REFLECTIONS ON THE KNOWLEDGE LAB
Supporting each other
This is coming out of some formal and informal discussions in the Knowledge Lab about the problems of engaged research and the need to support each other. Obviously it's just one person's view, and I'm throwing it out for consideration, discussion and tearing up into little pieces! But I do think we should be talking more about some of the practicalities.
Hanging together or hanging separately
As people doing engaged research / activist research / action research / movement research / whatever we want to call it, I think we face a set of problems which come mostly from our interaction with the academy. Some people obviously feel that they've solved these and don't need to worry about them; others seem to feel so overwhelmed by them that they reject the whole idea that we're doing something different; and others again seem to have a lot of practical problems that need solving.
Something of this seems to have to do with where people are in their research and in their own lives: people who are around the point of getting MAs and PhDs and trying to find work seem to see a lot of practical problems, for example. But I think it's interesting that - even when we 'say' there is nothing particular to talk about - we still get together, meet up with each other, and somehow recognise this and spaces like it as closer to "home" than (to take a couple of examples) the International Sociological Association's Research Committee on Social Movements or, come to that, 'Mobilization'.
I won't list the practical issues again, because after the weekend either people see that they're there or they don't want to think about them! Instead I want to make a different kind of point: looking after ourselves and developing support networks is not different from creating and developing political and theoretical space. They go hand in hand, as in all organising situations: our immediate, practical, human needs are bound up with our visions, dreams and utopias. To meet our needs in the immediate, we also need to try to go beyond the existing structures. Even the structures of academia.
So: we can hang together, support each other as researchers in all aspects of our lives, develop and legitimate our research interests and our links with the movements we work with, and even create our own institutions which can come to have a real standing and reputation vis- a-vis academia but also vis-a-vis our movements.
Or we can hang separately, fall victims to the fragmented structures of academia, get pushed down the paths that seem to be open to us in terms of departments, research strategies, funding, supervisors etc., experience all the pressures to fit in institutions defined from outside the movements, and become progressively disconnected from our own movements.
Of course, when people have successfully negotiated a particular settlement as postgrad students with a particular department, these problems can come to seem sorted, or at least put on the long finger. But as more and more people complete their research, try to get it passed and try to find stable work, they loom larger and larger, and this is what I am hearing from many people in this situation. So, in time, these are most people's problems at a practical level, however boring they are.
Anyway, these things have happened to previous generations of activist researchers (or whatever), and their experiences are worth looking at. Some of them did manage, to some extent, to create their own networks and institutions - schools of women's studies, centres for cultural studies, labour history journals, disciplines like Queer Studies, etc. etc. Others found themselves much more on their own, and as research has become more commercialised and universities have become more managerial they've had to put in a lot of effort to "fit in" to criteria which are not their own, whether those are appointment and promotion criteria, publication criteria or funding ones.
When I started my own PhD back in 1992 I felt completely isolated, despite being in a department of sociologists most of whom had some activist background - they had all come to it in this fragmented way, and had long since lost most of their engagement(in part in response to their environment). Personally I was saved by discovering the Alternative Futures conference in Manchester, but for many years even to be a social movements researcher, let alone a socialist feminist, never mind an activist, were very weird things in Irish sociology (thankfully things are now changing).
My own sense, of research around the movement of movements, is that there are a lot more of us since then, that we have a lot more self- confidence and that we talk to each other far more often. Things like Mobilised Investigation, the Barcelona conference, the Knowledge Lab and so on grow out of the ways in which we recognise each other, build personal connections and mutual support, learn from each other, and develop new projects. And we are even managing to do this across different disciplines, different movements, different national academic situations, different activist and theoretical traditions.
Obviously this is not just down to us: it's primarily down to the movement of movements, and the way in which many activists within the movement have started becoming researchers (just as Marxists, feminists, Black activists, gay rights activists, ecology movement people etc. did in previous generations) - but also to the way in which the overall rise in movement activity is creating more and more activist research - within movements, within the academy, and both.
So the main point of what I want to say is that we need to recognise this historical development - both over the short term of the last ten years or so and over the longer term through the comparison with the movements of the 60s and 70s - and try to take it seriously, support its further development and try to support this fragile ecosystem.
What do we need?
I'm going to lay this out in terms of what people need at different points in their research, because I think these are often (not always!) quite different.
When people start doing engaged research they need some recognition of the validity of what they're doing (which connects to simple visibility of other people doing it!), both within movements and within academia. Very often, though, people's experience is arbitrary / random: if they're lucky they meet activists who've had good experiences with the academy and sympathetic, or at least well- meaning academics. If they're unlucky they meet with a lot of resistance and incomprehension. Most of us probably fall into the "lucky" camp, or we wouldn't be here. But I know I still have to fight like hell for each individual postgrad who wants to do action research on movements with me, so what's it like when people have no support?
