The Dead Hand of (Western) Academe: Community Informatics in a Less Developed Country Context

Posted on June 9, 2011


I’m just back from a variety of recent travels–lecturing, workshopping, seminaring, meeting with academics and researchers in various parts of the Asian less developed countries (LDCs).  Specifically I was invited to discuss community informatics with academics/researchers in 3 universities in 3 rather different regions of Asia.

In reflecting on these meetings I realized the very strong strain of consistency in our discussions.  In each instance, the academics, almost all of whom had recent Ph.D.s from research universities in Developed Countries (DC’s) returned home to find that their recently acquired skills and areas of expert knowledge were of little direct value in their home environments.

A consistent theme that emerged from my discussions was confusion and frustration that many of these colleagues expressed at trying to fit the dead hand of their received discipline based knowledge and training into the urgent vibrancy of the requirements for their skills and engagement in the world just outside their doors.

How exactly could these recent Social Science and IT/computer science Ph.D.s shoehorn their hyper-specialized, theory and methodology oriented, super advanced technology focused and platformed research and instruction into the much more rural, problem-based, and people-centred issues towards which they were being urged (by their governments, university administrations, and personal consciences) to respond.

Let me say first that these are the best – the most committed and the most aware of the academics and researchers in their respective countries—they are the ones who are asking the questions and who not incidentally had sufficient success within their respective formal educational structures to get scholarships and other forms of financial support to obtain degrees in DC universities.

Ph.D.s from major research universities in computer science, physics, economics, social sciences—these are the best and the brightest of the graduates and sufficiently committed to their countries of origin to not take the easy and most lucrative way out and stay around in the DCs as academic émigrés.  These folks chose to return and hopefully use their newly acquired skills in support of economic and social development in their respective countries.

The problem though is that having been through years of education and the forcible narrowing of their intellectual pursuits into the formalized disciplinary structures and sub-disciplines and sub-sub-disciplines of the typical DC graduate program they return to their countries where an interest in or possible application either in research or in instruction for those sub-sub-disciplines is essentially non-existent.

The problem is that the process of creating conceptual rigour within the conventional disciplinary structures in DC graduate schools is precisely what is not needed in tackling the immediate issues and areas requiring research attention or professional training in an LDC environment.  The difficulty is that what would be useful in support of economic and social development in an LDC’s is not for the most part discipline based let alone sub- or sub-sub or sub-sub-sub discipline based; rather, responding to the local problems and opportunities in the LDC requires multi- or transdisciplinary approaches and a high degree of flexibility and pragmatism in response—precisely what is bred out of graduates in a typical DC Ph.D. program.

In the area in which I work–Community Informatics—community-based use of ICTs, those with Computer or Information or Social Science backgrounds aren’t for the most part equipped to support activities on the ground enabling local development with ICTs.

The issues are too broad—involving an understanding and sensitivity (and not incidentally research skills) that can accommodate both technical and social issues; the questions at least the technical ones are too trivial and mundane to be of academic interest in DC institutions; and yet those are the ones that need to be addressed on the ground if there is to be effective use of ICTs in the LDC. The type of engagement required with these issues is a practical and boots-dirtying effort whereas academe in the DC creates the expectation of pristine labs, mathematical formulations, and computer simulations as an ultimate goal.

And so, the questions that I was asked to address as I entered into discussions with my colleagues in the LDCs was how could they retrain themselves from their level of extreme specialization, abstraction, and narrowness into a path which would allow them to directly engage with the real issues that surrounded them. That was their interest in Community Informatics—it was the focus on identifying and responding to real problems on the ground, working towards solutions in a pragmatic and discipline neutral way, engaging with practice and practitioners and the dilemmas of local policy rather than attempting to maintain a false face of place independent, neutrality and disinterest.

There are also very real contradictions at play—between university administrations which on the one hand have adopted Western academic strategies, disciplinary structures and promotion and tenure policies (publication in prestige journals as the basis for P&T for example) while at the same time urging faculty to engage with local communities and local issues.  Equally governments as funders on the one hand push researchers to engage with local issues while at the same time insisting that universities aspire to being world class competitive on the basis of criteria which more or less completely ignore local LDC realities.

The dilemma is particularly acute when it comes to teaching.  Should recently returned Ph.D.s be teaching what he or she has learned–the most advanced techniques and technology strategies few of which offer employment opportunities locally, or should they be teaching issues and approaches which have local relevance but which would not directly enable students to go abroad for advanced training or for employment in DC firms or in local firms with DC orientations and markets.

As well of course, students expect to be taught from DC text books and with DC formulations and often have aspirations to use these educations for emigration or local employment in DC based companies (fostered with government support) while ignoring the fact that most will have little opportunity for employment or emigration but will most certainly find themselves in one way or another needing to respond to the immediate issues in their domestic environments.

The use of metrics such as the singularly DC biased university league tables, the use of DC based publication metrics, and so on simply reinforces the dilemmas around local country realism and engagement on the part of academics and researchers in the LDC environment.  The result is a very great deal of frustration among the best of LDC academics.  Their training, skills and opportunity structure is one which impels them to disengage from their local environment to the degree possible and to aspire not to engage locally but rather to enter into global structures of opportunity while the best or the most notable and mobile look towards the first opportunity to migrate back and out.

As some LDC’s transition economically into middle income countries the pressure (and opportunity) to migrate is dissipating somewhat but this simply results in a bifurcated system (mirroring an accelerating local social and economic divide) where some (generally the most elite) institutions become part of the global system while others remain in and attempt to respond to the local environment.

The situation in the larger and more advanced of the LDC’s—Brazil, South Africa, India, China—differs somewhat from the pattern described above as these countries are large enough to develop and support institutions which can both participate in (and thus accommodate) DC research and researchers while to some degree at least being able to focus attention on local development. Even (or particularly) within these countries there remains a strong tension between those who advocate for development focused research and instruction and those who opt for participation in DC focused research areas and activities.