306 Research Portfolio Post 6: Marginalization and Activism in Academia

Our seminars throughout the semester have presented different ontological perspectives that explore what there is to know.  The readings from Go and Morris challenge past notions of “truth” with the example of sociologist, Du Bois, whose work was overlooked by an academic system favoring white scholars.[1]  The Malik article brings up the concept of “decolonizing” philosophy and questions the syllabi of subjects dominated by Western ideas.[2]  These perspectives resonate well with interpretivism and show how knowledge is socially constructed in different contexts.  Knowledge and constructions of truth can be contested and changed over time.  Historically, academic elites (Western white males) have controlled the orthodoxy within the sciences.  Because elites want to remain in control they naturally suppress heterodoxy found in alternative perspectives.  The most notable example from the reading was the heterodoxy of Du Bois that there were not in fact biological differences between blacks and whites.

Further historical reevaluations of academia reveal previously silenced voices.  While there is no “alternative” history of any academic tradition (one that includes all identities) it is possible for scholars to look to include the perspectives of minority scholars.  Some argue that historically minority scholars were not present or did not create important work.  While that argument might hold in the ancient times of Aristotle, it is unwise to turn a blind eye to the more recent achievements of minorities and women.  Scholars must recognize and acknowledge that criteria of “valuable” contributions have been shaped and maintained by those in power.  While we cannot change the path of history, professors and researchers can work proactively to integrate alternative voices into our curriculum.  That is not to say that we should take another extreme and cut out the white-man completely.  It is true that white men created the foundation of most scholarship.

Before our class discussion I did not consider the implications of simply creating new classes with alternative academic perspectives without integrating these into the core curriculum.  This “separate but equal” approach continues to marginalize communities because they are classified as “other” from the mainstream.  Looking forward, it should not remain solely the responsibility of minority scholars to bring in other perspectives.  Scholars can challenge themselves to look at existing power structures in their research.  Professor Ranganathan described her work as looking sympathetically but not uncritically at the struggles of the oppressed. In my own academic endeavors, I too hope to similarly understand meaning making but not go so far as to promoting an agenda.  I think it is interesting to unpack heterodoxies even if they do not always call for specific policy changes or revisions of history.  Though we should not directly address the question of whether it was right or wrong to include certain academic perspectives, it is valuable to evaluate marginalized perspectives because they have the potential to spark new ways of thinking or even new criteria for evaluating scholarship.

[1] Go, Julian. “The Case for Scholarly Reparations.” Berkeley Journal of Sociology  (2016).

Morris, Aldon. “From Du Bois to Black Lives Matter.” Berkeley Journal of Sociology  (2016).

[2] Malik, Kenan. “Are Soas Students Right to ‘Decolonise’ Their Minds from Western Philosophers?” The Guardian  (2017).


306 Research Portfolio Post 5: Grappling with the Division of the Sciences

Bacon and Weber insist on a separation between science and values in response to previous philosophies that emphasized positivist scientific knowledge that points to universal moral understanding.  With the development of the sciences over the centuries it is not surprising that Bacon calls for an invigorating inquiry into the natural sciences.  In his view there should be a hard distinction between the natural and moral sciences in which the moral should remain untouched.  Bacon associates theology with the moral sciences.  Bacon suggests that ethics might come into play only at a much later time to inform policy and perhaps morals.  For now, science can be used to understand the practical functions of our world since we are far from realizing an end to scientific innovation with a universal set of morals.[1]

Weber models science and religion as contending spheres.  These spheres including science, religion, politics, Christianity, and other religions are incompatible.  Eventually we must choose.  While Weber chooses science he notes that any single sphere is not inherently “better”.  Science cannot give definitive answers to which sphere holds the universal truths.[2]

The continuing progress of science creates truths anchored in interpretivism’s “situated knowledge”.  In other words, in modern thought it is difficult to find universal certainty in any kind of science whether it be natural or social.  Bacon and Weber create these distinctions in order to give more room for practical scientific inquiry.  Distinctions between sciences arguably allow for greater innovation and “flourishing” apart from direct moralistic questions.  For example, scientists working on new technologies might be able to focus on the nuts and bolts of their work without allowing moralistic goals to shape or interfere with their work.  Further, separating science and morals allows for the change in values over time as society develops.  It seems to offer some middle ground in a world hesitant to give up its religious and dogmatic origins.  In a way this separation makes a lot of since because the natural sciences share characteristics with religions in how they create rituals with dedicated followers.

