10:30 – 13:00 PANEL ONE

The Disconnection between Academic Theory and Activist Practice

Chair Veronica Barassi (Goldsmiths University of London)

Research on digital activism has often focused on the importance of ‘connection’. In this panel activists and academics are invited to reflect not only on the potential disconnection between academic knowledge and activist practice and on the ways in which they have tried to tackle this disconnection.

Brett Scott (London School of Financial Arts) – Dark side anthropology & the Art of Financial Culturehacking

Academic studies of finance from sociologists, anthropologists and geographers have uncovered a diverse range of insights into the workings of financial institutions and markets. Many of these insights would be useful for both the general public and for campaigners working on financial reform. Nevertheless, the Social Studies of Finance field remains inward-looking and directed towards other academics. Activists, on the other hand, often launch campaigns or critiques of finance without adequate experience or knowledge of the field, or else shy away from it due to lack of understanding. In this talk I will sketch out an approach to hybridising activist and academic practice, drawing on my experiences as a financial ‘explorer’ blending ethnography, investigation and political activism

Sandra Jeppesen (Lakehead University) – Anarchy in academia: Direct action research with antiauthoritarian media activists

This research starts from a place of connection. My research has always been connected to and grounded within anarchist oriented direct action activism. Conversely my activism has always been grounded in anti-capitalist, feminist, anti-authoritarian intersectionality theory. Historical media activism projects such as Indymedia are based in the anarchist tradition, enacting values such as horizontalism, resource sharing, and open source frameworks that have left a legacy of anarchist knowledge and practice in media spaces and publications. Similarly anarchist academics such as Saul Newman, Ruth Kinna, and Uri Gordon have produced theoretical work grounded in organizing strategies, tactics and practices. Debunking the myth that, disconnected from each other, activists produce practices while academics produce theory, anarchist activist-scholars have shown that practice and theory are mutually generative. It is this intersection that the Media Action Research Group occupies.

MARG is a university-based collective of activists, academics and students, researching with anti-authoritarian activists and community partners. We have held ‘radical media mixers’ or group interviews with 90 media activists in 6 cities across Canada to discuss challenges currently faced in anti-authoritarian media projects. We also are engaged in two co-research projects with community partners at the Media Co-op in Montreal, and a Mi’kmaq language podcast project in Halifax. This talk will consider three characteristics of direct action research: first, researchers and participants are involved in direct action social movements; second, the process of media research, in this case the ‘radical media mixers’ and the co-research projects, generate direct impacts for and with media activists; and finally, the methodology directly creates prefigurative horizontal research processes and practices that challenge hierarchical research norms. These practices are not without their challenges. Tensions and contradiction arise between the structures of the hierarchical university and the horizontal research collective; between perceptions of media activists as amateurs and their long-term experience of media production; between research that subsumes the concerns of the majority of media activists under dominating or entitled ‘alternative’ voices, thereby replicating structures of domination, and incorrectly framing feminist anti-racist queer and anti-colonial media activists as marginalized; and contradictions generated by neoliberal capitalist imperatives impinging upon anti-capitalist anarchist impulses in bringing together theory with practice, and research with activism. This paper forwards the provocation: How do we generate and amplify anarchy in academia?

Sam Halvorsen (Sheffield University) – Critical Reflections on Doing Militant Research with Occupy London

Militant research, an increasingly popular approach for academics working with social movements, starts from the perspective that there is no disconnect between theory and practice. Rather, it seeks to uncover and deepen particular struggles through a commitment to a militant situation. Yet by relying on institutional forms to coordinate and resource itself militant research reveals its own contradictions, highlighting a disconnect between the forms and processes of creating activist knowledge. This presentation is based on critical reflections of militant research carried out with the Occupy London social movement in 2011-2012 and aims to highlight certain opportunities and challenges of this approach. The first half suggests that academic militant research is a helpful approach for academics by directing their attention not towards the perceived disconnect between academic knowledge and activist practice but towards the potential (and limits) of organising social change from within(-and-against) the neoliberal university. The second half then examines an attempt to create an institutional form to support militant research from outside the university: the Occupy Research Collective. It argues that while this demonstrates the potential (and need) to create forms of militant research beyond the university, it also exposes some fundamental contradictions underlying militant research: between its intense commitment to a situation and its struggle for universal social change. It concludes by arguing that any form of militant research will have to be constantly created and subverted in theoretical-practical struggles to change the world.

