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Sam Abbott


Politics and Scholarship Will Never be Mutually Exclusive

Sam Abbott, Director of Policy and Communications, SPSSI

As we approach the 2024 Election in the United States, one feels the national temperature creeping ever higher. Like me, you may feel tempted to bury your head in the proverbial sand and wait for it all to blow over, but such a response is a privilege few can afford. Indeed, SPSSI was founded on the belief that psychologists and social scientists have a responsibility to engage and inform the public about the social and political issues of the day. But how to do that—particularly in a charged environment like a college campus responding to student protests or under political regimes skeptical, if not outright hostile, to the principles of academic freedom—is not an easy question. 

Scholars are often led to believe that being political is antithetical to the values of academia and the scientific process. This is, of course, an impossible standard. Political power structures shape the very choices we have available to us in ways we cannot ever fully comprehend, and the political implications of each of our decisions likewise reverberate in thousands of untraceable directions. Politics shapes what is funded and published. It influences our normative definitions and standards. It determines who even has the right or ability to sit at the table with us and engage in research. While we must strive not to be partisan, politics and scholarship will never be mutually exclusive.

Recently, SPSSI published Psychologists’ Response to the Violence in Gaza, a new resource guide to help psychologists respond to the unfolding situation in Palestine in their professional roles as scholars, researchers, therapists, and advocates. Regardless of your intentions to engage professionally with the situation in Palestine, I would encourage all SPSSI members to review this guide. Much of the advice pertaining to ethical research, teaching with care and bravery, and policy advocacy are applicable beyond this current crisis.

Since the writing of this guide, there has been a wave of campus protests, largely in support of Palestine, that have been met with academic sanctions, arrests, and even violence. These students, many of whom seem frustrated with a perception that voting is the only means of acceptable political participation, are responding to a situation where they feel desperate to intervene with more direct activism. At various moments, these protests have been messy, if not ugly—a reality of virtually all protests that we can recognize without discrediting or obfuscating the message or intent of broader movements. 

In response to these protests, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 6090, The Antisemitism Awareness Act, which would apply the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's definition of antisemitism to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If the Department of Education were to determine that a university was allowing antisemitic activity under this definition—which includes, among other examples, “applying double standards [to the State of Israel]”—that institution could lose access to federal funding. Critics of this legislation worry that this definition is too vague in parts and could open universities to financial retribution over otherwise legitimate academic inquiries or students’ protected political activities.

While the fate of this legislation is uncertain in the Senate, it is illustrative of Capitol Hill’s intense interest in on-campus political activity in recent years. SPSSI has previously issued statements in support of academic freedom, and in the coming weeks the Policy Committee expects to release further resources grappling with ongoing political activities on campus. It is an important and nuanced conversation, and one I expect many members will be engaged in at the SPSSI Summer Conference in Philadelphia.

The power of SPSSI stems, in part, from our ability to work together—even when we do not always agree—to navigate and respond to our current political moment, sharing our collective knowledge, expertise, and experiences as a community of politically-aware and policy-motivated social scientists. I hope to see you all in Philadelphia this summer as we bring this community together on the eve of the election, ready to advance SPSSI’s ideals and policy goals regardless of the outcome in November.

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