Activist research and learning

How can movements think beyond their current practice, and dig themselves out of the holes they sometimes find themselves in? And how can academic work on movements contribute to those actual movements? In 2002 Colin Barker and I wrote “What have the Romans ever done for us? Activist and academic forms of theorizing”, which tried to explore what was wrong with mainstream research on social movements and how activists go about theorising. The earlier paper “Gramsci, movements and method: the politics of activist research” tackles the same problem from another angle, while Alf Nilsen and I looked at the other side of the coin in Why do activists need theory? The Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice at Nottingham interviewed me for a podcast on “Saying something useful: the challenge of movement-relevant research” in 2008. This chapter looks at the wider situation of social movement research in Ireland and this working paper tries to think about the different ways academic social movements research has developed in different countries.

From the late 1990s I have been working with movement activists carrying out research on their own movements geared to developing movement praxis, making better use of what our movements directly control – our own action and theory – in a participatory action research programme of PhD research projects. Some of the first fruits include Margaret Gillan’s dissertation on working-class community media, articles by Jean Bridgeman about working-class self-education and by Anna Szolucha on Occupy in Ireland and the Bay Area, as well as an activist research symposium on movements and social change.

Since the late 2000s a team of community educators and activist scholars at NUI Maynooth have run the MA in Community Education, Equality and Social Activism, which brings together activists from a wide variety of different movements to “learn from each other’s struggles” and take a year to reflect on their own movement praxis. There is an Interface piece about the course here and an interview (in German) with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Zeitschrift Luxemburg here.

Internationally, the Interface journal makes some of these connections, as does the social-movements mailing list. The first issue of Interface was dedicated to movement knowledge, and includes an editorial overview (co-written with Cristina Flesher Fominaya) on “Movement knowledge: what do we know, how do we create knowledge and what do we do with it?”

A recent collection on “Sociologists in action” asked me to write a short autobiographical reflection on some of these experiences. Sociology recently published this article about how social movements  contribute to reshaping our understanding of the social world, and an article in Studies in Social Justice discusses the challenges of relating activism and scholarship. Finally, I discussed the question of what a pedagogy from and for social movements might mean, for Capitalism Nature Socialism.

In 2010 Mick O’Broin and I discussed what community activism and other social movements can learn from each other for Seomra Spraoi’s “Better Questions” series: the podcast is available here. More recently, I wrote an afterword for Jai Sen’s 2017 collection of essays from struggles around the world: “Learning to be loyal to each other: conversations, alliances and arguments in the movement of movements“.

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