As social movement researchers, we often study groups that we are personally interested in. We may be sympathetic to their issue and perhaps even volunteer time and resource to the cause.
Do our personal politics prevent us from doing sound research? Does embodying the activist-scholar role make us less legitimate within the academy?
In a recent roundtable on The Society Pages, “Social Scientists Studying Social Movements,” two well-established researchers describe their personal experience in negotiating the activist-scholar dance in their work. David S. Meyer and Myra Marx Ferree discuss their somewhat divergent approaches in doing research on issues that they have a deep personal interest in.
Let Your Politics Shape Your Questions, But Not Your Answers
Meyer was involved in the nuclear freeze movement as both an activist and a researcher. However, it wasn’t easy to reconcile these two roles. Meyer commented on three challenges he experienced as a result of being an engaged activist while also doing academic work:
1- Limited Field of Vision: “Your field of vision as an activist necessarily highlights the present dilemma; you have to be concerned with the particular [and] it’s harder to see the general, much less theory.”
2- Negotiating Theory with Practice: “In my activist life, I spent a lot of time trying to frame issues in ways that were convincing, and this often meant negotiating slogans and simplifying points of view.”
3- Sacrificing Legitimacy: “In deciding to work for a nuclear freeze resolution, I made a commitment to advocate, which sometimes superseded my commitments as an analyst. Even when I separated my analytical foci from the advocacy positions I took, academic audiences didn’t always recognize this … it wasn’t helpful to the way my work was read, nor to my career.”
Despite these challenges, Meyer is quite clear on the research approach he employed to study the nuclear freeze movement. He states, “My politics shaped my questions, but not my answers.”
He urges future movement scholars to “stay away from questions where you already have a vested interest in a particular answer. I think this is far more important than a rigid commitment to a particular method or analytical strategy.”
Best to Stay on the Margins of the Fray
In contrast, Ferree discusses her approach as staying on “the margins of the fray” when it comes to personal activism in the movements she studies. She discusses her long-term interest in feminism in the U.S., Germany, and Russia, as well as her experiences making friends with organizational members and becoming intimate with movement activities in these regions.
Ferree writes, “I am not now—and never was—a crusader, but my commitment to feminist causes is both broad and deep and so it bubbles up in academic and non-academic settings. But unlike some who really get deeply engaged and put in passionate hours and years with a particular political organization, I tend to stay on the margins of the fray by inclination. This a temperment that allows an easier connection between scholar and activist roles than would be the case for those with more focused dedication to one organizational way of working for a cause.”
So…which approach works for you? Do you do the activist-scholar dance in your research? Or are you a passionate wallflower who watches from the sidelines?
Moreover, do you agree with both of these researchers that activist-scholars risk losing legitimacy in the academy as a result of their personal praxis?