by Emma Spruce, Jacob Breslow & Tomás Ojeda
Recently, Aero Magazine published an essay by Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian titled “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship”. In it, Pluckrose et al. unveiled a year-long project in which they sought to expose the ‘corruption’ of ‘grievance studies’ by publishing hoax articles in interdisciplinary feminist, queer, critical race journals.
There have already been several thoughtful responses to this ‘hoax’, however some points require emphasis and elaboration. Firstly, it must be said that Pluckrose et al. are not writing in a vacuum: theirs is not an apolitical critique of academic publishing, but must be viewed in the context of a wider history of attacks on gender, sexuality, and critical race studies. The repeated engagement with questions of sexual violence in their papers do not coincidentally emerge alongside the #MeToo movement. Secondly, the current reporting on the hoax overwhelmingly fails to do due diligence. Pluckrose et al. are routinely taken at their word, with media outlets apparently failing to read and make independent judgements about the four articles that were published (out of twenty they attempted). Finally, only few responses to the ‘hoax’ challenge its claim to be ‘successful’.
Seeking to intervene in the way this ‘hoax’ has been taken up, in this post we briefly challenge three of the main grievances that Pluckrose et al. share in their exposé of the ‘hoax’. These are: 1) the abandonment of objectivity and truth in favour of politics, 2) the alleged lack of rigour of academic journals in the social sciences and humanities, and 3) the scholarly community’s verification and endorsement of the ‘absurd and horrible’ arguments Pluckrose et al. so gleefully wrote.
Photo credit: ‘Objectivity by Sol LeWitt’ by Cliff
Grievance 1 – objectivity and politicization
One of the repeated grievances that Pluckrose et al. launch is that academic scholarship (specifically within gender studies, sexuality studies, and critical race studies) has abandoned objectivity and truth in favour of ideology and politics. In a sense, they are correct in this; ‘subjectivity’ is indeed understood as more rigorous than ‘objectivity,’ and the fields in which we work are fundamentally political and politicized. Where they err, however, is in thinking that these characteristics of our fields are problems.
Feminist epistemologists have been debating ‘objectivity’ for multiple decades (Bar On 1993; Code 1993, 2014; Collins 2000; Haraway 1988; Harding 1986, 1993, etc. etc.). In the mid 1980s, Acker, Barry and Esseveld (1983: 427), for example, argued that objectivity should be understood not as a practical or obtainable position, but rather as an illusion. In their words, the idea of objectivity is to ‘remove the particular point of view of the observer from the research process so that the results will not be biased by the researcher’s subjectivity.’ This ‘ideal’ version of objectivity, however, as Smith (1977) argues, can only be possible if the knower is understood as an abstract being and the ‘known’ (the object of research) is understood as without agency. And yet knowers, as feminist epistemologists have argued for decades, are not ‘abstract’ at all, ‘but [are] member[s] of definite social categor[ies] occupying definite positions within the society’ (Smith 1974: 16-17).
The production and validation of knowledge does not take place regardless of context and history. Claims to objective truth are evaluated by institutions that have historically been occupied by people in privileged positions. That objective truth continues to be evaluated by people with “partial and perverse” (Hartsock 1983) perspectives raises important questions about the limitations of ‘objectivity’ and the types of knowledges (as well as knowers) that are deemed legitimate: Whose experiences are valued? On what grounds? By whom? For whom do the ‘blind principles of neutrality’ apply (cf. Williams 1991)? It is in response to these questions that feminists have debated the merits of situated knowledges, and the importance of marginal voices.
Put simply, we would agree that our research and teaching is political and politicized. This politicization, however, is not a flaw: it is necessary and important. While we may not agree with one another (more on that in a moment), our fields of study are not neutral. The purpose of our fields is to address, understand, and transform injustices of various kinds. To draw upon Hartsock (1997: 370), ‘the search for truth is not at all the way to understand’ feminist, queer, trans, critical race scholarship; ‘the point, most fundamentally, is to understand power relations… [and] the point of understanding power relations is to change them.’ It is not a shocking revelation, in other words, to suggest that our fields are political. That said, as we turn to next, the suggestion that by virtue of being political, our fields somehow share a univocal version of what ‘gender,’ ‘race,’ or ‘sexuality’ mean (let alone sexism, racism, or heteronormativity), is a blatant mischaracterisation.
