What If? Confessions of a Sceptical Activist

A Sceptical Activist[i]

Forgive me for sounding like the proverbial curmudgeon, but on being asked to contribute to this forum, and without meaning any disrespect to its instigators or the fine contributions to date, I have to admit to heaving a sigh of ‘oh no, not again!’ The thought of dredging up recollections, first or second-hand, of how non-academic ‘others’ convey, with barely a twitch of an eyebrow, scepticism about the social relevance of much research scholarship and with every right to do so often enough, is a disincentive in itself. And once over this threshold, I would then have to wrestle with all those uncharitable thoughts about the effects – personal or professional – that such disapprobation or, worse, disinterest (there is nothing more horrid in this profession than being ignored) may have had; if any.

Claims from many researchers that they are indeed committed to if not active in hands-on agitation around pressing issues of the day cannot mask the fact that neither this life-cum-career path nor research-for-research’s sake are ipso facto ‘relevant’ any longer. This shift in public perception and in social standing is not necessarily a bad thing given past excesses and ingrained conceits. (No tears shed for thee). Either way the onus is currently on we-researchers to come up with upbeat, sensible action-plans for bringing about a thaw in this particular ‘Cold War’. 

What such an exercise invariably boils down to, though, is the compilation of behavioural modifications, new skill-sets, and intellectual makeovers that researchers need to undergo – some have undergone – in order to be seen to be pursuing socially useful work, engaging in meaningful conversations with significant others; in this case policy-makers. After all, the world’s powerful actors are neither lining up outside your office nor televising your research seminar to hear what you have to say on any particular matter; a few notable living exceptions excluded (though it is they who most likely make the first step). Having a higher university degree or list of scholarly publications is not a passe-partout into the halls of power, to getting a toehold in hi-brow or broad-based public debates, to being taken seriously at all.

The latter is hard enough work amongst one’s peers let alone with the general public, legislators, or corporate players. And even if big money or think-tanks knock on your door, these sorts of collaborations come at a price. For, like it or not, the truth is that any sense of social entitlement or intellectual autonomy promised by scholarly pursuits in bygone days have eroded away. Nowadays, ordinary teachers/researchers, let alone that endangered species called the ‘public intellectual’ have to prove their worth according to new rules of engagement, shorter production schedules, and transnational regimes for research excellence and accountability. All of which are now far removed from traditional work-places and lines of patronage[ii].

Whilst the demarcation lines drawn between political and economic powerbrokers, research institutions, intellectual elites, and the street by previous protest generations and their comrades in universities were not in indelible ink[iii], exposés where subalterns ‘speak truth to power’ (see Spivak 1988, Said 1994), revel in the fearlessness of parrhesia (see Foucault 1984) or wage a tireless media battle against successive industrial-military complexes and political administrations (see Chomsky 1997) are fast becoming ancient texts in an academe that is increasingly idea-averse amongst other things (see Braman 2008). Sometime in the intervening years the relationship between self-proclaimed ‘engaged’ research/ers and social activism/activists in and around university campuses has undergone a sea-change of another sort; for staff and students alike as each party accuses the other of becoming de-politicized or out-of-touch respectively[iv].

Be that as it may, in recent years, which have seen a surge in transnational social mobilizations and high-level, UN brokered consultations around various ‘global’ issues (climate-change, carbon emissions, human rights abuses, poverty, credit crunches, the Internet), those who aim to do – dare I say it – ‘cutting-edge’ or ‘critical’ work that is not beholden purely to the weekly headlines or Zeitgeist of the month, and who see themselves also as actors not just thinkers end up in a classical double-bind. Caught between public and private funding flows, personal politics and professional commitments, impassioned (so ‘biased’) and scientific (so, ‘objective’) calls to action, this Catch-22 scenario leaves them, as it does many working women, damned if they do and damned if they don’t (Benhabib and Cornell 1986).

