Lately I’ve been feeling increasingly disillusioned with academia. These feelings have not been helped by the way universities have treated their graduate researchers in response to the COVID-19 crisis. What trust I had in these public institutions, has over time, become eroded.
I don’t believe there is one particular reason, nor is it due to a single individual. Rather, these feelings represent my frustrations towards academia as a whole.
Over time, what has replaced the romantic notion of seeking truth, are the – precarious working conditions, exploitation of knowledge workers, preference for publications over impact, toxic competitiveness, and rampant mental health issues – commonly found within academic institutions.
This erosion of trust in academia has plagued my mind for some time now, and has prevented me from willingly committing myself to my PhD. These feelings of doubt and uncertainty, as well as the pressure to meet my second year milestone has made me realise that I need to take some time away.
I am hoping that through the reflective process of writing this piece, I might begin to find a renewed sense of purpose that was lost within the bureaucracy of academia. Clarifying my field of research will hopefully remind me of why I am doing what I am doing and ultimately what I hope to acheive.
So, what is my field of research?
Personally, I’ve always been curious about social change.
Specifically, I would like my research to contribute to a better understanding of how social change happens, and whether or not this understanding might be useful in the pursuit of social change itself.
As a planner, our approach to social change is often through the implementation of public policies. However, this approach insists upon a narrow idea of how change actually happens, and fails to recognise the other ways that we as planners might be able to create change.
I believe that social change has less to do with policies and more to do with people, as successfully implemented policies are simply institutional reflections of widely accepted social norms. This suggests that a bottom-up instead of top-down approach can be more effective at creating change.
In the past, planners have explored bottom-up approaches to social change through the use of participation. By including people in decision-making processes, planners argue that the outcomes are more likely to reflect the needs and desires of the participants themselves.
However, it has been shown that participation itself largely fails to create systemic changes. As participation is acceptable by those in power so long as it does not challenge the status quo, allowing the establishment to maintain the illusion that we live within a democratic society.
These critiques of participation have led me to seek alternative processes that could be used by planners to create social change. Taking the idea of social mobilisation as advocated for by radical planners, my research attempts to create an alternative framework for understanding and creating bottom-up social change.
My framework aims to bring together theories on critical consciousness, community organising, and social movements in order to form an approach to social mobilisation that cuts across individual and collective scales. In my mind, social change usually happens through one – or a combination – of these three social processes.
Therefore, my field of research seeks to understand how critical consciousness develops individual agency, the points at which this leads to collective action through community organising, and how social movements form broad coalitions to address structural inequalities.
Ultimately, I would like my research to contribute to an understanding of how the relationship between these three elements can better inform the way that we think about how social change happens.