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Being an activist and a scholar

I am fully aware that my research work has implications for environmental public policy at all levels, from the local community to the global arena. I’ve studied a number of phenomena that are of relevance and require paying attention to, like the governance of wastewater, the mobilization strategies of environmental activist groups, and the impacts of restructuring on the local environment at local and regional scales.

Both Kate Milberry and I maintain websites that are associated with our research. In my case, I have used this space to disseminate some of my ideas and findings. Both Kate and I have personal online spaces as well, where we may discuss non-scholarly endeavours. Recently, Kate wrote on her research site about how she found an internal inconsistency with speaking about free software while using proprietary software. This paragraph touched a nerve in me, particularly:

I have always liked and embraced Marx’s idea of praxis: the notion that theory without action is useless and action without theory even more ridiculous, and ultimately unsustainable. From the beginning of my academic career, I have criticized the academy for being out of touch with reality, for navel gazing and other forms of theoretical narcissism. I intended to be an activist, starting from the inside and working out, connecting ideas to action for social change “on the ground.” Not an academic content to warehouse my ideas securely within the ivory tower, speaking jargon to a select chosen few. [Kate Milberry on Geeks and Global Justice

I find myself in a similar conundrum rather frequently, particularly when it comes to studying environmental non-governmental organizations’ strategies to mobilize and put pressure on national and supra-national governments.

As an academic, I find myself wanting to be seen as having credibility. This credence may be due to my rigorous training (armed with a PhD) or it may be due to my research being solid and my work deemed worthy of being referred to. As someone who writes a personal blog, I find that I sometimes want to retreat to that ivory tower that Kate talks about for fear that my readers may not see me as an authority in my specific research fields. And as an activist, I struggle with studying activists. I try really hard to maintain a balanced position, non-biased and scholarly. I find that sometimes, I don’t think I can (or want to) do that because I do believe in the work that a certain ENGO is doing.

But I also share Kate’s goal – I also want to bring my research findings closer to the public, to the un-trained eye, speak to the issues that are affecting society and to influence policy design and implementation. I also strive for and want to effect change in the world I’m living in.

How can I balance my academic work with my activist role and with my community building role? How can I maintain credibility while still ensuring that I am not perceived as being a resident of the “ivory tower”? I’d really appreciate some insight on this.

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7 Responses

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  1. Christopher Parsons says

    Only in the past few months have I really realized that I sit as a ‘privacy advocate’ – previously I saw myself as ‘just an academic who was interested and vocal about particular things’. I’ve decided that my blog has become a place to ruminate, and I continue to advocate my position to various government authorities. It’s *not* necessarily an ‘academic’ blog, though it most certainly is not a personal blog (I stopped blogging about my personal life some time ago with the advent of other social media).

    In regards to ‘how do you separate your academic and activist life’, I continue to write academic pieces that advocate positions that parallel my own, somewhat more private, views. Workshops are nice places to test out new ideas, which can be used in subsequent academic and advocate situations. My academic pieces are longer and (typically) better sourced and frequently not as rushed – most advocacy work either emerges directly from papers I’ve written but are boiled down, constitutes work that is well sourced and argued but might not be something that works into academic papers that I’m involved with, or might be something that just needs to be done ASAP.

    At the same time, everything has my name attached to it, and I’m very aware that what I write has the potential to prevent me from getting certain jobs in the future. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t write about some things, I’m careful about saying things about certain companies/organizations, and so forth.

    I very earnestly think that, if you’re doing really good advocacy and academic work, that they feed off of one another. Do crappy work in either domain, and it threatens to lash back. The thing is, no matter how good an ‘academic’ or ‘advocate’ you are, you will almost always be perceived as not being neutral by someone. That just goes along with having an opinion. Advocacy is little more than a public demonstration of that opinion, one where you put your reputation on the line in front of people beyond the regular scholarly audience. It can help that reputation as much as risk it, but the same can be said for writing good/bad papers for in good/bad journals.

    Christopher Parsons’s last blog post..CFP 2009 Panel on DPI

  2. keith says

    Just found your post through the Sustainable Cities Collective site. As a recovering private sector worker bee, an aspiring academic — I’m beginning a PhD program in the autumn — and a mediocre blogger interested in using social media as the seed of activism, I’m finding myself wondering these exact same things. Unfortunately, given my current situation, I cannot offer any substantive advice…

    However, my personal take — and the view that I expect will inform my pursuits over the next few years — is that academic research (inherently?) exists somewhere beyond the realm of being immediately practicable, regardless of how “progressive” the activist group sees itself, and therefore might not be the best direct connection between these two elements of your life.

