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He Who Pays the Piper Calls the Tune

Submitted by on December 23, 2010 – 3:27 pmOne Comment

While academic research should be done in a way that is unbiased and transparent and that enables others to reproduce the results, it is old news that academia, just like jurisdiction, is no Garden of Eden where political influence is absent and where exertion of external power on research is always transparent. Academics have gained influential positions in all state affairs, and not least as advisers to governments on questions of how to deal with difficult countries, including Burma. An academic career or even a department’s specialization on a particular part of the world are considered sufficient evidence of competence, and that even if the person in regard is indeed an expert on the country, yet on an entirely different subject. While it is understood that political parties, trade unions, NGOs and business corporations follow their apparent interests, the assumption still prevails that scholars are bound in honor and driven by idealism to promote the truth.

The situation becomes a bit more intricate where scholars cannot avoid to take a stance on political issues, involving, for instance, questions of human rights, governance or liberties. One might see here a key moment where different roles of one person intersect, namely the scholar and the citizen, or the “wisdom seeker” and the member of society. While their professional background has turned many academics into outspoken advocates for humanity, there has always been the temptation to sacrifice one’s idealism for material benefits and fame – and be it only the opportunity to advise those in power. And not seldom we find that reason appears to vanish where vanity reigns.

Sometimes the benefit is more substantial than only being flattered. Research grants and travel allowances usually don’t just appear from nowhere. This is impressively the case where research subjects are closely linked to question of political ideology, such in the case of China. In their radio program, referring to an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the station Deutsche Welle puts it as a question: Does Beijing have a grip on Germany’s Sinologists? The stunningly simple proverb “He who pays the piper calls the tune” proves again universally valid. It applies to the realm of charities that are not able to generate own income. It applies to the European Commission and the United Nations. It applies to many more, and in principle to any constellation of patronage.

Are we surprised? No, we are not. It is a commonplace. But, nonetheless, it is good to remind ourselves from time to time about the simple mechanisms that work behind elaborate institutions and that are hidden in social rites and constructed as something undoubtedly natural. It is good to keep it in mind when reading speculations about what’s “really” going on in Burma and when trying to understand decisions made by governments, think tanks and donors.

In particular, the academic ivory tower is a myth.

Photo: vodkamax

About the author

Christoph Amthor wrote 32 articles on this blog.

Christoph has worked for several years as journalist for print, radio and Internet before he co-founded the organization Burma Center Prague in 2006. Most time he spends in Prague, Czech Republic.

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One Comment »

  • zarni says:

    couldn’t agree more with the thrust of this blog. ideas have not only consequences but also come with (vested and hidden) interests and ideologies.

    objective truths about social world are illusive simply because the knower is him or herself a part of the world.

    the philistines like to argue Ivory Tower-based knowledge production is more objective than that that comes from elsewhere.

    Highly-rated comment. Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0