"Researchers usually have the best intentions, but the structure they are operating within almost forces them to participate in a destructive order," says sociologist Willem Schinkel
Willem Schinkel (1976) is Professor of Sociology at Erasmus University Rotterdam and member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) and of the ‘Science in Transition’ initiative. Schinkel isn’t one to shy away from big themes. For example, in 2008 he published the book De gedroomde samenleving (‘The dreamed society’), and in 2012 De nieuwe democratie, naar andere vormen van politiek (‘The new democracy, towards different forms of politics’).
On 22 October, Schinkel will be joining co-author Rogier van Reekum to discuss their new book Theorie van de Kraal: kapitaal, ras, fascisme (‘Theory of the Kraal: capital, race, fascism’, Boom, 2019). "The book is about the prevailing order and its impact."
A subject that frequently resurfaces your work is diversity at the university. Why is the lack of diversity a big problem in your view?
"When you see that 90 percent of the professors are white males, you cannot hold on to the conclusion they’ve been selected based on quality. In fact: it basically proves that the criterion for selection is mediocrity. Whether you’re male or female, of colour or white – talent and intelligence is found in equal measure everywhere. So when you encounter that many white men, this automatically means that they come from the lower regions of quality. We can also see a lot of research that goes into this."
Your position is: a lack of diversity is a lack of quality?
"Yes, but looking at it this way isn’t in the interest of the existing power structures at the university. Similar to how it isn’t in the university’s interest to give serious thought to its tasks."
Because, what are its tasks in your view? And what is the role of academic knowledge in the public domain?
"We have decades of material going into what the university’s role should be. The first goal is: a centre of accessible education and free research. Unfortunately, researchers – and that includes researchers here at Erasmus – tend to almost automatically comply with the powers that be, and their research follows suit. But a research agenda shouldn’t be formed by the State or the private sector. In fact: in many cases, I would imagine that research that could undermine the State or the private sector is actually more interesting – in the light of global warming, for example. Of course, accommodating the power structure as it exists in our society is also how you can maintain your own dominant position. There are all sorts of noble ideals about science. But not that many researchers seriously believe that they’re discovering the facts. What’s more: if you simply said that science is about facts, you’d be doing it a disservice: the actual scientific work, the activity of researching and the creativity that takes shape through this process."
And you’re saying that as a result that academic knowledge doesn’t land in society – or only very poorly?
"The university’s second key task is the production of public knowledge. Knowledge acquired of, for and with the general public. You can’t just work on your CV all day and throw the public a bone every now and then: 'Here’s some knowledge, good luck with it!' To have an impact, you need to have a different kind of engagement with the world beyond the university. Here and there, you can already see this happening. Medical researchers who are working together with patient organisations, for example. Social scientists who are active in the public domain. There are a lot of other opportunities besides."
"To have an impact, you need to have a different kind of engagement with the world beyond the university."
So there is a trend towards researchers seeking out the public?
‘Yes. But the dominant idea still seems to be: 'Science is an independent pursuit – it needs to be left alone.' As if doing research is in itself morally superior, and that what makes it even more special is that you’re prepared to share your knowledge. As if it’s noble to work on grand solutions to the world’s problems."
It’s hardly wrong though: to think along about solutions for global issues?
"No, but I’m interested in the question: to which extent has science also contributed to the big problems in our world today? We’re currently going through a catastrophic climate change, in which science is implicated in all sorts of ways. Here at Erasmus, we also have programmes in Economics and Business Administration; fields that are often geared towards the continuation of a growth-oriented economy – even if it means our planet will be destroyed in the process. Scientists are working in all sorts of ways on the invention of technologies that contribute to the Earth’s demise. How can science simultaneously play a role in its salvation or in mitigating the damage that is done? We actually have no idea. But it’s hubris to believe that as a scientist, your work will automatically have an impact and be praised by a fawning crowd."
But you can’t just say: ‘Oh well, environmental catastrophe, poverty… you’re on your own there – we couldn’t be bothered’.
"Exactly. So the question is whether science – or the university in its present shape – is even able to do something about these problems. Because in its current guise, science is also structured on the basis of competition, and on the preservation of the existing political and social order. I think that if you truly want to achieve change as an academic, you need to start thinking and working in a radically different way. A form in which hierarchy and power no longer play a role and in which the public interest comes first. But of course, all sorts of white males who currently call the shots aren’t too happy when you say that. But then they’re actually the problem.
Important to mention: these things I’m saying do all sorts of people a disservice. Researchers usually have the best intentions, but the structure they are operating within forces them to participate in a destructive order. This applies to me too: the structure we find ourselves in and the order we’re working in simply don’t permit change at the fundamental level."
"We’re currently going through a catastrophic climate change, in which science is implicated in all sorts of ways."
What’s the solution?
"I couldn’t say – not on my own. The solution needs to come out of a collective effort. The problem with science is that it’s implicated in a far larger, planet-wide catastrophe."
Is that also what your new book Theorie van de Kraal is about?
"The themes are related. The book is about the prevailing order and its impact. We discuss the recent emergence of all forms of fascism. We treat this in relation to the work of the sociologist Du Bois, for example.
By now we’re all aware that the accumulation of capital benefits 0.1 percent of the population. Why people have never risen up against this system is that white people have been given all sorts of perks: they were allowed to share in the spoils. White workers were able to participate in the accumulation of capital – this is called the welfare state. As a result, they never developed serious antagonism against the ‘wealthy one percent’. White workers have never felt the need to feel solidarity with others. What we’re seeing right now is that they’re no longer getting these perks, since the accumulation of capital is being limited to an increasingly small group of people. So all sorts of other people are thinking: “We need to grab whatever we can get!” This way of thinking is accompanied by a lot of violence. The Mediterranean is the world’s deadliest border: thousands of people die every year simply to preserve our national purity. So this book is about which demands are placed on us to participate in the dominant order."