The University of Texas at Austin Latino Research Initiative

In social justice work as with cancer care, a pragmatic approach to problem-solving

Thu, March 15, 2018
In social justice work as with cancer care, a pragmatic approach to problem-solving
Dr. Gregory F. Pappas

Written by Jessie Temple

How is social injustice like cancer? American pragmatist thinkers John Dewey and Jane Addams saw social injustice as a disease affecting an organism. Like cancer, injustice is complex, caused and affected by multiple environmental factors and conditions, and tends to stay hidden even as it evolves.

For Dr. Gregory F. Pappas, Distinguished Research Fellow at the Latino Research Initiative and Professor of Philosophy at Texas A & M University, the metaphor of injustice as cancer is a useful one when thinking about how to address social problems. (Dr. Pappas is careful not to use the word cure, noting that Addams preferred the word ameliorate. “She knew better than to think there was a cure to every problem.”). If injustice, like cancer, is a result of imbalances in the organism (whether that organism is a human body, a community, or an entire nation), then a treatment that aims to address the disease must be based in an understanding of those imbalances. Within a pragmatic framework, the starting point for any inquiry is not theory, but lived experience.

For Dr. Pappas, the value of the pragmatist approach to social problems is not in the answers, but in the questions. Rather than the ends justifying the means, the means (in this case, the ways in which an inquiry is conducted) shape the ends. A top-down approach to cancer treatment (for example, mandatory chemotherapy) would be ill-advised; likewise, top-down approaches to social problems like mass incarceration, educational achievement gaps, and residential segregation that start with academic theoretical abstractions (for example, theories of oppression of x group), rather than in specific experiences, are likely to be ineffective at best. Effective treatment – or amelioration – is rooted in individual stories, in felt experiences, in democratic discourse, and in empathy. The means by which amelioration is attempted are, in fact, a critical component of that amelioration. 

Accordingly, Dr. Pappas describes his current work as “inquiry into inquiry”: specifically, how do we create a community of inquiry that is trans-disciplinary, centered in concrete problems, democratic, and experimental? The work of Dewey, Addams, and W.E.B. DuBois helps to build a framework for this community of inquiry. So does that of Mexican philosopher Luis Villoro, whose theories about power and resistance were grounded in his work with the Zapatista resistance; of Paolo Freire, whose critical pedagogy was based both in pragmatist thought and in the specific experience of impoverished children in Brazil; and of Gloria Anzaldúa, whose theories about gender, race, and class emerge from her particular experiences of injustice in South Texas.

As it happens, the metaphor of injustice as a cancer has practical applications at the Latino Research Initiative. Dr. Pappas points to Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR) as an example of “bottom-up” inquiry that results in amelioration strategies specific to the community from which they emerge. The CBPR approach is one used by Initiative research teams to investigate multiple factors influencing issues like cancer prevention and care among Latinas in South Texas.

For Dr. Pappas, the interdisciplinary nature of research at the Latino Research Initiative is a hopeful model. However, he sees much more work to be done to promote critical thinking and constructive conversation on campuses and beyond. “How we communicate with each other is key. How do we deal with disagreements? How do we deal with our biases? I think that Jane Addams would be seriously disappointed with the academic silos and the gap between the ivory tower and the affected victims of injustice in cities or communities.”

Dr. Pappas will present his current research, “An Inter-American Approach to the Problems of Injustice”, on Monday, April 2, 2018 at 4:00 PM at The University of Texas at Austin.

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