Reimagining Academic Activism
Learning from Feminist Anti-Violence Activists

1: Setting Out


If I were to turn left when I exited my apartment in the morning, I would meander my way down the hill, through the central business district, past parliament and the high court, and end up at the business school building of my university where my office was located, the primary site of my academic work. If I were to turn right when I exited my apartment in the morning, I would wander down the other side of the hill, through the main shopping precinct, past the bars and restaurants, and almost leave the central city by the time I reached my other office, the site of my activist work as part of a feminist anti-violence collective. Sometimes I would travel between the two halfway through the day, dragging my tired body from one end of the city to the other. During this period, I was both ‘academic’ and ‘activist’. I was undertaking a research project about social change in anti-violence activism. As part of this research, I was a ‘voluntary ethnographer’; a researcher embedded in the community organization I was studying, contributing to the social justice cause alongside my colleagues at the same time as conducting my research. My life was a state of constant transition between these worlds.

I had plenty of time to reflect during my regular transitions. I would think about anti-violence activism and the stories of violence I heard throughout the day. I would think about different theoretical approaches to domestic violence, flicking through pages of books or scrolling through journal articles in my mind. Sometimes these thoughts would bleed into one another.

If I were to turn left when I exited my apartment in the morning, I would meander my way down the hill, through the central business district, past parliament and the high court, and end up at the business school building of my university where my office was located, the primary site of my academic work. If I were to turn right when I exited my apartment in the morning, I would wander down the other side of the hill, through the main shopping precinct, past the bars and restaurants, and almost leave the central city by the time I reached my other office, the site of my activist work as part of a feminist anti-violence collective. Sometimes I would travel between the two halfway through the day, dragging my tired body from one end of the city to the other. During this period, I was both ‘academic’ and ‘activist’. I was undertaking a research project about social change in anti-violence activism. As part of this research, I was a ‘voluntary ethnographer’; a researcher embedded in the community organization I was studying, contributing to the social justice cause alongside my colleagues at the same time as conducting my research. My life was a state of constant transition between these worlds.

I had plenty of time to reflect during my regular transitions. I would think about anti-violence activism and the stories of violence I heard throughout the day. I would think about different theoretical approaches to domestic violence, flicking through pages of books or scrolling through journal articles in my mind. Sometimes these thoughts would bleed into one another. Sometimes they would refuse to blend. I tried (and failed) many times to capture that liminal period in my fieldnotes, or poetry, or journal during my ethnography. I couldn’t quite capture that feeling that my ideas and identities were spilling over the lines I tracked through the city. I also couldn’t quite capture that eventual sense that my academic self and activist self ceased being separate somewhere on that winding trail during my regular transitions. No matter whether I turned left or right, no matter where I started or ended the day, I carried something with me.

The liminal space between academia and activism, and the associated senses of disorientation and connection, are at the core of this book. Throughout, I grapple with the duality of being both ‘academic’ and ‘activist’ by reimagining how we draw lines between these identities. I write for those who, like me, frequently contemplate how academics and activists can work alongside each other in pursuit of social justice. Academics are regularly asked to connect to the ‘real world’ and undertake research in a way that will generate ‘impact’ for communities. Academics who have collaborated with activists, however, often feel similar tensions as I did as I traversed my cityscape. Academic activism is often considered a ‘hybrid’ identity (Petray, 2012), an identity in the borderlands (Naples, 2010), an identity not easily reconciled (Hale, 2019). Activists too often come away from these encounters with academics feeling undervalued or frustrated (Varkarolis and King, 2017). The liminal space between academia and activism is a space fraught with complexity. But it is also a space of immense potential. I write about the lines of connection between academic activism and anti-violence activism with an intent to explore possible new pathways to a different, more just, world.

I came into my project about social change in community activism through the lens of academic activism. I saw myself as engaging with feminist anti-violence activists and contributing to their on-the-ground political action by providing research expertise as well as producing research that would (broadly) support ending violence against women. My sense liminality, however, marks how the ground moved beneath my feet. Importantly, my transition was not only from one side of the city to another, but from one way of thinking about the connection of academia and activism to another. The more I learnt from the collective about their approach to feminist anti-violence activism, the more unsettled I became with my neatly held divisions between what was considered ‘academic’ and what was considered ‘activist’. I had thought of myself as building bridges between theory and practice, knowledge and action, which were situated on opposite sides of the cityscape. What I learnt from my colleagues in the collective, however, was that knowledge/action, theory/practice, academia/activism and so on, are intimately intertwined.

