“Research needs criticism”

All disciplines need criticism, both from within their own ranks and in the media. But if the criticism is unreasonable and personal, it can threaten freedom of speech in academia, believes one Swedish gender researcher.
Evelina Johansson Wilén is a senior lecturer at Örebro University in Sweden and has written a PhD dissertation in gender research on feminism and ethics. Photo: Susanne Dietrichson

“One of my areas of interest is the feminist political movement and am currently working on a research project on gender and research policy,” Evelina Johansson Wilén tells Kilden genderresearch.no via Teams from Sweden.

“I’m interested in criticism of gender research in general, both in academia and in other areas of society.”

It is important that researchers are not frightened of taking part in public debate, she says.

“The debate is often polarised. We need researchers who can help to nuance and weigh the different opinions against each other.”

Norwegian findings are transferable to Sweden

A Norwegian report by researchers from the Institute for Social Research (in Norwegian only) shows that some researchers are reluctant to talk about their research in public. This applies in particular to researchers in the fields of gender, immigration and climate research. They say that they fear hate speech and that their research will be twisted or simplified. 

The findings of this report are transferable to Sweden, Johansson Wilén believes.

If a colleague criticises you, you may feel that your position in the field is threatened.

“Many researchers worry that their research will be misinterpreted, which is understandable. Research results can be complex, and being misquoted is discomfiting,” she says.

“Some researchers are more frequently criticised than others, both within their own field and across fields, and in society in general. Gender research is one of the disciplines that is most often criticised, also in Sweden.”

Research in areas of society that are subject to polarised debate also finds itself in the crossfire more often, Johansson Wilén believes.

“Gender research also concerns itself with and takes a critical view of power, which seem to trigger strong emotions in people. That means that it’s extra important that you don’t get misquoted as well.”

Read also: When knowledge is banned

Smaller disciplines are more vulnerable

As a gender researcher, you also take a more analytic view of certain topics where there is a lot of contention, also among feminists. Prostitution is one example of this, says Johansson Wilén.

“The result is often that the research findings are met with anger on both sides”, she says.

“Feminists are disappointed if the research does not support their own views, and the researcher is accused of being politically motivated.”

Johansson Wilén also believes that smaller disciplines are particularly vulnerable to criticism from colleagues because the field is so small.

“Gender research is a small discipline. If a colleague criticises you, you may feel that your position in the field is threatened,” she says.

“There are few permanent positions in gender research, and few professors. So if one out of two professors criticises your research in public, half the research field is suddenly against you. That makes you more vulnerable than if one out of twenty history professors criticises a colleague.”

Politics and research

Johansson Wilén believes that, in many fields, the relationship between politics and science is not clear-cut. This is particularly the case in social science, but also in many of the humanities disciplines.

“Science is meant to be objective, whereas politics is about power. I believe that becoming politically interested as a result of being a researcher is just as common as becoming a researcher because you are interested in politics,” she says.

Such a culture of fear in academia could result in researchers ‘playing it safe’ and refraining from conducting research on controversial topics.

“Facts generated by research and the objective perspective of research can lead to political involvement. For example, you can become interested in environmental policy as a result of researching endangered animal species. I myself had a political awakening when I read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.”

According to Johansson Wilén, it is easier to accuse researchers in fields such as environmental, immigration and gender research of being politically motivated because such research is more clearly linked to political issues.

“An economics researcher can also be politically motivated even if it’s not as easy to spot,” she says.

“One example is business economics and research on employee-management relations. Such research might seem more objective, but it is also closely related to politics.”

Read also: Seeking more European research that integrates a gender dimension

Gender research trouble

In Sweden, gender research and research on ethnicity are the disciplines that most frequently trigger debate in the media.

“Opponents of gender research in Sweden have questioned whether this research can actually be called a scientific discipline and accuse researchers of engaging in politics and not research.”

One of the reasons why gender research triggers such heated debate is that since 2016 incorporating gender perspectives has been a criterion when applying for research funding from the research councils, regardless of research area, Johansson Wilén says.

“Many feel that this is an example of politics overriding research and that researchers’ freedom of action is curtailed. They blame gender research and believe that everyone is being forced to research gender,” she says.

“They view gender research as hegemonic and as a power factor, but this is an EU Directive and has nothing to do with gender research as such.”

All disciplines need criticism

Johansson Wilén believes it is important that research is criticised.

“But gender research has received so much harsh criticism that researchers in this field have become extra vulnerable,” she believes.

“That’s a shame, because criticism is important and can be useful and constructive and help to develop and guide the field. All disciplines need criticism both from within their own ranks and in the media.”

 We must never stop asking: What is gender research?

Johansson Wilén wrote her PhD dissertation on left-wing feminists.

“I presented my thesis to a group of feminists who asked critical questions that were both good and useful.”

“Criticism gives research momentum. It’s a shame if a culture takes root at universities whereby people are afraid of criticism and hatred.”

This could be a serious threat to academic freedom of expression, Johansson Wilén believes.

“Such a culture of fear in academia could result in researchers ‘playing it safe’ and refraining from conducting research on controversial topics,” she says.

“This would be detrimental to academic discourse and the unfettered research.”

“Academia has changed”

Universities can help to create an infrastructure in academia that allows room for productive criticism, Johansson Wilén believes.

“They can offer researchers more stable employment so that they do not feel that they are putting their career on the line if they publish controversial research findings,” she says.

“Support groups should be established in certain vulnerable research fields and researchers should learn how to handle hate speech on social media. It’s important that researchers learn to interpret and understand media debate and that they learn strategies for coping with it.”

Many of the researchers Johansson Wilén has interviewed think that the situation in academia has changed.

“Researchers with long experience see that more people are concerned with research results and with research being beneficial to society,” she says.

“It has become easier and more acceptable to pour scorn on a literary scholar who studies Selma Lagerlöf and to ask questions like: ‘How is this research useful to me?’”

The importance of a self-critical discourse

Johansson Wilén has not experienced harsh external criticism herself.

“I've received professional criticism that has been constructive to me, but I have never received hate mail from strangers,” she says.

“I’ve also become better at distinguishing between the person and the issue. A few years ago, I was criticised by a well-known Swedish feminist and was very ashamed. I didn’t dare to respond to the criticism, but I would have done so now.”

The fact that gender researchers are frequently the brunt of harsh external criticism has also made them more vulnerable to internal criticism, Johansson Wilén believes.

“We thereby lose out on the internal discussion that is important to the development of all disciplines,” she says.

“Gender research has a proud critical tradition that must not be lost. It’s important to the field that we keep this self-critical discourse alive. We must never stop asking: What is gender research?”

Translated by Allegro språktjenester AS.


Kilden takes a closer look at the topic of academic freedom in our independent news magazine through several interviews with Nordic gender researchers on this topic.

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