Research by political demand

2010-08-20 Politically commissioned research on gender equality and youth of minority background often revolves around the same few issues. What impact do the links between politics and the production of knowledge have on research quality and results?

When knowledge on youth of minority background is produced in the Nordic countries the research is often intimately connected to the political system in the relevant countries.

– A large proportion of the research is governmentally commissioned, says Monica Five Aarset, social researcher at The Institute for Social Research (ISF) in Norway.

By order of The Directorate of Integration and Diversity (IMDi) she has gone over Nordic research on youth of minority background from the past 10–12 years. The IMDi report published in 2008 showed that the ‘message of anxiety’ communicated by the Nordic governments concerning control, restrictions, limitations and violence in relation to young minority women also affects the research within the field. This is especially the case as regards the girls’ and women’s relations to their families.

– The anxious approach is highly prevalent in research on youth of minority background. The approach is not necessarily a problem in itself. But it entails that other perspectives are missing, and that certain areas remain unresearched, for instance young people’s interrelations or the situation of their parents, says Monica Five Aarset.

This tendency worries several Nordic researchers. They feel that the field is characterised by one-sided knowledge production, weakening its quality.

Unimaginative research

In Norway the anthropologist Thomas Hylland-Eriksen recently admonished against the strong ties between research and politics when the Nordic media under the headline “The Moral Police” (“Moralpolitiet” in Norwegian) zoomed in on social control of young women in certain Muslim migrant communities in Oslo. This caused a researcher to suggest – and the Norwegian ministry of gender equality to promise – that research on the phenomenon follow.

“For those who wish to do research on the Moral Police, money is now readily available”, Hylland-Eriksen commented. He feels that the ties between research and politics curb the intellectual mobility of the researchers:

– A project is ordered, and the politicians want results. As a consequence, there is a significant Scandinavia-wide industry studying migrant integration, while few research the migrants’ transnational alliances. Many study forced marriage, while few study e.g. perceptions of kinship among the Pakistanis. A lot of this research, then, becomes intellectually unimaginative, thus hardly contributing to theoretical development, he says.

The question of money is also what preoccupies one of Hylland-Eriksen’s Swedish colleagues. Sociologist Diana Mulinari believes that political interests are vested in promoting particular results when it comes to particular issues within minority research.

Certain researchers are favoured

When Sweden witnessed a number of dramatic murders on migrant girls resisting arranged marriages in the early 2000s – among them the Swedish-Kurdish Fadime Sahindal who was killed by her father – a major common interest in honour-related violence and repression among minorities arose.

But the knowledge produced on the problematics in a Swedish context is not only one-sided. According to Diana Mulinari, it is also dangerous.

– Honour-related killings are one of the most illustrative fields as far as authority bias in resource allocation goes, she says.

The problem, she says, is that only certain types of researchers are getting research grants, namely those who are in line with the authorities’ understanding of concepts such as ‘violence’ and ‘culture’. Those who, like Mulinari, belong to an alternative power-critical post-colonial research tradition, however, are not funded even though many apply.

– And because these questions concern life and death it is dangerous to leave them to academics who already know “what those kinds of people are like”, she says.

This is why Mulinari wishes to focus on the links between politics and research.

– I don’t think that “neutrality” can be realistically claimed in the way resources are allocated, but one ought to invite critical reflection on who gets what and why within research. In addition, and more specifically, an analysis of the connection between governmental policies and knowledge production is desirable, she says.

A politically awkward field

Astrid Schlytter has dealt with honour-related violence for 14 years. She does not recognise the scenario that research within the field is politically commissioned. The first honour-related killing mentioned by the media in Sweden was perpetrated in 1996. However, the honour problematics did not make it onto the political agenda until 2002. Since 2003, predominantly institutions within the framework of civil society have obtained state funding for project- and methodological development in the field, she says.

– The problem is rather that research grants in the field have proven hard to come by. This is politically awkward, says Astrid Schlytter.

She has also applied for research grants in vain. Not until the change of government in Sweden in 2006 was the area politically prioritised, owing to the specific objective in the government platform to combat honour-related violence. Two years later Astrid Schlytter got her first politically commissioned research assignment. It arrived from the authorities in Stockholm who wanted to map the scope and nature of honour-related violence.

She was free to conduct her research at her own discretion. Among other things, her results demonstrated a gap between the young people’s realities on the one hand and the authorities’ readiness to handle their situation on the other. This result was considered too critical by authority representatives.

Political criticism of research results is also a known phenomenon in Denmark.

OK to cultivate significant topics

Also Denmark has seen heated debates on the ties between research and politics, and there have been more examples of research results upsetting politicians. One instance was the Danish People’s Party’s recent threat to report a group of researchers for scientific dishonesty. The reason was a governmentally commissioned research report on the use of burkas and niqabs among Muslim women in Denmark. The report concluded that the Muslim garments were not particularly widespread.

But the controversy was also caused by legislative changes placing politically commissioned research with the universities that have to compete for the assignment. This is the case for e.g. reports ordered by politicians when new political initiatives are being prepared.

This has been criticised by the country’s most prominent researchers, i.e. the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters. They feel that the universities thus contribute to sanctioning a certain politics.

Recently, research on gender equality and minority youth has been commissioned by the political system in connection with new political initiatives. But according to Nina Smith, Danish Professor of Economics and member of the Committee on Research Policy of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, this is not necessarily problematic.

– There is nothing wrong with the politicians’ desire to increase their knowledge on certain topics of great relevance to society – and honour-related killings and forced marriages are indisputably just that. Clearly, these areas have been insufficiently researched.

– The problem arises when politicians want to meddle with that research or force certain results. Or if independent research that has not been commissioned by politicians faces a concurrent shortage of funding, says Nina Smith.

By Ulrikke Moustgaard is a freelance journalist specialising in gender research

This article was first published in Danish in NIKK magasin 1/2010 © NIKK

Logotype Nordic Council of Ministers Logotype Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research Logotype University of Gothenburg