An Introduction to the Activist Ethnography

This post provides introduction and context for the activist ethnography in following post.

Having become a self-defined ‘activist’ at some point in 2008, the stories told by older members of my affinity group at Warwick University always held great appeal. When they spoke of old protests, sit-ins, and comrades in direct action, certain people who I had never met before seemed vividly real and familiar, and their actions distorted and aggrandised through an informal kind of oral history. The actions themselves suffered a similar distorting effect in the mind of a new, and relatively inexperienced activist. The most interesting thing, I found, was how these people and their activism were not lodged merely in the recesses of my contemporaries’ memories as the artifacts of some by-gone era. Rather, the events they described took place only a few years ago -2005, 2006, or 2007; as for the people, they had finished their undergraduate study often the previous year, or two years before. And yet, in my mind at least, they were definitely part of ‘history’.

Much has been said of the drawbacks of very short institutional memories, particularly in universities, and the historicisation of very recent events that goes with that. My own experience as a journalist as well as an activist reinforces this view. My first year writing for the student newspaper was 2007. I recently came across an article I had written in December of that year, about private military and security companies; for the life of me I cannot recall writing it. The physical archives of the newspaper for that academic year are also extremely patchy, with most of the editorial staff having made off with what issues were left at the end of their tenure, leaving none for the archives and posterity. Within a year, I would think less than 1 percent of students at Warwick will recall the politics or the scandals that marked that year. Very recently, coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the Warwick Files Affair -where during a sit-in of an administrative building, secret files collected on student radicalism were discovered- I have been searching through the Students’ Union archives, in order to produce an article about activism and the Union at Warwick. The most frustrating thing has definitely been how a series of one or two issues will chart the development of a student rent strike or an occupation of the Senate building, but then a several-month gap will appear in the records leaving no recourse for the archivist to find out how the struggle ended. Although I wrote the Aldermaston 2010 Ethnography before I embarked on my current project, the same rationale underpins both of them. In two years time, all but one of the Aldermaston group will have graduated, and save for an article published in the online edition of the Boar, there would have been no written evidence of the group’s existence, and only scattered evidence -again in the Boar, and more crucially in ‘Dissident Warwick’- of the vibrant radicalism that has been resident at the University in the last few years.

The Ethnography attempts to draw together the reality of the activist scene in early 2010, with even the most mundane observation given credence. I wrote it originally as part of my degree course, though it soon expanded beyond its initial 2,000 word remit when I realised the important role it could play in this particular area of social history. The process of writing it, as if often the case, helped to draw out certain thoughts, and links between theory and the life of the Warwick activist. This is especially true of the section on activist identity. The ethnography’s publication in this journal is most welcome, as it will be able to reach a wider audience, especially in years to come -ethnographic writing, I find, tends to become ever more fascinating as it slowly becomes part of history.

For the last three years I have been studying History and Politics at the University of Warwick. I have spent an equivalent amount of time working for the student newspaper, the Boar, and it is perhaps my journalism, rather than my academic pursuits, which have merged most favourably with my activism. The Aldermaston Ethnography is the most lengthy example of this writing.

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