By the same token, for those academics (the term for those earning a living by teaching and research in higher educational-cum-research institutions) committed to social or political causes and who, whilst walking the line between social activism however defined on the one hand and, on the other, the codes and practices denoting ‘good’ (social) science, it is still all too easy to trip up on all these good intentions. On managing to stay upright then the next booby-trap to avoid is being hoisted on one’s own petard. Focusing research on socially- or policy- ‘relevant’ debates for the greater good by instigating institutional reform over the long term, does not necessarily mesh with public protest, radical forms of dissent or political mobilization premised on more transformative interpretations of ‘what needs to be done’[v].

Assuming then that all of the above can be reconciled at any one time, an even more insidious hazard needs to be negotiated. The demands of multilateral agenda-setting let alone mobilizing others in democratic, heterodox registers rather than in top-down, learned monologues first and, second, working towards broad-based popular mobilization, even within liberal democracies ostensibly founded on rights of public association and freedom-of-speech precepts, are not one and the same thing[vi]. But neither sit easily with producing ‘rigorous’ and ‘unbiased’ research with short-term deliverables that satisfy funders – private or public, institutional goals for research excellence (top ten institution, top ten journals, top ten search-engine hits).

Even if we-researchers could have this cake and eat it too it amounts to being a PhD-wielding cross between Agent 007, Che Guevara, and Lara Croft. Nor does it resonate comfortably, at least for some onlookers, with the narcissistic imperative of having to register on the tripartite Richter scale of name recognition; citation indices, public profile, and gate-keeping powers. Reconciling the call to produce research results that are ‘operationalisable’ as well as ‘canonizable’ in a working-world defined increasingly by these individualised dynamics of name-recognition and their upstream corollaries of  ‘marketization’ and ‘professionalization’ – measured and monitored quite literally in Google-search terms, is a tall order. In this respect, making communications matter (Karaganis, Price & Verhulst 2008), by and for whomever, has acquired a proprietary deadliness; with global pretensions to boot.

But this doesn’t, and shouldn’t let we-researchers off the hook. The complex interplay of reception and perception notwithstanding (know thy audience and please them, or else), setting out in this fatalistic way has me drawing a blank, stalled at the top of a well-worn slippery slope of disenchantment and suspicion, where critically-socially engaged inquiry is first in the race to the bottom. No, I shall have to accept defeat, own my profession’s relatively lowly social clout despite its relatively high self-regard, admit its inadequacy if not reluctance to connect with the real world and throw in the towel so I can drag my sorry posterior back into my ivory-towered corner. From there I can gaze upon all those actively engaged ‘others’ out there visibly making a difference, having an impact, sticking their necks out; all those whose modus operandi and public statements clearly underwrite their project of making the world a better place.

So my then publishing a critical expose or research-based analysis of any sort of test-case (in the right journal, mind), conforming to the publish-or-perish imperative of contemporary research cultures accordingly, wouldn’t cut the mustard with the critics; nor should it if we profess to be in the same game, agitating for the greater, not just our own good. It’s a fact; researchers are now the Slave, policy-makers and their constituencies now the Master. 

I feel better now, having ‘fessed up; come clean about the implicit futility of much scholarship, lamenting the passing of bygone generations of inveterate social critics, public intellectual-cum-political activists, and curmudgeonly role-models, as I do. So, having underpinned these reflections in the notes below with some examples drawn from my own – occasionally jaundiced – experience, what now?

First thing first: naming this particular elephant in the room can hopefully clear the air, open up ways of thinking reflexively about the theme of this forum, and tackling the recognised gap between those who think for a living, those who legislate or lobby for a living and, increasingly, those who engage in activism for a living, all of whom state a commitment to social change. Hopefully too to do so in a way that resonates with the spirit of this initiative.

So, second, and however idiosyncratic it may sound in the face of all this derring-do I shall contend that time and energy must be devoted to thorough – and tough reflection about the power-quotient of this sort of belly-gazing enterprise, especially when addressing issues about what divides and what unites communication researchers and policy-makers (where, and when?) let alone what has or hasn’t changed. Answers to this question are overlaid with the ebb and flow of shifts in power dynamics and forms of direct or indirect influence, all of which make for inversions and subversions of original (good) intentions. These are now operating as multi-platform and computer-mediated communications made up of new and old media-messages, political economic institutions, (global) media conglomerate, and social forces.

