My upcoming paper for the Swiss Anthropological Association 2021

On Emotional Dissonance and Academic Excellence: The Need for Collective Learning.

Estella Carpi, Research Associate, University College London – Visiting Researcher, Koc Universitesi-Istanbul

Throughout the years, I have experienced how, as academic researchers and teachers, we can develop emotional dissonance from the contents and subjects of our own research. In this framework, academic excellence and high quality publications do not revolve around how people emotionally relate to such contents and subjects, but they rather demand structure, clarity of direction, and strategic skills to publish and boast impact.

In this paper I intend to build on my reflections about how my emotional approach to research has gradually responded to unspoken invitations to de-personalization and de-empathization during my 5-year experience in a British academic institution. I will discuss how the so-called excellence standards, the academic practice of awarding strategization and clarity of direction, and productivity expectations – all typically defined as the effective instruments of ‘neoliberal’ academia – can affect the researcher’s emotionality and intimate understandings of purposefulness.

My argument is that the ‘neoliberalization’ of academia is complexly interrelated with de-empathization in international research. Due to the ungenerous timeframes to conduct academic research and the institutional pressure for a large number of outputs, developing empathy during research becomes unlikely. In this context, the very idea of researching people, things, and processes often departs from the aprioristic need to publish. In turn, publishing successfully is possible only as a result of adopting standardized ways of writing and structuring knowledge. Such an intellectual standardization, importantly, is by no means the product of a universal and objective agreement on how we need to explore, analyze, and write – as it purports to be in the Global North’s academic institutions – but it instead remains a subtle cultural vector of anglocentrism which sweeps away alternative approaches to academic work. This process of removing alternative ‘writing selves’, who do not comply with or even resist hegemonic standardization, generates a twofold emotional dissonance in the subjects: first, the dissonance of excelling in academic publishing without actual empathy; second, undertaking a self-initiated process of removal of our own writing selves as a road to publishing, and, consequently, producing work that less reflects the way we are.

While, in the past, I have discarded the very possibility of teaching sensitization and emotionality to people – as that is based on a paternalistic ethos of moulding ways of being and on an uninformed and colonially-flavored compassionalization of legal, political and economic issues – I here raise the question of whether such a path is instead needed to reverse de-empathization. Departing from Rorty’s ‘sentimental education’, I will explore the possibilities to sensitize through formal educational processes and I will counter the eurocentric educational method by advancing the idea of ‘collective learning’. The paper therefore invites colleagues, especially scholars looking at vulnerable settings, to face their own ways of approaching and thinking academic work while often losing the tangibility of the injustice, the chronic predicament, and the very potential for transformation that international research is able to voice and tackle. The increasing co-optation of emotionality as a token of scientific and ethical legitimization in research makes emotionality taken for granted in ethnography-based disciplines and beyond, thus taking us to an inattentive, rushed, and self-defensive “of-course-I-care” approach.

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