Beyond scholar activism: making strategic interventions inside and outside the neoliberal university

Autonomous Geographies Collective. (2010). Beyond scholar activism: making strategic interventions inside and outside the neoliberal university ACME 9 245–75

This paper is an account of activists engaging in action research with different communities. The paper drawing from the challenges and success of the activists recommends intervention strategies for activists and social movements. The methods, motives and experiences of academics working with social movements to fight for global justice are examined. The role and approaches of scholar activism in difficult times is discussed in view of the accounts of the activists considered. The paper argues that the goal of research is not the interpretation of the world, but the organization of transformation. To achieve this transformation through research seven principles that make up the strategy for scholar activism are recommended.

Abstract: This paper is an honest, reflexive account of action research with activists. Through a two year project called ‘Autonomous Geographies’, a team of researchers undertook case studies with three groups: self-managed social centres, tenants resisting housing privatisation, and eco-pioneers setting up a Low Impact Development. The original aim was to explore the everyday lives of activists as they attempted to resist life under capitalism and build more autonomous ways of living. The paper reflects on the messy, difficult and personally challenging research process of the project, with the failures being more instructive than the successes. By recounting this experience we provide lessons for the complex but necessary process of doing what is known as scholar activism in what we see as difficult, neo-liberal times. In particular we focus on how we can better formulate and implement strategic interventions with activists and social movements. We need to reject the false distinction between academia and wider society in conceptualisations of valid sites of struggle and knowledge production, and to find ways to research and engage collectively and politically, rather than individually. To this end, the paper offers seven principles for scholar activism that can be applied inside and outside the neo-liberal university.