Off-topic: Activists and Academics – thesis and antithesis?

Every so often invites from academics (for this seminar or that interview) land on the doormat at MCFly Towers. Or else we invite ourselves along to something that, although by and for academics should not be an “academic” subject. You know, things about democracy and participation and transition to low carbon societies and so on. Our experience of all these events has so far been, um, mixed.
So, below are some thoughts on the “invisible” (cough cough) barriers that keep academics and activists from falling in love. And some thoughts on how to overcome them.

To have become an academic you will have sat through several hundred hours of top-down “sage on the stage” seminars, presentations, conferences. You will have learnt how to sleep with your eyes open, and how to ask self-serving questions that get you noticed by the “right” people. You will have played the games. These games involve –

  • long words, long sentences, long lists of citations that add little/nothing but look impressive
  • death by powerpoint
  • theory for its own sake
  • linking ideas to other ideas because you can, not because it helps

To have become an “activist” you will have sat through several hundred hours of meetings that are usually billed as “consensual” and “non-hierarchical”, and a certain number of sage-on-the-stage events too. You will have learnt how to sleep with your eyes open, and how to make suggestions and voice approval that get you noticed by the “right” people. You will have learned to play the games. These games involve –

  • specific buzzwords (non-hierarchical, grassroots, natural, indigenous, democratic, encuentro) that add nothing but look impressive
  • death by march-point or camp-point
  • action for its own sake
  • linking activists to other activists because it’s “how we do things around here”, not necessarily because it helps

Activists tend to be “opportunistic” in a good sense – more interested in picking individual ideas, without too much concern for where they come from or how they fit into a bigger picture. They tend to be spottily-read (at best), suspicious of “grand theory” and interested in ideas for action, rather than building a detailed and coherent understanding of the World (philosophers have, after all, always tried to interpret the world – the point is to change it.)

Both activists and academics exist within subcultures. Each subculture of course has its own (largely unspoken) rules and rituals about how meetings should be held, how status is gained and lost, what “success” in the coming months/years looks like.

It is MCFly’s impression that academics gain little or nothing by “popularising” their ideas for a “mass market”. Quite the opposite, we suspect – it might well be dangerous to one’s reputation to be seen to be “slumming it” or “going native”. Even elite scientists (Carl Sagan, Sherry Rowland etc) used to get flak for talking outside of the Ivory Tower.

Further, if academics have engaged with activists (the whole participant observation schtick), and then write anything other than hagiography, the activists will feel they’ve been used or patronised (activists generally do not take criticism at all well. They’re human, after all.)

Activists will gain little or nothing by hob-nobbing with academics, even if they have the time and inclination and translation skills. They will probably not get “flak” from fellow activists though, unless they start spouting the jargon that they’ve learnt when trying to persuade fellow activists towards their preferred course of action.

So, both sides need to go into any relationship with Eyes Wide Open, aware of the barriers. These barriers;

  • Language
  • Time
  • Definitions of success
  • Mutual miscomprehension

And those solutions
LanguageAn optimal strategy for the maximised interpersonal exchange of knowledges might consist of a conscious and conscientious minimalisation of the use of specialised technical vocabulary and a willingness to create “interstitial trading posts” spaces and technologies of mutual comprehension.  Meaning? Enough with the jargon already. Translate it into English (or whatever language is spoken locally). It is possible. Supply glossaries. Work with activists to make bluffers’ guides, youtubes etc.
Time – activists work on a shorter time frame. They can’t wait around for the normal article production to play itself out, let alone book production. When they say they need information, they mean this year, not next. (See “Timing is everything” below)
Success metrics – for academics it will be articles published and this new “research impacts” malarkey. For activists it will have been stopping something stupid from going ahead – or, more rarely (sadly), making something not stupid happen. Activists tend not to be bothered with citations. See Gamson (1990 and 1998) for potential metrics for activists.
Mutual miscomprehension – well, that’s now solved, because this article has supplied everything anyone needs to know. Oh yes.

Timing is everything
Academics may study some governance issue or other – do some interviews, then do the write up. Get it peer-reviewed. Submit revisions. Then, by the time it is published, two years later, it might bear basically zero resemblance to the facts on the ground that the activists are trying to understand and influence. Epic fail.

Advice for academics
Study. The. Rich.
Make your findings available in English. Not jargonese, not academese. Enough with the five line sentences already. If your ideas are complicated, then it is all the more important that your prose is simple.

Advice for activists
The key question; What is in it for you? What are you and your organisation going to get from giving your time and energy and knowledge to some academic? You are helping them. How are THEY going to help you?
How are their findings (such as they are) going to be presented in formats that are usable for you and your group. Dense and delayed articles in journals no-one reads do not count.
If you are going to submit to an interview (and really, shouldn’t the person studying you be studying the rich?), and you want a copy of the transcript, by a certain date, then GET THAT PROMISE IN WRITING. And if a promise – verbal or written – ain’t kept, it is your responsibility to complain to that academic’s boss(es). And if that boss/those bosses don’t deal with your complaint, then maybe you should go public while also complaining to their bosses.

Gamson, William A. 1990 The Strategy of Social Protest 2nd edn. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth. (First edition, 1975.)

Gamson, William A. 1998 ‘Social Movements and Cultural Change’ in Marco G. Giugni, Doug McAdam, and Charles Tilly, eds, From Contention to Democracy. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield, 57-77.

Haraway, D. 1989 Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science, New York, NY; Routledge, Chapman & Hall Inc.

UPDATE: A Kiwi professor has written a book called “Stylish Academic Writing”. See Times Higher Education Supplement review here.

About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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