Academia and Social Justice Activism

When we come to you
Our rags are torn off us
And you listen all over our naked body.
As to the cause of our illness
One glance at our rags would
Tell you more. It is the same cause that wears out
Our bodies and our clothes.

The pain in our shoulder comes
You say, from the damp; and this is also the reason
For the stain on the wall of our flat.
So tell us:
Where does the damp come from?

Bertolt Brecht, A Worker’s Speech to a Doctor, (Farmer 2005:39)

I AM STRUCK by the poignancy of the query, “Where does the damp come from?” It hits a nerve. In a few simple words, it conveys how the individual body can be subordinated to the body politic. It pinpoints the social determinants of human suffering. Fundamentally, injustice is rooted in a system that promotes the well-being of some members at the expense of others and thereby reflects the inability of sectors of society to gain adequate access to essential resources. Far too frequently, this disparity is reflected at the individual level in the psychological and physical correlates of anomie and ill health. I have witnessed this interplay countless times in communities around the world.

Brecht’s poem illuminates the crux of social justice issues. It also provokes a deeper reflection on my role as an anthropologist and narrative inquirer in responding to human suffering. Over the past decade, there have been increasing calls for anthropology to address injustices and to deepen the public discourse on pressing social issues. This has occurred against a backdrop of ambivalence as the discipline wrestles to define its relationship with activism and advocacy. Until recently, anthropology has approached issues such as human rights and global inequality with caution. This restraint has been born in part from sensitivity to the discipline’s historical association with colonialism. For example, anthropologists were hesitant to support the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, because they were uneasy about its similarity to imperialistic dogmas, which conflated moral aims with economic and political ones (Low and Merry 2010). As social scientists with a commitment to cultural relativism, they were also loath to judge the norms of other societies. Social criticism has also been impeded by legitimate concerns over authority, authorship, and voice. Debates around engagement have revolved around questions of objectivity, responsibility, and partisanship: Is it possible to carry out research that is both rigorous scientifically and committed politically to uncovering the mechanisms of domination and injustice? Or should the production of academic knowledge maintain a posture of neutrality?”

The result has been a growing crisis of relevance, as Rylko-Bauer et al (2006: 178) argue: “If anthropology is truly committed to more than just engaged rhetoric, then praxis and application must play a more central role within the discipline.” As an anthropologist, I am acutely aware of these tensions within my field and have sought inspiration outside my discipline. The traditions of narrative inquiry, critical pedagogy, community organising, and empowerment theory have been particularly useful in bridging theory and action. In my experience, research promotes social change when the following criteria are met. First, the “problem” originates within the community. Second, the aim is to improve the lives of those involved through structural transformation. Third, the community is a partner in making decisions regarding the research process. Fourth, the research process involves an ongoing dialogue and feedback, in clear language, between all parties. Fifth, participants are recognised as both subjects and co-researchers. Sixth, participants are recognised as having the capacity to solve problems and to take action to improve their lives. Finally, knowledge, skills, and resources are shared in ways that raise social consciousness, build local capacity, and promote mobilisation towards corrective action (Gatenby and Humphries 2000).

My experiences working with marginalised communities have highlighted the value of a three-pronged approach to promoting social change:

  1. Lifting up the stories of those most affected [through direct human encounters that personalise and give voice to personal experiences, hopes, and struggles].
  2. Articulating the context that frames these stories and defines what is at stake [using research, analysis, and synthesis to build a strong case for action].
  3. Increasing the capacity (power) of individuals and communities to act on their interests [by promoting a critical consciousness about issues and by the strengthening the social, political, and human capital necessary to implement proposed solutions].

The narrative dimension of this approach is significant. Most private struggles are connected to public issues. Jackson (2002: 12) notes, “every person is at once a ‘who’ and a ‘what’ — a subject who actively participates in the making of his or her world and a subject who suffers and is subjected to actions by others, as well as forces that lie largely outside of his or her control.” Storytelling surfaces these tensions and interests. As Rappaport (1995: 805) argues:

If narratives are understood as resources, we are able to see that who controls that resource, that is who gives stories social value, is at the heart of a tension between freedom and social control, oppression and liberation, and empowerment versus disenfranchisement.

Stories can serve as powerful connective tissue between people, especially as we navigate the complicated terrain between the head and the heart. But narratives of human experience are often insufficient by themselves to ameliorate suffering. Presenting stories outside of their context can lead to a fetishized portrayal of human struggles as remote and idiosyncratic. Inquiry, dialogue, and reflection are required to situate individual experience within a larger social milieu and to reveal the underlying dynamics (context) that create and sustain inequalities. The concept of dialogue is key. It implies a process whereby meanings and understandings are derived through the open exchange of ideas. Dialogue lays the foundation for the vital work of deliberation — the public consideration of how problems are to be defined and understood, what the range of possible solutions might be, and who has the responsibility for solving them. Deliberation reveals the opportunities for an informed response. It identifies the potential levers for change. But rational arguments and rhetoric only provide insight. Analysis without action— and action without capacity — entrenches powerlessness.

As academic researchers, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to promote social justice. We can do so by stimulating a critical dialogue on social issues (where the damp comes from), while collaborating with others to inform and initiate action. We can do so by amplifying the voices of those experiencing marginalisation, while engaging with communities and stakeholders in ways that increase collective impact.

References Cited

Farmer, Paul

2005 Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press

Gatenby, Bev and Maria Humphries

2000 Feminist Participatory Action Research: Methodological and Ethical Issues. Women’s Studies International Forum 23(1): 89-105

Jackson, Michael

2002 The Politics of Storytelling: Violence, Transgression, and Intersubjectivity. University of  Copenhagen, Museum: Tusculanum Press.

Low, Setha M. and Sally Engle Merry

2010 Engaged Anthropology: Diversity and Dilemmas. Current Anthropology 51(Supplement 2): S203-S226

Rappaport, Julian

1995 Empowerment Meets Narrative: Listening to Stories and Creating Settings. American Journal of Community Psychology 23(5): 795-807

Rylko-Bauer, Barbara, Merril Singer and John van Willigen,

2006 Reclaiming Applied Anthropology: Its Past, Present, and Future. American Anthropologist 108 (1): 178–190