Third, having recognized the variable degrees of vested interest in any sort of change (reformist or radical), or continuity for that matter, along with the various levels of institutionalisation and socio-economic endowment that designate who gets to claim the higher moral ground, time to make way for a third group. They have already alluded to; advocate-activists and/or civil society groups. I won’t quibble on the distinction between these terms. Suffice it to say that they are a third interlocutor, protagonists who are not incidental to the research-politics-society nexus at issue here.

So, now I’ve come clean, I shall draw these confessions to a close with a thought experiment; ‘what ifs’ for further thinking and, if persevered with, alternative options that flow from other ways of getting to grips with this particular ‘unhappy marriage’ (see Hartmann 1981). All with the aim of not pre-empting or second-guessing preferred outcomes. For, as management and self-help gurus are keen to remind their clients, thinking outside the box – past the obvious is often the first and hardest step. 

What if? (1)

The whole notion that scholarly, activist, and policy communities can work together in concerted rather than ad hoc or begrudging ways is based on the supposition that these three realms are defined by ways of thinking, perceiving, and acting in the world that are, in the final analysis, commensurable. In other words actors share comparable world-views, draw on a shared pool of norms and values. Even taking into account institutional cultures, differentials in resources and ‘savoir-faire’ they are, nonetheless, interoperable realms. Explicit differences in political persuasion, institutional affiliation, education, professional training, and what anthropologists would call kinship patterns in the first instance and, in the second, subtle ones around geography, language, socioeconomic clout, cultural conventions, or wider patronage networks, what separates these realms and their communities are, at the end of the day, differences in form and style not in substance.

But what if they actually operate on parallel, not overlapping or intersecting planes; each contingent upon contradictory ways of being in, making-sense of, and acting upon the world let alone its multiple injustices? What if they are incommensurable?

If we were to consider this scenario for a moment then setting things right in this shaky relationship cannot just come down to declaring a willingness to enter into some sort of dialogue in the first place, putting aside prejudice, ambivalence, or past traumas in order to get all shoulders to the wheel. Nor is it simply a matter of setting out to create the necessary – communicative and practical – conditions for a level playing-field upon which any such a dialogue could then unfold (see Habermas in Borradori 2003).

In this scenario the very notion that there are implicitly shared, universally applicable ideas about what is wrong (diagnosis), how to fix it (treatment), and the future (cure or prognosis) is based on a disingenuous sort of humanism at best (‘we are all human-beings after all’). At worst it is an exercise in paternalism (‘we know best’). Any imminent ‘clash of civilizations’ is also ruled out by virtue of these realms’ non-contiguity. No solace there either.

One consequence of thinking through this rather discomforting take on how to go about ‘making communications research matter’ is that it gets rid of the notion that miscommunication, mutual incomprehension, cycles of contentiousness, and dialogues of the deaf around ends and means are simply a temporary glitch; once repaired the show can be put back on the road, problem solved, mission back on target.

A second consequence is that references to bridging so-called ‘divides’ or fixing ‘disconnects’ between actors from these realms take on a more ethically troubling hue. Such divisions, call them what you will, are not fractures in a single, seamless social fabric taken from a unitary ‘time-space continuum’. Rather they are evidence of at least three quite self-contained, even parallel social realities. Ones that have distinct and contestable histories of their own, underscored by specific ideational and material power operating along different axes of value, self- and group recognition and communicative modes, with different criteria for success and affirmation accordingly. They are comprised of distinct memories, narratives of past failures and achievements, and founded on particular visions of the past, the present, and the future; competing narratives of global ‘communications rights’, ‘media reform’, ‘ICT4D’ or ‘Internet governance’ that currently vie for attention and airplay, separately or together, could be cases in point.

