Research for What? For Whom?

Big Question: Why matters – Research for what? For whom?

Time Commitment: 30 minutes

Question for Reflection:

From your perspective, what is the role of “an academic”?

Why This Matters: 

Peters (2010) identified four common answers to the question: To what extent and in what ways should academic professionals be engaged in the public work of democracy? Through conducting and analyzing intensive interviews with twelve practitioners in higher education Peters and colleagues identified four normative traditions: (a) service intellectual, (b) public intellectual, (c) action researcher/public scholar/educational organizer (AR/PS/EO), and (d) antitradition traditions. A brief description of each tradition follows.

·  The service intellectual tradition “positions academic professionals in a responsive, nonpolitical stance of unbiased and disinterested objectivity” (Peters, 2010, p. 52). Academics in this tradition limit their work to naming and framing an issue and identifying options for what could be done, along with potential implications of each. However, having identified these options, they are not inclined to implement solutions or otherwise be involved in practical application.

·  The public intellectual tradition, alternatively, recognizes academics as individuals involved in inherently political work and proactively intervening in civic life. They “provide the general public with criticism, knowledge, expertise, and ideas that are meant to influence how public issues and problems are discussed, framed, understood, and addressed” (p. 55).

·  The action researcher/ public scholar/ educational organizer (AR/PS/EO) tradition has some similarities to the public intellectual tradition, including the combination of an inherently political stance that is meant to be disinterested in partisan politics and financial gain. The difference is that AR/PS/EO academic professionals “form direct, close, reciprocal, and highly collaborative public relationships with their external partners” (p. 58). An AR/PS/EO academic professional is not only “expert, critic, and civic educator, but also leader, organizer, and facilitator of face-to-face, locally contextualized inquiry, learning, problem setting, deliberation, and action” (p. 58).

·  The antitradition tradition assumes that “academic professionals should not be directly engaged as professionals in any of the four elements of the public work of democracy” (p. 61, emphasis in original). The only legitimate work in the extreme variety of the antitradition is research that is not directly motivated by or closely linked to the current affairs of civic life. The central appeal of the antitradition is that it (allegedly) “protects the academy as a source of objective, trustworthy, autonomous, and disinterested knowledge” (p. 61). 

Each approach to scholarship comes with its own assumptions, biases, cultures, and traditions that frame scholarly activity.

Diving In – The role of research in the Flint Water Crisis:

“Soon after the city began supplying residents with Flint River water in April 2014, residents started complaining that the water from their taps looked, smelled, and tasted foul. Despite protests by residents lugging jugs of discolored water, officials maintained that the water was safe. A study conducted the following year by researchers at Virginia Tech revealed the problem: Water samples collected from 252 homes through a resident-organized effort indicated citywide lead levels had spiked, with nearly 17 percent of samples registering above the federal “action level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb), the level at which corrective action must be taken. More than 40 percent measured above 5 ppb of lead, which the researchers considered an indication of a “very serious” problem.”  (Flint water crisis)

Question for Reflection:

Based on the short overview of Professor Marc Edwards’ work, how do you think he would answer the question:  To what extent and in what ways should academic professionals be engaged in the public work of democracy? Which of the four traditions described by Peters fits best for Marc Edwards? 

(a) service intellectual, 

(b) public intellectual, 

(c) action researcher/public scholar/educational organizer (AR/PS/EO), and 

(d) antitradition traditions.

Even in this example of research that emerged from someone “most affected” and resulted in action (policies, etc.), questions of who and how are still relevant and complicated. Ms. Lambrinidou, who had worked alongside Professor Marc Edwards for years and even co-taught courses with him at Virginia Tech, described some of her concerns in the article,  The Accidental Ethicist:

  • Ms. Lambrinidou recently told The New York Times that Mr. Edwards had contributed to an unhealthy “hero narrative” about Flint. She suggested that the professor could have stayed out of the spotlight and allowed the residents of Flint to be the heroes of their own story.
  • The problem, said Ms. Lambrinidou, is that “environmental injustice is rarely, if ever, only a technical problem requiring simply a technical solution.” Scientists who parachute into a troubled city like Flint, she said, run the risk of condescending to the people they are supposedly saving from harm, possibly without realizing they are doing it, thus reinforcing the social hierarchy that made those people vulnerable in the first place.

Additionally, through this process, Marc Edwards reports learning that to affect change… how matters. 

  • He used to believe scientific reasoning would be enough to sway colleagues and the public, but not anymore. “You quickly learn, if you want to get kids protected, that facts, logic — they’re useless,” he told me. “One of the things I learned in D.C. is the power and necessity of a narrative.”

The next two pages will explore these challenges in participatory research – who and how matters – and provide several tools and frameworks that can support further reflection and analysis.

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Next: Who matters – Who am I, where am I located, and how do those answers position me to contribute to positive social change?

Citation for this page: Reynolds, N. (2020). Research for what? For whom? In E. Hartman (Ed.). Interdependence: Global Solidarity and Local Actions. The Community-based Global Learning Collaborative. Retrieved from


Bajjey, A. (2014, June 2). Flint residents avoiding the tap, drinking bottled water instead. Retrieved May 9, 2020, from

Denchak, M. (2018, November 8). Flint Water Crisis: Everything You Need to Know. Retrieved May 9, 2020, from

Erb, R. (2015, January 22). Who wants to drink Flint’s water? Retrieved May 9, 2020, from

Flint Water Study. (2015, September). Lead testing results for water sampled by residents. Retrieved May 9, 2020, from

Hohn, D. (2016, August 16). Flint’s Water Crisis and the “Troublemaker” Scientist. Retrieved May 9, 2020, from

Kolowich, S. (2016, October 2). The Accidental Ethicist. Retrieved May 9, 2020, from

Palmer, B. (2016, January 26). Watered Down. Retrieved May 9, 2020, from

Stafford, K. (2015, January 21). Flint residents protest water meeting. Retrieved May 9, 2020, from

Videos and pieces cited within the videos:

vtoutreachvideo. (2018, June 18). Virginia Tech Flint Water Study Team in 2 Minutes [Video file]. Retrieved from