Without the distinction between science and ethics, my project would be difficult to develop.  Though my research about “how She’s the First constructs female empowerment and to what extent that understanding is shared with its members” might touch on value dimensions, it considers issues of power structures in international female development in a genealogical context.  I aim to understand constructions of empowerment by looking to how the current meanings came to be.  I might criticize the grounds on which these understandings are based.  However, I do not take on directly whether these meanings are in themselves right or wrong.  While such debate might be interesting in conversation, a research project that rests on universal values would be difficult to defend and might fall victim evidence based in moral relativism.

[1] Bacon, Francis, Lisa Jardine, and Michael Silverthorne. The New Organon. Cambridge [U.K.]: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[2] Lassman, Peter, Irving Velody, Herminio Martins, and Max Weber. Max Weber’s “Science As a Vocation”. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

306 Research Portfolio Post #4: Abstract Draft

Development agencies and international organizations construct female education programs as unquestionably good solutions to issues in developing states.  Though there is much written about how the women in these programs make sense of their “empowerment”, the concept of “empowerment” remains ambiguous.  My research extends current understandings of “empowerment” by examining how college women who work with female education programs make sense of “empowerment”.  Specifically, I research the question “How does She’s the First construct “empowerment” and to what extent is that understanding shared with participants?”  Using discourse analysis of social media campaigns and interviews, I research how individuals take up a uniform discourse and make different sense of it.  I examine literature from developmental, feminist, and educational schools of thought regarding “empowerment”.  I argue that women understand “empowerment” differently even when international organizations transmit a uniform narrative of the benefits of educational development.  This research is important because it questions the overuse of “empowerment”.  It has larger implications for developing future international education programs that take on a more dimensional view of power structures.

306 Research Portfolio Post #3: Grappling with Ethical Naturalism (and Positivism)

I find Gorski’s “ethical naturalism” convincing as it suggests that social science can offer genuine insights into human well-being.  Ethical naturalism maintains that “values are fact laden” and that “the natural and social sciences can correct and expand our ethical knowledge.”[1] Gorski acknowledges that while values and facts influence one another, we should not address moral questions directly.  Rather social sciences help us investigate values that are open to change.  Facts and values are not inseparable but independent.  Scientific inquiry might help us achieve a deeper understanding into what it means to flourish as a human.  For example, Gorski mentions Sen’s “capabilities approach.”[2]  I find that Gorski’s position addresses many of the shortcomings of both extremes (positivism/moral relativism).  By understanding the social sciences more deeply we may be able to even change our values toward those more favorable of human flourishing.  Still, Gorski does not advocate for end-all-be-all answer to human suffering through moral and scientific truths.[3]

Both Harris and Comte take positions at the positivism end of the spectrum of the social sciences.  Harris argues that the separation between science and values is an illusion and that the discussion of values is the discussion of facts.[4]  Further, he argues that on the continuum of facts there are truths about human flourishing.[5]  He argues for the need of a universal conception of human values and the disregard of certain cultural opinions. We must admit that we do have the answers to needless human suffering.  This positivist view contradicts Gorski’s distinction of the extent to which values influence social scientific inquiry by asserting that values are facts in themselves.[6]

Comte takes a radically positivist view by asserting that “there can be no real knowledge but that which is based on observed facts.[7]  In other words, true knowledge about human well-being cannot be derived only from theological tradition.  He argues that over time morality will fall under the umbrella of “positive philosophy” much like the other hard sciences.[8]  Through this process, a unified doctrine will emerge that will transform the human race.  His view agrees much with Harris’ notion of values as facts.  However, it contradicts Gorski’s ethical naturalism by disregarding the possibility of change in values informed by fact.  If philosophical values become positivist truths then they cannot be altered.[9]

I do not believe that my own research lends itself to normative discovery that will uncover the truth to human well-being.  My project relies on the normative assumption that international organizations construct female education as an unquestionable good.  5566I think that my project most closely corresponds to Gorski’s ethical naturalism by aiming to understand empowerment.  I acknowledge the ethical implications of my research.  Understanding empowerment might help to develop more effective programs to help human flourishing.  However, the aim of my project is not to discover the positivist truth to human well-being through empowerment.  In its constructivist methodology, I believe that it naturally shies away from such extreme normative discoveries and rather focuses on meaning making.

[1] Gorski, Phillip S. “Beyond the Fact/Value Distinction: Ethical Naturalism and the Social Sciences.” Springer Science+Business Media 50 (2013): 543,551.

[2] Ibid., 551.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Harris, Sam. “Science can answer moral question.” Ted2010

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Gertrud Lenzer, ed., Auguste Comte and Positivism: The Essential Writings (New York: Harper, 1975). 2.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

306 Research Portfolio Post #2: Culture, Politics, and Science

In the readings by Dr. Johnson, Plato, and Tocqueville, democratic principles based in individualism and equality prejudice citizens against making normative arguments about values and the ends we should pursue.  Johnson’s perspective on values and relativity, and Plato and Tocqueville’s claims about the oppressiveness of democracy prompt me to reflect on my own experiences in a democratic reality and how I might reconcile these with values in research.