If this is so, even just for a brief imaginary moment, then to proceed as if these endeavours are by definition contiguous is a Quixote-like endeavour. The question then is not so much how to get their constituencies back on track, back in touch with one another but, rather, under what conditions is it possible for them to change their very constitution in order to converge at all. And if so, according to what criteria, and on whose terms?

What if? (2)

The flipside to this ‘realist’ scenario in all its Hobbesian rejection of any sort of ‘idealism’ premised on a benign view of human nature or propensity for social cooperation rejects the presupposition of incommensurability. Whether this second ‘what if?’ is any more comforting is a moot point. In any case it reverts to the more familiar understanding that these realms not only operate on the same social plane but that they are actually intertwined with one another; interdependent. Pessimism and optimism, idealism and pragmatism are arrayed along the one spectrum and so can be rearranged in that they emanate from, and address a singular social reality that is universally applicable to all.

A kaleidoscopic one to be sure and difficult to ‘know’, to grasp in its entirety or to communicate adequately it may be, but not impossible in principle. However entrenched positions on this spectrum may become they are surmountable in the final analysis. What is at issue then is not a story about fundamentally different realities, science fiction-based notions of parallel universes. (That’s silly). No, what is at stake, at least under commonsense understandings of what constitutes civil society agitation or political agenda-setting under the ‘media, ICTs, and social justice’ rubric, are competing takes on what needs to be done now. If that is the case then questions about how to proceed are paramount. For that analysts need to make way for practitioners. No time to waste.

This scenario also presupposes that researcher, policy-maker, and activist-advocate are effectively the same (legal) person. If so then they can be made to interact – ‘communicate’ at certain points; indeed needs must. Within any particular shared undertaking the urgency lies in calls to action, not in calls for further reflection. Reaching consensus in the short-term overrides underlying disconnects that may grumble along over the long term[vii].

Either way this one-place, one-time, one-goal scenario in which recent communications research-policy circles finds themselves, where researchers are coming out of their ivory-towered corners in their droves to fight their own good fight or stand on the shoulders of giants, flies in the face of new combinations of material (‘hard’) and symbolic (‘soft’) power dynamics; the form and substance of which are only just becoming apparent.

Whilst there is plenty of space to beg to differ on what counts as ‘hard’ and what counts as ‘soft’ in an information age premised on multimedia and multilateral ‘scapes that constitute today’s ‘global cultural economy’ (Appadurai 2002), these dynamics bring with them subtle and not so subtle differentials in tone and orientation. These too are highly time-sensitive; in turn susceptible to the vagaries of political pomp and circumstance even within the lifespan of a particular policy-making domain and its respective protagonists[viii]. In those cases the assuming of a shared mission masks more than simply differences in operational knowledge, political ideology, or social mores (readers can insert their own examples here).

It all too quickly can be used to mask an insidious value-hierarchy between those who do and those who don’t get involved in hands-on policy-making[ix]; relayed down the line in a familiar rhetorical ploy of pitting those who ‘can’ against those who ‘can’t’ (as the saying goes; ‘those who can, do and those who can’t, teach’). As these distinctions emanate from within the same social reality – this scenario’s main presumption, and as key protagonists push towards said common goal any views querying these certainties is quickly positioned as churlish, ‘beside the point’ or, worse still, ‘purely academic’. Whilst analysts have their job to do after the fact any intervention along the way that causes confusion often sees trouble-makers quickly sent off the pitch.

But what if raising these reservations at the time is not beside the point at all? What I mean to say here is that so-called arguments over semantics are not simply ends in themselves, not always exercises in sophistry. Words and ideas certainly do more than simply mime social realities after the fact. As politician and legislator knows, words matter as does the spin they are given.

Terms of reference and formulations are exactly the moment where power differentials become codified in and as policy practice, only visible at the output end of the process, as outcomes and by then seemingly inexorable. So, imagining consensus and collaboration within the same time-space continuum is no reason to let hearty debate, or ‘good reasoning’ sit on the sidelines.

