Last week, I participated in a roundtable on The Academy and Activism, hosted by Penn's Media Activism Research Collective. It was great to be in conversation with Elisabetta Ferrari, Antoine Haywood, and Guobin Yang on this topic, which feels especially important in our current political context. MARC organizer Hanna Morris asked us to prepare responses to a set of questions in advance of the roundtable. I share an edited version of my thoughts below.
Firstly, let’s begin with a question of definitions: How do you personally define/differentiate academic research from activism? Or, do you differentiate the two?
I think it’s important for academics interested in activist-academic work to begin with the realization that not all academic research is activist. It might seem like an obvious statement, but anyone interested doing activist-academic work needs to be reflexive about what makes some academic work activist, and why we need to descriptor “activist-academic” to begin with.
Academic research is, at its most basic level, about the pursuit of knowledge. The pursuit of knowledge can sound like something that is intrinsically good. When pushed a little further semantically, academic research can even sound like an inherently socially just endeavor. We’re “uncovering truths” about the world around us or “combating ignorance.” But if all academic research was activist by default, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about the relationship between activism and the academy, and we wouldn’t have specific descriptors like “activist scholarship” or “activist academic.”
In my view, anyone interested in pursuing activist-academic work needs to be asking, at every step of the research process, questions about their approach to knowledge production. Who is this research for? Why am I doing this work? Who will benefit most? Whose knowledge am I citing as an expert source? How does this work contribute in concrete ways to a social change project?
In addition to this reflexivity, I also feel that activist-scholarship should be participatory. In order to study social justice movements while also pursuing scholarship that is socially just, we must position ourselves in solidarity with activists. What solidarity looks like can vary depending on the situation or context. For me, solidarity has meant, to whatever extent possible, becoming directly involved with the activist work I am studying. It is important, however, to be reflexive about what this involvement looks like. As academics, we have a lot of knowledge and resources we can lend to movements. But it is key to remember that while you might be the only academic in the room, if you are new to this organizing community, you do not have the same knowledge or experience as those who have been doing this work for a while.
Not all research is activist. Not everyone’s research agenda is going to involve that process of reflexivity, that concern for how academic research is entangled in systems of power, and that vested interest in making a social impact outside of one’s academic career. Not everyone’s research is going to be participatory. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are justifications for research projects whose outputs will primarily reach other academics. We need to talk to each other and expand on and improve our tools and analytics and theories. But it’s important to make the differentiation between scholarship and activist scholarship, because the added description, in my opinion, includes an additional set of commitments. It involves more than just simply declaring, "I am an activist and an academic."
Do you think activist work and academic work should be kept separate? Why or why not?
As I explain above, I don’t necessarily think that all academic work needs to be activist. It is at times necessary to separate the two. What cannot, in my view, be separated is the relationship between academic research and politics. I study feminists, and I also consider myself a feminist researcher, which means I work within a specific tradition or philosophy of feminist knowledge production, rooted within ongoing feminist debates and dialogues across the social sciences. A key tenant of this school of thought is that all research is political. All knowledge is socially, politically, and historically situated. All forms of knowledge, even those which claim to be objective, reflect the particular conditions in which they are produced and can, in turn, reify normative power relations. The key element that sets activist scholarship apart is that its practitioners recognize that knowledge is linked to power and, in turn, resistance. Working from this assumption, they strive for scholarship that aligns itself in solidarity with marginalized communities and their social justice projects
When—or under what conditions—if ever, do you think academic research should be more “activist”?
One condition in which academic research should be more activist in its orientation is when it is benefitting from the knowledge and labor of marginalized communities. There is a great deal of scholarship on power, media, identity, and communication that is grounded in the writings and voices of activists doing the hard work of organizing for change, the writing and voices of women, people of color, queer and trans people. But this scholarship is not always produced or even circulated in a manner that benefits or reaches these communities, nor do the researchers behind this scholarship always try to return the labor these communities have performed for their benefit. This is one major area where scholars need to begin incorporating the reflexive questions that should be part of an activist scholarship practice. Who is my research for? If I am saying this research is for the marginalized groups I am studying, how am I making good on that promise in specific, concrete ways? I am benefiting from these communities’ time and energy and I am claiming authority in representing their perspectives and experiences, which can have an impact on their actual lives. What am I doing to address this power imbalance? Scholars that want to talk to talk, to frame their research as critical and politically engaged, must also walk the walk and develop methods for channeling the benefits and knowledge of their research into the communities they study.
Do you feel there is (or should be) an ethical obligation (beyond IRB and other institutionalized research standards) to the activists you study in your research?
Yes! IRB approval is a flawed mechanism for gauging the ethics of any research project. The process of obtaining IRB approval turns ethics into a simple declaration before you begin your project. The linear process of IRB approval suggests that if you submit the paperwork and the IRB approves your project, your project is officially ethical and nothing more needs to be done. I am interested in a more processual approach to ethical research. Annette Markham has written several pieces describing ethics as a method. Every methodological choice and action the researcher makes or takes has ethical consequences, whether she recognizes them or not. A processual “ethics as methods” approach incorporates reflexive questions throughout the research process, so that you are reflecting critically on your choices through your study.
The IRB’s definitions of harm and risk also do not account for other types of problematic issues that a researcher can create for her participants. The IRB doesn’t ask you to explain how you will mitigate the power imbalance between yourself and the community you are representing, or how you will work to make sure your participants can benefit from the knowledge you produce. A more critical, reflexive, processual approach to ethics can incorporate these questions.
For researchers who study activists, this processual approach is especially important, because there are specific ethical considerations to keep in mind. Some of these considerations are more pragmatic. How am I going to protect this potentially vulnerable group of political subjects, who could face threats or violence if their identities were revealed? How am I going to compensate activist participants for their time and energy, given that they are already low on both, and that their time would be better spent actually doing labor for the movement under study? But other ethical considerations are more abstract. How can I contribute to their social justice projects? Do I have access to skills or resources that might be useful for their cause? How can I communicate the knowledge I produce through my research with them in a manner that benefits their work? Doing activist-academic work always comes back to the practice of reflexivity and asking yourself a long list of questions about your research process, from the formulation of your research questions to the writing up and circulating of your findings.