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Taking time to think … again

By Mark Bahnisch - posted Friday, 24 June 2005

In On Line Opinion recently, Deakin Law academic James McConvill wrote an article arguing that intellectuals should be celebrated, and that furore and criticism in the public arena would discourage academics from doing research. There's some terminological confusion going on here, and probably a bit of confusion about the different protocols for public and academic debate, as well as what exactly constitutes research.

McConvill's hook for his piece was the criticism of the views of fellow Deakin Law scholars Marko Bagaric and Julie Clarke's op-ed article advocating the legalisation of torture. McConvill wrote:

The elementary attack on Bagaric and Clarke’s heavily researched piece by a wide range of individuals and groups, including a prominent law professor and a former prime minister, leads one to ask whether we have forgotten about the proper role for a university, and academics working in universities.


We once understood the role of academics in society was to raise ideas in a critical manner - to foster discourse, engender debate and enrich the community. The great academics fit the role of a classical intellectual. They were individuals with a genuine love of learning, knowledge on a wide range of matters, and an interest in the direction of public policy. In his book, Furedi contends that in the halls of academia, such intellectuals have become an endangered species.

If indeed, intellectuals are an endangered species, it's not for the reasons McConvill advances.

I don't want to rebut the Bagaric and Clarke arguments here, something I've done elsewhere, except to make two points. The first is that Bagaric and Clarke, by publishing in a student edited law review, and a fairly obscure one at that, avoided the sort of scrutiny through peer review that is fundamental to the testing of academic arguments.

Second, Bagaric and Clarke's article is not in fact based on what most academics would understand as research. It does not engage seriously with previous research and the philosophical, ethical and socio-political issues raised. Rather, in the style of legal academics, Bagaric and Clarke trace a number of legal conventions, rules and court decisions, which act as a platform for the construction of what (unsurprisingly) is a rather legalistic argument.

There have actually been multiple controversies in Australia about the way research should be conducted in schools and faculties of law. The current manner in which DEST (Department of Education, Science and Training) financially rewards research is geared towards a scientific and social-scientific model of what research is, and the manner in which it's published (that is, conducting a study or making a theoretical intervention and publishing in a refereed journal is the paradigm). Law as a discipline has traditionally viewed scholarship as the writing of case notes, commentaries on the evolution of common law principles and the compilation of case books or the authorship of textbooks. The definition of research in the DEST scheme of things denies these activities the status of research for funding purposes.

Law schools, under pressure to secure funding like other university departments, are increasingly trying to conform to a more social-scientific model of research. I've taught philosophy of social science and research methods to postgraduate research law students, and it's evident that these principles are - to date - little understood in the discipline (which is not to be critical - I'd argue for a recognition of traditional legal scholarship by DEST).


McConvill, in his article, refers to the pressures on academics to publish. There's much truth in this analysis, but the reasons why academics might be discouraged from pursuing research are not the ones he cites. What the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard calls a "culture of performativity" has taken over universities. Outputs must be measurable. Productivity must be maximised.

This conflicts in large degree to what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu referred to as the different cycle of time involved in doing traditional academic research. Universities in the past were largely insulated from the pace of the modern world, to provide a space and time to think seriously. Thus, some of the great works of philosophy and social theory which still dominate our thought today took decades to write.

The public sphere of journalism and debate works on a different time cycle. The trick for an op-ed is often to make a highly controversial argument. It stirs up debate, but is soon forgotten. But pulling in readers establishes a saleability for further articles by the author in the market. Messrs Bagaric and McConvill seem to know this, as they've been highly prolific and near ubiquitous in the op-ed pages since the initial Bagaric "furore", with McConvill publishing three op-eds in two weeks - some fairly reactionary musings on the role of women, a call for the return of Paul Keating, and a version of his On Line Opinion article, which perhaps significantly, omits the defence of Bagaric and Clarke in the piece published on these pages.

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About the Author

Dr Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. He founded the leading public affairs blog, Larvatus Prodeo.

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