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scholar-activism: a gentle critique

This week, I was asked to participate in a panel at ASA about scholar-activism. The panel was organized by Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra with panelists Daniel Laurison, Philip Cohen and ASA’s Margaret Vitullo. The whole panel was fascinating. Before we get to what I said, I just want to affirm the following so that people on don’t misconstrue what I said:

  • I believe that activism is valuable.
  • I believe that many scholars are great activists.
  • I believe that it would be very good if social scientists contribute to the public.
  • There are many excellent sociologists whose work has public impact.

So, then, what’s my beef? I have three points:

Scholar-activism can cheapen activism: This happens in a few ways. For example, some people might say, “everything we do is activism.” Or, people who aren’t activist are implicit activists because they reinforce the status-quo. With respect to scholars of color, some might even say that just being a scholar of color is itself a form of activism.

I think these sorts of statements do a disservice to activism. At the very least, if *everything* is activism, then the concept has no value whatsoever. But there is a deeper point. I value what I do but I certainly don’t equate what I do with the work done by people, say, protecting undocumented migrants or who raise money for the local food pantry. It’s hard work. I respect it and I won’t steal their thunder.

Also, as a scholar of color, and one who certainly does extra-curricular work with political end points, I am weary of the claim that I am a walking beacon of activism. The issue for me is that this attitude betrays a limited imagination. Are people of color only real or authentic if their work is political? Do we really think black and brown scholars are incapable of producing beautiful and powerful work independent of our own political views? I hope not. Our legacy is important, but so is our independence of spirit and intellect.

Scholar-activism might undermine scholarly credibility: This is simple. The core claim of the academic profession is that we actually know things and can produce evidence that would be compelling to others. That is what makes us different than politicians, activists, or business owners.

Thus, when we completely anchor our professional identity in activism, we walk into a trap. When some one asks, “Is your research biased by your views? How do I know that you didn’t pick the answer that suits your opinion?” If the only thing you have is activism, and you openly reject notions of objectivity and reason, then you will hinder your own efforts. You need a strong identity rooted outside of your political trajectory.

Scholar-activism might undermine the position of the academy: Though imperfect, the university is one of the few institutions that permits open debate and that is what allows universities to have a seat at the collective table. However, if the public comes to believe that the department of sociology is really a department of Democratic, or Republican, party activists, then people will trust the university less.

Collectively, we must do what it takes to ensure that our departments and colleges are places where progressives feel comfortable in addition to conservatives, women, and people of color. If people get the feeling that we are running a church, and not an academic program, then the position of higher education will erode in society. Our claim to knowledge, which is grounded in claims that can be critiqued independently of the author’s identity, is a precious thing. If we aren’t careful, we’ll lose it.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 16, 2019 at 4:01 am

Posted in uncategorized

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