In universities today, the political biases of academics fundamentally shape the nature of research. For instance, despite the number of women students outnumbering men for over two decades there is relatively little work exploring why this might be the case. Instead, feminist educational researchers are more likely to focus on the negative experiences of women – however hard they must now search to find them.
An example of just such research from the US was reported on last week with the news that better-looking female students are awarded higher grades. People were asked to rank students according to their looks and then these ratings were compared with the same students’ marks. Despite the headlines, the results showed no significant link between female students’ good looks and high grades, and only a very slight correlation between a female student being rated as unattractive and receiving lower scores. Yet this did not stop conclusions being drawn about institutionalised sexism, the objectification of women and prejudiced academics.
This study was conducted at just one institution over a limited time period. More significantly, beauty, as the old cliché has it, is in the eye of the beholder. We have no idea whether individual lecturers were marking down the students they personally found to be unattractive. Neither do we know the form of assessment. If students considered to be unattractive were scoring less well in multiple-choice tests for example, or in work submitted anonymously, it would suggest that explanations other than lecturer bias were at play. The assumption that women students are victims meant that no one questioned the initial premise of this research and that the findings were further interpreted to support the pre-determined conclusions.
A second study covered last week further demonstrates how research can be used to confirm academics’ existing biases. Work published in the journal Educational Theory claims that putting the success of black students down to their mental toughness and perseverance ‘fails to properly acknowledge multiple forms of suffering’. Making no pretence at objectivity, the researchers set out to ‘highlight the voices of black undergraduates they have served’ in an attempt to ‘connect oppressive social systems to the psyche of the oppressed’. The researchers interpreted discussions with students they knew personally through the prism of critical-race theory. Unsurprisingly, they conclude that successful black students will suffer from mental-health problems, greater mental toughness apparently being indicative of an increased likelihood of future illness. Never mind the close relationship between the researchers and the researched and their obvious determination to prove unprovable conclusions – with mentors intent on presenting your academic success as a precursor of doom, who needs enemies?
The not-at-all-shocking findings of much research in social science today provide an opportunity for academics to emote over the institutionalised racism and sexism many believe to be endemic within society or to advocate for a particular cause. Studies that confirm researchers’ existing biases abound because there are too few dissenting voices asking awkward questions about the methods involved in investigations or posing alternative explanations for the conclusions drawn.