Ryan  Burns, phd
September 29, 2012

academic contributions, some to disaster relief

The past several months I’ve noticed an increased allusion to the tired discourses of “Oh, that’s too academic and theoretical” and “I’m not an academic - I do things”. It’s probably due to many factors: I’m working in the immanently practical field of disaster relief, many of my peers have backgrounds in computer science and planning, and I’m gradually trying to write more for a policy audience, for instance. At some level it’s understandable, especially given my - and others’ - comfort writing academic papers rather than policy, reports, etc. On the other hand, not only does this discourse immediately shut down dialogue with a highly valuable voice, but most hard-working academics I know would be profoundly offended by the implication that they don’t do anything.

With risk of stating the terribly obvious, I want to spend this blog post reflecting on this discourse and charting a few ways “academic-theoretical” [1] conversations do indeed matter [2]. I want to be careful in this description to separate “matter” from “matter to disaster relief”, because this is an important distinction I’ll defend later on.

Before even beginning the meat of my argument, we have two problems with the underlying assumptions laid out in the first sentence. First, it’s important to break apart the idea of “theory” as something ivory tower academics “do” divorced from any kind of “practice”[3]. To begin with, I can’t think of many academically-based individuals who don’t have some sort of practice or applied work (let’s use the term “praxis”). But even more fundamentally, theorization can be conceptualized as merely stating how things are in the world, or postulate the inner workings of something [4]. So, for instance, critics of “theory” are themselves theorizing when they say things like, “In a disaster, if you do X quickly enough, you will avoid Y”, because you’re making a claim about the inner relationship between X and Y.

We now arrive at the meat of this post: why do academic-theoretic conversations matter, and why do they matter for disaster relief? I’ll offer 4 suggestions that jive with my way of thinking.

  1. Higher education - the space from which academics work - instills critical thinking, understanding, and communicative skills in students. This work has fundamentally innate value that need not have any instrumental goals. It is important to recognize that higher education helps enrich lives and inform critically-thinking citizens. Now, some of these students may graduate and contribute to disaster management; this is yet another benefit of higher education, that what’s gained through higher education can be translated into the production of a better world. But our goal need not be instrumental - we help students develop these skills and enrich their lives, but that is our end, not a means to some other end. Having said that, several studies have shown that the fields most often criticized for being too “theoretical” (often described as having little “real world” value) produce students with the richest critical thinking, communicative, and analytical skills.

  2. Academic research/conversations contributes to an understanding of ‘the social’, which is valuable in and of itself as well. As social scientists, our goal doesn’t necessarily need to be to contribute to practices of disaster relief. It can be, and in those situations we may have something to contribute, but there are times when we have to build up and away from on-the-ground practices, asking what disaster relief strategies and discourses tell us about society/social-phenomena. At these times I think we should be completely comfortable acknowledging that we’re going to stay “out of the way” because we need to speak and contribute to a different audience.

  3. Theorization happens. Like I mentioned above, people operate within a given conceptualization of the world. Disaster relief, like any coordinated action, is founded on a set of assumptions which shift in relation to social, political, and economic realities. Theoreticians/academics (but not only them!) are equipped to gnaw on these assumptions, and if the assumptions are contributing negatively to disaster relief, academics can suggest new concepts/assumptions from which to work. Few communities are more equipped for social critique than academics. Lest this sound like elitism, let me repeat that *everyone* conceptualizes and - to an extent - theorizes; academics are in the “business” of doing so.

  4. Applied work happens in academic social sciences. Only very rarely does a social scientist operate in the purely conceptual realm, and even then, I’ve already described ways this conceptual work can have implications for on-the-ground response. It’s this applied work through which technologies are developed, some safe sandboxing is afforded, and some important connections made. Again, academia isn’t the only place this can happen, but it is a very important place due to the broader contributions of academia. I’ve tried to be careful not to rely on problematic assumptions while laying out these four contributions, but my task was difficult. How can I say that “applied work happens”, when my goal was to disrupt the very dichotomy of “applied”/”theoretical”? Hopefully my engagement does justice to the complications while taking certain categories temporarily for granted.

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

[1] I’m using scare quotes here to bring attention to my difficulty accepting this as a category unto itself. Note that for the remainder of this post, the scare quotes are implied.
[2] I think this line of thought has great potential. I’d like to do some work (publication, AAG session, etc.) around this idea of “Critical Contributions to Disaster Relief”.
[3] This is such a frustratingly lazy stereotype that I feel it may not even be worth breaking apart, but since the stereotype is still perpetuated, here goes…
[4] Lots has been written on the purpose of theory and how theories should be formed/informed, and some would contradict me on this statement. Note that I’m using what I’ll call a thin-theory version in this paragraph to avoid a tumble down the epistemological rabbit hole, with a nod to the more complex/nuanced engagements with theory.

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