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Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship

Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Pages: 417
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  • Book Info
    Engaging Contradictions
    Book Description:

    Scholars in many fields increasingly find themselves caught between the academy, with its demands for rigor and objectivity, and direct engagement in social activism. Some advocate on behalf of the communities they study; others incorporate the knowledge and leadership of their informants directly into the process of knowledge production. What ethical, political, and practical tensions arise in the course of such work? In this wide-ranging and multidisciplinary volume, leading scholar-activists map the terrain on which political engagement and academic rigor meet.Contributors:Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Edmund T. Gordon, Davydd Greenwood, Joy James, Peter Nien-chu Kiang, George Lipsitz, Samuel Martínez, Jennifer Bickham Mendez, Dani Nabudere, Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Jemima Pierre, Laura Pulido, Shannon Speed, Shirley Suet-ling Tang, João Vargas

    eISBN: 978-0-520-91617-3
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
    C. R. H.
  4. A Note on Resources
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Foreword
    (pp. xiii-xxvi)
    Craig Calhoun

    Activist scholarship is as old as Machiavelli and Marx or indeed Aristotle. The social sciences developed partly in and through activist scholarship. The classical political economists of the early nineteenth century did not simply observe the effects of mercantilism, they campaigned for the repeal of the Corn Laws. Sociologists at Hull House and the University of Chicago not only studied migration, they pressed for changes in legislation and local administration and through the settlement house movement engaged in direct action. Anthropologists have lately engaged in much soul-searching over complicity in colonialism, but anthropology was also recurrently the basis for efforts...

  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-28)
    Charles R. Hale

    The primary purpose of this volume is to provide a broad and grounded counterpoint to the standard admonition to students entering social science and humanities graduate training programs: “Welcome, come in, and please leave your politics at the door.” Some aspects of our message are already conventional wisdom. It has long since become a truism, perhaps best illustrated in the biting satiric novels of authors such as David Small and Karin Narayan, that academic politics of the “small p” variety is rampant in our universities. More substantively, poststructuralist theorists of varying affinities have delivered the basic critique forcefully and persistently...


    • 1. Forgotten Places and the Seeds of Grassroots Planning
      (pp. 31-61)
      Ruth Wilson Gilmore

      Forgotten places are not outside history. Rather, they are places that have experienced the abandonment characteristic of contemporary capitalist and neoliberal state reorganization. Given the enormous disorder that “organized abandonment” (Harvey 1989, 303) both creates and exploits, how can people who inhabit forgotten places scale up their activism from intensely localized struggles to something less atomized and therefore possessed of a significant capacity for self-determination? How do they set and fulfill agendas for life-affirming social change—whether by seizing control of the social wage or through other means? In this chapter I will conceptualize the kinds of places where prisoners...

    • 2. Research, Activism, and Knowledge Production
      (pp. 62-87)
      Dani Wadada Nabudere

      Karl Marx once summed up the contradiction between theory and practice when in his thesis on Feuerbach he argued that philosophers had hitherto interpreted the world but that the real point was to change it. This implied that philosophy should not merely be an arena of scholarly speculation about being; rather, it should concern itself with daily human experience, including action and reflection on that experience. Marx’s contribution was to question the then dominant conceptions of the relationship between the state and society in mid-nineteenth-century Europe in a period of political turbulence. His main concern was to create an intellectual...

    • 3. Breaking the Chains and Steering the Ship: How Activism Can Help Change Teaching and Scholarship
      (pp. 88-112)
      George Lipsitz

      On my way to participate in an oral history workshop inside the stately Butler Library at Columbia University, I noticed a classic revival frieze high above the building’s front steps. Above the tall limestone columns framing the library entrance, stonemasons had inscribed the names of some of the great writers and thinkers of the Western tradition—Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Cicero, and Virgil.

      I began my presentation at the workshop by noting how the building in which we were holding our meeting made me feel at home. I joked that I too live in a place where young...


    • 4. Activist Groundings or Groundings for Activism? The Study of Racialization as a Site of Political Engagement
      (pp. 115-135)
      Jemima Pierre

      It is the middle of a hot afternoon in Accra, Ghana, and I am in the cool, quiet office of a university administrator at the University of Ghana, Legon. He is an old friend. We had first met when I was an undergraduate exchange student years earlier. I was in his office attempting to establish formal university affiliation, one that would allow me access to resources such as the library while I was in Accra conducting ethnographic research. For most of the conversation, we had focused on the logistics of my request. Once we had covered the necessary details, we...

    • 5. Globalizing Scholar Activism: Opportunities and Dilemmas through a Feminist Lens
      (pp. 136-163)
      Jennifer Bickham Mendez

      Today’s world is rife with contradictions—globalization is said to cause the world simultaneously to come together and fall apart (Barber 2001). Cultural, economic, and political integration occur alongside increasing disparities between the rich and the poor. An oft-overlooked contradiction of globalization is the serious challenge posed to knowledge production—particularly within the social sciences. Globalization disrupts underlying assumptions of what constitutes a society, traditionally defined as the confines of the nation-state, and destabilizes embedded notions of “place” and “community.” Thus globalization calls into question social science’s primary object of scholarly inquiry, and in so doing challenges researchers to reconfigure...

    • 6. Activist Scholarship: Limits and Possibilities in Times of Black Genocide
      (pp. 164-182)
      João H. Costa Vargas

      Between 1996 until 2006 I collaborated with two Los Angeles–based grassroots organizations, the Coalition Against Police Abuse (CAPA), and the Community in Support of the Gang Truce (CSGT). The beginning of that period was also when I started fieldwork as part of my academic training toward a degree in anthropology at the University of California, San Diego.

