By Nick Schuermans, Bruno Meeus & Pascal De Decker
Last year, we were caught by a very pleasant surprise. With “Geographies of whiteness and wealth: White, middle class discourses on segregation and social mix in Flanders, Belgium,” we won the 2016 best paper award in the Journal of Urban Affairs. Meanwhile, our paper has also been included in a virtual issue on ‘Immigration, Ethnicity, and Race in the City’, which is available open access on the journal’s website. In this blog post, we want to share some reflections about the impact of our research and the importance of combining academic and non-academic publications.
In the assessment by the award committee (which was made up by scholars working in the U.S. exclusively), we were very happy to read that “while the study was situated within a particular metro region, its insights are particularly far-reaching and relevant across myriad socio-spatial contexts.” As Belgian researchers, we hope that the lack of a paywall and the increased attention for the paper will help it to find an academic readership beyond the confines of our small country. Currently, our article has 12 citations in Google Scholar: six self-citations and six citations by other Belgian scholars. Does this mean that research in Belgium is usually only considered to be relevant by other Belgians? Does the spatial division of academic theorization, as criticized by Jennifer Robinson (2006), stop researchers from other countries to read a case study on the metropolitan area of Ghent as potentially informative for their own research questions and theoretical frameworks? Or should we refrain from generalizing based on such a small sample?
In any case, we do not consider the impact of our research to be limited to the number of citations it attracts or the impact factor of the journal in which it has been published. Elsewhere, we have already indicated that we urge Belgian scholars to publish in peer-reviewed, international journals such as the Journal of Urban Affairs, but that we are also worried that the one-sided focus of funding bodies and hiring committees on such publications might hamper the role that our scholarship plays outside academia (Schuermans et al., 2010). “By asking which civil servants are going to pay to access our articles, by wondering which policy makers will struggle with our academic English and by questioning which public sector employees are going to do the effort to translate our conclusions into policy recommendations,” we wrote in a reply to Ben Derudder (2011), “it becomes clear that we – and the systems designed to evaluate us – have to value more than our bibliographic records in the Web of Science alone” (Meeus et al., 2011, p. 114).
This also explains why the findings we communicated in the Journal of Urban Affairs paper have also been shared in a two page article in a major Flemish newspaper, policy reports for the Housing Department of the Flemish government and a Dutch language book called De Geest van Suburbia (The spirit of suburbia) (Meeus et al., 2014). Obviously, the question remains which impact such newspaper articles, policy reports and academic books in Dutch can have. While we – and many of our colleagues in Belgium – have been criticizing social mix strategies deployed by city councils and regional authorities since the 1980’s, it is clear that alternative policy measures are still in their infancy. Calls to provide social housing as a way to combat the displacement of the poorest of the poor from our inner cities are plainly ignored, for instance. Instead, local city councils emphasize time and time again the need to attract taxpaying inhabitants through urban revitalization projects in order to improve their tax basis and the social cohesion of their city. Research that questions the desirability and feasibility of these social mix strategies – such as our Journal of Urban Affairs article – keeps on falling on deaf ears.
This is also evident from two research projects we have been asked to undertake since the publication of the Journal of Urban Affairs article. On the one hand, the city of Genk, a former coal mining city, has asked us to conduct a housing pathway analysis of young people and families leaving the city. On the other hand, we have secured a three-year grant from Innoviris, the Brussels institute for Scientific Research, to study the housing trajectories of well-off people leaving the Brussels Capital Region. While the political representatives of these cities fear that suburbanization of higher income groups has a detrimental effect on their social fabric and city treasury, we are concerned that critical studies on segregation, social mix, suburbanization and urban revitalization in Belgian cities are not only ignored by policy makers here in Belgium, but also by scholars who are not familiar with the Belgian context.
As such, we do hope that the attention sparked by the best paper award can convince both local policy makers and international colleagues that “the findings [of our Journal of Urban Affairs paper] are important not only for informing current urban renewal efforts, but also speak to the unique challenges that will emerge as we begin to see more and more mixed-income neighborhoods undergo gentrification,” as the award committee put so nicely. Thank you for that!
Derudder, B. (2011). Some reflections on the ‘problematic’ dominance of ‘Web of Science’ journals in academic human geography. Area, 43(1), 110-112.
Meeus, B., De Decker, P., Claessens, B. (2014). De geest van suburbia. Antwerp: Garant.
Meeus, B., Schuermans, N., De Maesschalck, F. (2011) Is there a world beyond academic geography? A reply to Ben Derudder. Area, 43 (1), 113-114.
Robinson, J. (2006). Ordinary cities: between modernity and development. Milton Park: Routledge.
Schuermans, N., Meeus, B., De Decker, P. (2015) Geographies of whiteness and wealth: White, middle class discourses on segregation and social mix in Flanders, Belgium. Journal of Urban Affairs, 37 (4), 478-495.
Schuermans, N., Meeus, B., De Maesschalck, F. (2010) Is there a world beyond the Web of Science? Publication practices outside the heartland of academic geography. Area, 42 (4), 417-424.