Block I Illinois Library Illinois Open Publishing Network


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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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).
  9. 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.
  10. 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.


SCHOLARSHIP AND THE EMERGING SCHOLAR-ACTIVIST PARADIGM IN BLACK STUDIES Copyright © 2018 by marilyn m. thomas-houston. All Rights Reserved.

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