      In this essay, I explore how my training in anthropology and my involvement with organizations working against anti-Black racism and for social justice have generated a blueprint for ethnography that does not shy away from projecting explicit political involvement. How do the...

    • 7. Making Violence Visible: An Activist Anthropological Approach to Women’s Rights Investigation
      (pp. 183-210)
      Samuel Martínez

      Anthropologists live among the humans whose ways of life they study, but rarely do they treat these people as research collaborators rather than as research subjects. Why should this be so? Why should the people whose lives anthropologists study be left only reactive channels of influence (the answers they give to the scientists’ questions) over how their own ways of life will be represented to the rest of the world? The “science hawks,” who consider it a basic principle of scientific validity that research scientists alone should decide what questions are asked (Gross and Plattner 2002), are a minority within...


    • 8. Forged in Dialogue: Toward a Critically Engaged Activist Research
      (pp. 213-236)
      Shannon Speed

      In the wake of decolonization struggles throughout the world, the discipline of anthropology itself was challenged to decolonize. Beginning in the 1970s, serious internal and external critiques motivated the discipline to question and redefine some of its most basic precepts. These critiques came not only from our postcolonial research “subjects” but also from feminist, postmodern, postcolonial, and critical race theorists.¹ All of these scholars challenged anthropological representations of “others” and pointed to the discipline’s history of collusion with colonial power in producing representations that supported colonialist logics and rationalities. Scientific epistemology came under fire: the definition of anthropology as a...

    • 9. Community-Centered Research as Knowledge/Capacity Building in Immigrant and Refugee Communities
      (pp. 237-264)
      Shirley Suet-ling Tang

      In the essay “(Un)natural Bridges, (Un)safe Spaces” inthis bridge we call home: radical visions for transformation(2002b, 1), Gloria Anzaldúa, writer, cultural activist, and recipient of the American Studies Association Lifetime Achievement Award, wrote, “Bridges are … passageways, conduits, and connectors that connote transitioning, crossing borders, and changing perspectives. Bridges span liminal (threshold) spaces between worlds, spaces I call nepantla, a Nahuatl word meaning tierra entre medio. Transformations occur in this in-between space, an unstable, unpredictable, precarious, always-in-transition space lacking clear boundaries. … Most of us dwell in nepantla so much of the time it’s become a sort of...

    • 10. Theorizing and Practicing Democratic Community Economics: Engaged Scholarship, Economic Justice, and the Academy
      (pp. 265-296)
      Jessica Gordon Nembhard

      Sitting with my two-month-old grandson on my lap, I realize I am a scholar activist not just because I believe in human agency and engaged scholarship but also because I believe in the future. I believe that people can make positive change and that things will change for the better. I believe that a better world is possible and that I and my work can be a part of creating that better world.

      I study political economy because I believe that we can fashion economies that are transformative, liberating, democratic, and equitable—rather than limiting, oppressive, and reinforcing of archaic...


    • 11. Crouching Activists, Hidden Scholars: Reflections on Research and Development with Students and Communities in Asian American Studies
      (pp. 299-318)
      Peter Nien-chu Kiang

      At a symposium convened by the New England Resource Center for Higher Education (NERCHE)—one of the premier networks in the nation working to transform higher education—Alison Bernstein (1998), vice president of the Ford Foundation, asked those assembled to support and mobilize “a community invasion” to revitalize the mission and life of the university. Within academia, I have often assumed that I am on deep-field operations as part of the long-range reconnaissance team preparing for that community invasion. Having successfully infiltrated ivy walls and ivory towers with internalized orders to claim voice, space, and resources for underserved communities, I...

    • 12. Theoretical Research, Applied Research, and Action Research: The Deinstitutionalization of Activist Research
      (pp. 319-340)
      Davydd J. Greenwood

      Activist research in academic institutions is rare. A powerful set of forces, external and internal to universities, are arrayed against it. Tayloristic academic institutional management structures basically make the necessarily multidisciplinary work of activist scholars impossible by organizing daily work life in a way that ties academics to their campuses. Under these circumstances, sustained interactions with the nonacademic world are extremely difficult. Academic professional organizations ostracize activist scholars through a combination of self-policing censorship and the imposition of intellectual frameworks inimical to activist scholarship. External forces including state and federal governments who provide funding and thus regulate behavior and private...

    • 13. FAQs: Frequently (Un)Asked Questions about Being a Scholar Activist
      (pp. 341-366)
      Laura Pulido

      I am taking this opportunity to write an open letter to all those contemplating or in the early stages of an academic career and wondering if and how they can negotiate the seemingly disparate demands of political engagement and academic performance. I decided to do so because I am routinely asked—generally by activist graduate students whom I don’t know—about how I reconcile the two. To be perfectly frank, I rarely know how to respond. I often answer in generalities, such as “You need to follow your heart,” which, while certainly true, does not begin to address the complexities...

  11. Afterword: Activist Scholars or Radical Subjects?
    (pp. 367-374)
    Joy James and Edmund T. Gordon

    In the introduction, Charles Hale discusses the prickly issue of “shared political sensibilities” among scholars involved in activist research, claiming “a shared commitment to basic principles of social justice that is attentive to the inequalities of race, gender, class and sexuality and aligned with struggles to confront and eliminate them.” He further posits a strong, necessary connection between the authors’ progressive politics and their chosen activist methodologies. Authors in this volume also reference the contradictions of “institutionalizing” activist research within academic institutions that situate and discipline.

    Clearly, contributors have a shared desire to translate academic skills and positions into vehicles...

  12. Contributors
    (pp. 375-376)
  13. Index
    (pp. 377-390)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 391-391)