Dr. Johnson addresses values through the concept of “lazy relativism” in which people disengage from debate and assert that truths exist for every person.  Johnson argues that extreme relativism is incompatible with normative beliefs.[1]  If one truly believes in a value than a view that opposes that value cannot be equally valid.[2]  In a democratic system, it is often easier for political debate to veer away from moral judgements.  However, it is impossible to remove values from social life.  Johnson emphasizes that it might be more productive for us to stand by and defend our values, even when an absolute truth is impossible to discover.[3]

Plato argues that the values of freedom and equality in the democratic system undermine traditional value claims of better/worse.[4]  Citizens in a democratic system are naturally hostile toward authority.  Although democracy appears “to be the fairest regime” it contains its own oppressive authority through its dogma of equality.[5]  Plato asserts that through democracy and resistance to aristocratic authority, democrats resort to insolence, anarchy, wastefulness, and shamelessness.[6]  More importantly, Plato characterizes democracy much like that of lazy relativism saying that a democrat “shakes his head at all this [pleasures] and says that all are alike and must be honored on an equal basis.”[7] In other words, Plato disapproves in the concept that all men’s values should be valued the equally since men might have varying levels of philosophical understanding.

Tocqueville reflects on the American philosophic method of equality and argues that democracy is a form of intellectual oppression under a different name.[8]  He distinguishes the psychological difference between aristocratic and democratic value systems and points out that we come to accept truths engrained in us by society.[9]  In this way we give up some of our freedom to come to greater philosophical understandings.[10]  In the democratic system we appear to embrace our freedom by giving the majority authority, rather than a selected few in power.   However, we actually sacrifice our freedom to the consensus of the masses.[11]  In other words, trust in equality rather than god becomes like a religion.  Subscribing to the authority of the majority surrenders the intellectual freedom for which we strive in democracy.

In many ways, Johnson’s lazy relativism is correct in that we must defend values that we hold true.  However, such a position prompts us to take on normative assumptions about the world.  In research we must not take on normative questions directly but we can still address them indirectly in the larger implications of our research.  It is important especially in interpretivism to acknowledge the democratic systems that shape how we even define research like Plato and Tocqueville.  The readings provided ample reasons that we should resist value based discussions since values, especially democratic ones of equality, are simply constructed within our social world.  Still, it is important to unpack the values that shape democracy and their complex relationship with academia, rather than to quit because we can never be truly removed from the social world.

[1] Johnson, Leigh M. “Lazy Relativism.” Read More Write More Think More Be More, 02/07/17, 2009. Accessed 2017.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Plato. The Republic. On the Character of Democracy, 1978.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Tocqueville. Democracy in America. Vol. 2: Mansfield & Winthrop, 2000.

[9] Ibid, 407.

[10] Ibid, 408.

[11] Ibid, 409.

Revamped Literature Review and Methods Section

  1. How will my literature review need to change between now and my final submission? (Is it currently too long? Too vague? Does it do a sufficient job in taking up the specifics of my research question? Am I confident that I have an adequate grasp of the puzzles and schools of thought in the field?)

My current literature review of empowerment needs to be condensed and include more precise statements outlining how it informs my project and analysis.  I still believe that my schools of thought including international development, feminism, and education are the most important in addressing empowerment.  However, since my discourse analysis focuses on the meaning-making of organization propaganda I will also consider how empowerment is portrayed in media campaigns.  Further, I might explore how empowerment and messages of heroism inspire audiences to act.  My development through education section needs the most attention because I initially focused on power structures within educational systems.  This approach might have been more appropriate if I had chosen ethnography.  However, now I must focus more on the developmental implications of empowerment through education.


  1. What additional works do I need to read in anticipation of our workshop on February 10 to make this happen? Please do some concrete research here and provide a bibliographical list.


Adhikari, H. “Freedom Vis a Vis Independence: An Overview in Light of Feminism, Women’s      Development and Empowerment.” Journal of international women’s studies 14, no. 3          (2013): 275-85.

Chant, Sylvia. “Women, Girls and World Poverty: Empowerment, Equality or Essentialism?”         International development planning review 38, no. 1 (2016: 1-24.

Duflo, Esther. “Women Empowerment and Economic Development.” Journal of Economic             Literature 50, no. 4 (2012): 1051-79.             http://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/jel.50.4.1051.

