Whose side are we on and for whom do we write?

By Jon Warren and Kayleigh Garthwaite

Jon Warren (biography)

In 1967 Howard Becker posed the question – to academics – “Whose side are we on?.

Becker was discussing the question during the time of civil rights, the Vietnam war and widespread social change in the US. He sparked a debate about objectivity and value neutrality which had long featured as part of the social sciences’ methodological foundations and which has implications beyond the social sciences for all academics.

Kayleigh Garthwaite (biography)

What relevance do these ideas have now, in an era when academics and their research are becoming increasingly commodified? Academics are increasingly pressured by their own institutions and fellow professionals to gain more funding, publish more papers and make more impact. Questions of social justice and professional integrity are at risk of being swamped by these forces allied to unscrupulous careerism.

We argue that the question now is not only who academics serve but also who we write for. There are numerous answers to this question: it could be for a specific cause, it could be for the funder, it could be for the principal investigator; it could also be to gain promotion and further one’s own status.

Our thinking was provoked by our experience of working on a number of public policy related research evaluations between 2009 and 2012. In the United Kingdom it has become increasingly common for service funders to contract universities to evaluate the effectiveness of services which they have commissioned. This was seen as beneficial to all concerned as it allowed the commissioning body to say ‘look, this service has been independently evaluated by a highly trustworthy institution’, it allowed the service provider to say ‘our work has been evaluated and judged by a highly trustworthy institution’ and it provided the university who did the evaluation with research funding, academic papers and the chance to claim that their work had a real world ‘impact’.

However what bothered us was the fact that the commissioning body has a vested interest in a positive evaluation, but is also funding the evaluators. This potential conflict of interest is a very old problem, as we all know ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune.’

We were not saying that this is definitely happening, but the point we were trying to make was that this potentially could happen. This would have terrible consequences for universities. Universities have one thing which sets them apart from any other research and evaluation organisation. That thing is integrity.

However, integrity has to be conserved; it should not be sold or commodified. To do so is self-defeating, as once sold integrity disappears.

This brings us back to Howard Becker and his idea of a “hierarchy of credibility”. Becker argues that this hierarchy is present throughout society – to put it simply some people are more likely to be believed than others – and that this is usually taken for granted. As he explains:

“”Everyone knows” that responsible professionals know more about things than laymen, that police are more respectable and their words ought to be taken more seriously than those of the deviants and criminals with whom they deal” (Becker 1967: 242).

Becker elaborates further: those with the power and position to be believed he describes as “superordinates”; they are regarded as experts and consequently trusted. The groups he describes as “subordinates” are subject to the expert knowledge and power of the “superordinates”.

This is not always a straightforward relationship. It may be that “subordinates” are disempowered and contained by “superordinate” knowledge, as is the case for criminals and deviants. Or, in the case of students, they have to pass through a “subordinate” phase in order to reach “superordinate” status.

“Thus, the police are the superordinates, drug addicts are the subordinates; professors and administrators, principals and teachers, are the superordinates, while students and pupils are the subordinates; physicians are the superordinates, their patients the subordinate” (Becker 1967: 240).

In asking “Whose side are we on?” Becker was inviting academics to reflect upon their “superordinate” status and:

  • ask what they could do to bring about progressive reform and social change or
  • acknowledge that they were in fact part of the established social order and by doing nothing they were defending the status quo.

Hiding behind some notion of scientific objectivity was for Becker simply not possible.

“The question is not whether we should take sides since we inevitably will but rather whose side are we on?” (Becker 1967: 239).

Our place in the hierarchy of credibility is still important but also we suffer from additional pressures fifty years after Becker. Our “superordinate” status has become highly valued and a saleable commodity. But it is this commodification which makes that status increasingly precarious. The fact that it is contingent upon our integrity means that Becker’s question is just as important as it ever was.

What do you think? How do you navigate the line between performance and integrity?

To find out more see:
Warren, J. and Garthwaite, K. (2015). Whose side are we on and for whom do we write? Notes on issues and challenges facing those researching and evaluating public policy. Evidence and Policy, 11: 225-237. https://doi.org/10.1332/174426415X14314311257040

Thanks to Evidence and Policy for making this paper free to access until 14 March, 2017.

To see all blog posts from the partnership with the journal Evidence and Policy:

Becker H. S. (1967). Whose side are we on? Social Problems, 14, 3: 239–47

Biography: Jon Warren PhD is a sociologist who is currently Senior Research Associate in Health Inequalities, Department of Geography, Durham University, United Kingdom. His research interests are work, employment, social policy and the industrial history of the North East of England. He is involved with methodologically innovative research and is currently involved with projects using Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) and visual methods.

Biography: Kayleigh Garthwaite PhD is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Geography at Durham University in the United Kingdom, exploring issues of health inequalities, welfare reform and austerity through ethnographic research. She is author of ‘Hunger Pains: life inside foodbank Britain’ (Policy Press, 2016) and winner of the 2013 British Academy Peter Townsend Award.

2 thoughts on “Whose side are we on and for whom do we write?”

  1. This is a timely contribution in a social, cultural and political environment that is becoming increasingly fractious across the globe. The challenge is that as academics, researchers, managers and employers we exercise CHOICE when making decisions about whether or not to undertake a piece of work that compromises our personal and professional values and integrity. Becker’s question about “whose side are we on?” remains valid despite the changing context and asks each one of us to introspect and choose.

  2. Great article! The point of students parroting what they think instructors want to hear to achieve academic goals is valid and even the most open minded teacher may inhibit free thinking by the rewards policy of grades.


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