Still An “Outsider Within” In Academia

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Around the time of my birth, Black feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins began writing, and ultimately publishing, an essay on being an “outsider within” sociology.  In her 1986 piece, “Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought,” Collins writes about the difficulties Black women scholars — specifically sociologists — face in reconciling their personal experiences, identities, values, and perspectives with those that dominate academia.  In particular, “to become sociological insiders, Black women must assimilate a standpoint that is quite different from their own” (p. 49).  Almost 30 years later, I struggle with similar challenges at the beginning of my academic career.

In graduate school, I learned several harsh lessons about what was entailed in being a good scholar:

  • Academia and activism do not mix.  And, one of the primary aims of academic professional socialization is to “beat the activist” out of you.
  • Good researchers do not simply study oppressed populations.  Rather, one adopts a valued, mainstream framework (e.g., social psychology, medical sociology), and just happens to focus on a particular community or population.  Studying race, or gender, or sexuality, or *gasp* the intersections among them are deemed “narrow” research interests.
  • Qualitative methods, particularly approaches that give voice to and empower oppressed communities, are devalued relative to quantitative approaches.
  • Good research is objective.  One should not even write in the first person in articles and books!

I bucked at the pressure to “go R1.”  I publicly declared I would not put another day of my life on hold just to attain or keep an academic position.  And, I have dared to talk openly about inequality within academia.  You would think that I would be passed all of this, no longer carrying around bitterness or resentment about what my graduate training was or wasn’t.  It seems my journey as an outsider within has just begun.  Collins argues:

Outsider within status is bound to generate tension, for people who become outsiders within are forever changed by their new status. Learning the subject matter of sociology stimulates a reexamination of one’s own personal and cultural experiences; and, yet, these same experiences paradoxically help to illuminate sociology’s anomalies. Outsiders within occupy a special place – they become different people, and their difference sensitizes them to patterns that may be more difficult for established sociological insiders to see (p. 53).

I welcome what my unique perspective stands to offer sociology and academia in general.  Even at this early stage, I feel my research has covered issues that seem so obvious to me but, to date, has not been examined in prior research.  However, the downsides of the tension that Collins mentions — the frustration, self-doubt, alienation — continue to take a toll on my personal and professional life.  Can this tension ever be reconciled?  Collins suggests:

Some outsiders within try to resolve the tension generated by their new status by leaving sociology and remaining sociological outsiders. Others choose to suppress their difference by striving to become bona fide, ‘thinking as usual’ sociological insiders. Both choices rob sociology of diversity and ultimately weaken the discipline” (p. 53).

Wow, damned if you do…  This is why Collins advocates for greater acknowledgement, recognition, and use of the black feminist perspective in sociology.  She argues that outsider within perspectives should be encouraged and institutionalized.  In general, scholars, especially outsiders within, should “trust their own personal and cultural biographies as significant sources of knowledge” (p. 53).  Without this change, scholars continue to rely on research and theory that largely excludes, or even distorts, the experiences and values of oppressed people.

I suppose some progress has been made since Collins wrote this article.  Indeed, more and more sociologist recognize black feminist theory as an important perspective.  But, many marginalized scholars, like myself, continue to feel conditionally accepted in the profession.  Our success and relevance, even our livelihood, seems to depend on the extent to which we assimilate to white, masculinist, cis- and heterosexist, and middle-class ways of thinking (and being).

7 thoughts on “Still An “Outsider Within” In Academia

  1. Once again your blog speaks what so many of us feel.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. How does your institution feel about your blog? (brave, by the way – they didn’t seem to successfully beat the advocate out of you)

    I also wonder if what seems to be an educational straight jacket is an artifact of certain Ivy League systems – or confined to certain departments.

    It’s difficult for me to believe that the university environment in total has changed so dramatically since my years “in the system.” (confining, yes, but with room for rebels as long as they don’t expect to actually CHANGE policies ::grin::)

    My next door neighbor is a professor of neurology at a school that may not be considered “top tier” but his research and protocols are widely respected and becoming well-known. Unless he keeps his clothes at school, he seems not to own a suit and tie. In conversations with him, it seems that his thinking leads rather than follows, and I know that he has changed some well-entrenched policies.

    Columbia neurologists seem to dress however they like, and I don’t recall my friend studying there remarking on the dress code in her departments. She studies Tibetan Buddhism and psychology, and her professors seems to have quite a bit of latitude — they also seem to be free to express their personal opinions in their classrooms.

    Theatre departments welcome all sexual orientations relatively openly, as long as one’s sexual preference remains “background” – not hidden, simply not the focus.

    Perhaps we’re ALL outsiders of a sort? Or perhaps that’s the point of this blog. I will be following regardless.
    Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMore dot com
    – ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder –
    “It takes a village to transform a world!”

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    • Thanks for your comment, Madelyn. That is reassuring to hear. On the one hand, there are many reasons to consider playing it safe — the outsider within status is a major reason. But, on the other hand, I know personally that I could stand to relax a bit, and in allowing myself to be more authentic, I can make more space for myself and others like me. I suppose the key dilemma is finding the right balance for you and your goals, though that may change as culture, leadership, institutions, etc. change.

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      • You’re welcome. I thrive on dialogue. Since I believe I was born a maverick, your “outsider” point of view is extremely attractive to me, thus my “follow.”

        RE: “right balance” and change —
        Since most of us choose our paths relatively early in our lives and have invested quite a bit of blood, sweat and tears, the idea of traveling back to take a different fork or suddenly taking off into the wilderness can be daunting (especially since our paths encompass our finances – all god’s critters need to make a living). The extent to which we fear regret stays our courage.

        One only needs to look at the titles of all of the books written to support those who are “fired into life change” to conclude that changing one’s path in life is uncomfortable at best.

        As long as “the devil we know” isn’t in overt conflict with our values, working for small changes within will generally seem the wisest choice — and perhaps will prove to be the most effective one. We’ll never know what might have been and we all make choices based on what we can, ultimately, live with. NO environment is perfect.

        I have observed that change never “happens” without some sort of grass roots component – we can’t look to leadership or institutions for evolution. Leaders tend to be hamstrung by the choices they have made on their leadership paths. Institutions are not so much in the business of the new and different as they are committed to the preservation of what has already been established.

        Both seem to me to be at the greatest effect of what is often termed “confirmation bias.” None of us tolerate cognitive dissonance easily, and herd mentality lends a sense of confirmation and comfort – albeit a false one.

        The theory is, basically, the more difficult the “hazing” (meaning here the struggle to get wherever one finds oneself), the stronger the pull to justify the decision one has made, and to live within and enforce its precepts.

        The science around these concepts is fascinating. It certainly informs the insistence on a dress code, trivial as it might appear otherwise. (Ask any good costume designer!)

        I have no answers – I find myself, increasingly, an “outsider within” the very field I founded. It would seem that humans are most comfortable with rules and ruling – which tends to make me CRAZY. My thinking seems to make the more linear thinkers highly uncomfortable. Since they almost always rise to the top as a result of their excellent administrative skills, I’m never sure how much I can say without being strung up by my thumbs.

        In the twilight of my life I am considering yet another life change — which is frightening and enlivening in equal measure.

        It would appear that we can’t escape the way our brains are “wired” for pattern matching. Remaining aware of the pull to justify the status quo – and naming it – is a necessary step on the road to change. That, and standing up to be counted.

        xx, mgh

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