Todd Wolfson (Rutgers University) – Capitalism, Technology and Contemporary Social Movements: A Methodology of Research and Change

In the past two decades, we have witnessed the emergence of a new form of social movement, which has taken the shape of a globalized, digitized, radically democratic network formation. Provoked by transformations in global capitalism and the information age, this transnational form of political organizing is reconfiguring how we understand socio-political resistance. Marked by a cultural logic of horizontality, contemporary activists and organizers are building novel social movement institutions through forging flat, networked structures, participatory democratic processes and media organizing practices that link manifold sites of struggle.

In this workshop, I discuss both my research contemporary social movements as well as the work I do beyond the walls of the academy as a founder of Media Mobilizing Project. The goal will be to theorize the intersection of movements and media, while also showing how forms of political praxis can emerge through theory building and vice versa.

13:00 – 14:00 LUNCH BREAK


Q&A with Greg Elmer

Chair Ganeale Langlois

The creative commons documentary Preempting Dissent (2014) builds upon the book of the same name written by Greg Elmer and Andy Opel. The film is a culmination of a collaborative process of soliciting, collecting and editing video, still images, and creative commons music files from people around the world. Preempting Dissent interrogates the expansion of the so-called “Miami-Model” of protest policing, a set of strategies developed in the wake of 9/11 to preempt forms of mass protest at major events in the US and worldwide. The film tracks the development of the Miami model after the WTO protests in Seattle 1999, through the post-9/11 years, FTAA & G8/20 summits, and most recently the Occupy Wall St movements. The film exposes the political, social, and economic roots of preemptive forms of protest policing and their manifestations in spatial tactics, the deployment of so-called ‘less-lethal’ weapons, and surveillance regimes. The film notes however that new social movements have themselves begun to adopt pre-emptive tactics so as not to fall into the trap set for them by police agencies worldwide.

15:00 – 15:30 COFFEE BREAK

15:30 – 18:00 PANEL TWO

Dual Identities: The Academic, the Activist and the Challenge of the Politically Engaged Individual

Chair Anastasia Kavada (University of Westminster)

In this panel we invite participants to discuss the meaning of a politically engaged academic. What happens when academics who consider themselves activists, become effective political agents through the gathering and processing of data? What is the impact of these individually centred processes on the everyday life of social movements? How can individual academics promote social change? What technologies and communication channels do they use?

Jerome Roos (European University Institute and RoarMag.org) – There Is No Dual Identity: Reflections on the Politically Engaged Academic


Charlotte Ryan (University of Massachusetts Lowell) – The Many Routes to Movement Relevant Research

In her 2010 presidential address, American Sociological Association President Patricia Hill Collins flagged the under-appreciated “everyday knowledge of poor people, racial and ethnic groups, new immigrants, [and] women” calling for fuller scholarly engagement (2010:10). Public sociologists (Gans 1989; Burawoy 2004), standpoint theorists, and scholar-activists working with environmental, education, health, labor, and LBGTQ movements have echoed her concerns. Despite these calls for more politically engaged research, social movement theorists often work in relative isolation from social movement activists. Not surprisingly, therefore, social movement activists remain disinterested in the resulting social movement theory (Bevington and Dixon 2005).

While this divide can be bridged, improving activist scholar relationships is hard work. To contribute to these efforts, I first summarize recurring obstacles to effective politically engaged movement relevant research. Noting four under-recognized advantages of such research, I describe how social movement scholarship can impact social movement activists’ daily routines, cultural practices, and longer-term strategies.

To sustain social change, however, politically engaged scholars must develop collective—not simply individual—practices that bridge the academic-activist divide. I will describe multiple approaches to movement relevant research tested and refined during a seven-year collaboration with housing and economic justice activists. I then show how these approaches worked synergistically in a communication campaign involving both traditional and digital media.

