Seminar Three

The Activist, the Academic and Digital Media: Challenging Research, Re-thinking Theory

14thand 15thof December, 2015 – Goldsmiths, University of London,

Richard Hoggart Building Room 274 – 9:30 -18:30




The aim of our Third SoME Seminar The Activist, The Academic and Digital Media, which took place at Goldsmiths on the 14th and 15th of December, 2015, was to reflect on the often under-investigated relationship between academic knowledge, activist practice and digital technologies. Academics researching social movements and media technologies often find themselves either working in close contact with social movement actors and becoming advocates of specific causes, or they find themselves dealing with a dual identity: the one of the academic and the one of the activist. This seminar aimed to create a space where this dual identity could surface with its complexity and contradictions through the exploration of the relationship between theoretical involvement, activist practice and digital media. Invited speakers focused on three dimensions of this relationship a) the disconnection between academic theory and political activism b) the dual identities of activist academics c) participatory research projects.

During our two-day event we touched upon many of the issues already developed in the former seminars of our SoME series, especially if we consider the stance of many participants to avoid techno-deterministic and ethnocentric perspectives. Whilst in this seminar we talked about the media in a variety of ways the main focus was on exploring and understanding the meaning of politically engaged academics. What emerged within the discussions was a new perspective on the academic/activist as a versatile, fascinating and unpredictable subject, which becomes an agent of change through the creation of research projects that are rooted within one’s own subjective experience.

Here below is a summary of the key issues discussed and the lines of inquiry for future research. We hope that these can be insightful especially to those scholars who are engaged in participatory action research or who are politically engaged, and could not attend our seminar.

 Democratising Research

Many of the different presentations have identified a gap between academic knowledge and activist practice. This gap is experienced on a multiplicity of levels and raises critical question not only on the type of knowledge that activists rely on but also on how accessible academic knowledge is for non-academic audiences. Exploring financial activism, Brett Scott for instance argued that activists often rely on generalised ideas about the financial sector, and this does not help them in their cause. He also argued that part of the problem needs to be found in the fact that academic knowledge is confined within the boundaries of academia and is often unaccessible to different audiences.

During the two-day workshop it became evident that if we want to address the gap between academic knowledge and activist practice we need to critically reflect on the systems within which academic research is produced and transmitted. Despite the move to open access or other important steps in making academic research more democratic, at present wider audiences are excluded from all the different stages of research practice. Sandra Jeppesen and Sam Halvorsen have identified a number of ways in which politically engaged scholars can start ‘democratising research’ from the research design to re-thinking research ethics. This entails not only that academics should design research projects that are truly participatory in nature – by favouring the inclusion of precarious workers, junior academics and activists – but also that they challenge existing understandings of research ethics by incorporating more participatory practices in the way they collect, analyse and distribute data.

 Participatory Action Research

A particular focus has been placed on identifying and questioning what it means to design participatory research projects. In the first panel Todd Wolfson argued for the importance of drawing on local knowledge to produce academic research that is accessible to wider audiences whilst being rooted in the needs of the local community. Our keynote – Greg Elmer’s documentary film Pre-empting Dissent – was a terrific and thought-provoking example of a research/film project that was the result of a collaborative process of soliciting, collecting and editing video, still images, and creative commons music files from people around the world. It was also a fantastic example of a type of critical investigation into a pressing issue for political activists, which demonstrates the importance of politically engaged academic research. We also had the chance to find out about Kate Coyer’s fascinating participatory project that brought WIFI technologies to refugees in Hungary, Doug Specht’s work on locative media in Latin America and Margaret Gillian’s work on community media projects in Ireland. All these fascinating examples highlighted the challenges of participatory action research, whilst showing what happens when academics take seriously their participant role in society and aim to make a change.

 The Activist/Academic Identity

One of the critical questions that we have explored throughout the the two-day seminar evolves around what Hilary Wainwright and Dan McQuillan have described as the ‘politics of knowledge’ and the importance of redefining objectivity by considering subjective, partial and embodied forms of knowledge. It is in this framework that the identity of the activist/academic has become a key element of discussion. All the different speakers have shared key insights on how their biographical narratives are profoundly interconnected to their academic and political practices, and how all these personal dimensions work together in the production of academic knowledge. The personal experience of the activist/academic subject it turned out is not an easy one, and can be profoundly problematic and challenging for individuals. Charlotte Ryan talked about the very personal cost for activist/academics as they struggle with uncertainty and instability, and try to challenge the individualistic tension which defines much academic practice. Finn McKay looked at the issue from the opposite perspective by considering what it means for an activist to become an academic. Both talks emphasised on the unpredictable and complex human choices that activist/academics make at both personal and professional level. It is only once when we consider the very academic tendency to over-identify with one’s job whilst being politically engaged, as Jerome Roos suggested, that we can fully appreciate the very personal dilemma of what happens when activist/academics are asked to negotiate with the neoliberal transformation of higher education.