One consequence of this scenario is that this forum’s brief – making communications matter – gets inverted; considering how naming what, and who counts in communications research becomes also something that matters. Considering core assumptions is also action. Ideas do have historical (forgive the leap in scale here) consequences, not just actions. In other words, definitions are not innocent and the actions they underwrite need to be challenged as both thought and action.

Any sort of agenda, as principles or as operational mechanisms or action-plans are derived from how an object or problem is construed and then communicated as well as its objective existence (see Latour 2007); at least so long as the simplistic input-output linear model of communications is not taken as read. The moment for intervention is to rescue contestable terms from being all too quickly ossified, defused and denuded of their ambiguity.

But, again, claiming that there is conceptual work to do and that scholars are the ones best suited to do it, even when its all hands on deck, doesn’t let we-researchers off the hook either. For having accepted that these three realms of endeavour are at least partially contiguous in theory and having cast doubt upon how these points in common can maintain their inner integrity in the push and pull of real-life policy and political contingencies, what next? Are we not back at Square One, reiterating well-worn lines of division between thinker and doer, idealist and realist, philosopher and pragmatist, theory and practice?

If I were to sign off now then this would be a fair point. Instead, let us consider a third ‘What if?’ This will have to suffice to conclude these reflections and, hopefully, allow for further debate.

What if? (3)

What if we could rearrange the categories, and their social meaning; think about research as socio-political practice, activism as a way of thinking, and policy-making as activism? From there, already acknowledged crossovers – and tensions – can be talked about openly; real existing and dreamt up divisions and points in common revealed, examined and dealt with at actual (not presumed) overlaps between these realms. Perhaps some jumping sideways, out of well-worn grooves, could occur.

That said this exercise comes at a certain price for well-nurtured identity politics that often see activists on the one hand pitted against their would-be allies in academe on the other, with legislators watching on with detached amusement, assuming they bother. As for how funding-agencies and/or policy communities are courted by practitioners or researchers respectively, these two would be required to recognize more explicitly that both these agencies are also activists.

And as for how critical researchers and activists skirt around each other in various combinations of mutual ‘fear and loathing’[x], the first would be required to incorporate the knowledge and know-how of activists and their ‘professional’ colleagues in non-governmental organizations as knowledge-producers on a par with themselves.

Conversely, the second would want to pause and consider engaged scholars as practitioners in their own right. This is the crunch question for how non-academic activists and engaged researchers – ‘sceptical activists’ by training and predilection, can collaborate in the future to influence the trajectory of this power nexus, not a straightforward task and for that reason one that requires we begin with an understanding of complexity rather than a wish to ease complications out of analysis, action-program, or desired outcome. Even these pie-in-the sky sentiments call for concerted investigations into these latent intersections. At least more concerted attention to how they are emerging under the media, ICTs, and social justice rubric[xi].

Recalibrating typographies implies a rethinking of criteria. And as old habits die hard and, under the contemporary pressures to have research matter for today, not tomorrow or for the next generation in a 24/7 global political economy, older ideas often resurface as great (re)discoveries. Without claiming great novelty here, the following extrapolations can serve as closing parlays. 

First, activism need not be confined to direct, street-level or indirect advocacy operations. As educationalist practitioner-thinkers like Paulo Freire (1972), Ivan Illich (1971), and Sylvia Ashton-Warner (1963) brought to public attention, educational practice and institutions of (higher) learning are integral to socialization processes and resistance to them. Social change and politicization often starts in or through learning situations (formal classrooms included) as that’s where hearts and minds are moulded, around the world, and every day. That ‘schooling’, however defined, is also a site of intense social and cultural struggle on just this score underscores the political currency of this truism; concerned parents go onto the street, children get bussed into the ‘other’s’ neighbourhood, students storm university premises all along the way.