Grievance 2 – knowledge production and scientific truths
Pluckrose et al. argue that ‘grievance studies’ have contributed to the politicised corruption of scholarship. “The peer reviewer system, which should filter out the biases that enable these problems to grow and gain influence,” they write, “is inadequate within grievance studies.” This framing of the ‘problem,’ however, actually misunderstands and distorts the generosity of peer reviewers, renders peer-reviewed journals as ‘the absolute gold standard of knowledge production’, and ignores all other sites of knowledge production. For the ‘hoax’ authors, academic journals work as the final repository of truth within a scientific community that they imagine as a coherent, consensual and idealised abstraction – but this is simply not the case.
Criticizing grievance studies’ alleged lack of rigour, they fail to address other sources of knowledge that also shape the world they imagine as being under threat, and that are outside the scope of the academic journals they targeted (Feminists do speak and publish in languages beyond English, you know). While rather obvious to those of us who spend our days teaching, ‘conferencing’, and talking (to colleagues, policy-makers, activists, practitioners and anyone else who wants to be in conversation), knowledge is also produced beyond journal publications. To attack journals as symptomatic is to mistake one part of the field for its entirety.
Their claim that there is something particularly wrong about ‘grievance studies’ also entails some spectacular ‘looking away’ because, surprise!, similar critiques have been also tested in other scientific fields (see, for instance, this blog post for the case of psychology). Thus, if anything, what the ‘hoax’ reveals as the problem in academic publishing is less related to the supposed flaws of ‘grievance studies’, and more with how Pluckrose et al. imagine the peer-reviewed system works. Peer review is not simply about checks and balances, it is a process which relies on the principles of good faith and honesty, something that they intentionally corrupted. Yes, peer review is a means of enhancing the rigor of fields, but its effect is not to mark any and every peer-reviewed article as unquestionable dogma. Having an article published in a feminist journal does not mean that its argument has become accepted by all feminists.
Academic journals, and journals with anti-racist, anti-sexist (etc.) ideological commitments in particular, are sites of struggles over knowledge that we understand as unfinished-testing sites: to publish is to invite response, dissent and critical engagement, not to have the final word. This is manifest in the discussion of standpoint theory, which Pluckrose et al. misrepresent and hold in particular ire, (see grievance 1). Curiously, they suggest feminist academia encourages ‘an epistemological and moral relativism’, yet critique feminist thought for its unique and pernicious dogmatism. If you turn to the ‘comments and reply’ section of Signs Journal special issue on standpoint theory, you’ll see the range of perspectives and disagreements feminists have had about its successes and flaws.
Grievance 3 – ‘absurd and horrible’ theses
At the centre of the Pluckrose et al. ‘hoax’ is a cry of outrage: how could such “outlandish or intentionally broken” papers get published? In fact, given the “shoddy methodologies” “dubious ethical implications” and “considerable silliness”, modeled by these papers, they should have gone straight into the shredder. That this wasn’t the case; that a few articles were published, and that even more of them were given feedback, is cold hard evidence that in ‘grievance studies’ “just about anything can be made to work, so long as it falls within the moral orthodoxy and demonstrates understanding of the existing literature”.
In other words, Pluckrose et al. suggest that worthless and irresponsible articles will be published in ‘grievance studies’ if they have the ‘right’ politics. Leaving aside their frankly ridiculously narrow representation of feminist politics (writing this blog was testimony to the adage that if you put 3 feminists in a room, you will get 5 opinions), we thought that it was important to actually read the articles that made it through to publication (especially as so little of the media coverage seems to have done so). It turns out that to claim their ‘hoax’ as a success, Pluckrose et al. don’t just have to misrepresent other people’s work, but they also have to misrepresent their own. Here is a closer look at one example:
“Hooters” consists of a (faked) ethnographic study of men who go to restaurants where “scantily-clad, attractive female servers are a defining feature/gimmick”. Pluckrose et al. tell us that it is ridiculous that this article was published because “[t]he data are clearly nonsense and conclusions drawn from it are unwarranted.”
