Social science and humanities academics – dawning of a new era*?

The week before I took a much needed holiday I received a Deaf studies related doctorate and news of a new publication.  I’m eager to take time out to sign (yes, not sing!) the praises of the latest research work, but also to throw forward a suggestion that we are living through the potential ‘dawning of a new era’ in academic-related research work in the Deaf studies field.

Here I’ll explain my thinking a bit further.

It’s hard to see this sometimes when engrossed in my genetic related research (Teresa Blankmeyer-Burkes work being an exception),  but I was thinking through all the academics, Deaf and hearing, who have most recently achieved PhD ‘stardom’ and basking in the fact that so much of it is social science related, as opposed to, for example, linguistics or psychology.

Now I’m not at all knocking academics from those disciplines: I was pleased to receive information from a Deaf friend engaged in linguistics research that his thesis has been submitted, and that follows hot on the heels of another, and I know at least one more on the way.  That’s in addition to hearing friends who have also achieved their PhD in the last year or two.

My focus is on what seems a little boom in ground-breaking social science research in the corner of Europe in the last 2-3 years: I’m thinking of John Bosco-Conama’s challenges to the use of the term equality; Hilary Sutherland’s bilingualism through the eyes of a Deaf child; and Mike Gulliver’s research on French Deaf schools that provides us with new perspectives on Deaf Space. [While here I want to also cite Janie Gonclavez research on Deaf pedagogy in Brazil, achieved at the Centre for Deaf Studies and which deserves a mention as it outlines unique approaches that our Euro-centric education departments could learn from.]

Three other friends are either at the end of completing their PhDs or nearly there, one other I know is near completion – all within the social sciences, all Deaf people – and two others (one hearing) have just started theirs.

The numbers add up but the subject matter and their quality is equally as important.

However, I want to return to the two mentioned earlier, the first being Donna West, who has just had a book joint-published, entitled ‘Deafhearingfamilylife’ and kindly put up on Mike Gulliver’s blog, which can be seen here on Facebook. Donna tells the story of a narrative inquiry with three deaf-hearing families about deaf hearing family life – she was once a teacher of Deaf children and has reflected on her experiences, and developed some valuable insights based on her experience.

[She is giving a talk to launch the book at the Centre for Deaf studies, on April 25th. The event will take place from 5-7pm in room 410 of the Graduate School of Education, 35 Berkeley Square, Bristol, BS8 1JA.  Discounted copies of “Signs of Hope: Deafhearing Family Life” available.  BSL interpreters provided  🙂 ]

It is, however, the work of Annelies Kusters that I want to focus on.  Annelies achieved her PhD in January 2012 and in between doing so spent time commuting between four countries, getting married and having a child! (Mine was achieved in four cities within close promixity to each other and I thought that was tough!)

I have seen a presentation of a summary of her PhD and am now eager to read it. Here is an outline of what I understand of her work.  Annelies undertook anthropological research in the village of Adamarobe, Ghana, and brought back with her a breath of fresh air: a perspective on a community that was sociological, emic in nature (insider-research led), and groundbreaking in developing a theory that, on my initial understanding, straddles Deafhood with concepts of Deaf Space. Many research-led projects take place in these villages where there are a higher proportion of deaf people than is common, often due to a high rate of genetic incidence and emergence of sign language as a result (mexico, bali, nicragua, to name a few).  These projects are focused on the language used by native Deaf people but there is little depth to how Deaf people within these villages lead their lives in relation to their hearing peers or amongst themselves.

Annelies spent time in the village for several months in the early part of her research, where she conducted observer-type learning, asking questions of the villagers mainly to develop an understanding of their day to day lives.  Although she was learning the language during this time, it was only on returning to the village for a second, longer time, several months later, that she began to be more active in interviewing, exploring villagers cultural life, and carrying out inquiries in line with an anthropological approach.

She touches on the language in many respects but is more concerned with assessing transnational parallels with communities worldwide. The people living in these villages lead very different lives to those of us privileged to be able to conduct this type of research, and Annelies’ findings not only question the utopia and romance of Groce’s ‘everyone here uses sign language’, they inform our understanding of Deafhood and Deaf space, and challenge us consider broader aspects of what it means to be Deaf: socio-economic factors, ethics of research within such communities, Deaf-Deaf and Deaf-hearing relationships, and many more.

I would highly recommend a read of it; a thorough review would be even better!  Annelies work will, I hope, inspire others to carry out further social science based research: Annelies PhD can be found here through Mike Gullivers blog and I understand she will be producing video recordings of presentations summarising the research very shortly, hopefully toward the end of April or early May.

Finally, at the end of this excitable entry, I want to end with a more sober mention that the growth of Deaf academics is something that is in urgent need of examination.

We Deaf academics, along with the wider Deaf middle-class, and the Deaf intelligentsia, oppressed and downgraded by oralism,  are increasingly in a position of greater social mobility compared to millions of hearing people : while it would be a mistake to suggest we are entirely free of the chains of oppression, it has been long overdue that our privileged positions require discussion of how funding for research work can be genuinely based upon what these communities want to see.  How do academics ‘give back’ to the communities upon whom they owe their careers, and in what ways?  I do not refer to finding funding to undertake more research (and hence also prolong our own careers).  But, what constitutes ‘giving back’, and who decides what should be further researched and how? What would it require for it to happen?

That requires open and honest socio-political analysis and exploration: it’s something that I am addressing with Dai O’Brien, and we hope to have available a thought-provoking article shortly, so watch this space!

(*with thanks to the Specials)