STEPS-JNU SYMPOSIUM: “Are you an academic or an activist?”

Poster at JNU, Delhi_Elisa Arond
By Elisa Arond, Doctoral student, Clark University and researcher STEPS Centre Grassroots Innovation project (Photo: poster at JNU, Delhi)

“Are you an academic or an activist?” That was the first question I was asked over tea before the workshop on Grassroots Innovation Movements began at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. To me this question spoke to two themes. First, it raises a self-reflective question about one’s role in, or contribution to, social change. While all in attendance could probably be said to be motivated by normative goals of improving well-being the world over, especially among the most marginalized, in the workshop there were clearly also diverse visions of exactly how to foster transformational change toward that broad goal. Secondly, this question speaks more broadly to an apparent division in the relationship between knowledge production and social change.

At the workshop, Dinesh Abrol reminded us of the different transformative visions of Nehru, of Gandhi, and of different social movements shaped in each period of Indian history, including pre- and post-Independence. Some at the workshop clearly stated their identity as activists, and placed the evolution of their work into the historical-social context outlined by Dinesh and others. These ardent activists were, and continue to be, integrally involved in knowledge production – through People’s Science Movements, for example – and see activism and knowledge production as complementary or integrated pursuits.

For example, PK Ravindran, director of the Integrated Rural Technology Centre (IRTC), Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), part of the umbrella People’s Science Movements, has been active in the movement for some fifty years! Ravindran described the PSM slogan: “science for social revolution,” beginning with a focus on science education, followed by the development of a participatory, production-oriented, development model based on human and natural resources available within the community, and optimal utilization of the environment. KSSP focuses on support to local bodies, with work in a number of areas, including: Panchayath resource mapping, watershed based plans, water management, energy conservation, and Local Development Plans.

TP Raghunath, of the Centre for Ecology and Rural Development (CERD), described initiatives of the Tamil Nadu Science Forum and Pondicherry Science Forum (PSF) over 25 or so years. He described the vision of PSF’s “science for social change” including inclusive and sustainable approaches to social change, drawing on five core values:

  • The right of every citizen to the basic entitlements needed for minimum quality of civilized life
  • Concept of equity – as equality of opportunity and access to resources, as end to discrimination
  • Sustainability – stating that we cannot live today or choose a path of development that compromise the rights of future generations to exist
  • Democracy – defined as the participation of people in decisions affecting their lives, including in governance through appropriate representative mechanisms – creation of democratic institutions of water users, women, negotiation with the state
  • Opportunity for each citizen to develop her creative potential to the fullest

Adrian Smith presented the case of Lucas Aerospace, and the Movement for Socially Useful Production in the UK in the 1970s. Facing the decline of British manufacturing due to the drastic restructuring of capital, many skilled workers were threatened with losing their jobs. While various unions organized work-ins, strikes and boycotts, a group of workers at Lucas formed the Lucas Aerospace Shop Stewards Combine Committee. Through extensive consultation with the broader workforce, the Committee put together an alternative corporate plan to protect jobs and convert production from largely military technology toward government investment in “socially-useful production”. They developed 150 prototypes based on the collective heuristic knowledge of workers on the shop floor, and suggested new, less-hierarchical ways of organizing the labor process.  When management and the government largely ignored the proposal, the Combine Committee went public and political, leveraging various means – from teach-ins to an educational demonstration tour, among others. Adrian pointed out that the prototyping spaces themselves – the spaces of knowledge production – were also political mobilization spaces, as much about building solidarities as building devices. So perhaps the division between knowledge production processes and social change is not so clearcut – at least in these cases from the People’s Science Movements in India and the Movement for Socially Useful Production in the UK.

G Nagarujan, of the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, spoke about the character and nature of the free software movement, which he likened to termites, doing their duty underground, while others roam above. To the termites (and hackers), the objective is “to destroy the big systems, the mighty mafias of corporations and governments.” It is a political movement, not a technical movement. It is a movement toward distributed production – whether of hardware, software, or knowledge, meant to weaken centralized institutions. Nagarujan called on academics to be more disruptive, following the model of hackers. While hackers use microblogging and usenet fora as tools for social networking, intentionally sharing ideas “as a way of slapping or spitting on the current knowledge production system,” Nagarujan suggested academics should create new kinds of journals on that model, to be similarly subversive.

Returning to the first question of role and identity, Adrian Smith described himself as an “engaged researcher”, while Dinesh Abrol labeled himself both an academic and a practitioner, and still others at the workshop represented themselves as academics open about their goals and values. So “am I an academic or an activist?” I don’t think there is such a stark distinction everywhere, or maybe at least there doesn’t have to be, as indicated by these examples above. I have been an activist in certain realms. I am currently an academic-in-training. No doubt I seek to make an academic contribution that helps activate positive change. But perhaps there is a distinction to be made between academic as researcher with individual leeway to be self-defined in terms of activist leanings, and academia as a (perhaps not homogeneous) space with particular rules, expectations about behavior, and a history.

The choice of taking an activist stance can bring risks in certain contexts. At the workshop, someone highlighted the risks of being a vocal activist in academia until one’s career is established. Nicholas Kristof, a NY Times columnist, recently called for US academics to engage beyond the university campus, pointing to a dearth of academic engagement in public policy debates in the USA, with the exception of economics and a few other disciplines. Kristof acknowledged the institutional structures and competitive professional trends that discourage many academics from engaging in more informal, popular discussion fora.

But what does it mean to be an activist within academia? Is it speaking out against the predominant trending theory? Is it attempting to influence policy and public opinion? Perhaps one facet is just taking note and calling out everyday exclusions and disparities in that hierarchical realm of knowledge production, as long as the risks from where one stands aren’t overwhelming.

One example I find inspiring in my own national context is the academic-activist-women-authored blog Tenure She Wrote who use this alternative channel of blogging to speak out about challenges faced by women in US academia (the bloggers write under pseudonyms in order to avoid jeopardizing their academic careers), and activism has included putting pressure on Nature to review how they understand and support diversity through their publications.

So just as D Raghunandan, of the Centre for Technology Development (CTD), New Delhi, remarked at the workshop: “When we talk about innovation and policy, an issue of prime importance is: innovation for what?” And similarly, we can ask: Knowledge production for what? Academia for what?  While Raghunandan pointed to the kinds of institutional structures we’ve sought to build or draw on to harness innovation to development (not always so effectively) – perhaps we should pay more attention to the hackers and termites, as Nagarujan advocated. Not just to undermine dominant ways of doing things in which we are entrenched (such as the quite peculiar system of incentives and promotion in academia), but also to unearth the creativity and alternative institutional structures or ways of doing that allow more fruitful links between knowledge producers – wherever they may be located – and the spaces where knowledge may shape, transform, sustain or stimulate meaningful change.


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