Monday, 23 February 2009

ISCRI @ Uclan

There’s an honourable tradition in the UK of the ‘new universities’ formed in the 1990s (and which replaced the previous bearers of that title, also known as the plate glass universities, formed in the 1960s) doing applied research. They were formed from either polytechnics or accretions of other higher education colleges which usually had had connections either to industries or public sectors.

That is not to say that such new universities are without tradition. Uclan or the University of Central Lancashire, my University, was based on Lancashire Polytechnic, nee Preston Poly, itself based on the Harris Institute founded in 1882 and a history of which reports: ‘The biggest influence on the Institute s growth in the 1890s was the establishment of the School of Domestic Economy under Mrs. Arnoux, a lady of exceptional acquirements’. That institute, apparently, was itself based on the Preston Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge and the Avenham Institute.

Still, the history of the polytechnics (whose end I largely regret), is one of applied research and the particular school – ISCRI – within Uclan to which I now belong (since August) is part of that tradition. Formed by  Kamlesh Patel – Lord Patel of Bradford – it has a clear connection to the aims of social reform and the empowerment of disadvantaged communities (hence the interest in philosophy of mental health which has helped me) and practical policies of engagement with communities to produce bespoke and highly contextually sensitive research. Such research – with only a little squeezing – fits the famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach.

But that in turn clashes with another obvious academic virtue: the disinterested contemplation that perhaps reaches its zenith in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations §124 that philosophy leaves everything as it is. Given that the school aims to underpin positive social change with academic research (not just a ‘community engagement’ programme but a community engagement programme within an academic institution aiming at better understanding of the social world), that puts Marx and Wittgenstein in a creative tension.

A practical example of this academic tension - which we will have to work through - cropped up the other day and suggests a genuine and for the moment unpredictable challenge for the new school. At a meeting charged with examining some of the underlying aims and values that might be used to characterise the school’s work and thus help frame its identity (in advance, as it were; the slogan “existence precedes identity” is not one of ours because the groups that make up ISCRI were to a great extent freely chosen), a number of sensible suggestions were made by groups of policy researchers, of community engagement researchers, of those who facilitate and encourage volunteering: practitioners, in a word.

This left a table of philosophers chewing over both what might be substantial and interesting values and yet values which might gather some allegiance through their intrinsic appeal. (No point in coming up with either bland or repulsive values.) These two aims were obviously in tension, however. Further, other members of the school were keen to push forward their candidate virtues or values, and to see that as the obvious thing to do with what they had come up with: again, perhaps, a reflection of Marx rather than Wittgenstein.

We were less sure of what the right approach to the event itself should be and thus settled, albeit with some diffident scepticism, on the virtue of democracy at least as something to be considered. Perhaps we ought to be democratic about democracy, we suggested, although conceding we hadn’t been able to agree on what model of democracy we might have in mind. Perhaps doubt itself was important to an academic life, too, and thus democracy was a necessary safeguard?

In the straight vote that followed, democracy came last.

(PS: For a discussion of of an attempt to see a unity in its research methods within the school see this. For an entry on the wake held to mark its disestablishment see this.)