What did I learn from Wednesday’s arguments over aid, academia and ‘the literature’?

As they say on twitter, Mind. Blown. Wednesday’s rant about way aid and academia generated a fantastic discussion. Including some great putdowns. My favourite, which made me laugh out loud, came from Ryan Briggs: ‘Just to be clear, you’re arguing that academics are insular and generalize too much from shoddy evidence, and the evidence for your claim is based on a conversation you had with a friend?’ Ouch.

So here’s what I take away from pondering 12 pages of comments and twitter traffic.

Firstly, it’s a marmite kind of post. Not surprisingly perhaps, most practitioners liked it, a lot of scholars hated it. But the most striking were the people in the middle – former practitioners now doing Masters, PhDs etc. Annette tweeted ‘Totally agree – just completed a 2nd MA in Dev Studies and constantly felt like my practitioner experience was at odds with ‘the literature’. Nigel Thornton talked of:

‘a gut wrenching frustration that meant I stopped doing a PhD a few years back. I had to be able to quote “the Literature” in order to justify my position in the “the Academy”, while at the same time knowing that the much of “the Literature” [came from] weaker academics who defaulted to citation bingo.’

Secondly, a number of people drew distinctions between disciplines – according to Ruth Carlitz political science, especially the US variant, has little time for conspiracy theories – it’s all empirical and positivist. Pauline Rose argued that work on education is more evidence-based and up to date; Lacey Wilmott ditto on health and social work. But two excellent contributions attempted to nuance my sweeping and unfair generalizations. First Justin Williams:

‘Of course there are many different camps in academia, and a few in the aid business too, but I still think that when I look at literature produced by development agencies and academics, it congregates around what you might call two ‘poles’. There is an ’empiricist’ or ‘positivist’ pole, which as Ruth Carlitz says tends to take the world as it finds it, and looks to solve problems through collecting data without much questioning of its own assumptions etc. At the other extreme there is a ‘critical’ pole which wants to question the assumptions which underpin development, but which (in my view) doesn’t back this up enough through detailed examination of empirical examples of what development projects actually do. There is some literature in the middle – my point is just that there should be a lot more.’

Which made me think about inner and outer circles of academics. In the middle are the real aid scholars, engaging with practice, distilling useful lessons etc. They found the post wrong and offensive, with good reason. Some of them are my friends, and I can only beg their indulgence. But outside them is a wider ring of development academics who do not focus primarily on aid, but often talk about it and are important in framing the views of their students – I think they are much more likely to generalize based on a couple of formative experiences and books from decades ago.

Pablo Yanguas’ unholy Trinity

Then Pablo Yanguas responded with a brilliant discussion on his blog. He argued that ‘academic work on development – ideally – has three symultaneous aspirations: methodological rigor, theoretical significance, and practical relevance. The Holy Trinity of devstud. The ESRC proposal trifecta.’ He then explored different combinations of the three, distinguishing between seven types of research. Really useful.

Third, of course we should read what great minds, and even not-so-great ones, have written about our subject. But who decides what is included/excluded in ‘The Literature’? Is it confined to peer reviewed academic articles, or should it include papers and internal documents from aid practitioners? And as Victoria Sanchez pointed out, it is almost never homogeneous:

‘My problem is with the way the literature is used as an excuse to back what half the literature says. If the literature really does coalesce around clear answers, then great. But it seldom, if ever, does.’

Tom, who self describes as a ‘young(ish) PhD’ with a foot in both camps, elaborated

‘I often struggle to have productive conversations with my more academic colleagues. This is because what they mean, or assume I understand by, ‘the literature’ can be quite different than what I do.

Yes, I’ve read the same critical development books from the 1980s and 1990s that they have. But that is about where the similarities stop. For me, the literature includes the reflective works put out by practitioners that have responded to / built upon those critical books, the current debates within powerful development donor organisations and online discussions like this one. This does not mean I have access to more ‘truth’. But perhaps it does mean that the problem lies with the size and scope of ‘the literature’, and with the differences between and amongst academics and practitioners?’

Fourth, Justin Williams was helpful on the role of ‘critical theory’ (a much bandied-about phrase in academia):

‘Critical theory has been brilliant at helping people to think about development in different ways, to stop us seeing development only through the ‘common sense’ lenses of development agencies. But too often critical theory remains just a conceptual exercise. What was great about The Anti-Politics Machine and, more recently, the work of people like Tania Li, is the empirical detail they bring to support their arguments. When academic articles remain at the level of ‘critical rethinking’ there is no way any empirical data can challenge them… they are ‘unfalsifiable’.’

He then added a pretty explosive coda:

‘To make this even more topical given today is US election results day… I think there is a link between the success of critical theory in academia and the wider spreading of conspiracy theories in society.’ Discuss.