The research, however, claims to be derived from 99 visits that resulted in 10,000 minutes of recorded conversation and over 600 pages of field notes. If this weren’t fictionalised, why would a journal editor or peer reviewer consider this vast amount of data worthless nonsense? After all, the only claims that the article makes from this data are that it offers a description of an understudied site, and that it presents a hypothesis that the particular appeal of Hooters-like restaurants is that they allow men to ‘act out’ ideas of masculinity such as “sexual objectification and male dominance” that are increasingly unacceptable in other social sites.
To some extent this article should be low on publication appeal because it is boring: Feminism has not eradicated sexism – surprise. Gendered hierarchies and capitalist systems reinforce each other – surprise. Masculinity and femininity remain important to many people’s’ sense of self – surprise. But then again, in a context where the US President normalised his description of sexual assault as ‘locker room talk’, surely we do want to gain insights on the versions of masculinity being endorsed in male-dominated spaces?
In their discussion of this article for Aero magazine, Pluckrose et al. suggest that it was published solely because it aligns with an outlandish feminist orthodoxy that “problematize[s] heterosexual men’s attraction to women”. And yet, to argue that male sexual dominance and objectification are neither good for everyone, nor an uncontrollable and universally evident biological expression that society can’t engage doesn’t really seem that outlandish?
Upon closer inspection, it turns out that the article barely makes an ideological point anyway. Instead, it presents itself as a descriptive first-step in a larger project to understand the social conditions that endorse and facilitate male dominance over women. “Hooters” is replete with caveats and a keen awareness of its own limitations (perhaps thanks to the time and effort of very generous peer reviewers). This disjuncture between what they claim these articles say, and what they argue as a point of fact, is symptomatic of their entire project’s lack of ethics.
In a political climate wherein gender, sexuality, and critical race studies are under persistent attack, we feel it’s important to frame this ‘hoax’ as a call to keep studying our ‘grievances,’ with all the interdisciplinary tools we have, and with a fervour, passion and clarity that stands up to the malicious attempts to undermine us.
Pluckrose et al. claim to be concerned with ‘important issues relevant to social justice’: they spent a year producing fictional material to help us understand what social justice really is and how we should address it in our research and broader scholarship. There is, however, no such a thing as a univocal and straight-forward way of understanding what social justice means, especially when contested notions of what count as justice, for whom and in what terms have been at the forefront of historical debates within feminist, queer and critical race studies. These are ongoing debates, ones we must keep having.
In this vein, maybe Pluckrose et al. could spend the next year actually doing the research that they faked. This could, perhaps, contribute towards understanding the dynamics of dominance that they so gleefully — and with apparent ease — spent their time narrating.
This blog post is part of a series of posts on transnational anti-gender politics jointly called by the LSE Department of Gender Studies and Engenderings with the aim of discussing how we can make sense of and resist the current attacks on gender studies, ‘gender ideology’ and individuals working within the field.
Emma Spruce is a Teaching Fellow in Gender, Sexuality and Human Rights at LSE, where she co-convenes a course on feminist epistemologies with Jacob Breslow. Her research examines the intersections of sexuality, space and place; exploring the movement of sexual politics across scales (from the nation to the neighbourhood), as well as the ways that place and space acquire meaning through narratives of sexuality and gender.
Jacob Breslow is a Teaching Fellow in Transnational Gender and Sexuality Studies at LSE, where he co-convenes a course on feminist epistemologies with Emma Spruce. He researches contemporary U.S. social justice movements and the ways in which the idea of childhood operates within and against them. Currently, he is working on a book with the University of Minnesota Press, titled: After Childhood: Ambivalence, Belonging, and the Psychic Life of the Child.
Tomás Ojeda is a PhD candidate at LSE Department of Gender Studies and member of the Engenderings editorial collective. His research examines the political place of Chilean psychology in the making up of the sexual subject of diversity, by analysing the sexual epistemologies at work in the so-called turn to diversity in contemporary clinical practice.
 As a side note, did it feel good to write those descriptions of sexual objectification? It definitely did not feel good to read them. And your tone, Pluckrose et al., makes the claim that that the ‘hoax’ is not an ideologically motivated attack difficult to believe.
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