among the receivers of this largesse.

This political economy affects science and the academy. Science now is largely paid for by the governments and by large corporations, and conventional social science would die without governmental grants. As the funders, they decide the topics and methods of the research and create a policing process of peer review that guarantees that, like welfare recipients, scientists are unlikely to be very collaborative among themselves. In the social sciences, this kind of fund­ing has created socially disengaged, statistically oriented “disciplines.” As a result, these disciplines end up mainly documenting the workings of bureaucratic control structures. They rarely promote or envision an active process of social change, and they assuage their consciences by affirming the self-serving notion that they are doing science and that social action or even modest application of their knowledge is not their responsibility. ^then they do promote reform, they often pay a very severe political price (see Price, 2004).

Thus, social research and social reform are sharply separated by these mechanisms and each new generation of students that arrives at universities after having competed ferociously with others like them is quickly taught to accept this separation. As an ideology to retain power in the hands of the pow­erful while employing a vast number of bureaucrats and their academic min­ions, this has been notably successful. The participants discipline each other, and the hand of power is rarely seen.

In this context, AR is branded “unscientific” because of its social and eth­ical engagements and thus it is deprived of funding and institutional support. It is also cut to ribbons in academic and other bureaucratic structures because AR is inherently a system activity with the fundamental multidisciplinarity this implies. By dividing the disciplines and creating structured interests that guard against any territorial incursions, schools, universities, and other bureaucracies strangle the social project of democratization that is the heart of AR. Finally, by demanding that social research be separated from the context of applica­tion, power holders assure themselves that social scientists will study nothing significantly controversial in society. In the end, the answer to the question of why AR is currently so marginal is to be found in the general lack of commit­ment to democratic social change in our societies and universities, not in AR’s inherent weaknesses as a form of scientific inquiry.

Source: Greenwood Davydd J., Levin Morten (2006), Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change, SAGE Publications, Inc; 2nd edition.

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