Hilary Wainwright (Transnational Institute/Red Pepper) – Committed Scholarship, Political journalism: What Role for Techno-Political Tools?

For the past 10 years, I’ve worked mainly for an institute, or a fellowship as as in it’s self description ‘a network of critical scholars’ with a logo ‘ideas into movement’. The Transnational Institute is not a univerity institution, though many of it’s Fellows, myself included, have or have had academic affiliations. It ‘s staff and fellows are researchers and writers and they are working on questions or problems arising from the needs or problems coming from social movements and struggles. (see http://www.tni.org)

The money is not great – obtaining funds for such a socially committed organisation is always a struggle. But I feel entirely at home. From my first thesis on explaining the failure of the Labour Party left in the 1950’s (at its height under Aneurin Bevan) to win control over the Labour Party, to my present preoccupation with new forms of political organisation – party and state – in the era of the the internet and of a corporate dominated global market, my research has been driven by political and social quests.

On reflection, this has led me to a somewhat knowledge dominated and open ended politics. i. e a politics without certainties – as distinct from principles – and a politics which places a high priority on a recognition of the plural, tacit as well as codified – nature of knowledge; and therefore of the knowing capacities of the people , as opposed to the monopoly of expertise claimed by the political class. I will explain and explore what this means, including how it has led me to see political journalism, eg the founding of Red Pepper as a more appropriate form of political commitment than engaging with existing or new political parties.

This emphasis on knowledge and its pluralism and pervasiveness makes the ICT revolution of the 80’s, following the expansion of higher education and the consciousness revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s, of decisive importance for the future of transformative politics. I will explore the implication of this in practice, maybe drawing on recent experiences in Southern and now, with Jeremy Corbyn, Northern Europe.

Finn McKay (University of West England) – Mud on Your Hands: Research and Activism in your own Field

I am an activist who experienced what Hodkinson calls “going academic” (2005:144). Although studying my own field of campaigning, my entry into academia ironically entailed a withdrawal from activism. My funded PhD necessitated leaving London and leaving practical organising behind.
Spending my days reading and writing about feminist activism felt like selling out, while I knew that my colleagues were struggling with the actual doing of activism: tracking down funding, identifying accessible venues or trying to persuade police to facilitate road closures for demonstrations.

It took a while to drop off planet London completely, so for an interim period, like some sort of gym obsessive weaning off exercise, I was still getting sporadic requests to deliver public talks on feminist activism or pitch to formal organisations for funding Reclaim the Night. Whether or not I answered these requests, I felt like a fraud.

Inhabiting this space between activist and academic is akin to asserting one’s sexual orientation while remaining single, except I still can’t work out exactly what I would prefer to be read as. Now that am firmly ensconced in academia, a full time Lecturer in Sociology, I have no time to research or write anything other than bullet points on a Powerpoint slide. Reviews of what I have managed to write frequently refer to my work as an activist account, or as coming from the perspective of an activist rather than an academic. I find it interesting that others suffer no ambiguity in labelling me as such, while I continue feeling neither academic enough for academia nor activist enough for activism.

DAY 2 – 15TH December 2015 

10:00 -10:30 – COFFEE BREAK

10:30 -13:00 PANEL THREE

Activist Academics and Participatory Action Research: A Possible Solution?

Chair Gholam Khiabany (Goldsmiths University of London)

Participatory action research has proven to be a fundamental way to challenge the disconnection between academic theory and activist practice and to build the dual identity of the activist/academic. Yet there are many ways in which we can imagine, design and structure PAR projects. In this panel we invite scholars who have been engaged in different projects share their experience and critically reflect on the promises and challenges of participatory research designs.

