26 January 2018

Peer scrutiny

The second of the two open letters denouncing the Empire and Ethics project — signed by scholars from (inter alia) Cambridge, Princeton, Cornell and King’s College London — exhibits even more contempt and vitriol than the first.

It seems unlikely that the principal problem the signatories have with the project is that it departs from approved academic methodology. That doesn’t prevent them trying to criticise it on those grounds. They object that it is not possible to “demarcate ‘empire’ as a fixed and stable subject”. They complain that the project’s core group “does not represent the diverse constituencies of scholars” working in this field.

These criticisms seem weak, and hardly provide justification for public denouncement. History is plagued with problems of definition and demarcation, yet proceeds in spite of them. There is no principle in academia that a research project must be staffed with representatives from varying schools of thought.

At the end of their letter, the scholars demand that Oxford University clarify

the research protocols that will be put in place to ensure that [the project’s] outputs are subject to due peer scrutiny [...]

It seems the scholars want to make quite sure that the methodologies of the project will meet with the approval of accredited practitioners. Are they (A) merely being helpfully concerned (on behalf of Professor Biggar, and the University of Oxford) that the research should not fail to benefit from the available techniques and insights of modern academic history?

Or are the scholars (B) adopting an exclusionary tactic? Do they suspect (and hope) that “peer scrutiny” would result in a verdict that echoed their own condemnation?

Possibility (B) raises the following interesting speculation. Is academia’s current obsession with accreditation, technique proficiency, peer scrutiny etc. in fact intended — at least in some subjects — to facilitate the exclusion of certain perspectives, i.e. those at variance with the dominant outlook?