The Limitations of Academic Research and the Value of Lived Experiences

“Do you have a source for that?”

This phrase echoes across political blogs to Reddit forums and Tumblr posts; at times, it can seem as if you can’t write a sentence without linking to a study about it first. I want to make it clear that it is, of course, absolutely necessary to cite sources when you are making certain statements, but there is a larger conversation to be had. In many cases, academic research is privileged over the lived experiences of others, without consideration given to the inaccessibility, biases and traditional ways of thinking that the former exhibits. While important for numerous facets of scientific research, not everything can be answered in black and white questions when it comes to social behavior.

To start broadly, academic journals and research can at times be inaccessible in terms of the complexity and prior knowledge required. Those unfamiliar with a branch of study can be overwhelmed by elementary concepts, which more well informed individuals may be tired of explaining. In general, there are often hefty prerequisites to understanding a topic. For example, my first day working in research was spent Googling “blowoff” since flame extinction was such an elementary concept to graduate students.

The scientific community is an institution in a similar vein to religion, in that it too has been around for thousands of years and has been subject to bias. Academia is predominately home to white men, and this where I’ll be a hypocrite and cite some statistics. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in America, white people earned 74.3 percent of all doctoral degrees in 2010, black 7.4 percent, Hispanic 5.8 percent, Asian/Pacific Islander 11.8 percent and American Indian/Alaska Native 0.7 percent. Women earned 53.3 percent of all doctoral degrees, and this was true in all racial groups as well. However, according to reports from American Association of University Professors, women only make up 38 percent of college faculty and are more likely to be associate (38 percent) or assistant (46 percent) professors rather than full professors (23 percent). More female tenured professors will forgo marriage and children compared to their male counterparts, and will make 81 percent of their salary as well. Women are more often faculty at community colleges (50 percent) than at baccalaureate and master’s degree colleges (41 percent) or at doctoral level universities (33 percent). They are more often found in non-tenured positions such as instructors (58 percent), lecturers (54 percent) or unranked positions (51 percent). This is nothing to speak of the high financial costs associated with earning college degrees, shutting out many from lower incomes or the fact that there are fewer higher education options for those with hearing, seeing or learning disabilities. Basically, academia has a way continuing the marginalization process.

The last nail in the coffin is the black and white nature of some methodology. While quantitative information, like the number of women in academia, can be measured, qualitative information is harder narrow down, such as how those women feel about their positions. Richard C. Lewontin of “The New York Review of Books” described it as “The problem [to] turn biography into science.” He was speaking in regards to the failings of sexuality surveys to go beyond traditional ways of thinking and tended to lose the subtlety of individuals. Individuals who answer the questions also have their own bias, particularly with activities like sex with carry a lot of baggage in regards to societal expectations; men will exaggerate their sexual experience, while women will downplay. Finally, because of the way many surveys are written or structured, “…the studies [were] demonstrations of what their planners already believed they knew to be true.”

The value of lived experiences is that they are so individual and, in terms of social science, they are the undiscovered frontier. The problem becomes when you describe your experience or write on it, there isn’t exactly a source for it. The value of autobiographical evidence shouldn’t be disowned out of hand. It should be used to continue to compliment the data we can have black and white answers for. I can give you numbers and percentages for the number of female engineers currently working in the field, but my experiences growing up with a mother in engineering and working in that area help shape my opinions on why the numbers are low and the challenges we face in STEM. Like most things, academic research deserves scrutiny and skepticism while a mindful eye is placed on its drawbacks. Using a blended methodology and drawing from both sources of information instead of outright discrediting one or the other serves for a stronger argument overall.

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