By the same token, alternatives to mainstream teaching practice, curricula design, debates about what constitutes diversity or inclusion in individual and community-based terms can never be taken as read. Every day in quite banal and not very sound-bitey ways these ongoing efforts have to compete with countermanding ways of articulating and apprehending the social and natural world to younger generations[xii]. This is becoming even more striking in an era in which learning – and those who learn have to submit to the twinned pressures of ‘global’ market and ‘local’ league-table forces. I could extrapolate here for quite some time in terms of personal and professional experience of being (lucky enough) to have engaged teachers from my early years through to my university study and to learning (the hard way) just what it takes, and what it can cost you when putting any ‘new’ pedagogical ideas and practises to work in classroom settings.

Suffice it to say that it is not only superiors but also students, paying customers now under performance-indicator pressures of their own, who can mount objections to signs of overt political commitment or pedagogies that aim to foster independent thinking rather than passive consumption. Whilst debates and struggles over any generation’s respective educational taboos do have their own shelf-life, endlessly recyclable nonetheless (consider the ‘back to basics’ discussions that reoccur every few years), being committed to education as a means to effect change means being there for the long haul. So the art here is to know when and where to persist, when and where to desist, and when it is simply a question of survival; but more importantly, to know the difference. For, at any given moment, important distinctions need to be made between the politics of the personal (ego) and the limitations of the sociocultural conjuncture (see Appadurai 2002).  

Second, innovative research and data-gathering can be, and is getting done regularly by non-academic researchers and activist practitioners, both in communities on the ground and within more professionalized advocacy organizations. Activists garner knowledge and make sense of the issue-areas in which they operate in quite rigorous ways; codes of ethical conduct, patterns of knowledge accumulation, consultation, and dissemination. What can limit these initiatives and these sorts of grounded knowledge is pressure to conform to ideal-type ideas about what constitutes ‘good’ research practice; debates about the form and substance of what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ science being one of the most politicized debates in academe despite protestations to the contrary. Interdisciplinary work in the fullest sense of the term is often happening in ad hoc ways here and is all the better for it in many instances.

Third, and this is a truism for many, policy-makers are continually engaged in politics even those dealing with seemingly technical or legalistic forms of legislation, procedural protocols, or institution-building that are backstage to the hot topics of policy-making at any given time. Recent history is full of lessons about how policy-makers make a difference in the halls of political – national and international – power. For activists or researchers who set out on the institutional-change route, this decision to take a ‘reformist’ approach then has to eschew the public gaze, headline news of the day. It also asks for time, energy and commitment and a devotion to the long term. It also means leaving behind cherished notions of independent thought, a degree of autonomy, and that much maligned space away from it all that enables ‘critical thought’ and ‘rigorous research’ to take place. Again, it is Catch-22 except this time in redux; damned if you do, and damned if you do too.

So, should we all subject ourselves to an extreme makeover session, and transform ourselves into policy activists? I shall leave this Platonic question open.


Marianne Franklin is Senior Reader & Convener of the Transnational Communications and Global Media Postgraduate Program at Goldsmiths (UK). With a background in the Humanities (History & Music) and Social Sciences (Politics), she has held teaching and research positions in several countries. On the 2008 executive of the ISA’s International Communications section, she has served as Section Chair and Vice-Chair / Programme Chair of the Feminist Theory and Gender Studies Section. On several international editorial boards, and one of the founding co-editors of the RIPE Series in Global Political Economy (Routledge), she is currently editor of the series Key Thinkers: Past and Present for Information, Communication, and Society.



Appadurai, Arjan, 2002, ‘Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy’ in The Anthropology of Globalization: A Reader, J. X. Inda & R. Rosaldo (Eds). Massachusetts/Oxford: Blackwell: 46-64

  Ashton-Warner, Sylvia, 1963, Teacher. London: Secker & Warburg

Benhabib, S. & Cornell, D (Eds.), 1987, Feminism as Critique. Cambridge/Oxford UK: Polity Press

Borradori, Giovanna, 2003, “Fundamentalism and Terror – A Dialogue with Jürgen Habermas” in Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida. Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press: 25-43

Braman, S, 2008, “Policy Research in an Evidence-Averse Environment” in IJoC – International Journal of Communication 2 (2008): SSRC Special Feature, pp 433-449. See SSRC Essay Forum: Making Communications Research Matter: http://essays.ssrc.org/mcrm/?p=12 (8 November 2008)

