Possibilities for Engaged Scholarship

I’ve been thinking lately about engaged and other forms of participatory scholarship and how it might apply to the work that we’re doing at Civic Paths.  Engaged scholars are intentional in crafting a relationship with their work that includes a dedication and involvement with their subject matter; the scholar admits to becoming a stakeholder rather than attempting to remain objective and uninvolved.  This kind of framing connects to a trend in qualitative methods where scholars deeply consider the potential impact of their work, and attempt to challenge the power dynamic that appears to so starkly distance researchers from their subjects.  By engaging with participants in this way, researchers can also begin to employ different notions of traditional concepts like validity and voicing.  For instance, new knowledge and findings can be validated by the participants, rather than just the researcher, and the voices of the participants can be utilized within the writing process alongside the voice of the researcher.

Although our research collective sometimes shies away from discussing our relationship with organizations, it seems that there is a standard default that has been assumed—we are studying and learning from these organizations, and we are not intervening in their work in any way.  Whether or not it is intentional, this assumption upholds the position that we must remain academics, and they must remain practitioners, and that a divide exists between the two.  I would like us to question these assumptions, for a number of reasons.  First, our process of growing knowledge and developing insights about how young people become civically engaged via participatory culture could be strengthened by a sense of collaboration and reflexivity, rather than assuming the traditional posture of the (knowing) academic and the (unknowing) subject.  Although I don’t feel that anyone actually believes that academics are superior to practitioners, we still need to consider the implications of choosing conduct our research in a traditional fashion.  Given the unique relationships that we already have with these organizations (for instance, that we present together at academic conferences), it seems natural to begin to question our own methodologies.  Moreover, it is safe to say that we already are stakeholders in the project of helping young people to become civically engaged—we have a firm opinion on the matter, which is that our society is improved when more people are civically engaged, and so we are invested in learning about this process so that we can find new ways to encourage others to do the same.

In my own work with the organizers at Racebending.com, I have found many similarities between myself and those that I study.  With regard to research interests, we are both curious to know how to best utilize the energy and passion of fans toward a political movement.  We both want to know what has been more successful and what has been less successful, and how we can move forward from here.  With regard to method, we both consult professors and previous scholarship in order to educate ourselves about things like how Asian Americans have been represented in the media, and how the media impacts children.  We are both interested in statistically surveying the participants at Racebending.com (although they do not have to pass through the IRB in order to do so), and in general want to know as much as possible about the reasons people have for joining and becoming active members.

Given that we share so much, it has made sense for me to approach my work with this group in a more participatory, collaborative fashion than traditional social sciences or humanities methods.  Although plenty of articles have been written about the difficulties of such partnerships and the inequalities that remain even in doing so, I still think there is valuable ground to be gained in the effort—if nothing else, to  actualize my commitment to queering research methodologies and boundaries within academic institutions.  I have shared my own thoughts and analyses about their organization in my academic writing, including critiques and questions that the leaders may not have come to on their own.  But they have also been able to push back–to explain themselves, to reflect, or to simply accept that we are each entitled to seeing the group through our own lenses and frameworks.  I’m not saying that we reached any great understanding or that our partnership amounted to positive change, but I do think that realizing and acknowledging our overlapping goals helped both of us to reconceptualize the processes of both research and activism.

With regard to Invisible Children, I am reminded of the way that individuals within the organization have repeatedly talked about their own difficulties in negotiating power dynamics.  For them, their identity as a largely white, middle class American organization trying to help children in Uganda can all too easily fall prey to critique from outsiders—Who are they to tell the Ugandans what is best?  How can they truly understand the experiences of another group of people?  Aren’t they just trying to capitalize on the suffering of others?   In their own daily struggles to negotiate their position as an advocacy organization, I see many similarities to the debate that I have outlined above.  In that sense, I think that this conversation about who has the ability to theorize, speak widely, and impact social change would be of particular interest and resonance to them and other like-minded organizations.

Although this kind of work can be challenging and suffers from a unique set of problems, these are questions that I know our research group is ready to engage with.  I am excited to see what possibilities we can imagine for conducting our work in a way that is beneficial, forward-thinking, and honest to all parties.