Eyben, Rosalind. “Choosing Words with Care? Shifting Meanings of Women’s Empowerment in   International Development.” Third world quarterly 30, no. 2 (2009: 285-300.    http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01436590802681066.

Lennie, J. “Deconstructing Gendered Power Relations in Participatory Planning: Towards an          Empowering Feminist Framework of Participation and Action.” Women’s Studies            International Forum 22, no. 1 (1999): 97-112. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0277-     5395(98)00098-3.

Switzer, H. “(Post)Feminist Development Fables: The Girl Effect and the Production of Sexual      Subjects.” Feminist Theory 14, no. 3 (2013): 345-60.       http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1464700113499855.



Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. 30th         Anniversary Edition ed. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.,   2005.

Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. New York: Anchor Books, 1999.


  1. How will my methodology discussion need to change between now and my final submission? (Is it currently too long? Too vague? Does it do a sufficient job in taking up the specifics of my research question? Am I confident that I have an adequate grasp of the methods that I plan to employ?)

My methodology discussion needs to be more concise but is specific in addressing my method choices, tradeoffs, justifications, cultural competence, context, and reflexivity.  I need to more clearly address trustworthiness.  My methods section needs to be adjusted to correspond with my exact research methods that I execute rather than my anticipated procedure.  I still must work with my faculty mentor to confirm what I will be able to execute with the resources available to me.  Though I have not analyzed my texts yet, I am confident that I understand the methodology of discourse analysis in the interpretivist world and can work with my mentor on the specifics of coding.


  1. What additional material will I need to read in order to feel confident about my methodology discussion, due on February 28?

Andrew Abbott, Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences, New York: W.W          Norton & Company, 2004.

Iver B. Neumann, “Discourse Analysis,” in Qualitative Methods in International Relations: A        Pluralist Guide, ed. Audie Klotz & Deepa             Prakash, Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan,    2008, 63-65.

S Peregrine Schwartz-Shea and Dvora Yanow, Interpretivist Research Design: Concepts and        Processes, New York: Routledge, 2012: Ch. 6: “Designing for Trustworthiness” (pp. 91-      114).

Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams, The Craft of Research (3rd ed.),    Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

  1. What questions and concerns do I have that I might ask about at the Collective Advising Workshops?

What is the most effective way for me to incorporate new dimensions/schools of thought into my literature review?

I want to explore some schools of thought about in empowerment in media. How can I incorporate those ideas into an international relations centered research project?

I question whether my project has shifted so much that I need an entirely new literature review.  How do I start going about this without losing everything that I have collected already?

How much background do I need to include on terms like cultural competence, context, reflexivity, and trustworthiness? Is it assumed that the academic research community knows these concepts?

How much context do I need to include regarding context of my research topic?

Is it too confusing to analyze both propaganda itself (text and videos) and interview activists influenced by that propaganda?

306 Research Portfolio Post #1 Exploring (Dissecting?) our Motivations and Assumptions

In SISU 306, my research on empowerment, articulated as an incontestable good, in propaganda of female education programs is motivated by factors involving my personal curiosities and larger philosophical questions.  In class reflection helped me to identify that I selected my research subject through my own interest in the ‘girl movement’.  Icons like Malala Yousafzai and my participation in fundraising for organizations like She’s the First have prompted me to get involved with the movement in high school and college.  Classes at AU have motivated me to question my blind faith in such organizations and criticize them and their ethical implications.  Apart from pure curiosity, I also hope to create some knowledge that might be used practically to better understand development and gender.  Hopefully, I or others might use my project’s new knowledge to study empowerment or create more effective programs for marginalized populations.  I think that this goal of generation of usable knowledge, corresponds with Aristotle’s concept of aiming “at some good”.[1]  The new knowledge might constitute “good” and it might also bring about “good” solutions to past challenges to development.

Toward the end of 206 I chose and interpretivist methodology to understand the meaning making created by international organizations working to help marginalized women through education.  For the purposes of my project I thought it best and most interesting to research the context of these organizations and their presence online within the past decade.  My motivation to help create “good” through more effective programs and my own curiosities prompted me to understand a specific time and place rather than empowerment in terms of broader trends.  Further, in choosing a context of the Westernized world of international aid, I might better understand the meaning making and assumptions since this context is familiar to me.

One of the normative assumptions that informs my project is that international aid aimed at women’s empowerment has been accepted as an unquestionable good.  It is this assumption that I suspect my analysis will critique since there are complex power struggles involved in empowerment.  Further, empowerment in international development has often been measured by political and economic dimensions.  However, much of my research indicates the importance of the psychological dimension of empowerment related to agency and values.

[1] Aristotle. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011, 1-2.