‘We must think defensively about academic freedom’ – Silja Klepp

‘We must think defensively about academic freedom’ – Silja Klepp

Ethnologist Silja Klepp is a self-identified “scholar-activist,” and her experience shows that staking out a clear position in one’s academic career is not necessarily harmful.

How free is our scientific scholarship?

Although we do have a great deal of freedom, we must not overlook the fact that scientific research is situated within the corporate world, and is dependent upon it. There are cultural boundaries to what we think of as science – what is recognized, and how it has evolved historically. To put it another way: we are looking at everything through the lens of our society. For a few decades now, science and technology studies have focused on societal localisation and the effects of science. Furthermore, there are political constellations at universities and within the politics of higher education that perhaps sometimes hinder the pursuit of specific research questions. And we shouldn’t forget that we’re in a good place economically at the moment, meaning that more resources for research can be made available

Among other themes, you focus on migration, which you have researched in Libya. How quickly were you confronted with the limits of academic freedom when you were there?

It was clear to me before I arrived that I could only undertake research in Libya if I kept myself accurately informed, didn’t expect too much, and made progress in small steps. At the same time, there was still pressure to compile sufficient data to be able to write my dissertation. When I was there, I always had to think about the safety of my informants, which of course was a limitation. I couldn’t speak with everyone I wanted to speak with. For example, it was unthinkable to meet with representatives of Gaddafi’s government. In addition, during my conversations with security forces in Italy and Malta, not all of my questions were answered. I was often denied entry to the detention centres. Instead of official interviews, I was left only with participatory observation. We should thematise and reflect on all of this. Despite this, I was able to find out quite a bit more than I ever thought I would. Also, because I found the research in Libya to be emotionally taxing, I’ve undertaken research in other fields in the meantime.

Right now, you’re working closely with natural scientists on the subject of climate change…

...a field that is regularly under pressure from lobbyists, whose objections are such a far cry from serious criticism. In my assessment, when it comes to communicating with the public about climate research, scientists have too often fallen into the trap of having to provide increasingly exact numbers to the climate sceptics (which is, of course, also important and OK), but without smacking the table and saying, look, we know this, and we cannot provide 100 percent certainty of numbers and risks with such a complex system. This has limited science to delivering ever more exact figures,. When speaking of academic freedom, one must also thematise freedom of communication. To rephrase that, we should sometimes leave the scholarly journals aside and choose other modes of communication.

In the face of such attacks from lobbyist groups, should one interpret the concept of scientific freedom differently? After all, in such cases it’s no longer about protecting ourselves from government intervention, but rather also against encroachments from the economic and business sectors.

This concept must be thought of more defensively. We scholars should defend ourselves against attacks which are directed against the social order. Since my time working in the politically and emotionally fraught field of flight and migration, I’ve already come to see myself as a scholar-activist. Of course, I maintain a solid foundation of good research; this also means that I make my views on human rights and activism transparent. When, for example, I prepare a text for PRO ASYL, I do this publicly and also write in a different style.

So how does one become a scholar-activist?

First of all, it's an attitude, I think. Aside from that, I’ve organised myself. It began in 2008 with a meeting in Munich. There were about thirty of us, and we founded the network for critical studies of migrations and border regimes called Kritnet. In the meantime, we’ve become an association of over 300 scholars. Many of us see ourselves in the intersectional spaces between science, politics and activism. As Kritnet, we intervene in political debates, often in the form of invocation. We’ve already been featured on the front page of the Tageszeitung. In short, we want to enter the debates with empirically-proven arguments that show other sides of the issue

But isn’t there the danger that you’ll be suspected of political bias?

The complete opposite; for me it has never been a disadvantage to stake out a political view. However, it should never be dogmatic. In ethnology, I’ve learned that it is actually more scientific to make one’s position clear and then really consider it. Of course, I know full well that many in this country are still quite reserved about this. This is also the case in my discipline, human geography, which is quite a bit more political in the English-speaking world than it is in Germany. It’s clear to me that there are historical reasons for this sense of restraint and not wanting to get involved. Despite this, networks are still necessary to defend against attacks. It hasn’t hurt in my career. I have always ended up working at institutions that wanted someone exactly like me. I even think that for me, my political stance and many interdisciplinary publications have brought more academic freedom. This is because I have been less wedded to disciplinary culture, and thereby less involved in rivalries. It wasn’t until later in my career that I began to approach it a bit more strategically.

The interview was conducted by Dirk Liesemer.

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