Is 'Impact' in Archaeology 'Selling out'?
Well October has gone by incredibly quickly! Despite not posting much, there has been a lot happening, so much in fact that I have quite the backlog of things to talk about. For now just a few thoughts on academia and 'impact'. I read this article today that talked about focusing on impact as 'selling out' (for non UK readers, this is the drive towards having some sort of measurable impact beyond academia that is becoming increasingly required for grants and rankings). I get that, as I used to feel the same way. During my PhD I thought very much that the quality of the academic work is all that should matter. I guess this comes about because of the way we are trained as academics - we go from school, where the focus is on doing well, getting good grades, through university, undergrad to postgrad. Again, the focus is very much on your achievements as an individual, and the academic merit of your ideas and your writing. In my experience, it is not until I started my string of postdocs that the idea of impact started to emerge. It became clear that if you wanted to get a job in this competitive market, then being able to sell 'impact' would make you stand out from all the others who also have outstanding academic achievements.
But when you think about it, the whole question of 'what is the point?' is one that should be fundamental. Otherwise we are just working to satisfy our own curiosity, and how can we expect anyone to give us money to do that? Whilst I still think that knowledge for knowledge's sake is important, and we should never lose sight of that, I also think that we need to think carefully about why we do what we do, in archaeology particularly. I also read an article recently (shared by a US archaeology friend) that really hit home how problematic archaeology can be, as a subject that has roots in colonialism. It really shook me, as my most recent research will see me working in the US. On reflection, there is something uncomfortable about being an outsider, coming in to study someone else's past (we could argue it is world history, everyone's history, but I think it's more complicated than that), particularly if it is something that people do not want.
At the very least archaeology should be a collaborative process between multiple stakeholders. This is an important aspect of multivocality that I don't think I truly appreciated until recently. And we should always be asking the question of why. What is the wider impact of this work? How does understanding this aspect of the past impact on the present, and can it help inform the future?
I think with the impact agenda we are starting to see some really interesting ares of archaeological research emerging, using the long term records of the past to help understand modern day problems and possible future responses to environmental change.
At the same time I do hope we don't lose sight of archaeology for it's own sake, the excitement of understanding the human past is in itself an admirable goal. We just need to make sure we are not having negative impacts on others in doing so.