Throwback Thursday: Research and Socioeconomic Privilege

This post by Dr Anaise Irvine first appeared on Thesislink in April 2016.

The writer Virginia Woolf famously said that in order to write, all a woman needed was “a room of her own and five hundred a year.”

Woolf was making a point about the barriers facing female writers, but her point has been taken more widely. In writerly circles, the phrase “a room of one’s own and five hundred pounds” is shorthand for the privacy and financial independence needed to produce written work.

Woolf’s two requirements point to two ways in which writing is enabled by socioeconomic privilege. First, you need a private room (Woolf specified a lock on the door). This affords the writer the quiet space to work in peace, to hear one’s own thoughts and commit them to paper without interruption.

Secondly, you need money. Woolf specified “five hundred a year.” That’s English pounds, and that was in the 1920s. Accounting for inflation, Woolf was specifying a required guaranteed income of around NZ$54,000.

I don’t think the cash has to be in the room, but okay!

There’s an element of truth to Woolf’s argument. It’s incredibly difficult to write if you don’t have privacy – if you have kids making demands of you, or a roommate with a drum kit. It’s also incredibly difficult to write if you’re constantly worried about money, taking lots of part-time jobs, scraping together an income, and stressing about bills.

But what does this mean for the state of writing, and particularly for the state of research?

It means that there is a socioeconomic skew in the world of published writing. Writing is easiest under comfortable conditions, and so a disproportionate amount of writing comes from people in positions of comfort. Because writing reflects the author, that means that published writing tends to disproportionately focus on lives of wealth and leisure (Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Katherine Mansfield, I’m looking at you!). The stories of those who struggle tend to be underrepresented.

The same can be true of research. Masters and doctoral programmes are not accessible to all. People of independent means are more likely to be able to enrol, and people from comfortably well-off families are more likely to have had the educations necessary to get to postgraduate level in the first place. That’s not to say that we’re all Rockefellers in the postgrad world – an awful lot of us reuse our teabags – but it’s much more common to find students from upper- or middle-class backgrounds than from poverty backgrounds. That can lead to an academic environment with serious socioeconomic biases, which can influence the type of research that is performed and the type of education that students receive.

This is changing, to an extent. Anyone with an internet connection can publish their writing, and far greater numbers of students from ever-diversifying backgrounds are entering postgraduate programmes. Many of us don’t have a room of our own and $54k a year (as nice as that sounds), and scholarships go some way towards leveling the playing field.

But even in an age of democratised education, a disproportionate amount of research is done by people who are above-averagely wealthy. Because a lot of research with human participants is performed on university students, there is also a potential for research results to reflect the experiences of those who are lucky, wealthy, and intelligent enough to attend university. All of this raises the question: how can we ensure that, when we research and write, we do so inclusively?

A good place to start is with self-interrogation. How diverse are my participants? Am I working with any assumptions based on my own socioeconomic background? Are there any socioeconomic biases in my field, and what am I doing to challenge them?

For example: I’m a literary scholar, and there is a long tradition in literary scholarship of working on the “canon” – the books that have been deemed to have exceptional literary quality. Unfortunately, the canon is overwhelmingly English (or written in English), and it disproportionately represents stories of privilege. More and more scholars in my field are starting to study books (or poems, or plays, or song lyrics) that fall outside the canon, but that have a different and valuable perspective to offer. Some traditionalists view this as a “dumbing down” of our field of scholarship, but for many, it’s a way of broadening our relevance and acknowledging that many forms of writing can offer insights into the human condition.

Another great step is to encourage students at undergraduate level in your teaching. Recognise that students from all kinds of backgrounds have something unique to bring to the classroom, and encourage everybody to speak up. The best way to bring variety to the postgraduate population is to nurture variety in undergraduates, and to let all kinds of talents shine.

In their paper “Poverty PhDs: Funds of knowledge, poverty, and professional identity in academia” (2011), three academics from poverty backgrounds write about the particular cultural capital that they brought to their educations which differed from that of their middle- or upper-class peers. They specifically note that they possessed “a critical analytic awareness of power relations and structures and a sense of how to navigate them” (Cutri, Manning, & Chun, p.306). That’s a brilliant skill for any postgrad student, and a great reminder that the more diversity we have in the postgraduate world – and in academia as a whole – the more we benefit from a range of perspectives.

Sources

Cutri, R. M., Manning, J. M., & Chun, M. (2011). Poverty PhDs: Funds of knowledge, poverty, and professional identity in academia. Studying Teacher Education, 7(3), 299-314.

Woolf, V. (1928). A room of one’s own. Retrieved from http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200791.txt

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink. She has a research background in science and narrative. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. She has previously researched fictional representations of evolution and quantum mechanics. She has taught such diverse texts as Blade Runner and Bridget Jones’s Diary, and her most obscure skill is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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