This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.
Is it appropriate for academics to cross the boundary between conducting research and engaging in advocacy on the basis of their empirical findings? For the first time in my career, I have really begun grappling with this question. This summer marked the greatest amount of attention paid to any research project I have conducted. The Journal of Health Psychology published my project, titled “A Daily Diary Assessment of Female Weight Stigmatization.”
The study consisted of weeklong daily diary assessments of weight stigma and discrimination experienced by overweight and obese women. Using well-established daily diary methods, our study showed that actual rates of weight stigmatization were likely much higher than had been previously documented in the literature. Further, this study showed that weight stigma was being perpetuated by individuals from virtually every area of life—with our participants reporting, on average, more than three incidents of stigma daily. Some events were quite visible, including the experience of a participant who reported being mooed at in a grocery store. Other events were more subtle, such as being offered unsolicited fashion advice for concealing weight.
Overall, our findings richly presented some of the lived experiences of overweight women, and I felt the paper would make a nice scientific contribution to the literature. Not surprisingly, the academic response to this piece has been slow, but it is steady and is heading in promising directions. At this point, the traditional scholar would be content. The research had been published, and other scientists were taking interest. Yet I still had a deeply nagging sense that there was more I should be doing with these data. After all, I began my career in psychology with the desire to help people, and that is exactly what I intended to do. So, with input from others, I took the big step of pitching the story to the news media. I was excited about my first real opportunity to reach out to the public on this issue.
What I was not at all prepared for was the public response to this study once it was publicized. Within days of releasing it, reporters from around the globe, perhaps sensing the controversial nature of the study or the topic of obesity, began to send their interview requests. Since then, numerous stories have been written, including pieces in New York Magazine, Salon, the Daily Mail, and Cosmopolitan, each with slightly different takes on the my main research messages that weight stigma is widely prevalent and that it is detrimental to the people who experience it.
With each additional published story, the public onslaught of comments via Web postings, Twitter, and Facebook grew. I am not kidding when I say that tens of thousands of people have chimed in to add their 2 cents about the study and about the topic of obesity generally. Comments have ranged from encouraging personal anecdotes to vitriolic bashing of obese people and those who support them.
Interestingly, a subset of these responses have also come from fellow academics who have lobbed negative comments about my professional skills as a social scientist for so “blatantly” using my research for advocacy purposes. Apparently, for at least one scholar, my role as an advocate was in direct conflict with my role as a scientist and I was therefore doing a disservice to the field. (One such negative response was to an editorial I wrote for the Providence Journal. Though I suspect his commentary was motivated by more than a desire to protect the integrity of science, my own personal internal questions about my roles as a scientist and an advocate began circulating.)
Had I overstepped my bounds as a scientist? Should I have been content to stay within the relative safety of my research and scholarly publications, or should I push ahead into the public sphere and continue using knowledge to advocate for the marginalized in society? On one hand, my study and the years of preparation leading up to it were sufficient for publication in a respectable peer-reviewed scientific journal, but on the other I was chastised by some for violating my role as a scientist by attempting to use these data to publicly highlight the mistreatment of overweight and obese individuals.
Like many academics devoted to teaching and research, I tend to bring my research into the classroom for use as an educational tool. My students were already aware of my research, so I was interested in what their response would be to this rapidly unfolding saga. On an impromptu basis, I posed the issue to them.
What emerged from this discussion was both surprising and energizing. They openly shared their personal views about obesity (positive or otherwise). Students swapped stories about blatant instances of disrespect that had been encountered and they debated why this type of research (and advocacy) was important to academic psychology and society at large. It was an invigorating classroom experience and one in which I suspect my students and I took much more away than we would have with the originally scheduled topic. In much the same way as was occurring in online forums, my students were engaging with and debating the issues of obesity and weight stigma.
In the ensuing days, I have increasingly questioned the seemingly artificial boundaries placed between the roles of academic researcher and advocate. I am left wondering how many would-be champions of great ideas in the academic realm remain silent in the public domain because of the perceived conflicts between the roles of researcher and advocate. For me, stepping out into the public sphere has contributed to an enhanced sense of purpose in what I do as a researcher.
The publicity, commentary, and discussions—about my research and about obesity more generally—have accomplished what I hoped they would by opening up dialogue on this important issue. Whether an academic chooses to focus solely on their research or to extend their role to include research-based advocacy is a personal choice. However, as academics, we have been bestowed with the privilege and the obligation to pursue and use scientific knowledge for the betterment of the world. I truly believe that meeting these obligations does not end with the publication of findings in an academic journal.