Finally, is there a role for ranting of this kind? Alice Evans preferred my more constructive previous posts on

I feel a blog coming on

building bridges between academia and practitioners (here and here), something I do firmly believe in, in case you were wondering. James Georgolakis wearily protested my tendency to ‘pit the grounded practitioners against the out of touch egg heads once again’.

I would argue that the rant is warranted by my justified frustration with that outer ring of academics, but also that there is something Hegelian about this – you need to generate some tension with an antithesis before everyone can come together and do the big hug synthesis thing. On a purely selfish level, I also learned a lot from these comments – would people have chipped in so much on a nice, consensual post?

Final word to Elizabeth McConnell: ‘Highlights the need for critical thinking to be truly that i.e. to encompass critical self-reflection and examination of the norms and contexts in which academic publishing operates, then add in a bit of humility!’ And that goes every bit as much for practitioners too, of course.

Thanks to everyone who commented, and sorry I couldn’t do you all justice, even in this too-long post. Do please go back and read the original comments if you have time.

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9 Responses to “What did I learn from Wednesday’s arguments over aid, academia and ‘the literature’?”
  1. A) If there is one thing worse than being talked about…

    B) Nice use of ‘catalytic probes’ into a complex problem!

    C) Now tension has been created might one now collectively explore – and resist – the similar constraints that both academics and practitioners face: absurd performance metrics which reward outputs; poor understanding and reward for the processes and relationships which lead to real ‘impact’; an over investment in promise inflation, dodgy marketing and forms of managerialism that create perverse incentives which undermine noble goals; and decision-making processes, governance structures and internal hierarchies and power relations which reproduce inequalities and worse…
    D} how about a positive deviance approach to exploring where academics and development practitioners (maybe together) are overcoming the odds despite all of this!

  2. Thanks Duncan. Just a quick note for anyone who might question my “explosive coda” about the link between critical theory and conspiracy theories… this link has also been made by Bruno Latour! (see http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/89-CRITICAL-INQUIRY-GB.pdf). The first 6 pages of that article are a brilliant summary of some of the problems with critique in today’s world and well worth a read for anyone interested in Wednesday’s debate. The rest, which outlines Latour’s solutions, is harder going and probably won’t be seen as useful by most practitioners… but at least ‘the literature’ is engaging with all this!

    • Joshua Garoon

      For those who want more on Latour’s “post-critique” turn, and relevance to today’s world, see: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/25/magazine/bruno-latour-post-truth-philosopher-science.html

      Two pull-quotes:

      “‘I think we were so happy to develop all this critique because we were so sure of the authority of science,” Latour reflected this spring. ‘And that the authority of science would be shared because there was a common world…. Even this notion of a common world we didn’t have to articulate, because it was obvious…. Now we have people who no longer share the idea that there is a common world. And that of course changes everything.'”

      “Latour believes that if the climate skeptics and other junk scientists have made anything clear, it’s that the traditional image of facts was never sustainable to begin with. ‘The way I see it, I was doing the same thing and saying the same thing,’ he told me, removing his glasses. ‘Then the situation changed.’ If anything, our current post-truth moment is less a product of Latour’s ideas than a validation of them. In the way that a person notices her body only once something goes wrong with it, we are becoming conscious of the role that Latourian networks play in producing and sustaining knowledge only now that those networks are under assault.”

      I actually think there’s a lot to this thinking that development practitioners could benefit from, starting with the ways that the facts and evidence-based practices of development might stand or fall “not on the strength of their inherent veracity but on the strength of the institutions and practices that produced them and made them intelligible [such that] ff this network broke down, the facts would go with them.”

  3. Heather Marquette

    In the UK, one of the biggest issues nowadays – IMHO – is the REF, which makes it almost impossible for there to be movement between academia and other sectors. We can’t hire anyone who doesn’t have a (hopefully 4*, meaning making ‘an outstanding contribution to the literature’) REF return, and if you leave academia for any length of time, it would be impossible to get in without maintaining your REF return in the meantime. There are lovely ‘fudges’, like ‘professors of practice’, but those are hard sells when resources are limited. For all its multiple unintended consequences, not just this, if I had a magic wand, I’d get rid of the REF yesterday.

  4. Lacey Willmott

    As a PhD student trying to keep my head above water in both worlds of ‘critical’ academics and development practice I think one of the challenges with this is the lack of rigour in teaching students, particularly grad students how (social) theory, philosophy and methodology actually work and intersect in research. I have been told this is more of a problem in Canada than some other places? If you can get a solid understanding of this and actually care to make a meaningful contribution to practical knowledge you can. But without this you get stuck in the trap of Justin William’s well described ‘poles’