Academic elitism or reflexive praxis? 

“All academics are elitist, but sociologists are the worst of them all” – A. (fellow academic)

When discussing the historical atrocities of the transatlantic slave trade today, A. passionately vocalised her thoughts on how sociologists, in their advocacy of subjectivity awareness, reflexively analysing bias, and researching social issues of oppressed social groups, were even more elitist in their justifications and jargon used, marginalising the common people of society they wish to study.

As a sociologist, my initial reaction was, OUCH! Bit harsh, A. Is there truth in it? What makes me, as a young white woman living in a comfortable 21st century western society, think that I have any right or ability to analyse the data before me? Who was I, to try to empathise and understand the experiences of oppressed African slaves? A. Referenced middle aged white academics writing ill informed papers from their privileged perspective, without trying to understand the voice of the oppressed black community.
The thing is, my research area is modern day slavery: sex trafficking for forced prostitution. Many of whom, in the European context, are young white women, just like me. Many of whom sought a better life and new adventures overseas, just like me. Many of whom experienced difficult circumstances at different points in their life, as have I. Does this give me a special authority, even though many life experiences differ, to have an insider insight to know what it’s really like to walk in their shoes? Maybe. Maybe not. Whether research is being undertaken from a personal resonance with an issue, or a people group, or an auto-ethnographic approach, or whether it’s because the researcher is so passionate and cares enough about it they want to devote years of their life to study it, all are valid and both bring meaningful data that can make a difference in this broken world.

Of course, it’s important to be aware of our own subjectivities and how we might be interpreting someone’s narrative from through the lens our our own trajectory. Even the auto ethnographer must be careful not to project their own interpretations as representative of all the people within their studied group. A. would class this the reflexivity elitism: superiority in our epistemological and methodological terminologies, of our co-construction of the data.

Am I merely falling into the age-old White saviour mentality? Am I on a moral crusade to promote my socially constructed moral agenda? I sincerely hope not. And I don’t think it’s elitist to be aware of these potential issues and to reflexively deconstruct social influences within our research: I believe it is good practise, in order to study social issues in an intelligent and thoughtful manner, to hopefully make a positive difference in the world. 

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