The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Going Beyond Academia: The Challenges of Engaged Research.

What is engaged research? How can it be made acceptable within academia and be useful for social movements? What is the relationship between engaged researchers and activists? Over 50 scholar-activists gathered at the University of Nottingham for the workshop on Going Beyond Academia, hosted by the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) to discuss these issues and related themes. In this blog post, I will make some personal observations on some of the themes discussed at this fascinating and extremely productive workshop.

Disjuncture between the academy and activist knowledge

In her opening talk, Ana Dinerstein from Bath University discussed the disjuncture between scholarly produced theory and activist knowledge. From within academia, there is a lack of engagement with community theorising and engaged research. Activist knowledge is often ignored within the universities partly also because it is often unsettling established knowledge and categories of enquiry and, therefore, uncomfortable for academics. For example, many well-meaning academics are involved in poverty alleviation projects. What they do not realise, however, is that by doing this they are actually reifying poverty and the poor, the very thing they try to overcome.

This disjuncture between academic and activist knowledge often results from the demands of being scientific within academia and pursuing methodologies of scientific rigour along the lines of being an objective researcher studying phenomena from the outside. Hence, Ana Dinerstein demanded, what is required is that we are developing our own definitions of what the key tenets of an alternative social science are.

Engaged research, in which academics and activists learn together, can be part of the answer. It helps overcoming the disengagement between academia and concrete social struggles and ameliorates the fractured subjectivities of academics, which often underlies this polarisation between theory and practice. Ana Dinerstein concluded her talk with a quote by Paolo Freire: ‘No one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught’.

Politics of Knowledge Production and the Contested Field of Academia

The workshop was structured around small-group discussions of three key themes. In relation to the Politics of Knowledge Production, participants emphasised the increasing hierarchisation of universities. Even professors have become more and more ‘proletarianised’ in that it is now administrators in central management of universities, who decide how to organise Higher Education, with members of staff simply following instructions.

Against this background, it remains important for engaged research to contest hierarchies including in one’s own teaching practices and to question established notions of what is considered to be acceptable theorising and respectable outlets of publication. Universities still offer space for dissident voices and it is essential to use them for alternative practices.

Discussions also touched upon the need for opening up alternative spaces of learning parallel to universities. The Social Science Centre in Lincoln, offering free public higher education, is an excellent example in this respect with lecturers offering modules in their spare time. And yet, are teaching initiative based on volunteers sustainable in the long run? Perhaps, the focus needs to be on restructuring existing universities? Academics themselves, collectively, are well able to organise universities in a non-commercial, free and public way. Universities are clearly areas of contestation themselves and scholar activists can also start bringing about change in their own workplace.

Methodological Challenges in Engaged Research

Many participants reflected on the difficulties of participatory action research (PAR). Participation in movement struggles does not necessarily provide direction for research. Only engagement over a period of time may result in a concrete understanding of what movements actually need. What is clear is that methodological questions are of a highly political nature and require ethical sensitivity when dealing with them in the context of movement struggle.

Some workshop participants raised the question of whether it was acceptable to openly criticise movements as a result of engaged research. While raising critical observations with movements internally may be productive for the movements themselves, publishing critical observations more widely may be abused by opponents. Research is in danger of being co-opted by the wrong people.

Equally challenging is the task of defending PAR as an acceptable method within academia. As it does not comply with positivist separations between the subject and the object, PAR is often accused of lacking scientific rigour. Going beyond the disjuncture between academic theory and activist knowledge formation is key in this respect.

Finally, engaged research, critical theory formation beyond the academic mainstream does not necessarily involve PAR, but may also follow other lines of methodological enquiry. The method of ‘sociological intervention’ by Alain Touraine was raised in this respect. As engaged researchers, we need to be critical in many different ways and there are many ways of being critical. What does ‘critical’ mean, it was asked? Ultimately, whatever the adopted methodology, it is important to place knowledge into a practical context in order to overcome the disjuncture between academia and social movements.

The Researcher’s Political Engagement and Usefulness to Struggles and Social Justice

Co-operation between academics and activists is often difficult, partly also because they work in different time frames. While the former reflect over longer periods of time, the latter often need to react speedily to frequently changing circumstances.

As for engagement with social movement struggles, it is important to emphasise the co-operative nature of this type of research between academics and activists. Knowledge is the result of co-production and not the result of an individual’s work analysing movement struggles from the outside.

The problem of universities as hierarchical spaces was brought again into the discussion. While they still offered spaces for alternatives, the increasing casualization reduces these spaces significantly. It is important to remember, some argued, that as academics we are also workers engaged in struggles at our own workplace. Equally, as educators academics have a particular responsibility in their teaching to introduce students to engaged research in relation to struggles for social justice.  

There are clearly many issues and tensions around engaged research between academics and activists. Not all questions could be answered during the workshop nor do questions necessarily have only one potential answer. What is clear, however, is that engaged research is absolutely essential in order to ensure knowledge creation, which is related to concrete struggles and thus meaningful. For me, this has to start at the own workplace in the push towards autogestion or collective self-organisation and management of Higher Education and against the marketization of education as a commodity to be bought by those, who have the necessary wealth and privilege to afford it.

Prof. Andreas Bieler

Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:

9 June 2015

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