Dan MacQuillan (Goldsmiths University of London) – # Action Science in Kosovo. The Power of a Partial Perspective  

“There’s more people researching us, than there is ‘us’ actually doing stuff” said a friend of mine, who co-founded a social startup. She can’t even access the papers they write about her project because they’re locked behind paywalls. Academia is inward-looking, acting like an extractive industry. Radicalism is an intellectual position statement, not the act of taking risks with mind and body. Activists, on the other hand, see complexity as a diversion from action; urgency puts a low priority on reflection. It’s true that there is hybrid identity, the academic-activist, and digital media is making it to be more visible. But is this double-exclusion really the hybrid we’re looking for?
I’d rather think about the relation of theory and practice and the way digital means force us to re-think it. To unpick that means questioning the legacy of science, the valorization of objectivity and distance, where ethics is a committee-validated add-on. The theory-practice that interests me was outlined by Haraway as situated & embodied, where ‘only partial perspective promises objective vision’. It’s also cyborg; the rise of computation highlights that all our knowledge is prosthetically derived. Participatory action research can hold plural theories around a common, concrete problem. Unlike the academic turn to practice, which ‘does’ without making a difference, PAR combines intervention with self-transformation. Add the digital, and you’ve got social research that can enact forms of social recomposition. I will discuss the way our work in ‘Science for Change Kosovo’ tries to do this, and what that might mean elsewhere.

Kate Coyer (Central European University) – Supporting Communication Access for Refugees

Smartphones have become a vital tool for refugees making the harrowing journey across Europe every day. In Hungary, until earlier this fall when harsh new laws went in to effect and its borders closed for refugees, as estimated ten thousand people daily were crossing through into Austria. In early September, the situation reached a critical mass with over three thousands refugees stuck at Budapest’s Keletei train station – not welcome to stay but not free to leave, and without access to communication and reliable information amidst a deeply chaotic environment with conflicting information flows, border closures, and policy changes making an already dangerous journey that much more precarious.

As one of many voluntary initiatives in response to the crisis in Hungary, I started a project to bring free, open wireless internet and mobile phone charging stations to Keleti train station and at refugee camps along the border as a spontaneous, grassroots, rapid response to meet a pressing need witnessed first-hand. Funds were raised in through informal crowd sourcing and the project grew to something sustained by students, faculty and staff at my home institution Central European University. In my presentation, I will describe the origins of the project, the support of the university community to the project and crisis broadly, as well as ongoing efforts to provide tech support and communication access for refugees at boarders across the region. I will also discuss the challenges of operationalizing this work into research and advocacy. Keleti Project documentation: http://keleti-connected.tumblr.com/

Doug Specht (University of Westminster) – Walking the Tightrope: Local Voices in Activism and Research.

The tensions between scholarly practice and activist work abound and are well documented, and it is this duality which has most deeply influenced my work. This talk will chart a very personal journey from a neo-colonial Facebook post in 2007 through to the establishment of an NGO that attempts to place local voices at the very centre of the conversation about human and environmental rights. Along the way this talk will draw upon amusing, challenging and thought provoking anecdotes and research work undertaken in Chile, Colombia, Syria, Central America and Canada unpicking the mistakes, challenges and successes at each stage, and how this has built into project simply called Voz (Spanish for Voice).

Margaret Gillan (Indipendent Researcher) – Participatory Action Research for community television in Ireland (2001-2009)

For this presentation I will look at disconnects between activists and the demands of academic research which ocurred during my PhD PAR research project (2001-2010) which supported the development of community television in its early and start-up phases in Ireland after the 2001 Broadcasting Act legislated for community channels.

The organisation I belonged to sought to achieve their aims by making strategic alliances and tapping into relevant ‘knowledge’ sources. These were most often other activists, but also included academics. As a community media activist I was involved in a sector that worked on principles of collective action, empowerment, social justice, inclusion and participation. Freirian methodology is widely used as theoretical frameworks within community development, but cannot be ‘parachuted’ into all situations; the methodology is dependant on strong motivational factors external to the theoretical framework such as the presence of revolutionary social conditions and a future in which the development can flourish (Facundo,). However, the need for knowledge – including specific skills – drives activists engagement with academic activity, or their alliances with academics who are seen to ‘know about’ the groups’ aim. Tensions that arise for activists engaged in academic research are multi-factorial rather than binary, include issues of relationship, power, control, and interest (or intent), and these cross institutional and personal fields.

In the presentation I will discuss issues that occurred both with academics who were external to the organisation (non-activist) and issues that I encountered as a participant and activist/researcher.


13:30 – 14:30 LUNCH BREAK