The Ivory Tower is Out of Touch
Note: “Ivory Tower” here is referring to academic and research institutions. My personal experience is with social science research.
First, some context.
In 2016, Black adults and children were still getting murdered by cops with no justice. I was getting ready to graduate from college, and I made a vow to pursue my PhD immediately so that I could conduct research to….change police policy? Shed light on institutional racism in the criminal justice system?? Provide insight into the plight of Black people in this country??? To be honest, I didn’t really know. What I did know was that I wanted to get as educated as possible, because that’s what I thought was the answer to solving social inequity.
In graduate school, through my research I learned that Black women are incarcerated at over twice the rate of White women. Formerly incarcerated Black women experience disproportionate rates of poverty, intimate partner violence, discrimination, depression, and many other challenges as compared to White women or other groups.
So why weren’t Black women being studied as much as other groups? I learned that historically, the experiences of Black women have been omitted from feminist theory and antiracist politics. In 1989, leading critical race scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality in order to begin addressing this deeply embedded problem. Intersectionality soon came to be understood as the consideration of multiple identities and how they interact to place individuals in unique social locations which produce lived challenges. Fast forward to the 2010s, thanks to Dr. Crenshaw and many other Black women scholars and activists, we have seen progress around whose voices and stories are finally being legitimized. Yet despite this progress, we still see the erasure of Black women in some spaces. One example of this is formerly incarcerated Black women, who are not represented in academic research to the extent they should be based on the unique and excessive challenges they face. I decided to conduct a study in order to help address this concern.
Gendered racism- discrimination which functions at the intersection of Black women’s racial and gender identities
Social support- how supported one feels by their friends, family, and romantic partner(s)
Racial centrality- the extent to which a Black person views race as an important part of how they see themselves
Gendered racism has been associated with depression in Black women, and I sought to see how this works with Black women who have gone to prison. My exploratory study examined social support and racial centrality as factors which might lessen the harmful impact of gendered racism on depression in formerly incarcerated Black women.
I conducted a literature review, created a survey, and got started. Throughout the steps of the research process, I experienced several surprises which led me to realize academia can be out of touch with the concerns of people outside of academia.
This was one of the toughest parts of the entire project, because for someone completely removed from the communities, formerly incarcerated people are difficult to access. I hit the streets of Washington, DC to visit several agencies and community centers providing support to returning citizens. Contact with participants of my study almost always had to go through reentry program directors, who often expressed distrust and reluctance to help me due to the sensitive nature of their work. Very quickly I was made aware of how much of an outsider I was in these situations, where I wasn’t just Steph anymore, but a random researcher with a stack of surveys showing up to a vulnerable community out of the blue.
My experiences highlighted how much academic institutions still need to earn people’s trust. Historically, people of color and other marginalized groups have been underrepresented, misrepresented, and completely mistreated by academic institutions and researchers. Phony “empirical science” has been used to justify and perpetuate racism and pathologize queer people. Currently, people of color are underrepresented at the nation’s top colleges and universities. Black people are less likely to pursue a PhD than other racial groups, due to discrimination and racism experienced in academia. Not to mention the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis study, where researchers unethically treated Black male study participants with syphilis, many of whom died as a result of the gross negligence of the researchers involved. I could go on about the history of egregiously harmful acts and rhetoric made in the name of “science”.
My experiences have lead me to realize that this distrust is still very much a part of the public consciousness. Anyone in academia must constantly work to reflect on these harsh truths, and allow this history to inform their work. For me, this means working to earn people’s trust and demonstrating a commitment to the cause. This does not look like swooping in, snatching their “data” (i.e. lived, human experiences), and running off to publish my study without another word. Rather, this looks like maintaining relationships with the people I reached out to for help with my study, disseminating my research findings by making the content of my study available and accessible to anyone who wants it, attending events in the community by and for formerly incarcerated people and their allies, and promoting criminal justice reform, inside and outside of academia. As a student pursuing my PhD, I have become a part of an institution which historically has been problematic, oppressive, and downright harmful to people in marginalized communities. As I progress in academia I must never forget this.
After working through the barriers to reaching women so that I could ask them to take my survey, I came across another challenge which helped me realize how much I really was asking of them. Early on, I had projected that each survey would take approximately 12 minutes to complete. What I didn’t consider however, was that some of these women would have children with them. Or would be elderly. Or would be busy trying to run a meeting at the organization they founded. Some people took over half an hour to complete the survey, and many people raised their eyebrows at me that $5 was the only real incentive I was providing. Needless to say, although people were kind and polite, most people didn’t seem entirely motivated to take my survey.
I believe some of the lack of motivation to participate in my research was because people often don’t directly benefit from research. I understand this is a very controversial statement. Especially coming from a social science researcher in a field like psychology, which has spent over a century working to be legitimized as an empirical science in the same way the “hard sciences” are. However I do believe that there is a real problem with the surplus of published research today; one of my colleagues calls this “publication pollution”. The success of university professors is often contingent upon the number of articles they publish, which leads to an excess of unethical, cookie cutter, and unreproducible research. It really begs the question- is each and every study published in the field actually doing the good that it was originally designed to do? I’m speaking specifically about the implications and applications of research, arguably the most important parts of any manuscript. In my own (albeit limited) experience conducting research, often implications and applications are thrown into the discussion section as an afterthought, merely motivated by the desire to publish in a respectable journal requiring these sections.
