Invest in the full community of researchers - and their ways of seeing

25 April 2016 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Michael Hammond.
Identity in research: Assoc Prof Elelwani Ramugondo delivered the opening address at the Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health's recent annual research day.
Identity in research: Assoc Prof Elelwani Ramugondo delivered the opening address at the Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health's recent annual research day.

“Unless we invest in everyone, we will have no future to speak of when old stars retire, die or leave the country,” said Associate Professor Elelwani Ramugondo in her opening address at the Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health's recent annual research day.

Ramugondo, the vice-chancellor's special advisor on transformation, delivered an address titled 'Identity Politics & Research: Pitfalls or Opportunity?' She kicked off by referring to an article by Free State University head, Jonathan Jansen. It referred to the dangers of current contestation on university campuses and how this may drive good academics away, leading to the erosion of excellence, as the academic project depends on the prowess of “no more than a dozen or so leading academics”.

Bringing everyone on board in research is important not only to the institution's survival but also to the scope, breadth and depth of its research – through “different ways of seeing” in research, she added.

“World-class and international” were also concepts that seemed to favour Europe and North America, sometimes leaving Africa out of the picture.

“Transformation means building a different future in this country, one where everyone matters and is supported.”

It would not be an easy task, she said, pointing to British writer, lecturer and broadcaster Kenan Malik, who tackled the topic in his TB Davie Memorial Lecture at UCT last year.

“Malik makes the point that it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others; inevitable because when different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. But they express what it is to live in a diverse society.”

Referring to an address by Harvard president, Drew Gilpin Faust, Ramugondo said that seeking understanding and distilling meaning is essentially about interpretation.

“It is also about understanding the world and ourselves, not only through invention and discovery but also through the rigours of reinventing, re-examining and reconsidering.”

In setting their research agendas, South African universities often emphasize the wrong priorities.

“Universities are thus, at best, instrumentalist − focused on fixing problems rather than understanding them first and confronting those who caused them – and at worst, opportunistic. In other words, they follow the money.”

“Fixing does not address the 'why' question. And it often reduces problems to individuals rather than approaching issues in ways that are broader so that different populations can be served in sustainable ways. So there are lessons to be learnt from the RMF [Rhodes Must Fall], FMF [Fees Must Fall] and End Outsourcing campaigns that continue in many of our universities.”

Academic freedom also raised important questions around inclusivity and equity in research. And external influences sometimes pushed researchers to “work against” students and communities on the margins, resulting in what Ramugondo refers to as “epistemological violence”, drawing from Thomas Teo's work.

“It's when we don't ask the right questions sufficiently; when we don't adequately involve those who are most affected in whatever we research, that we are lead to 'engazed' rather than engaged scholarship.”

“So identity may be a proxy for disadvantage, but perhaps it's also proxy for difference of experience, to give us different perspectives from which to approach the problem and explore the 'why' question. It is also a mode through which to challenge oppressive structures and here we can speak of Eurocentrism, neo-liberalism, heteronormativity, ableism and racism, because ultimately assimilation into oppressive structures is bad – bad for you and me.”

“So we continuously have to think about who has the right to voice and to interpret, as we take cognisance of the power we hold as academics and as researchers.”

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