I once thought of adding a section to my cv called Important Enemies, in which two kinds of people could be included. The first make conventional academic critiques based on ideology; here, Sheila Jeffreys would be a good example, peppering as she did The Industrial Vagina with references to my work as a sterling example of what’s wrong with views that don’t jibe with her vision of prostitution. The second would be non-academic attacks that seem to question the right of other people to do research at all. One example here would be Melissa Farley’s characterisation of my work as the postmodern nadir in an essay called ‘Theory versus reality: Commentary on four articles about trafficking for prostitution’, in a journal called Women’s Studies International Forum. The occasion was an edition with several articles critical to violence-against-women rhetoric about trafficking. I hadn’t written any of them and couldn’t help feeling chuffed. The Postmodern Nadir has a certain ring.
Attacking what academics choose to research and how they do it seems slightly odd to me. I have no romantic ideas about freedom of academic thought but I do suppose people end up researching general areas in general ways because they are drawn to them. I think of research as an endless stream of fairly random coloured bits that sometimes come together to fill in part of a big picture we will never comprehend. Time passes and the shapes we thought we had figured out change, but new research brings new bits of understanding.
Julie Bindel feels different, though, recently complaining, according to a reporter, that there is a lot of terrible anthropological research concerning women in the sex industry, and that they should not be treated as an anthropological field research group; she went so far as to say that if she had one bullet in a gun, it would not go for the pimp, but for the academic who’s all into the sex industry. The occasion was a panel at a UK Feminista event.
Not so many who research the sex industry are technically anthropologists, so maybe the criticism is against people who do ethnography. Which usually means not using formal interviews or quantitative surveys but spending a lot of time with the people being researched: living with them, or visiting them frequently over a long time, watching and listening, recording what you see, hear, smell, taste, feel. These days, ethnographers don’t ordinarily claim their results to be final truths about large groups but rather suggestive small-scale pictures.
What does it mean to suggest any subject should not be researched? Is the implication that research harms some people, who are better served by those taking particular ideological stances towards them? That’s pretty extreme Rescue Industry ideology. Since I am probably one of the anthropologist types whose research makes Julie Bindel angry, I might now add her name to the list of Important Enemies on that cv I haven’t written yet.