Chomsky, Noam, 1997, Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Foucault, Michel, 1984, “Interview: Polemics, Politics and Problematizations”, an interview with Paul Rabinow. Available at http://foucault.info/foucault/interview.html: (10 November 2008)

Freire, Paulo, 2000 (1970), Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Hartmann, Heidi, 1981, “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union” in L. Sargent (Ed.), Women and Revolution: A Discussion of the Unhappy Marriage between Marxism and Feminism. Boston: South End Press: 1- 42

Illich, Ivan, 1971, Deschooling Society. New York: Harper and Row

Karaganis, Joe, Monroe Price, & Stefaan Verhulst, 2008, ‘Introduction’ in Making Communications Matter. SSRC Essay Forum: http://essays.ssrc.org/mcrm/?p=4. (10 November 2008)

Latour, Bruno, 2007, Beware, Your Imagination Leaves Digital Traces. The Times Higher Education Supplement, 6 April 2007. Available at http://www.bruno-latour.fr/presse/presse_art/P-129-THES.html: (10 November 2008)

Said, Edward W, 1994, Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books

Spivak, Gayatri, 1988, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Cary Nelson & Lawrence Grossberg (Eds.). Urbana: University of Illinois Press


About the notes: These notes are for some concrete examples, lived-experience illustrations of these ruminations; self-contained narratives in themselves.

[i] See Janet Radcliffe Richards, The Sceptical Feminist: A Philosophical Enquiry. Penguin Books: 1994 [1982]

[ii] One case in point is the socio-political and economic project, the ‘Bologna Process’ and its Bologna Declaration in 1999, which has been converting the various higher education accreditation systems and research cultures of EU member-states into an Anglo-American Bachelor/Master model (reverently referred to as the ‘Harvard Model’ in some quarters). This standardization process is incorporated into the creation of the European Higher Education Area and European Research Area respectively. The effect this has been having on normally quite resolutely a-political researchers is striking. When not engaging in various sorts of passive resistance or avoidance on being confronted with top-down directives to ‘comply’ (irreverently referred to as ‘Bolognarization’ in some other quarters) they have been passionately advocating the merits of their respective pre-Bologna higher education traditions. The point here is that this educational restructuring has radical – structural – consequences for longstanding research cultures, pedagogical traditions, and scholarly practice; reaching right into classrooms, laboratories, and research project-design across the board. Student Unions have been particularly active in flagging some of the more hidden implications of these changes, especially in those parts of the EU not steeped in this Anglo-American model. If education is a key to instigating and consolidating social change, whether this be from the bottom up or the top down then how faculty members, as teachers and researchers, respond to these changes is both an institutional and personal political question. In short not all resistance to this EU project is necessarily reactionary. See the Bologna Process Homepage at http://www.ond.vlaanderen.be/hogeronderwijs/bologna/. For another take, see the European Students’ Union at http://www.esib.org/index.php/issues/european-processes/79-bologna-process.

[iii] It bears noting that 2008 is the fortieth anniversary of the ‘Events of May ’68’ commemorated in France, the Parisian Left Bank in particular, by reissues of key texts in resplendent window-displays. Political activism’s memorabilia sells.

[iv] These sorts of recriminations are common enough in communication conference panels where social or political issues are directly addressed; a generation gap opens up often during Q &A sections particularly in terms of what is even construed as either ‘activism’ or the ‘political’ in an Internet era.