    For example, it’s old news that storm water is unnecessarily routed to wastewater plants due to impermeable parking lots, that many of these lots are only used for part of of the day, and that in dense areas there is insufficient public green space and little to no food production…yet trying to reclaim a seldom-used parking lot for a community garden isn’t something that happens often, even in Seattle, where I live.

    So maybe it’s worth looking at the whole situation as a pyramid founded on “the old way”, and progressing upward to “status quo”, “activism” and topped by “research”? Perhaps as research moves forward, it informs and pulls activism up and so on…in a Reagan-esque trickle-down effect (ouch!)?

    Meanwhile, sharing current knowledge that has yet to be implemented in everyday policy might be a good role for the academic as activist.

    While current research can certainly inform activism, your position as an academic may better be utilized “on the ground” by helping activists understand all angles of their subject: in essence to help them understand the existing body of knowledge, to make connections with other groups whose ideas are related but may not appear so on the surface. As I’ve slowly entered the activist scene, I’m coming to see that it’s kind of like the blogosphere: lots of folks have good ideas but they need a sort of organizing mechanism to find interrelationships….perhaps the breadth of education could help establish these connections?

    Or maybe I’m talking like a guy about to enter a PhD program… ; -)

    keith’s last blog post..Garage Sale at the People’s Parking Lot!

  3. Stephen Rees says

    There is a long tradition of academic activists. For example, one of the most effective advocates for better integration of land and transportation planning in this region is Professor Patrick Condon of UBC.

    I do not think that objectivity and a point of view are necessarily incompatible either – but that can only be demonstrated by the individual concerned. There are, unfortunately, many institutions – and individuals who like to pose as intellectuals – who are in fact “selling a line”, being careful to select evidence that only supports their preferences.

    Actually I think a lot of this dilemma comes down to ethics. Indeed, my own thinking on this subject was influenced recently by the folk singer Mary (of Peter, Paul and Mary) who described their activism as being driven not so much by politics as by ethics.

    We all of us have to make value judgements. While academics get their underwear in an uproar over value judgements I think as long as they are made frankly they add to the discourse.

  4. April Smith says

    Hello Raul 🙂

    I understand completely what you’re going through.

    My humble advice is to consolidate everything you want to do, to everything you love to do!

    I see you at many of our social media events, and I always marvel at your energy levels 🙂

    I come from the activist background, being a Vancouver Downtown Eastside community leader to my foray into the social media world – in which you warmly welcomed me 🙂

    I know that you are such a triple threat with all you do. Perhaps having a personal assistant might help you in the organization of your days?

    Thank you very much Raul for being a part of Vancouver’s academic, activist and social media worlds.

  5. Karen says


    It’s taken me a while to formulate my response to this post since you first directed it to my attention, but I think I’ve got my thumb on why I was reluctant to articulate my thoughts on it, and here’s the reason: for myself, I feel like I am still formulating my identity on so many levels, but especially as both a scholar and an activist. I don’t enthusiastically or actively identify myself as an activist, likely because I am still finding my voice and grounding in that respect (that said, I feel much better about being an advocate or a facilitator). As for being a scholar, I’m probably operating under some misguided notion that I have to be published before anyone else will consider me one, so I’m just shirking that label pre-emptively. 😉

    That said, as I’ve been diving back into research thinking, particularly quantiative methods, and as I learn the language of analysis and how the academic cookies crumble, I’ve also meditated on the strengths and purposes of scholarship and social media tools. The social media bits speak to the activism – connecting to people, with ideas, with experiences and particular campaigns – whereas the scholarship talks to something really much, much longer term, and is a systematic examination of the effects as well as the ethics and intentions underpinning them.

    When it comes to establishing authority, this is where my personality or my age may play a bigger factor. I haven’t quite gotten to the point where I’m actively seeking to be considered authoritative (or maybe I just haven’t admitted it to myself yet, I’ll entertain that :D), but I also am not one for posting my snap judgments, which may be me self-censoring for the sake of maintaining something resembling authority – my self image. Joe Clark once accused someone (and me, indirectly) of not being a writer because I wasn’t willing to burn bridges on a blog by writing things that might step on toes or make people look bad – something entering the realm of journalism. Is doing that the sign of a truly dedicated scholar or activist?

    No easy answers, just more question. Surely I must be an academic! 😀

    Karen’s last blog post..Attending (and recording at) Open Web Vancouver on June 11th and 12th

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