Academic journal article Theory in Action

Articulation Theory in Activist Literacy Research

Academic journal article Theory in Action

Articulation Theory in Activist Literacy Research

Article excerpt


This paper discusses a 2012 literacy study of urban youth activism in New York City. As the primary investigator and author, I collaborated on this project with five youth participants: Vaga De Franx, Gentle Meadows, Green Strawberries, Awesome Woman, and People's Republic of Mars (all names are self-selected pseudonyms). These five young activists are alumni of the Human Rights Activist Project (HRAP), a social action-oriented youth organizing program run by Global Kids (GK). They are all in their early twenties and come from historically under-resourced NYC public schools.

When I first met with each of these youth activists to explain the research project and gauge their interest, one recurring idea that echoed across our conversations was the notion of collectivity. Awesome Woman spoke of organizing a student union for all students of color at her university. Vaga De Franx discussed building a city wide student coalition of activists for access to education. Green Strawberries was talking about Occupy Wall Street, People's Republic of Mars about public health, and Gentle Meadows about community literacy projects and socially just investiture. All of these youth activists engage their local communities, forwarding various approaches to human rights-based popular education built around justice, equity, care, and peaceable coexistence.

I use the term "youth" in relation to the participants although all were over 18 when they agreed to be involved in the study. Youth is itself a political term, one that recognizes the power of young people not as "kids" to be controlled and "children" to be quieted, but as growing adults who possess the capacity to be leaders in the present. Although the study focuses on the past, on their histories and memories as youth activists, their trajectories clearly point to a great future as they become adult human rights leaders.


Mouffe's (1993) articulation theory is a framework useful for understanding the constitution of sociopolitical identities - such as that of activist. Through her post-structuralist ontology of political theory, Mouife forwarded a conception of radical democratic citizenship that is focused on the embodied actions of individual subjects in pluralistic democratic politics. It is here that she introduced articulation theory to account for how individual subjective identities emerge from social discourses.

Mouife's use of articulation theory supports the development of an ontology of democratic citizenship through an analysis of reflexive agency, a will to act, and an ethical ability to make room for the adversary in one's actions. For MoufFe, the efFect of articulation is that the subject invokes her/his identity drawing upon discursive forms that are always only partial. It is in the inability to fully determine the identities of subjects and practices in terms of a fixed discourse that allows for the engendering of dynamic sociopolitical spaces with greater choice and agency.

MoufFe's equation of articulation theory essentially states that relational elements (signifiers that lack meaning in themselves) achieve significance (social meaning) when articulated by/through social discourse in moments of socio-historical contexts. For each of the participants, their different understandings of activism and themselves as activists were created through moments in their lives. Extracting elements such as tactics, organizations, interlocutors, issues, texts and locations is key to understanding how participants define themselves as activists in relation to their moment. From running teach-ins and staging boycotts to organizing protests and lobbying politicians, these youth created meaning in relation to their moment.

The central point as applied to this specific research relates to the articulation of identities in fluid discursive spaces of human rights activism. Moments of activism exist in multiple instantiations, where signification is best understood as continually shifting. …

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