Can Research Be Both Impactful and Neutral?

A simple balance scale
(Photo: Lilly_M/CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons)

In response to this proposition I argue simply, yes. We should engage in activism and civil disobedience, especially when our own survival and civilization are at stake. What may surprise some readers, however, is that in doing so we should and would NOT lose our neutrality. Because, we are not neutral in the first place. Some colleagues, while stating that “all knowledge is ‘worldly’ and, in this sense, political,” consider it “perilous to conflate” the roles of researcher and activist.” I defend instead the view that these roles are conflated by design and it is rather perilous not to be aware of our (implicit) activism and the values that guide it. Moreover, in the present extreme times, when we are crossing several planetary boundaries, realizing impact and third mission for universities may be better achieved through radical civil disobedience, than through the more appeasing forms of stakeholders’ engagement.

Max Weber
Max Weber

Weber and the legacy of value neutrality

Perhaps the weakest argument I advance to defend the need to show our emotions and take a clear position in societal debates is that of Max Weber himself.  The proponent of value-free science, engaged directly in politics, running (unsuccessfully) for office, and vehemently advocated for his political positions. Max Weber is often misunderstood, his (questionable) position on value-free science has been all too frequently interpreted as passion-free science, as if researchers should be completely detached from and agnostic about what they study, as if a researcher studying the effects of tipping points in the climate system could simply, coldly and without compassion calculate the billion deaths that would follow.

However, Weber asserts, passion and commitment are central features of our calling: “[…] the contention that the university teacher should be entirely devoid of ‘passion’ and that [s/]he should avoid all subjects which threaten to arouse over-heated controversies constitutes a narrow-minded, bureaucratic opinion which every independent teacher must reject” (Weber, 1917, Der Sinn der „Wertfreiheit“ der soziologischen und ökonomischen Wissenschaften). For him, the most insidious form of militantism is that exerted by “pseudo value-free prophets” that introduce “tendentious elements” pretending to be dispassionate but advancing very specific “material interests” (p. 457-60). And as a professor in a university of business and economics, I am acutely aware of whole sub-disciplines more or less implicitly taking the side of specific societal classes and conservative interests – interests that become (involuntarily) reactionary if they deny science and its practical transformative implications.

The stronger argument, however, follows Weber’s critique of the ‘pseudo value-free’ academics, but goes against his contention that value-free science is possible. Contemporary philosophical thinking has clarified that scholars, as anybody else, cannot be other than advocates of certain values and ideals, referring these values to scientific progress, societal enlightenment, technical domination of nature, or what else. Hence, we should reflect on and decide which values we endorse, and openly act upon them, instead of sneaking them into our studies in disguise. As we “cannot not communicate” (Watzlawick, 1969, Menschliche Kommunikation), also avoiding to advocate can be a form of disguised activism. Not to mention the higher responsibility to speak up that we have as academics, due to our relatively higher status in society (despite its erosion in the so-called managerial university) and also having more time and resources to better inform ourselves and a higher chance of being heard.

What values should we follow? I doubt that many of us would oppose the statement that the very legitimacy of (social) science is rooted in pursuing a better life for a society made aware of ignorance, prejudice and exploitation in order to overcome them. Indeed, since the Enlightenment, and although aberrations are always possible (eg. the Manhattan project), science is, ideally, an activist endeavor to promote these values against obscurantism and fundamentalist religious prescriptions. Furthermore, we can also observe progressive values being increasingly put at danger by developments like algorithmic manipulated public discourse, increasing economic inequality, and the re-emergence of quasi-feudal predatory and techno-oligarchs. In addition, Enlightenment values reaching back to the Renaissance are themselves rightly criticized for fuelling some of humanity’s grand challenges. Hence, we risk drifting into dangerous waters, where our scholarly praxis may become more a force for preserving an unquestioned status quo than a force for good.

Climate march
(Photo: South Bend Voice/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

For these reasons, I contend, that we as scholars are activists, i.e., advocates of certain values and ideals, given that we cannot avoid being such. The question then arises of what kind of activists/advocates we want to be. As a professor of organization and management studies, I wish we would finally take clearer positions on corporations that act immorally in front of the global challenges humanity is facing and pretend they can exist outside of politics. And let me add, this problem only gets worse if we pretend ourselves to be outside of politics and untouchable by ethics beyond our responsibility to be rigorous and trustworthy in our research procedures. Let’s understand our responsibility in broader terms, following the philosopher Jonas’ (1984) ethics of responsibility aimed at addressing the risks inherent in the economic-industrial system that emerged from the Enlightenment, which has the potential to destroy the basis of our survival on earth. Speak up, join a movement, or engage creatively with the existential challenges we are confronting: you will be no less ‘neutral’ than a colleague hidden behind the political shield of the ideology of value-neutrality.

Drawn from
This post draws on the author’s paper, “Are we all activists?,” published in the journal Organization Studies.
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Giuseppe Delmestri

Giuseppe Delmestri is a full professor of Organization and Management Studies and the chair of the Institute of Change Management and Management Development at WU Vienna University of Economics and Business.

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