by Yusef Bakkali
Life as an academic can be a lonely and alienating calling at the best of times; lots of time spent inside one’s own head reflecting on a world playing out someplace beyond the indiscernible turrets and bulwarks of the University. Coming from a less-conventional academic background this almost Cartesian split between thought and reality has had existential implications.
The reality of free school meals, failing comprehensive schools, racial injustice and community violence was a real one during my formative years, yet the most valuable gift my (rather expensive, but fortunately subsidised) post graduate education bestowed upon me was to understand these things in new ways. When given the freedom to ask questions and exploit university resources in the pursuit of my passions I was able to make sense anew; hybridise abstract ideas with lived experiences. This gave fresh perspective which changed the ways which I felt about my life and situation, although perhaps not relieving me of what I’ve felt as a ‘legitimate rage’ (Bourdieu, 1998), but instead politicised it. This has redirected and helped me to work towards forgiveness and empathy in many instances, whilst increasingly feeling the need for commitment to cultivating social conditions which serve the interests of those outside of the elite.
This has helped me understand what I feel is a crucial role for sociology in society, one that does not fit neatly in to our hierarchical understanding of social order. It is one which does not necessitate the sociologist to become a leader but instead act as a catalyst. This does not negate the requirement for leaders in our world, or sociology’s role in informing them, but it promotes its role in creating democratic conditions for their production and accountability. This is something which is increasingly crucial in the current conjuncture.
In a time where leaders (such as Trump and Farage) who have little authentic credibility in promoting the interests of the many, have perpetuated and manipulated public anxieties, sociologists must do the opposite. We must offer our services to help provide a catalyst helping to promote informed debate and participation in society. Bringing people, events, ideas and experiences together to help inform our futures; for me this is sociology’s role in the world. So what might this process of ‘catalysation’ look like in practice?
Doing Things in Practice
In my work as a student, citizen and educator I have sought to ‘operationalise theory’ and in doing so actively reconnect it with civil society. Coming from academic research backgrounds we must recognise the importance of making sense of the world around us, yet much of the fantastic work going on at universities often seems remote to people who do not inhabit the world of academia.
This gulf between academe and the many, is a real problem. Funding bodies and universities try to address this by demanding that research gives rise to ‘impact’, something that can be hard to make tangible. There is no quick fix for such a broad and problematic issue, however, I advocate for the use of innovative methods in order to help inform and empower people in our communities as an initial step.
My approach has been to use my experience as a researcher to help facilitate groups in the community to create knowledge and encourage people to take ownership of their local understandings. We believe those with lived experience are amongst those best placed to speak on issues facing their communities but to make this possible we need to spend time reflecting on and thinking through these issues –we need theory!
Thinking with Freire
The work of celebrated Brazilian educator and intellectual Paulo Freire provides much of the inspiration for this approach. His emphasis on Praxis; the continued reflection on experience, with a view to constantly reconceptualise and improve understanding and practice lies at the heart of this approach. Good theory should be easily operationalised within the framework of everyday experience; meaning that rather than descending from the ivory tower in the form of some kind of curriculum; theory should be utilised, combined and adapted to meet the needs of the community. This synthesis of theory and praxis is what makes such projects unique – but what does this look like in practice?
The first stage in any knowledge creation process is to identify the issues that are of particular importance within the collective we are collaborating with. Proper time and consideration has to be taken to hash these out in order to understand their significance. This Freirian practice is central to the process:
Educators need to know what happens in the world of [students] with whom they work. They need to know the universe of their dreams, the language with which they skilfully defend themselves from the aggressiveness of their world, what they know independently of the school, and how they know it (Freire, 1998: 72).
Operationalising Ideas – Re-tooling
Facilitators also need to find relevant theoretical streams to inform the debate and broaden or define the scope of the discussion. During the course of a previous project; one particularly poignant issue was stigmatisation, with many of the young people participating in the group expressing concern about with the way in which they are depicted in the media. There are many theoretical contributions which can help to explain processes involved in stigmatisation, such as Sticky Identities:
The impressions we have of others, and the impressions left by others are shaped by histories that stick, at the same time as they generate the surfaces and boundaries that allow bodies to appear in the present. The impressions left by others should impress us for sure; it is here, on the skin surface, that histories are made (Ahmed, 2004: 39).
As facilitators we designed activities to help deploy theory in action; one activity used post-it notes to embody the process of stigma utilising Sara Ahmed’s notion of sticky identities. It involved a facilitator first introducing and identifying himself, along the lines of his personal identity. The group then began to attach labels (quite literally) to how he may be perceived by those in power, including the police and educators. The group then stripped him of the identities which those in power would not see or maybe care about. The contrast was telling, he was stripped of his identity as an educator, academic, even brother and son; instead finding labels such as jihadi and IC3 (the code name used by police to describe a black male) attached to him. Though this exercise worked on the group’s perceptions of the attitudes of those in power it also demonstrated the brutal effects stigmatisation can have on personal identities’ well-being.
On the basis of this work we were able to develop a model which explained how ‘indomitable narratives’ come in to being, often via the observations and projections of those not immediately involved in events (such as politicians and journalists). We linked these indomitable narratives to the idea of canonical narratives (Bruner, 1990; 2002); showing how they become a part of the ‘stock of stories’ which people use to make meaning. This provided us with a framework to explore and create ‘counter narratives’ that would disrupt and enrich the stock of stories about young people in our communities. Though the chosen topic was education the group seeks to examine it through multiple lenses; stigma, justice and love.
In this way the utilisation of research methodologies, theory and praxis contribute to a powerful strategy for advocacy and empowerment within the community. Our group was not a talking group it was a space where constructive discussion and theoretical reflection took place in order to create new working knowledge. These new understandings are tested and communicated via various mediums including; academic interviews, questionnaires, art, music and prose, among others. I believe that these ‘outputs’ express authentic ideas to the world, challenge pre-existing stereotypes and recommend better practice.
It is my firm belief that people should have access to and be included in the process of active knowledge production. Theory and research can be powerful tools for empowerment, encouraging people to critically reflect on and understand issues which effect themselves and others. Many people speak of apathy amongst the young; what my experience as a facilitator shows me is that if apathy exists it is not among those who are said to be ‘not participating’. If there is a deficit, it is a deficit within the democratic process that fails to capture their voices and imaginations.
It is the job of academics, educators, politicians and journalists to incorporate the voices of young people in our communities in key decisions over the future of our democracy, yet we see too few genuine attempts to empower people to contribute, reflect and be intellectually challenged on their perspectives. It should be our mission as sociologists to help to ‘bring the noise’, as Stuart Hall and Kobina Mercer so eloquently put it. The noise which serves as the lifeblood of a healthy democracy; comprised of a wide array of voices, constantly negotiating and renegotiating meaning in search of a better world.
Ahmed, S., 2004. Collective feelings or, the impressions left by others. Theory, Culture & Society, 21(2), pp.25-42.
Bourdieu P., 1998 Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market. New York: New Press
Bruner, J.S., 1990. Acts of meaning (Vol. 3). Harvard University Press.
Bruner, J., 2002. Narrative distancing: A foundation of literacy. Literacy, narrative and culture, pp.86-93.
Freire, P., 1998. Teachers a Cultural Workers – Letters to Those Who Dare Teach, Westview Press.
Mercer, Kobena. “Identity and diversity in postmodern politics.” Theories of race and racism: A reader (2000): 503-20.
Yusef Bakkali is an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the University of Sussex. His research is on ‘Road Life’ (commonly known as street culture) in the UK. He is strongly committed to exploring and running projects on alternative forms of community based learning. You can contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.