It's about time I did some proper sociology on this blog again. At the moment I'm mulling over a paper on social movements that touches on the relationship between academia and activism. This has been something of a recurring issue as, some of my previous posts (here and here and here, for example) testify.
What is striking about the sociological sub-discipline of social movement studies is the relationship researchers have with the objects of their studies. In my experience those who work in this field manage to have their feet in the activist and academic camps. But if you were to examine contemporary social movement research, there is no qualitative difference between its conventions and those governing other academic sociology journals. Academics write for academics and their insights and findings barely touch the social movement communities. Activists are more likely to subscribe to the literature produced by social movements themselves than Mobilization and Social Movement Studies. Books by influential academics like Doug McAdam, Donatella della Porta and Sidney Tarrow are less likely to be read than Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein. Therefore a disconnect between the study of social movements and the practice of social movements exists, so, as one of the Russian old beards once said, what is to be done?
This is the problem Doug Bevington and Chris Dixon seek to address in their 2005 paper, 'Movement-Relevant Theory: Rethinking Social Movement Scholarship and Activism'. Their starting point is an argument made by Richard Flacks, who called for the recasting of the social movement theory rolling off the academic assembly lines so it is relevant for activists outside the ivory tower. And the criterion of relevance would be its ability to assist activists in their endeavours. Bevington and Dixon run with this. They argue activist-focused theory offers scholarship a number of advantages. It avoids the theoretical disputes and problems academic theory can get caught up in over what variable to privilege or what moment in a social movement's life course should demand analytical attention. Instead, movement-relevant theory is in a reciprocal relationship with the demands of a movement. The tying of theory to practice "disciplines" theory and stops it from over extending itself in unproductive directions. And also it demands the academic leaves behind their office and gets stuck in with the movement's work.
But there has to be balance. If it is to be credible from an academic point of view it cannot adopt an uncritical tone or regurgitate the movement's ideas. Such an approach would be useless to academic and activist audiences. So there has to be a proscription against confirming preconceived biases - instead one's connection to a movement should act as an impetus for producing the best possible research. And this applies if one is studying a movement one is opposed to: the onus is on providing accurate analysis on its activities and strategic trajectory so it can best be countered.
A lead could be taken from the literature activists do read. Bevington and Dixon show that activists have an appetite for non-academic social movement theory. Their conversations with global justice movement participants found they were reading movement histories and biographies to learn about practical organising and the problems of motivation, emotional conflict and burnout - issues that, in their opinion, are overlooked by academia. Works cited by the activists included treatments of European autonomist movements, the building of movement visions in African-American mobilisations, and Jo Freeman's famous piece, The Tyranny of Structurelessness. Also academic movement-relevant theory should take the discussions activists are having among themselves as its cue, rather than deciding from the outside what the research priorities should be. Lastly engagement should not end once the period of research is over - the criterion of relevance is whether it is read by activists and used in their discussions. If it is not, the researcher can only refine their contribution by remaining involved and discovering what the issue is: are things being overlooked? Is feedback being incorporated into the research's conclusions? Are the findings accessible to the non-academic audience?
It seems a simple task to re-orientate the concerns of the social movement research community. But as yet, it hasn't happened. Why? It is because research and activism do inhabit separate universes. As we saw yesterday, the division of labour creates highly specific specialisms and expertise. Sociology and its sub-field of social movement research are an outcome of this division, with its own laws, forms of capital, specific profits, etc. Activism and social movements belong to an entirely different field (analytically) outside of the division of labour. It is difficult to straddle the boundary between the two because movement-relevant theory produced by activists and theory about social movements by academics are produced in different contexts for different audiences and are governed by different principles. There is a qualitative difference between them.
But movement-relevant theory by academics is not necessarily a forlorn hope. It just means researchers have to be honest about the pressures that bear down upon them. True, the desire to get involved in social movements is a good thing, but conflicts between its needs and those of academia have to be negotiated by the researcher - therefore it is best to have these out in the open. As I noted previously, sociologists have to turn the "sociological gaze back upon ourselves. It follows that if all social phenomena are bound up in ... struggles ... so are we. There's no Mount Olympus from which sociologists can observe the social space below, we are as much part of the fields we study as anyone else. [This] is not for a 'sociology of the sociologists' because it's a jolly excuse for academics to churn out more papers no one is likely to read: it is the condition of scientific sociological knowledge. By looking at our own trajectories, positions and interests in academic and other fields we control for the distortions and biases that are the inevitable outcome of a sociology operating in a society stratified by class and cut across by fields and their species of capital. This can only strengthen the claims our research makes."
Activists who participate in movement relevant research expect it will assist their work in some way. But also, the researcher has to simultaneously convert the knowledge produced into sociological capital, which will involve a certain distortion of the findings to pass the peer review process and help the researcher's advancement in the field. If one is an academic this cannot be avoided, but it can be controlled for provided one is conscious of the positions occupied and likely trajectory, and it is good practice generally (not just for movement-relevant research) to make research participants aware of the effects it will have in the academic field, effects that may not be entirely conducive to a movement's ends.
The production of "engaged" research is far from an unproblematic task.