I am still hopeful that my study will eventually help improve the lives of formerly incarcerated Black women, whether it be to inform interventions or spread public awareness and reduce stigma. What I am more certain about, however, is that my study (which hasn’t even been published yet) will likely not directly improve the lives of the women who participated. I received some raised eyebrows that $5 was all that people would be getting for taking my survey, because in reality… $5 was all they were getting for taking my survey. Even if this research does do some good, somewhere, for someone… the frustrating truth is that it is likely not going to do any direct good for the women who actually gave me their time and energy to contribute to it (other than that 5 bucks). This has led me to believe that despite the potential ethical implications of paying participants too much, there should be priority placed on making sure their are sufficient funds in place to pay people a reasonable amount for their time. This should occur in conjunction with making sure practical applications are the driving force behind any study, and subsequently communicated clearly as part of the process of disseminating the findings of the research.
After recruiting participants and collecting data, I was ready to analyze the data, knowing what I expected to find based on the theoretical and empirical literature. I was shocked to find that the formerly incarcerated Black women who took my survey on average reported that race is not a very important part of their identities. But how could this be? In every academic space I have ever been in it has been concluded that race shapes people’s experiences and that people are bothered by racism- that race matters.
My first thought was: There must have been an issue with the design of my study. I thought about my measures. I thought about my recruitment procedures and wondered if some participants lied about actually being formerly incarcerated Black women (I had some online participants). I wondered if people read through the survey too hastily, or were dishonest on certain sections. I bounced many ideas around trying to make sense of these findings. Then I came to the thought: Maybe I was resistant to believing these results because I was becoming so enmeshed in academia that I was more willing to believe that the academic theory would hold more true about the experiences of formerly incarcerated Black women than the self-report of the actual women themselves.
This brings me to my final point, which is that sometimes research just misses the mark. Sometimes our theories and hypotheses are simply incorrect. When I finally came to terms with this, I was able to really sit and think about what this may mean. Why would race not be central to the identity of formerly incarcerated Black women? After reviewing the racial centrality literature again, I was reminded that the vast majority of this scholarship is conducted with Black adolescents and Black undergraduate college students. We must always be reminded that the consequences of social identities like gender and race do not manifest in the lives of all individuals from marginalized groups in the same way. Perhaps naively, I was originally excited to find that other Black women from different walks of life thought about race the way that I did. It didn’t occur to me until after my study that perhaps people from multiple marginalized groups don’t have the luxury of thinking about identity all the time, or in the same ways as I do. As a Black woman, while I maintain oppressed gender and racial identities like the women in my study, I am privileged in many other ways (bringing it back to our intersectional considerations). As an academic, I think about the intersection of my racial and gender identities very often. I think about how my being a Black woman college instructor may inform my student’s perceptions of me, or about how my being a young Black therapist will challenge the inherent power dynamics in therapy when working with certain clients.
Formerly incarcerated Black women deal with many real challenges, including legalized discrimination that affects where they can live and work. Perhaps some of them don’t have the time or the energy to ponder the theoretical implications of racial identity in the same way that I am privileged enough to do for my career. Perhaps some of them ponder the theoretical implications of racial identity in different ways than privileged academics have even considered. What is clear is that the conceptualization of racial identity that I used in my study was normed on university students (the most commonly studied population in psychological science), and that it did not appear important for this group of women. This highlighted one of my original reasons to study formerly incarcerated Black women in the first place, which was that the research community knows very little about their experiences. More research must prioritize these difficult-to-reach populations, who continue to be misunderstood.
Wikipedia refers to the ivory tower as “an environment of intellectual pursuit disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life”. This is consistent with the other definitions I have stumbled across, and with my own experiences thus far. I began this research with a vague understanding that academia is out of touch, but I did not realize just how misguided and distant academia is from many of the communities it claims to seek to “help”. Between the lack of trust many people have in academic institutions, the emphasis on publication quantity over integrity, and lastly, simply being flat out incorrect sometimes- academia is far from perfect.
With that said, there is still immeasurable value in the existence of collective empirical knowledge, which is ever-expanding and ever-improving. One of my own personal purposes is to learn as much as possible, and I cannot put into words my tremendous gratitude that I have the opportunity to help advance the existing body of human knowledge as a graduate student at a respectable institution. Discovering and creating new knowledge in systematic ways helps us to improve global quality of life in the most efficient ways possible. Research is essential.
For these reasons, my newfound disillusionment with academia does not mean I am ready to give up on it quite yet. We must continue to discuss these issues in order to ensure that academia is in touch with the needs and concerns of those outside of academia. We must prioritize working to foster a culture where people trust researchers and research findings. We must put research applications over research publications. In a broad sense, we must always conduct research with the intention to foster tangible change. Lastly, we must listen to and trust the stories of all people. There is some amazing research which does just that. We must continue to learn from those who are getting it right.
For me personally? I must always remember why I wanted to pursue a PhD in counseling psychology in the first place: I wanted to help people be well. As a therapist, this comes very easily. As a researcher, though? As an academic? I’m still learning what this looks like. This essay serves as my critique of academia, a system which makes many mistakes and has also done immeasurable good for our world. The ivory tower is out of touch, but there is still hope for it yet.