The Ivory Tower Under Siege: the Ultimate Frontier of Governmentality

In the last few weeks the case of Alexander Sodiqov has triggered a wave of apprehension and solidarity among transnational multiform networks of scholars and activists involved in a global campaign for his release.

Alexander Sodiqov is a PhD Student at the University of Toronto, involved in a research project about “Conflict Management in Central Asia”, which is part of broader programme funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (Rising Powers and Interdependent Futures). He has been put under arrest two weeks ago – after he had interviewed an opposition leader in Khorog (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province, Tajikistan).

Several statements of support have been issued by different academic associations, universities, NGOs as well as by individual professors and politicians; a chain of seminars have been organized across the world (Washington, Canberra, Exeter, Toronto, Paris, Freiburg, Astana, Bishkek and Heidelberg) on the topic “Researchers at Risk”.

That happened in the same days when I was going through the recordings of some of the interviews that I have carried out for my PhD research project. I met with a Kyrgyz activist, among others: we engaged in a friendly, lively and open conversation, during which he admitted that “quite a lot of people thinks ‘why are you [me] coming here, you must be a spy, why should I be talking to you’…”.

All this led me to tentatively re-organise my chaotic thoughts about research security and academic freedom: as effectively put by Edward Schatz in his recent contribution for the Monkey Cage, research is about having access to information, collecting data, disseminating knowledge and replying to uncomfortable intellectual questions. Research is about the disclosure of remote contexts and the removal of the veil of Maya from complex dynamics: on the one hand, it has a fundamental social value which often is neither publicly acknowledged nor officially protected; on the other hand, it implies the immersion of researches in risky environments.

Whereas ethical review processes are currently included as a routinized step in the research planning of a significant number of institutions, they often focus more on the treatment of research participants (interviewees, respondents…) than on the safety of researchers in the field[1]; however, a sort of Copernican Revolution has recently happened, as shown by the organisation of risk-management trainings scheduled as part of the PhD coursework. For example, the School of Oriental and African Studies in London has recently arranged a “workshop on cross-cultural research”: quite tellingly, the latter was partially contracted to “Aegis Response” and its consultants – previous intelligence, Special Forces and armies officers.

Secondly, the reconsideration of the structural constraints affecting researchers during their fieldwork has also involved the formalization of guidelines[2] and codes of conduct (for example, the one issued by the Social Research Association, the RESPECT Project, the Brunswick Declaration on Research Ethics, Integrity and Governance), and the emergence of an interesting strand of self-reflective literature about research security which complements the design of specific protocols and procedures.

Thirdly, that Copernican Revolution is leading to the creation or, where already existing, the consolidation of inclusive communities of researchers speaking out against restrictions to academic freedom, which are increasingly taking the shape of endangering the well-being or even the survival of researchers themselves. The Scholars at Risk Network, the Network for Education and Academic Rights and the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics are committed not only to advocacy and alert, but also to the tangible support to scholars under threat, suffering prosecution on improper or false charges or wrongfully imprisoned (for instance the Scholar Rescue Fund). Provided that the most effective “weapon” at researchers’ disposal is research itself, the Scholars at Risk Network has also developed a monitoring project (Academic Freedom Monitor) and is currently testing a prototype survey/index to measure the health of the higher education sector worldwide.

While all these initiatives are of paramount importance to cast a light on the problems connected to research security, two missing links should be taken into consideration.

The first one is the need to imagine a research methodology which would be not only adaptable to non-Western research environments but also created through a dialogue among different cultures of research. The standardization of methods might lead to the reproduction of hegemonic practices and to anti-hegemonic contestation of the scholarly activity per se. As recently argued by Sukanya Podder, “the processes of knowledge generation and the methodologies of data collection can replicate materialities and marginalities that put a distance between the researcher and the researched”.[3]

The second one is the interpretation of research security as a normative and political issue. As the social responsibility of researchers is emerging in its global potential, the freedom to carry out research without discrimination, censorship, intimidation, or violence might be increasingly considered as a threat to blurred and altered ideas of security.

The assumptions that academia is disconnected from the real world, that scholars carry out their researches from a secluded ivory tower and therefore “who cares what they claim” crumble away when one starts thinking about the meanings, the premises and the implications of conducting research. The latter can reveal itself in its emancipatory significance; thus, it can be associated to possible destabilization.

The surveillance of scholarly activities[4] is therefore becoming a tool of governmentality employed by allegedly diverse political regimes, through diverse practices of monitoring and control, and backed by diverse legitimizing narratives. While the lists of scholars at risks deliver a picture of research insecurity being associated to non-liberal settings, a 2003 report of the American Association of University Professors was suggestively titled “Academic Freedom and National Security in a Time of Crisis” and seems to show a more nuanced situation. In January 2003 the US Department of Homeland Security deployed a “Student and Exchange Visitor Information System” to track foreign students and scholars; furthermore, according to the above mentioned report, one of the immediate consequences of 9/11 has been the expansion of “classified research”.

In order to counter these trends, academic freedom and research security need to be normatively and politically protected. At the normative level, during the Toronto meeting of the global discussion about the detention of Alexander Sodiqov, Ronald Deibert has advanced the idea of defining scholarship as something to be secured as a human right, advocating for an international humanitarian protection to be guaranteed to researchers. At the political level, one can wonder whether supporting intellectual work abroad should be framed as a governmental task and whether the production of knowledge should be included in the political agenda and narrative of a country.

In the worst-case scenario, the normative and political safeguard of scholarly activities (a futuristic claim about the “Responsibility to Protect… Academia”) might result in the critique of variable-geometry values and in the reconceptualisation of research as a frontier zone – as a trench.

The researcher pursues knowledge getting off the ivory tower… but where will the next wall be raised?


Cover image: black & white rendering of the original by Trey Ratcliff, “Ruins of the old copper mine” (CC-NC-SA, adaptations allowed)


  1. Susanne Bahn, Keeping Academic Field Researchers Safe: Ethical Safeguards, Journal of Academic Ethics, Volume 10, Issue 2, 2012, pp. 83-91. ↩︎

  2. Some examples at, ↩︎

  3. Sukanya Podder has circulated a panel proposal on this theme: ↩︎

  4. Not only field research! Recent news reported, for example, that a group of faculty members and administrators from the European Humanities University set up a “university in exile”. Paul Hockenos, Belarus’s University in Exile Looks to the West, The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 29th, 2014. ↩︎