Austerity and the Tragic Triumph of Academic Ideology over Reflected Experience

Charles Sharpe writes :

I noticed recently that a welcome contributor of articles to the goodenoughcaring Journal felt moved to write an apology in the preamble to an essay he had written about residential child care for an academic journal. His regret was that his essay was based solely on observations and reflections from his own long experience. Fortunately the journal’s editor knew an excellent piece of writing when he read it and published the piece. No sooner was I beginning to wonder why the author’s regret had been necessary when the answer came in a different kind of apology received by the goodenoughcaring Journal from another generous contributor. He wrote, “In the age of austerity measures, rising tuition fees and falling university applications, I’m currently trying to get as many peer-reviewed publications as possible in as many ‘high impact’ journals as possible. Seemingly in this era of the Research Exercise Framework (REF)*, the ‘impact’ of academic work is measured by how many citations the work receives in other academic journals as opposed to how many people actually read it. For this reason I’ve been unable to contribute an article to the Journal lately and hope that you understand my reasons and accept my apologies.”

Another contributor writes, “I am a ‘pure social scientist’ by background but the whole thrust of my teaching and research over the years has, until very recently, always been focused on the life experiences of young people growing up in care. I now find that I am directed to study the inner mechanisms of the human mind in a purely psychological way, and to forget about what happens to these processes when they work upon the real lives of children. There seems to be no place any more for qualitative research.”

Of course academic research and writing importantly inform the field of interest which goodenoughcaring is concerned with and we prize the significant number of excellent academic pieces which have been published in our Journal. However academic writing is only a part of our story and the care of children and young people has been equally enriched by the writing, speaking and performing of those who have been in care, of those who have been practitioners, as well as all the poets, songwriters, composers, performers, novelists, playwrights and others who have helped us gain further insight of the human predicament.

* http//



Cynthia Cross comments : I so agree with you. I look at some of these research papers and say to myself ‘so what’ or you have not thought about some factor which would change it all. We are always trying to avoid the complexity of things with disastrous results. Also we are keeping out of further education the very people who could really help the next batch of workers to do the job!

Michael Davidson writes : we should recognise that the scholar/researcher/scientist has a valid role and that it is different from the practitioner’s but it is regrettable that their important relationship breaks down very often because they do not speak the same language.

Jeremy Millar comments : I sympathise hugely with those academic colleagues who are being badgered and ‘bullied’ to chalk up citation ‘hits’. Coming from practice relatively recently without being ‘socialised’ into the academic culture I have found it interesting that there is an apparent lack of critical thinking surrounding this whole evidenced based approach. It appears that some buy into the academic status and dutifully churn stuff out. I tend to refer to this, as research into the bleeding obvious. Others contribute genuinely new takes on the workings of our field and within that do critique many of the policies, generally ideologically rather than evidence driven, that conspire to thwart, divert and distract us from addressing the self evident truths regarding children and families that come to the attention of the state’s mechanisms of oppression. It seems to me, in my regressive idealistic youthful state, that academics need to take a lead in highlighting the paradox that determines that as global corporate interests supported by ideological political opportunism create ever more ‘complex problems’ for them to ‘solve’ using the ‘neutral research evidence base’, they are in fact furthering the abject conditions of poor and vulnerable people when the evidence base exists, and has for many years, to actually take steps to end social injustice.

Thankfully the REF fascists don’t loom as large at the school of social studies at the Robert Gordon University and we have our in-house social scientist to offset the burden.

John Stein writes : thought on having one’s work cited. I remember how thrilled I was when I found someone had cited my book in her work. Then I looked up where she had cited it. It was in a paragraph in which virtually every sentence had at least one citation, and often two or more. The sentence for which my work was cited contained two other references, if memory serves me right. Thing is, I don’t remember ever expressing that thought, or even having had that thought. It looked to me as if she had not read my book, but rather only cited it, along with many other books and articles, in a lengthy bibliography to impress people with how well read and informed she was. But perhaps it was just an error.

Thoughts on quantitative research : I have learned much from quantitative research. Writing my book on residential treatment in the early 1990’s, I spent months in university libraries reviewing years worth of every journal they had on psychology, sociology, social work, and anything else that might be relevant. Sadly, I found surprisingly few articles that were relevant to what I wanted to write. Because of the need to quantify and measure and control variables, articles were so case-specific or situation-specific as to have limited applicability to practice. Then, I figured out the reason for my frustration. In the residential setting, it is extremely difficult to control all other variables while you study just one. For example, shortly before taking a new position in a small group home, I had read an article about the positive effects on elementary school children from replacing standard fluorescent light bulbs with natural or daylight fluorescent bulbs. My new boss allowed me to make the change shortly after my arrival. It was expensive. I would have loved to do a study to document whether there were, indeed, any positive changes, but that would have been counterproductive for the program. First, I would have had to leave things as they were in the home for sufficient time to collect baseline data. Unfortunately, changes were needed immediately. We had to hire two new staff. Staff scheduling had to be changed because of low staff morale. The punitive point system needed to be changed. Older boys who served as a role models were ready to be discharged back to their own homes. New boys who needed placement would pose challenges for the milieu. Behaviour improved dramatically during my first few months, but there was no way to attribute improvement to any one specific change. Qualitative research might have been more meaningful, but no one had the time.The priority was treating children, not publishing research.

Thoughts on evidence-based practice : who can argue with evidence-based practice? Well, for one thing, evidence-based studies are often either so case- or situation-specific as to have limited relevance to other cases or situations. That is, they don’t readily generalize to other people or other settings. It is much more effective, in my opinion, to use one’s knowledge about child development, developmental psychology, sociology, social psychology, group dynamics behavioural psychology, to be creative and flexible in developing programs and interventions to meet the needs of real, unique people in real and unique settings. Too often, I have seen an over-reliance on evidence-based practice serve to limit practice rather than to inform and expand practice.

While I recognize the importance of quantitative studies in developing one’s knowledge and understanding, including my own, in my opinion, essays and articles based on observation, reflection, and experience can do more to inform practice than quantitative studies.