(2) Personal activism and public scholarship: cultural and theoretical aspects

[iv] Theoretical colonialism

Whilst engaging in scholarship and being mindful of global inequalities, hierarchies and divisions, engagements with “nothing about us, without us, is for us” are essential. As Jenny Robinson and others have discussed, the inequalities between the “global South” as object of study and the “global North” as domain of theory have for too long been embedded in the academy. How can we begin changing this?

Projects can challenge the system that recreates these divides of global North and South, through active participatory/public projects and by embedding other (marginalized, southern) narratives that are currently not part of what “theorizing” is regarded as. In doing so, it is important to recognise the substantive difference between some of the opportunities in highly funded (yet decreasingly so) northern institutions, with access to space, resources, libraries, research leave and specific histories of researching on certain groups, and the opportunities in less well funded places. In this context, it is crucial that engaged research is undertaken and specificities of individual difference are taken into account, rather than relying on disseminating to the public through a generalised approach.

[v] Personal activism and unitary public conditions

The difference between one’s “activism” and one’s own academic work appeared as a tension in the examples that we discussed. Some, like Melanie Samson or Amanda Huron, participated in the projects they presented, but it was not clear whether it was an “academic” project or something they were doing in their capacity as engaged citizens. It was clear that they got involved because they were regarded as knowledgeable by being academics and/or having a graduate education, but it appears they did this because they believed in the projects. To regard academics and university-linked professionals as “knowledgeable” also has a cultural basis. Similarly, the division between one’s academic role and the rest of your life is often blurred, particularly the difference between an engaged research process and activism; this also shifts the conception of what public means in these cases.

As Melanie, reflecting on the “Informal Economies Monitoring Study” project stated: “If I’m an activist working with mass-based organizations all the time, does that mean that all the organizations that I’m working with do research that is participatory and that I’m involved in what is called ‘public research’? That would mean ‘public’ means doing something that is not doing research on my own for myself.”

[vi] The artificial separation between “scholarship” and “actual interventions”

This divide between academic and activist can highlight the separation between scholarship (research, teaching, ‘understand…’) and an actual intervention (a project, an action, ‘…in order to change’). During the discussion of the ‘Urban Union’ project, this division was highlighted as, in order for the team to be organized in some way, an “artificial” division was produced: the sociologists, political economists, and lawyers became known as the “strategic research unit”, and the cultural producers and community organizers became the “action research unit”. The names suggest that the former do not act, and the latter are not strategic.

One of the recurrent issues in understanding the role of the public was establishing who “the scholar” was? Amanda explained that the academic in the WISH project would refer to her. However, in reality the project consisted mostly of archival work, which (with the time and money resources to enable them to do it) a community member could have done. The skills required were not specifically “academic”. Culturally, scholars are often highly regarded and respected, as Nik Theodore explained: it was the domestic workers, through the National Domestic Workers Alliance, that approached the university for the project he was involved with, looking for help from academic institutions to carry out the research. Melanie was working at an NGO when part of the Informal Economy Monitoring Study, but as she had academic credentials (even though she wasn’t associated with a university), her role in the project was as a “scholar”. Beatriz also problematized this distinction of who is/isn’t an academic as within her project students would develop individual projects: “I don’t know if undergraduates and graduates are academics, or just students.”

The roles of publics, communities, academics and researchers are complex. The artificial separation between academe and activism is something that is challenged through radical, militant research practices or by engaging with participatory action research (PAR). Whilst there are differences in the way that research is engaged with, both of these practices highlight ways of engaging with the divide between praxis and theory. Some groups such as Colectivo Situaciones work as part of movements with a clear rejection of some normative academia, focusing on building potencia or power to act, building new forms of political engagement in Argentina. This means rejecting academic practices that create divides between action and research such as “abandoning the desire to lead others or be thought of as an expert” as well as researching outside of the university (Colectivo Situaciones 2007: 79). Many of these ideas have developed in Latin America, not only through the desire to overcome divisions and hierarchies, but through the political act of linking these “normalised” practises to oppressive regimes and other mental conceptions derived from advanced-capitalist countries (Fals-Borda 1991: 3). Therefore, this divide between action and scholarship is something that can be differently conceived of and acted upon.


Colectivo Situaciones (2007) Something more on research militancy: Footnotes on procedures and (in)decisions (trans S Touza and S Holdren). In S Shukaitis, D Graeber and E Biddle (eds) Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations Collective Theorisation (pp73-93). Oakland: AK Press

Fals-Borda O (1991) Some basic ingredients. In O Fals-Borda and M A Rahman (eds) Action and Knowledge: Breaking the Monopoly with Participatory Action Research (pp3-12). New York/London: The Apex Press/Intermediate Technology Publications

Next – (3) The production of “the general public”

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