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

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

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

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


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 Marténez, Jennifer Bickham Mendez, Dani Nabudere, Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Jemima Pierre, Laura Pulido, Shannon Speed, Shirley Suet-ling Tang, João Vargas


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 to mitigate harmful colonial practices. If early anthropology was shaped by racial thinking, modern anthropologists have been widely committed not only to intellectual criticism of the use of the race concept but to action to end racism.

That knowledge is vital to social action—as to individual ethics—has long been recognized. Thinkers have been doers (contrary to stereotype). and reflection on successes, failures, and unexpected consequences of social action has been a vital source of new understanding.

Yet activist scholarship often seems an unusual or surprising idea. It isn’t widely taught in textbooks. Tenure committees are unsure how to think about it. Why should this be so? Three reasons seem especially influential: (1) modern science (and modern epistemology more generally) has developed an ideal of knowledge based on detached, objective observation; (2) the university has come to contain a much larger proportion of scholarship than in the past (though perhaps not as big a proportion as academics believe), and thus scholarship is more contained with “academic” agendas and career structures; and (3) activism is widely understood as directly expressive of individual interests, or emotions, or ethical commitments rather than of a broader, more reflective, and more intellectually informed perspective on social issues.

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