What is the Function of the Social Movement Academic?

This blog post is a copy of a working paper that I wrote for Durham Doctoral Working Papers last year. It is on the politico-ethical issues associated with researching social movements. My ideas have developed some what since then but I think the question of ‘who is our knowledge for?’ remains central to social movement research. As an academic, do I write about movements or do I write for activists? ‘Whose side am I on? Well, in truth, both, but then this isn’t the important question as I see it, rather, I would ask: ‘what is the function of the social movement academic’? and I would respond with the suggestion that it is to debunk the knowledge on which the powerful rest. It is in this sense that activists and academics have a complimentary purpose, even when their processes of knowledge production may be distinct.

As a realist, I will always remain interested in causal mechanisms and the social scientific pursuit to find them. This is my primary concern, and it is a descriptive one that produces a specific type of knowledge – a general proposition – whose causal claim is to explain the emergence of a particular phenomenon. Activists might find these claims to be irrelevant to their campaigning or alien to their descriptions of the social world. After all, why would an activist conceive of ontological depth when busy ascertaining the next route to take or the next meeting to schedule. Indeed, I’m not asking ‘what is to be done? ’ so that I can problematise it with ‘This is what we should‘. Rather, I am asking ‘what is the problem?’ and ‘why does it exist?’, so that I can dutifully alternate between competing worldviews, and find new truths that can puncture old knowledge and their exploitative ideologies. This, I feel, is not only complimentary to activism but offers the grounds for the co-production of knowledge, as academic and activist negotiate over epistemological issues, set within an agreement of what social change looks like.

What is function of the ‘social movement academic’? 

Responding to a recent debate within the journal Social Movement Studies, this paper critically considers the function of the ‘social movement academic’, one who researches social movement activism. It attempts to transcend the current dead-lock that exists between academic and activist forms of theorising by resolving an ethical stance based around realist social ontology. The paper argues that one function of this academic is to provide claims to knowledge at ontological depth. This means seeking out and identifying those structures, mechanisms and causal powers that give rise to oppressive social constraints. However, keen to avoid locking sociological knowledge into a theoretical dialogue with itself, the paper considers why the academic must engage with the experiential artefacts produced by activist-theorising. This privileged source of knowledge (constructed by activists) offers to guide the academic towards those ‘inner connections’ of social reality; towards those causal entities responsible for social injustice.

In an article published in Social Movement Studies, Mark Cresswell and Helen Spandler (2012) present their audience with some of the political and ethical issues associated with the social movement academic. In their paper, Cresswell and Spandler account for some of the contradictions that such a role encounters, particularly where intellectual engagement with a movement is either minimal or subject to the dictates of the ivory tower. Here, they provide a persuasive account of the ‘lived contradictions’ that arise between the imperatives of our institutional location and the need for a dialogic relationship between activist and academic theorising (Cresswell and Spandler, 2009: 9). Appropriately, they argue that theoretical (over)sophistication, present within the ivory tower, is lost within the movement field. In appropriating the arguments of ‘activist-academics’, like Colin Barker and Laurence Cox (2002), the authors recognise that the academic imperatives of neutrality, anonymity and objectivity often leave the intellectual producing knowledge which is ‘parasitic’ on the movement itself (cited in Cresswell and Spandler, 2012: 6). It is argued that the academic gaze of social science objectifies the movement and does little for the movement’s cause. In either misperceiving the general contours of the critical agency involved, or, worse, restoring or preserving the hegemony of academic discourse, the gaze of the social movement researcher is dispassionate, often sacrificing an activist’s own acts of collective remembrance for intellectual self-promotion (Cresswell and Spandler, 2012: 3).

Cresswell and Spandler’s point-of-departure is founded upon Gramsci’s (1971) archetypal theory of the intellectual. Here, Gramsci constructed two types of intellectual: the ‘traditional’ and the ‘organic’. The former being characterised as the ivory tower academic who secures the status quo and the latter as the activist whose function it was to construct a transformative historical bloc (Cresswell and Spandler, 2012: 4): an alternative basis of consent for social order. To sacrifice an activist’s own acts of collective remembrance, then, is considered crucial: for a theory which is animated by the production of knowledge from activist experience is considered necessary in order to respond to challenges effectively (Cox and Nilsen, 2005). Indeed, such a theory is an essential condition in order to understand what is meant by transformation in the first place: a move from ‘an unwanted to a wanted source of determination… [which] can only be effected in practice’ (Bhaskar, 1989: 90).

