I’m going to Singapore this evening for a quick 24 hours. The reasons are totally personal: to see two sets of old friends and to take a break from noisy/boisterous/crazy Jakarta and enjoy a day of good old law-and-order Singapore. The trip is easy, just a 1:15 flight from Jakarta. Depending on the time of day, it can actually be faster to get from Soekarno-Hatta to Changi (airport to airport, that is) than from central Jakarta to Soekarno-Hatta. I’m taking JetStar Asia, a good low cost airline out of Australia, and the entire trip will come in well below US$100.

So I won’t be blogging tomorrow, although I’ll report on my trip (and, yes, my meals) on Sunday. For now, here’s something I’d like to hear some thoughts from all 2 of my readers about.

People who write on Indonesian Islam often face the accusation that they are partisan or otherwise non-objective in the way that they handle modernist and/or conservative Islamic groups here. I have faced this criticism myself, and it makes me uncomfortable as well as defensive. It normally has one of the following forms. (1) You (foreign researcher) are taking sides in the debate about what is good for Indonesian Islam. (2) You are so seduced by romantic, orientalist version of mystical syncretic Javanese culture and court Islam that you can’t treat alternative viewpoints (i.e. a more textual or literal version of Islam) fairly. (3) You are getting all bent out of shape and worried about the possibility of some Islamic threat that isn’t really there, so you’re turning what are really marginal groups in to bogeymen. Such a criticism is extremely powerful, because if it’s true then it means that you as a researcher are not able to separate your beliefs from your work. A big no-no. It’s not that your findings are wrong, it’s that you are a bad researcher.

The way around this is to insert some sort of caveat into whatever you write that says “I am not making any sort of normative claim about…” or “of course, interpretations of Islam vary, and I do not wish to be construed as claiming that all Indonesians…” or “even a low-probability event is still something that is worth understanding…” Or something like that. Sound familiar?

The thing is, I hate those silly caveats. I don’t want to start off every article with defensiveness. It is obvious, at least to me, that we can do research on the different types of Islam and the future of political Islam in Indonesia without making normative judgments about these topics. It also seems reasonable to think that one might want to study how progressive Muslim groups respond to conservative ones, what their beliefs about their opponents are, and that one can do that without judging one to be better than the other. At a certain point, there are some people who are just going to be offended, or who are going to attribute motives that don’t exist, no matter what. It’s not the job of the researcher to respond to them, it’s their job to engage with the research on a substantive level.

Here’s an analogy. Let’s say I want to study if bananas have more potassium than apples. Do I need to write a paragraph saying that I’m not taking sides in the great “apple-versus-banana-for-breakfast” debate? I guess my objection is to having to respond preemptively to what I view as a type of hypersensitivity about certain topics. This issue isn’t just particular to Islam in Indonesia, of course. Imagine the hurdles facing an economist who wants to write on the effect of race on economic outcomes. Or political scientists writing about the Israeli lobby. I want to also say that I’m not arguing that words don’t matter or that what is called “political correctness” is bad. Words do matter, I firmly believe this, and I think that we should within reason try to be sensitive to the power that words can have. I see this as something different, not that the choice of words is inappropriate, but that the choice of subject has to be conspicuously framed in a certain way.

So I guess my question is, am I just a big baby? Should I just write the silly caveat and move on? Or is there an argument that we should put our foot down, that we need not be bound by what others might interpret about our motives? If the research is analytically solid and the conclusions drawn from it are properly bounded, shouldn’t that be enough?

Comment 1

  1. jhd1530 May 25, 2009

    I think part of the nuance here comes from what you mean by “research.” One of my favorite research professors said quite bluntly, “I don’t read newspapers anymore – to me, it’s all just new data and I can’t make sense of it.” It seemed like a weird thought at the time, but it makes sense to me now. Social science is essentially experimental, only there are no controls to the experiments – you have to find and record the data in an objective way before the analysis. Recording in “real time” is doable, but real-time analysis leaves so many gaps in the data that you have to fill the cracks with your experiences, instincts, and biases. (Of course, biases can be professional rather than political or xenophobic; something like “if this dynamic was going on here, that would fit neatly into so-and-so’s theory” is arguably just as damaging intellectually as a cultural prejudice would be.)
    That’s how when things like 9/11 or the credit meltdown happen, liberal and conservative pundits can go on CNN and say “See, I’ve been telling you all along that this would happen!” and predicting that things will get even worse unless their policy prescriptions happen. There’s no normative way to tell any of them they’re wrong, even though it’s very likely that they all are. So when you write about current events, you get hammered by people’s second-order biases, i.e. “You’re just here to confirm your own preconceived ideas.” Even though that’s not what you’re doing, you can’t prove that it isn’t.
    So, I don’t know – I think you’re fine with how you’ve been handling things. The best way to address the objection might be to come at every topic from extreme, opposing perspectives, to show the range of ways that everything can be interpreted. Personally, I’d drop the caveats and tell the people who get offended to suck it up – life is unfair and they should just get used to feeling powerless and underappreciated as individuals.
    This is a blog about Syria that I enjoy – Landis is really good at reporting real-time data and injecting his own opinions and instincts without sounding like an ideologue:

Comments are closed.