[v] One example of how this occurs in ‘grassroots academe’ for political or socially active scholars is when public protest about world politics of the day intrude, or are brought directly into academic events; two brief examples will suffice here. The first is the gap that opened up between ‘activist’ and ‘non-activist’ researchers during the 2003 International Studies Association’s annual convention in Portland, taking place as the Bush Administration was readying itself to wage war on/in Iraq. For the first time in the ISA’s history, delegates mounted a public protest about events that were happening outside the convention’s academic remit; the argument being that this military intervention (note the euphemism) that gave rise to massive street-level protests around the world, including Portland, could not be ignored. Nor could it be theorised away into silence during panel sessions, those devoted to ‘scientific’ research into international security issues being a case in point. In lieu of open debate during the conference a ‘flash mob’ was organised – mainly by word of mouth as it happens. The protest created consternation amongst the ISA executive as they were confronted with an openly political act (by political scientists no less!) in the bosom of the Hilton Hotel lobby; several hundred delegates lining up and along the lobby stairwell, mouths sealed by duct-tape (in silence – by academics to boot!). The conference organisers’ concern was that the ISA as a not-for-profit organization had to keep its distance from politics. Threats of expulsion from the hotel or immanent arrival of the local police-force were mooted. But the protest held ground. A second example followed closely on the heels of this one a year later, this time in Montreal, where a lockout of hotel cleaning and maintenance staff by the Marriott hotel management created a situation where delegates were faced with having to cross a picket line in order to attend sessions or get to their hotel rooms (serviced by ‘scab’ labour). The large majority of these locked-out workers were women, and men, in low-paid unprotected jobs, many of whom were from ethnic minorities or ‘immigrant’ communities. For researchers engaged in theory and research into the socioeconomic effects of globalization, migration, women’s and human rights issues, this was a very concrete choice that had to be made. It was also a very visible one for those who did decide to cross the lines. Neither was taking part in the picket-line necessarily a doddle when dressed to cross intellectual swords in a well-heated hotel rather than stand outside in below-zero temperatures. The money collected at several wine-and-cheese receptions during the conference to contribute to the workers’ support-fund and the open letter composed and sent to the Marriott management requesting that they lift the lockout were also ‘firsts’ in the ISA’s history. Again, those involved were informed that they would have to take a clear distance from their official ISA affiliation to avoid what was called ‘legal consequences’ for the organization. The point here is that engaging in public protest actions when on-the-job as working researchers was almost foreclosed by the same scholarly pretensions. Moreover, publicly protesting about this issue in the edgy atmosphere of US domestic and foreign politics at the time was, for some, a potentially risky career-move. Others decided to keep their support anonymous, or muted. As I said, damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

[vi] In autocratic, more openly oppressive societies, mobilizing in any form is arguably a more ‘pure’ form of parrhesia (see Foucault 1984). That said law and order ordinances and process of everyday securitization and scrutiny are impacting on social, cultural, and political dissent in liberal capitalist societies no less, in more ways then one.  

[vii] At the risk of taking pot-shots at an easy target, the 2003 and 2005 Declarations of Principles of the World Summit Information Society are a case in point in terms of one-size-fits-all wording. Since then the division of labour (one some note with a sex-gender role spin to it) sees technical specifics residing with specialist UN agencies (the ITU) and ‘softer’ social and culturally based goals re-housed within UNESCO.

[viii] The period of the New World Information and Communication Order from the 1970’s and 1980’s and the WSIS process in 2003-2005 is one salutary, and politically front-end loaded example, for older activist generations and critical researchers in differing measures. See note 7 above as well.

[ix] References to policy-making are mainly talking about policy-writing (including agendas) to all intents and purposes. Once written, it is filed or endorsed, or enforced in different measures.

[x] The standoff between those who cut their political teeth in the women’s and civil rights movements and those who make their way in these areas in scholarly terms is instructive here.

[xi] One potential site for all sorts of tensions, out and out contradictions between word and deed, and collusions is the various academic and consultative points of contact emerging out of the WSIS exercise. The collaborations and standoffs emerging in the ‘post-WSIS landscape’ between governmental organs, corporate establishments, and academe are already well underway.  

[xii] Home-schooling movements along with established alternative pedagogies like Montessori or Steiner methods are examples. In terms of battles over curricula and the very ways children are introduced to the (super)natural and sociocultural world the hottest line of contention at present is that between Creationism, Intelligent Design, and Evolutionist schools of thought. Not a storm in a teacup by any means.







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