Terry Kershaw, Virginia Tech
As we reflect on the preceding discussions looking at the future of Black Studies, a recurring theme emerges. There seems to be a need for an overarching paradigm that can support the diversity of approaches in the field and provide a guide in the development of future scholars.
As a means of trying to help in the development of the field and tying the previous discussions together, I want to introduce a paradigm we will use at the University of Cincinnati’s Department of Africana Studies. All disciplines/fields of study have paradigms that define the area for both new and old scholars. Paradigms help to develop a sense of a scholarly community in the field. At the University of Cincinnati, we will use the Scholar-Activist paradigm. The paradigm helps to address some of the questions raised by the community of scholars in this publication. It helps to provide clarity for questions of new directions in the field and how we train our future professionals. It allows us to identify what research studies are Black Studies and which are not. We believe there is something called Black Studies and that studying Black people does not make the research Black Studies. It just means you are studying Black people. To be considered Black Studies, we argue, the work must, at a minimum, be centered.
To be centered the research should address a variation of three questions. First, how do the subjects describe their lives? Second, what do they say their lives ought to be? And third, what do they think are the obstacles preventing them from living the kinds of lives they want to live? Thus the focus is on what the subjects say; the voice of African-descended people must be central. As scholars in the field, we also emphasize the importance of empowerment. In essence, we try to understand as the group understands, problematize when appropriate, and problem solve when possible. To help in this discussion, I will use ten questions as a guide in understanding the assumptions that underly the scholarly side of the scholar-activist paradigm in Black Studies:
- What is the reason for research? The research must be empowering, centered, and concerned with pursuing knowledge and testing knowledge claims. From the earlier discussions in this special issue, it became clear there were two major thrusts of research in Black Studies. The research must bring the Black voice to the surface and let it be the major voice in describing and explaining the “African” experience. It was also emphasized that the research must generate knowledge that could be used to improve life chances and experiences of all people in general, and African-descended people in particular. It must also be research that can be verified relative to the knowledge/cultural claims being made by the author(s).
- What is the nature of social reality? Social reality is often fluid and informed by human interaction with physical and social environments. Social reality must be grounded in the historical experience of the subjects. This helps to emphasize the importance of understanding how the reciprocal relationship between the social and physical environments determines the reality people have to deal with. That reality can change as that relationship changes. That relationship is rooted in both the historical and contemporary experiences of the group. As a guide for research, it allows for “non-traditional” areas of research to find a home in Black Studies (e.g., environmental racism/discrimination).
- What is human nature? We are social beings who seek to survive based on our understandings of our relationships between external forces and social interactions. Human beings take action based on their perceived best interests. As a guide for research, this assumption helps to shape the questions one can ask: questions about various interactions between the social and physical environments, questions designed to understand what the group sees as action in their best interest. It emphasizes using a centered approach and an empowering approach.
- What is the role of human agency? The researcher must respect the fact of the cultural agency of people and understand that internal agency and external pressures help shape people’s actions, and that all people have agency. This is an important assumption for Black Studies scholars to make because it relates directly to empowerment. It emphasizes the importance of being an active agent in improving the life chances and experiences of people of African descent and requires the scholar to ask and answer that question regarding their research.
- What is the role of common sense? Common sense consists of intuition as well as understandings of individual and group experiences, and can provide useful data. The answer to this question deals with validating group understanding and evidence. It speaks to the importance of understanding as the group understands by centering oneself in the group. One of the consistent points raised in the discussion was the importance of the group’s voice as valid reference point. Now, the common sense understandings are only one source of the group’s understandings and we believe it is a valid source.
- What is theory and its role? Theory looks like a logical, deductive, system of interconnected definitions that can be used to explain and interpret phenomena as well as generate knowledge for praxis. We do not need to focus on the concept of universal social theory because we assume as conditions change explanations change. Since we operate from the assumption that theory explains, we look for explanations from a variety of sources, and we test the explanations to help determine if they are rooted in “reality.” The validated explanations serve as a basis in developing an action plan for social empowerment/change.
- What are explanations that are “true”? They are logically connected facts supported by the evidence and empirically tested that resonate with the group. We seek those explanations that provide the group with the knowledge needed for them to act in their self-interest. We operate from the assumption that most of what we call true is subjective. Hence, the need for it to resonate with the group.
- What is good evidence? Good evidence is based on clear and deliberate observations of phenomena as well as lived and historical experiences of the individual/group through narratives/oral histories, ethnography, diaries, and other relevant data sources. It is based on the best and most reliable sources and is subject to verification (i.e., triangulation).
- What is the relevance of knowledge? Knowledge is to be empowering, strengthen agency, and inspire praxis through social action by gaining a better understanding of self and the social forces that impact the subject’s life chances and experiences.
- What is the place of values? All research begins with a code of ethics and is shaped by value systems. The researcher must strive to understand the relationship between those values that are entrenched in the social experiences of the individual/group/community and their own values as the researcher.
When applied, I believe these guiding principles support the legacy and autonomy of the field, and help in the both the production of knowledge and the development of future scholars. Black Studies has turned a corner and is well on its way to carving out a niche in the development of knowledge and a well-deserved place in the academy.