Blog: Dealing with prejudices in scholarship and the academic world

By Hoko Horii

As a researcher focusing on people often labelled as ‘child brides’, Hoko Horii explores the crippling effects of prejudice, along with its intimate connection to power structures in scholarship and academia more broadly. By failing to reflect on their own biases, scholars and practitioners grappling with human rights issues often end up marginalizing the marginalized. And, perhaps more provocatively, this is true not only for research but also for social interaction on the academic work floor.

Prejudice – unconscious bias – is what I try to be conscious of and to avoid at all costs in my anthropological study on the subject of child marriage and human rights in context. Some possible examples of prejudices in relation to my informants include ‘traditional practices are harmful for women’, ‘child marriage is bad for children’, and ‘child brides are victims, and their families are poor and uneducated’. Prejudice starts with labelling and then reinforces those labels. As part of my fieldwork in Bali, I interviewed dozens of people who married before the age of 18, but to me, ‘child bride’ was not a label applicable to them. First of all, contrary to the stereotype of child marriage involving a small girl, there were many boys who married before the age of 18. Moreover, it also became apparent to me that they were not simply passive victims of a child marriage that had been forced upon them.

Among my consultants was a girl with whom I built a particularly close connection during my interviews. And to me she was not a ‘child bride’, she was a woman: just a woman who had happened to marry young and had still tried to continue studying, raising a child, and endeavouring to lead her life through it all. Naturally, there are challenges in her life, such as arranging to continue her education and facing social stigma. But labelling those challenges as the ‘negative impacts of child marriage’, or labelling her as ‘a child bride’, does not do justice to her identity. Such labelling would amount to reducing her to less than a human, disempowering her rather than empowering her. It would lead – in the words of Howard Becker – to a self-fulfilling prophecy and further marginalization. Once labelled as a victim or a child bride, people become more susceptible to stigma, gossips and social exclusion. Prejudice limits the opportunities of its recipients.

Another kind of bias I try to avoid when dealing with human rights issues is what psychologist Paul Slovic calls the ‘affect heuristic’ – a mental short-cut that people use to make a judgement. Our information processing, thinking, and knowledge is hugely affected by affective biases. In the process of making judgments or decisions, people either consciously or unconsciously apply all the positive and negative tags associated with the representations. This heuristic also has the ability to lubricate reason: coming up with all kinds of reasons that actually reflect affective biases.

I observe this affect heuristic in human rights advocacy too. Although child marriage is an old phenomenon observed everywhere throughout human history, human rights advocates started to apply negative tags to the practice from the time they defined it as constituting a human rights violation. Then they came up with reasons for child marriage being a human rights violation, often without fully understanding the social context within which child marriage occurs. At the other end of the spectrum, conservative groups reject human rights claims simply because they associate them with Western power. In both cases, the affect heuristic is preventing them from evaluating social reality as it is. One is reminded of Sally Engle Merry’s words: “One person’s heroic revolutionary is another’s terrorist” – when one is true, the other becomes false. The affect – the sense of group and belonging – decides which is true and which is false.

And yet, awareness of one’s prejudices in research is only part of the story. What if academia itself is part of the problem? What if the same researchers who might be hyperconscious of prejudice in their scholarship still overlook the interpersonal prejudices in their own work environment? Prejudices at this level equally limit possibilities for comparatively marginalized groups by silencing their voices. It creates a hierarchy of voices between the powerful (privileged) and the powerless (marginalized), typically along the lines of gender, race, and social standing. The same or a similar remark made at a meeting or a conference often has more impact when an influential or powerful person makes it. As the affect heuristic suggests, when you listen, you hear and believe not what is being said, but who you are hearing it from. It is the authority that is speaking.

This is precisely what Foucault considered the most fundamental principle of exclusion – the “opposition between true and false”. The voices of the marginalized are the voices that are ‘less true’. And this opposition – the different weight of voices – is not only the consequence of exclusion and power hierarchy, but also its cause. Its danger lies in internalizing this different weight of voice. When a marginalized group keeps receiving negative feedback, being ignored or not being taken as seriously as the others for instance, they often develop doubts about themselves: was my remark not smart enough, did I not formulate it clearly enough, or did I not…? As Fareda Banda explains with regard to her experience as a black woman in her department at SOAS:

“As the only black person in a department where everyone else seems to be able to get on, one starts to doubt one’s ability and begins to think, ‘Maybe they are right, maybe I am not good enough, maybe I cannot write that book after all. It must be me, they must be right. I am not good enough.’”

Academics would do well to generalize the effects of prejudice during fieldwork, both in their publications and on the work floor. In all cases, prejudice undermines personal integrity, reinforces power hierarchy, hinders the changes that marginalized groups have tried to push through in different ways, and creates structural and ideological violence. And the worst part is that it’s invisible, hardly noticeable, nor provable. That’s why getting rid of prejudices requires awareness and practice. Just as ethnography has become an extremely reflexive practice, a great degree of reflexivity is now needed to become conscious of our unconscious prejudices, which govern the very institutions in which we work. In academia, too, when we give each individual an equal voice, and listen what is being said instead of who is saying it, it will lead to a fairer society for all.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

(Hoko Horii is a PhD researcher at KITLV and Van Vollenhoven Institute. Her research tries to understand the reasons behind the persisting gap between international human rights standards and social practice regarding child marriage in Indonesia, focusing on the co-existence of conflicting norms within the Indonesian legal system.)

1 Comment
  • Sita van Bemmelen
    Posted at 17:39h, 19 May Reply

    Good food for thought, introspection, heightening critical observation and … hopefully … less biased research, advocacy and more equality in human relationd in and outside academia.

Post A Comment