Secondly, people at this starting stage need some sense of possible methods of research, accessible examples of how it could be. I see a lot of people whose notion of research is derived either from a very conservative academic approach or from the media (opinion surveys, for example), and almost always have to encourage people at this stage to push the boat out (which of course involves being able to reassure people that they are allowed to do research on movements they're involved in, that it's possible to draw on movement knowledge and not only knowledge "about" movements, etc etc.) People also need models of what research could mean at a far broader level, in terms of institutional situations, the kinds of social relations they might have with fellow activists, etc etc.
A lot of people, at least in Ireland where postgrad study can cost several thousand a year, have huge issues in finding funding sources or even ideas of where to start looking. This may be different in other countries.
Lastly, but I think very importantly, people need to have something useful to say to fellow-activists: this is what I mean by research, this is what I might need to ask you to do, this is what you might get out of it. Particularly when we want to do participatory research, it's very hard to have conversations with people if you don't have much clarity about what this kind of research might mean in practice, or at least that's been my own experience!
During people's research, it's clearly very important to have some kind of networking context - email lists, conferences and wherever else we can meet people who are doing the same kind of thing we're doing (whatever we want to call it), who can look at it as competent peers with a real understanding of the area (which all too often our supervisors don't have), who can point us to useful reading, share mutual support around the personal turmoil that often accompanies activist research and the life changes that are common for postgraduates.
I think also I would have loved to have better models of how to interact with other activists available, better models for undergraduate teaching, more ideas even for where to look for non-traditional kinds of activist learning and adult education, or how to create them when they weren't already there.
When people are writing up and looking for longer-term work, whether in academia or in areas where their academic background makes a difference, all the stuff which earlier movements have developed comes back to the fore.
Mentoring, for example, is something which many feminists and community workers put a lot of effort into - giving people a sense of what their options are, what resources they can draw on, how to do things. Without this, what's available (through the informal ways in which most people learn how to find work and how to do their job) is the background knowledge of conventional institutions: this is how to teach, this is how to get a job, this is how to fit in. It took me six years, and the support of some exceptional people, to move even slightly away from conventional academic models, and I wouldn't claim to have gone very far in this.
People obviously need job references, and pointers to job opportunities which might work for them. It ca help if these are international, which is one kind of connection we're good at. Publication outlets matter, and more generally ways of legitimating our areas of study, our approaches to research and our theoretical interests within the system.
We have as yet (to my knowledge) very few models of how we could connect with activist learning at this point. Again, earlier movements invested heavily in creating their own learning institutions. Some of these might be quite open to new people, new approaches and new movements. Many of us are probably working in them, or collaborating with them.
But this is still so fragmented that I think we have very little shared knowledge that we could offer to someone who said "OK, I've finished the PhD and paid my dues to academia. Now I want to give something back in a different context, and work within movement learning rather than within the system. How the hell do I go about doing that if I have to pay the rent?" And with a handful of notable exceptions we have as yet painfully little in the way of our own institutions.
So this is by way of laying out the problems. I am not saying that we have no solutions for these, or that everybody faces all of them. I am saying that they probably affect far more people than we know (because we are after all the lucky - ie the connected and organised - ones, not the ones who never hear about things like the Knowledge Lab). And I am saying that if we want to support each other, and support the kind of work that we do, we need to think about all of these areas.
What do we need to do?
Below is a list of some of the kinds of tools that can help us deal with these problems. Some of them we've already done quite a lot to develop; in other cases we still have a long way to go. So, depending on the case, we need to create institutions, revive or occupy existing ones, or even just publicise the ones that are working well, in these different areas (and maybe others?)
- Conferences: Alternative Futures in Manchester, Edgehill social movements conferences, Knowledge Lab, Investigaccio in Barcelona, others...?
- Mailing lists: social-movements list, bemgelada, Mobilised Investigation, activistscholarship, others...?
- Web resources: Euromovements, Knowledge Lab, Tools for Change, others...?
- Journals: so far quite a blank. Social Movement Studies and Historical Materialism have both been disappointing from this point of view, despite their initial stated goals. I think Global Uprising just had a get- together on Sunday afternoon, but I don't know what came out of that. Are there others that are open to engaged research in general?
Alf's mentioned the possibility that we might try to make our way into an established journal which is having editorial difficulties, and this could be another strategy. Barbara and her colleagues have demonstrated another model in editing a special issue of an established journal without taking on long-term responsibility for the journal itself. But, one way or another, we really need a good, well-edited journal which can command respect while simultaneously enabling us to publish our own stuff in ways which we recognise as valid. This is also one of the main things which conversations after the last Alternative Futures pointed to.
