Academia has long been the official search engine for knowledge. Here supposedly are the ivory towers where seekers after truth, men and women intellectuals, teach new generations and carry out learned research, to add to the sum of human wisdom.
This is a powerful and seductive image, that even those of us who work in academia can’t entirely escape. But we also know that the academy is as tied to rank as the army, with as clear a hierarchy – from temporary research assistants to senior professors. It is as discriminatory as mainstream politics, with a dearth of black women tenured professors and a growing bottom layer of low paid ancillary staff increasingly marginalised by modern outsourcing economics.
Academia is like nothing so much as the world in which it is situated. We are now seeing the proletarianisation of its workforce and the overlaying of neoliberal managerialism on its structures, values, goals and culture. Even more to the point, it has a longstanding history of questionable relationships; from those with the arms trade, to continuing over-reliance on big pharma psychiatric research funding.
Yet as a long-term mental health service user/survivor (as some of us call ourselves in the UK), I am proud to work in a university and even prouder to have been promoted to professor as an out-survivor in the university. How come? Well, it’s because both the two opposing points I have made are true. Universities do play a pivotal role in the production of knowledge, but also the work they do is often compromised by the economic and ideological realities that operate on them. So why should we as psychiatric system survivors just leave the space free for psychiatric discourse to continue to dominate as it long has? In the battle for knowledge, we cannot let the dominant medicalised discourse have it all its own way.
Don’t we have a responsibility to offer our students and academic research an alternative – such as that offered by ‘mad studies’? Jasna Russo and I, in our article in Disability & Society Between Exclusion and Colonisation: Seeking a Place for Mad People’s Knowledge in Academia, have already highlighted some of the issues. Robert Menzies and I, in our chapter entitled Developing Partnerships To Resist Psychiatry Within Academia in the important new text Psychiatry Disrupted, have made the case for challenging psychiatric dominance in the academy.
The emergence of organisations and movements of mental health service users/survivors internationally has changed the game. Now we know that there can be and are different kinds of knowledge and expertise. These are very different to traditional professional ones. We have begun to make it difficult for our own lived experience as mental health service users/survivors to be ignored or the experiential knowledge that develops from it, to be denied.
Of course there are still many barriers in the way of the inclusion and equal valuing of user knowledge and user-controlled research in the academy, but their momentum is growing and it is becoming more and more difficult to dismiss them. Mental health service user researchers are undertaking and completing PhDs. They are becoming more visible in the academy as both educators and researchers. They are publishing their findings, advancing new forms of both individual and collective knowledge. They are challenging what has come to be recognized as ‘epistemic violence’ and ‘epistemic injustice’ – where our knowledge has been counted for less than other sources of knowledge. They have called into question traditional assumptions about differential ‘knowledge claims’ and developed arguments that highlight the valuable contribution of experiential knowledge. (See It’s Our Lives: A Short Theory of Knowledge, Distance and Experience by Peter Beresford.)
No, we must no longer think of academia as out of bounds to us and our knowledge as survivors. Instead we should have the courage of our convictions that our lived experience has a real contribution to make to the development of human knowledge. We can see the survivors who are already advancing mad studies and disability studies within universities as an advance guard of a new kind of academic. This is an academic true to the founding principles of academia – to explore and share new knowledge, while equally committed to the aspirations of new social movements to advance people’s human and civil rights and challenge disadvantage and disempowerment.