  1. Stasi Harrell says

    Thank you for the truly engaging and relevant post! There seems to be a shift from traditional objective scholarship to participatory scholarship, and we cannot ignore the benefits of such methodologies. Participatory scholars are able to immerse themselves in a cause, and can therefore better address the issues and needs of those involved in social movements in their research endeavors. Although they lack objectivity, these scholars gain the ability to have an even greater impact on their community and even inspire others to do the same.

    You bring up some good points about the critiques that individuals involved with Invisible Children. In particular, you touch on the idea that people may scoff at the idea of a predominantly white middle-class group trying to help Ugandan children. Outsiders may see these groups as perpetuating the idea of white activists “saving” the poor, weak minority who cannot save themselves, tropes that plague History books across the nation.

    Yes, organizations like these may (according to critics) have a stereotypical colonialist flavor to them, but are these criticisms enough to deter involvement? We cannot deny the impact that the Invisible Children movement has made in terms of raising awareness about this serious issue. I am afraid that critics may deter politically minded youth from becoming involved in campaigns like this.

    I also think you bring up an interesting point about the power dynamic between researcher and participant. The role of the engaged scholar is to serve alongside others within the organization, thus eroding the invisible barrier between the traditional objective observer and the subject. Participants validate the findings of the observer, and, in a way, this opens the door for participants to think about their own work in a more analytical and even scholastic fashion. When not only the researcher, but members of the entire movement start thinking critically about the effectiveness of their own methods, and start questioning how they can better address these issues, social change will inevitably happen faster and more responsibly.

  2. Jason Lipshin says

    I just wanted to concur with Stasi and thank you for this incredibly insightful post. Throughout Sasha’s Media for Social Change course this semester, I have had the wonderful opportunity to work with a community-based organization named IDEPSCA, Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California, but like yourself, I have found myself faced with many ethical dilemmas concerning the terms by which I should engage in participatory scholarship and learning with them. As IDEPSCA is a popular education organization serving a community of primarily low-income, Spanish speaking, immigrant families, and as I fit into none of these identity categories, there is obviously a cultural gap between our radically different subject positionings that can never (and certainly, never should) be effaced. But at the same time, as you note, does this mean that we should simply stop these sorts of collaborations, dismissing them as academic exploitation? And perhaps more specifically in the context of civically-minded classes like Sasha’s, does this mean that there is simply no space for collaboration on civic participation issues between academics and community-based groups that does not smack of “community service” or “service learning” – in other words, condescending, if well-meaning, acts of charity?

    In Sasha’s class and in my work with IDEPSCA, all groups involved have talked extensively about the ways in which participatory learning needs to first and foremost respect the needs of the community partner. Although my project partner Liz and I certainly approached the organization with an idea of what sort of multimedia projects we wanted to implement in their “popular education” curriculum, these initial templates were to varying degrees modified, reconfigured, or scrapped completely in order to fit with the cultural needs and available resources of the community. Thus far, heeding these contingencies has not only ensured a position of mutual respect between all participants involved, but has actually strengthened the quality of the insights that we have been able to cull from the experience, and thus, also the scholarship that has followed from it.

    So, just to reiterate, if we are to move past this critique of the classical anthropological approach, I agree that we should ask, slightly less pessimistically, how we can continue to perform these acts of collaborative scholarship, while at the same time staying true to its promise by recognizing the equal importance and validity of voices from the community partner. This includes incorporating and respecting the insights of community members in the scholarship that we compose to be sure, but I think that it should also entail practices of collaborative media making and helping to build an infrastructure which can facilitate the sustainability of these practices into the future.

  3. An excellent post, with interesting comments 🙂 I was thinking a lot about these questions last year; it helped to widen my theoretical lens to include framing that comes out of social movements as well as the debates inside the academy (or on its margins). For example, check out this post by Team Colors collective that tracks ‘a genealogy of militant research:’ http://teamcolors.wordpress.com/2009/06/08/workshop-what-is-militant-research/, as well as the book length edited volume of reflection on scholarship/activism called _Constituent imagination: militant investigations//collective theorization_ (http://www.akpress.org/2007/items/constituentimaginationakpress).

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