- Publishing outlets: we are creating a new literature, although it is still very embryonic. And of course (as with journals) we will always want to publish some of our stuff with "established" houses, for a range of reasons. But there is definitely a place for edited collections, like the idea Alex mentioned of a collection of activist research models, and probably for a series of "research from the movement" or whatever.
There are also activist publishing houses, and some of us are able to get them to publish our stuff occasionally. Often, though, there seems to be quite a gap between the kind of theoretical stuff they like to publish and the kind of work we are doing (I'd phrase it as saying that many either want much more empirical, descriptive / celebratory stuff or much more theoretical, literary stuff - but those are my prejudices!) In the meantime, of course, plenty established academics are hoovering up our movements and writing often appallingly bad and badly-informed stuff about them, which unsuspecting students take on as true and go on to reproduce when they become academics themselves. This isn't to speak of how journalists and hack writers talk about us...
- I think we need some kind of informal or formal mentoring or buddy systems. I have no idea how we would do that, but I think we are going to really start needing them!
- I would like to see one or more one-stop web portals for engaged research, which would include obviously links to all our existing web resources, particularly bibliographic references which highlight activist research, models for "how to do it", teaching resources, etc.
- Lastly, and coming out of this, I think we are developing, and need to keep developing, a sense of who we are. I know many people are highly resistant to this, not least because we all invest a lot in our theoretical and political identities, but I do want to argue that we have "something" that brings us together, and that we should keep on talking (not necessarily always in lengthy conference papers, though I've been guilty of that myself!) about how to do that.
We are going to need ways of talking about what we do that work for us with other activists, as well as with academics. There could be several of those, and it might be different in different disciplines and different national systems. But it would be really useful to keep talking about these, keep trying to find similarities without imposing something monolithic, and to keep trying to offer newcomers a range of ways of talking about whatever it is that we do: models and options.
As with anything else, when people define themselves (even in provisional ways, even with reservations, other identities and crossing boundaries etc.) they usually do so because they need some way of connecting beyond personal connections, when they are pushed into it by the massive pressures of institutions (in this case academia), when they need to start defining and debating political strategies such as "how do we support and develop the work we do with movements?", "how do we create spaces for ourselves within academia?", "how do we find and develop appropriate educational strategies within and outside the system?"
My own sense of where we stand around these different needs is that we have a reasonable amount of existing resources in the form of conferences, mailing lists and websites. We need to keep the conference network going (which is always a cooperative business), connect up our mailing lists and websites more (for example, how about a "movement research ring"?) and develop some of our websites as one-stop portals.
In other areas, we have a lot more to do. As far as journals go, we need to create one (Global Uprising?), take one over or otherwise find at least one, maybe more, safe homes for our kind of research. These might need to be new kinds of journals, like the Euromovements newsletter, or things that would be read as much by activists in general as by activist researchers in particular.
We need to talk more about publishing, exchange ideas and experiences of working with the mainstream and with activist publishing houses, and think about creating spaces of our own, either independently or in collaboration with existing presses. (Of course this can run into a certain amount of competition and desire to defend existing relationships....)
And we need to think about what might be useful in terms of mentoring or buddy systems, at the different points in people's research (e.g. "if I want to do this kind of research, where should I go, who should I talk to?" - "how can I get help in dealing with this kind of research problem?" - "how do I get a job where I can carry on doing the stuff I love and that I believe in?")
I'm not proposing a committee or a set of action points - I am saying though that from my own experience and from the people I talk to these are the kinds of things we are going to need to find ourselves talking more about and working on more over the next few years, if we do not want to get swallowed up or torn apart by the system.
Networking, and building our own institutions, is sound political common sense. It is also sound academic common sense - this is how we defend ourselves against proletarianisation, fragmentation, isolation etc. And if we believe in the value of what we do, we should also believe that defending and developing that can make (some) contribution to our movements and (some) contribution to the situation of other educational workers. If we don't support each other, we will find that some of us get squeezed out of academia, some of us find ourselves trapped and isolated within it, and only a handful of well- connected people manage to keep the links alive.
I'm NOT suggesting an enclosed bubble-land, that we would cut ourselves off from the rest of the universe and try to create a little paradise for ourselves. I am saying that if we keep on doing what we have been doing - sometimes informally, sometimes in individual projects, but with a broader view that takes in people beyond our projects, thinks about people who haven't been able to make connections, and thinks about what all of this might look like in a few years' time (the good possibilities, and the bad ones) - we can create a source of strength from which we can contribute more to our movements, engage more effectively with the system and perhaps even enjoy ourselves more!
If any of this feels like it makes sense, maybe we should talk more about it. If not, no worries!