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Civil Society, Development & Democracy Pathway Event


Dorota Kordecka, is a PhD student, School of Sociology and Social Policy at The University of Leeds

Reflections on the Symposium Beyond the Academy: engaging and working with activists. Written by Dorota Kordecka, PhD scholar, School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Leeds.

As part of the training available to me as an ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) PhD scholar, I am offered a variety of training opportunities throughout my research.  In January 2022, I attended the Symposium Beyond the Academy: engaging and working with activists. Together with other PGR students from the Universities of the White Rose Doctoral Programme, we gathered at one of the University of Leeds’ teaching rooms to discuss a variety of topics, including environmental and animal protection, digital activism and many more.

The workshop was divided into two thematic blocks: the first part was about academic and activist communities in the context of opportunities and challenges with presentations by  Dr. Alex Lockwood, Dr. Thomas Swann, and Dr. Erika Cudworth. In the second part, there were presentations by Professor Gavin Brown and Professor Athina Karatzongiani about experiences, illustrations and critical reflections. Attendees of this Symposium organized by the Civil Society, Development, and Democracy (CDD) Pathway, had the opportunity to learn and reflect upon how the lines separating the roles of ‘activist’ and ‘scientist’ are blurred. These lines become even thinner, as activists are, in fact, increasingly familiar with social science theoretical and methodological tools and are very often guided by the scientific knowledge attached to their activities.

The Growth of 'scholar-activism'

With the growth of ‘scholar-activism’, the need to more carefully consider the practical, epistemological and methodological implications of engaging in and working with activist communities has increased too. In this way, the story of the relationship between activism and science takes many forms and twists. Yet, this relationship brings many mutually beneficial outcomes, such as authenticity for the research, visibility and academic credibility for the social movement's ideas or practices. Dr Alex Lockwood from the University of Sunderland reminded me that working from within the movement and being an activist becomes a matter of identity. It is rather a collaborative, grounded process in which subjective and compassionate elements are combined with meaningful and transformative commitment. Defining ‘scholar-activism’ in these terms was a very strong attempt to involve everyone present in the room to think about scholar-activism as an ethical challenge. Dr Lockwook shared with us the challenges he experienced when he was required to balance the roles of researcher, journalist and activist at the same time. In the heat of the moment, he told us, he used a variety of skills, knowledge and approaches to influence and manage a complex situation during a protest, by not forgetting about any of his roles.

He made me understand that the question of ‘what comes first’ when activism intersects with scholarship remains a part of the internal process of negotiation and the application of critical thinking.

Encouraging critical engagement with the question of whether the social sciences must attend to public urgent matters and pressing issues in the world was another objective of this day-long conversation. Dr Erika Cudworth addressed this topic by accounting for how presenting her work relating to activism at academic conferences entails critical discussions about the progress of science and the relativity of academic views, which may expose conflicts within the academic environment itself. Both scholars and activists can create a bit of a hermetic field around activism, and this is where conventional ideas about actions and membership can be efficiently challenged by ‘scholar-activism’. She portrayed scholars as activists and people who can generate an alarm, and sometimes need to present their findings in an atmosphere blighted by academic controversies.

The struggle of juggling both roles (scholar and activist)

Another issue that was discussed in the Symposium was how the struggle of juggling both roles (scholar and activist) comes in the way and may influence research performance. These were important points and concerns raised not only by the speakers, but also by PGR’s having considered the progress in their role as researchers. Dr Thomas Swann, from Loughborough University, captured well these challenges in asking: how do you see yourself as a researcher of activism? While he claimed that being a researcher of a social movement is like being at the service of this movement, he also emphasised the importance of adopting an ethical and transparent stance with regards to one’s role as an activist and researcher and being honest regarding the consequences of the interrelation between these two roles. Being driven by the ‘good’ of the movements does not mean that communicating the results of your work has to be easy, and the trust you build in a relationship with this group could be at risk. Maintaining a critical mindset and everyday personal reflective work can provide a way of dealing with these hardships. His advice was not to take shortcuts in the field of building relationships between activists and researchers. Meaningful engagement is key, and while researchers also hold the flag of agency, in the context of activism, they ought to remain reflexive about what they do as scholars and activists.

Another factor connecting activism and scholarship is the importance of persistence

When we listened to the practices of sustainability of a social movement, Professor Gavin Brown, from the University of Sheffield, told us that it took him years to finally gain access to the field and research British anti-apartheid activism.This connects very well with one of above mentioned points about the crucial role of establishing relationships of trust and of having an understanding of the purposes of the research.

Professor Athina Karatzogiani, from the University of Leicester, told us a story about how not only time and trust, but also changing conditions in the real world affect the progress of research and the research process, as approaching participants during a global pandemic became a  tricky process.  She told us that it was only by travelling to Lyon in France, that she was able to to identify and connect to valuable contacts that enabled her to access Extinction Rebellion activists based in London. Being aware of the role, position and connections of the person who you are talking to as a researcher is important, as this may bring valuable information that will affect further the recruitment of participants and the type of information you want to access. With activism moving into the online spaces, her advice is to be aware of the context in which people are posting due to existing barriers ensuing from  socio-political and cultural conditions, but also personal backgrounds.

This vast constellation of experiences, stories, struggles, practices, and understandings shows that scholar-activism has a role to play in academia. It requires commitment, along with reflected and honest attention to human agency embodied in collective action. The phrase: "get used to a critique of critique" seems to define the approach that has resonated with the audience quite a lot throughout all these presentations. If scholarship and activism aim for impact when separated from each other, then they can be even more more impactful when they are enmeshed with each other. The power to witness and be a part of testing new ideas in society, where norms are challenged, comes with privilege and ethical responsibility. In this light, supporting and avoiding harm to civil society and social movements is pivotal for every researcher.

Dorota Kordecka, is a PhD student, School of Sociology and Social Policy at The University of Leeds.

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