On being an independent researcher

Inspired by a comment by Sergio Valdez, I would like to share some thoughts about being an independent researcher.

It’s a huge challenge to be an independent researcher. One thing is the obvious lack of time (a problem, I deal with here), since we need to work in something else to earn a living. Another thing is the lack of access – to networks, to libraries, to journals, to recognition. However, being an independent researcher also means independence from a highly politicized, competitive environment.

In mainstream higher education institutions you have to deal with all sorts of more or less bizarre things, that are putting restrictions to your possibilities to do what you’re supposed to. What I hear from my ‘dependent’ conspecifics is that they are subject to managerial pressure towards a more commercial bottom line kind of approach. At the same time, they are experiencing financial cuts, which puts pressure on their work environment, having to spend more and more time with administrative tasks, and dealing with an increasing number of students.

The trend is towards a more top down approach, where research institutions have to live up to more and more detailed policy demands in order to get the financial support from policy makers. As an example, within the field of Pedagogy, there is the so-called ‘early childhood preventive intervention’ (in Danish: tidlig indsats). This kind of policy induced trend in research has a double edge. On the one hand there is no doubt, that a lot of children need the kind of help, the program is aiming at. On the other, it’s evident that the State has an interest in reducing welfare costs. However, it is crucial to ask what basic understanding of people and their possibilities to be agents in their own lives lies behind this trend. In other words: how can we avoid a patronizing bureaucratization of people’s lives?

Being an independent researcher is an opportunity to realize projects that are disruptive to mainstream research policy agendas. It means an opportunity to be truly critical towards mainstream trends.

What kind of thinking is possible in mainstream higher educational institutions? For one, as I have argued above, policy demands are putting rather clear limits to the content of research. Another thing is what kind of people are included. The environment of Higher Education is  excluding a great number of people. For some, the demands to reading-writing skills is an obstacle, whether this is based on social or cognitive reasons. For others, the high level of stress and competition is an obstacle. And there are also those, who have a hard time coping with the intellectual/social/gendered environment of HE, for the reasons I have mentioned above. And then there are those who do not have the economical means to embark on a (precarious) academic career. In short, independent research is a place where we ‘misfits’ are thriving. In this sense, I am beginning to think of this environment as a place for empowerment and resistance, and I suggest we start talking about it in terms of ‘folk research’, ‘deviant research’, and why not give it a nickname: indiesearch?

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