What do we mean by the word ‘impartiality’?
In describing TABLE’s approach to food systems contestations, we sometimes use the word ‘impartial’ – i.e. ‘TABLE strives to be impartial….’
Impartiality means different things to different people and as such it can be contentious. For some it comes with positive associations – signalling an attempt at being fair and open minded – but for others it carries negative connotations of false balance or both-sides-ism. Indeed, it’s because we in the TABLE team ourselves reflect this spectrum of opinions on impartiality that we felt the need to think more deeply and communicate more clearly about what we do and don’t mean by the word. This informal statement is the outcome of the discussions we had.
What became clear from our conversations was that if we put aside the word impartiality itself, and focus on what we want to do and why, it turns out that there are some basic principles that we (as TABLE staff) generally agree upon.
For a start, we are all committed to the endeavour of considering multiple approaches to any particular issue, to exploring different stakeholders’ arguments and interpretations of scientific evidence and to really trying to understand why and where they are coming from. In our use of scientific evidence, rather than asserting something as a fact and stopping there, we aim for a more detailed understanding and contextualisation of research findings, considering the methods used, their limitations, and the diversity of viewpoints and approaches in the scientific community. Underlying this approach is a belief in the importance of developing a greater mutual understanding of ‘how things are’ for others in the often polarised discussions we encounter in food systems. If this is what impartiality is, then we are all for it; and since alternatives (unbiased, unprejudiced, objective, dispassionate, disinterested, neutral) all come with their own baggage and limitations, this may be the best word we can muster.
Our rationale for attempting to work impartially – in the above senses of the word – is that we at TABLE are trying to offer the following:
Opportunities, and a platform for dialogue: it is important that stakeholders who wish to take part in dialogues through TABLE – through events, Letterbox exchanges, on our podcast, and so forth – feel that they will be given a fair hearing and their views will be engaged with in good faith, albeit not uncritically. We try to arrange dialogues in a way that does not presuppose a foregone conclusion or favour one speaker over another.
Information and analysis on key food systems concepts, for example through our explainers and summaries of journal articles. We try to accurately and fairly reflect the information and evidence that we find, regardless of where we as individuals stand on an issue. There is not much of this kind of analysis out there – we feel there needs to be.
We recognise, however, that achieving complete impartiality will not be possible. This is because we – as individuals and as an organisation – have beliefs, preferences, values, assumptions and perceptions that are influenced by our personal histories and networks. For example, all TABLE staff members are, at the time of writing, based in Western European universities. The communities and cultures that we are part of feed the information and narratives that we are aware of, and hence influence the materials that we weave into TABLE’s outputs. In other words, we cannot rightfully claim to represent ‘the view from nowhere’ – nor, indeed, can anyone else.
The claim to be impartial, then, would be an unjustified claim to a special, privileged position, a unique authority that we do not believe is ours to possess.
What is more, there are areas where we believe it is not even desirable for TABLE to be ‘impartial’. For example, we believe in the value of the scientific method and are wary of underplaying findings that are backed up by substantial scientific research. We believe that the environmental problems we face are serious and urgent, and that the food system as it currently operates is substantially contributing to these problems. Our choice of topics is often guided by what we see currently discussed within our own networks, among NGOs and other stakeholders, in the media, or in academic journals, and our own judgement of what we feel to be important – or interesting – to explore. Even our belief in the value of striving for mutual understanding is itself a position we take, and as such, not ‘impartial.’
Given this, we suggest it is more useful to think of impartiality as a process – how we try to work –than a fixed trait of our work or of our organisation. We believe that attempting to work impartially is about trying to be trustworthy and that it’s a choice that we can make, regardless of our individual positions and backgrounds. This requires a level of self-reflection, to ensure that we subject our own assumptions to the same level of scrutiny that we apply to other positions. In other words, the attempt to work impartially requires a careful recognition of our own subjectivities. At times it may make sense to bring this out into the open – to acknowledge our viewpoints in the form, say, of an opinion piece. At other times, for example in the summaries we write for Fodder, or when chairing an event, personal perspectives will be less appropriate. The importance we attach to acknowledging our own biases and to bringing in multiple perspectives will depend on the particular output; and of course we recognise that lines will always be a bit blurry and open to challenge.
We hope this gives a brief insight into how we think about on impartiality within our TABLE team. Our ideas, however, are not set in stone and we’re likely to revisit this page in the future. We believe it is important to discuss our views with others, including those who disagree with our approach, or who have struggled with this idea of impartiality themselves.
We would be grateful if you can spare a few minutes to leave your thoughts and suggestions on the dedicated thread on the TABLE community forum.
If you want to read more about how TABLE functions and our reflections on this, please take a look at the following pages:
- Process and power at TABLE: a think piece about power dynamics within TABLE’s team and its institutional embeddings
- TABLE’s funders and partners