Seeking to develop political practice (‘movement activism’), then, is considered a privileged source of knowledge as it is cultivated through an experiential engagement with mechanisms of constraint and oppression. To treat the social movement as an object of research – ‘to be observed, described and explained’ – is to be disengaged in such a way that the ‘active processes that people […] experience’ are either ignored or side-lined (Barker and Cox, 2002 cited in Cresswell and Spandler, 2012: 4). Largely devoid of any sense of ‘reflexive auto-critique’ (Cresswell and Spandler, 2012: 4) this academic’s theoretical work is said to be ‘confined’ to a set of abstract ‘generic propositions’ (Barker and Cox, 2002), which only marginalises the position of the movement actor and, therefore, negates his or her experiential knowledge, which is considered crucial in creating a transformative historical bloc.

Adjacent to the Gramscian perspective, there is another project, marked by an academic’s will to influence the wider public.  This ‘public sociology’ (Burawoy, 2004) is animated by a realist ontology (Bhaskar, 1989). It believes in not creating knowledge directly for the movement, but rather, about questioning those with power (Mills, 1963) and about having ‘an uneasy relationship with the status quo’ (Furedi, 2004: 33).

It recognises that experience cannot solely explain what is happening in the world or ‘what is to be done’ (Lenin, 1973) in order to confront the challenges that movements represent. Experiential artefacts are only part of a wider, more complex picture. There are structures and mechanisms at work which give rise to these human experiences (Bhaskar, 1989). So the role of realist theory is to go deeper; to explain those ‘inner connections’ (Lebowitz, 2003), which were important to Marx’s own ‘politico-ethical stance’ (Cresswell and Spandler, 2012: 5). This move should not render activist experience epiphenomenal. On the contrary, it is marked by urgent social and political effects – effects which guide an academic’s theory towards oppressive social structures at ‘depth’. This is important to the sociologist who wishes to augment public debate about moral and political issues (Burawoy, 2004).

Rather than being left with a confrontation between academic and activist theorising, paradigmatically expressed by the question, ‘Which side are you on?’ (Barker and Cox, 2002), this project seeks to enrich public debate about those (structural) relations between phenomena which  remain unseen, felt or experienced by actors (Thompson, 1995: 26). If we foreground our theories in experiential artefacts, if we delve into the pre-packaged chaos of activism, we are better positioned to critically question the conventions that sensitise society to particular ideals and values; norms which do not always push forward human progress (Furedi, 2004: 37). In good conscience, this perspective does not discuss the minutia which constitutes motivation for political change. As Cresswell and Spandler (2012) show, it cannot. Rather, its function must be to probe beneath the surface of experiential reality, and actively seek out those ‘inner connections’ in order to theorise the (structural) conditions for a progressive public discourse.

Tom Brock is a lecturer in the department of Sociology and Criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University. He holds a doctorate in Sociology and an ESRC-recognised Masters degree in research methods from the University of Durham, where he also worked as a research associate and a part-time teacher in the School of Applied Social Sciences.

Barker, C. and Cox, L. (2002) ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ Available athttp://eprints.nuim.ie/428/1/AFPPVIII.pdf (Accessed: 02 July, 2012).

Bhaskar, R. (1989) Reclaiming Reality: A Critical Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy. London: Verso.

Burawoy, M. (2004) Public Sociologies: Contradictions, Dilemmas and Possibilities. Social Forces, 82(4), 1603-1618.

Cox, L. and Nilsen, A. G. (2005) Why do activists need theory? Euromovements Newsletter, Available athttp://eprints.nuim.ie/445/ (Accessed: 02 July, 2012).

Cresswell, M. and Spandler, H. (2009) Psychopolitics: Peter Sedgwick’s Legacy for the Politics of Mental Health, Social Theory and Health, 7, 129–147.

Cresswell, M. and Spandler, H. (2012) The Engaged Academic: Academic Intellectuals and the Psychiatric Survivor Movement, Social Movement Studies, DOI:10.1080/14742837.2012.696821.

Furedi, F. (2004). Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? Confronting 21st Century Philistinism. London: Continuum.

Gramsci, A. (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Lebowitz, M. (2003) Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the World Class (2nd Edition). Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Lenin, V. I. (1973) What is to be done? Burning Questions of Our Movement. Peking: Foreign Languages Press.

Marx, K. (1845) Theses on Feuerbach. Available at:http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/index.htm (Accessed: 02 July, 2012).

Mills, C. W. (1963) Power, Politics and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills. New York: Ballantine Books.

Thompson, E. P. (1995) The Poverty of Theory: An Orrery of Errors. London: The Merlin Press.


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  1. Good discussion here: “Anarchism in the Academy” by Jeff Shantz. http://philosophersforchange.org/2012/08/14/anarchism-in-the-academy/

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