Thus, while this book is about reimagining the notion of the ‘academic activist’, it is primarily a book about my colleagues and their work as part of a feminist anti-violence collective. My transitions across the cityscape only became relevant through my engagement with my colleagues. I was inspired by their work as a collective to centre the embodied knowledge of victims of gendered violence as well as their work sharing victims’ stories to unpick the social, political, and economic inequalities which reinforce violence. Moreover, my colleagues’ anti-violence work was underpinned by a commitment to understanding and practising decolonization, collectivism, feminism, and diversity. All their work with victims, the government, businesses, and other activist groups was guided by these commitments. Accordingly, my colleagues had an intricate and sophisticated understanding of intersecting systems of inequality and were experts at practising their core commitments in a wide variety of situations. The way my colleagues undertook their work was inherited from the early days of the feminist movement in Aotearoa New Zealand. The collective carried on the tradition of creating novel ways of organizing that were anti-hierarchical and non-violent. In short, I quickly found that I had much to learn.

How I came to reimagine academic activism by learning from my colleagues is central to this book. As Sara Ahmed (2012: 2) argues: ‘every research project has a story, which is the story of an arrival’. This ‘story of an arrival’ examines why we come to frame an issue in the way that we do and the political and theoretical implications of this framing. Two stories of arrival are core to this book: my institutional story of arrival and my empirical story of arrival. My institutional story of arrival is related to my engagement with research about academic activism and the plethora of other ways in which academic work is argued to influence the world. My empirical story of arrival is grounded in my time with a grassroots anti-violence feminist collective. This empirical story follows my engagement with my colleagues and how their sophisticated theories and interconnected practices diverted, and deepened, my institutional story of arrival.

Accordingly, the institutional and empirical stories of my arrival are intertwined. As many researchers who have undertaken similar ethnographic style work will tell you, the dual identities of being both researcher (observer) and member of the society or organization (participant) impels a deeper, although more fractured and complex, understanding of both identities (Kondo, 1990; Behar, 1996). Dual identities are more than the sum of their parts; we grow and spill from the ‘and’. In the remaining part of this first chapter, I first focus on my institutional starting point and my project on identity and social change. I discuss my initial understanding of academic activism and how academics and activists could collaborate through a focus on academic literature. As I enter into the anti-violence movement, however, I explore how my assumptions were disrupted. These moments spill into the subsequent chapter.

Setting out

The viewpoint I had at the outset of my research project that there is a divide between academia and activism is well entrenched in academic debate. Reiter and Oslender’s (2014) edited collection, Bridging scholarship and activism, for instance, uses this division as their starting point; quoting Marx’s widely cited statement: ‘philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’. The title of the collection puts particular emphasis on separation. The ‘bridging’ implies that academia and activism are discrete activities on opposite sides of a canyon; or as I felt it, on opposite sides of a cityscape. Reiter and Oslender, and the writers in their collection, call for greater movement between academia and activism: asking for bridges to be built and crossed repeatedly. In their introduction, Reiter and Oslender outline a kind of crisis of legitimacy, in which academics have become increasingly detached from the world outside their ‘ivory tower’ and too narrowly focused on publishing esoteric (read: confusing and impenetrable to anyone outside – and often inside – academia) articles only a handful of people will read. Activists, on the other hand, are down in the dirt, in touch with grassroots communities, making change happen but lack a certain rigour to their activities and could benefit from institutional research (albeit of the engaged kind). Academia and activism could be a productive couple, if only academics were to rethink their role in society.

The characterization of academia as a place of rigour and knowledge, and activism as a place of emotion and action, is fairly pervasive throughout interdisciplinary academic commentary on academic activism. Many others follow a similar characterization of academia and activism as in Reiter and Oslender’s collection (Speed, 2006; Naples, 2010; Khasnabish and Haiven, 2015; Couture, 2017). Flood et al (2013) argue that academic activism is composed of four elements: (1) producing knowledge to inform social change; (2) a methodology of research which realizes social change through the research process; (3) a pedagogical commitment to social change education; and (4) seeking to disrupt inequalities within academia itself. Academic activism, then, is a kind of ‘hybrid identity’ which (uncomfortably) balances cultural critique and political action (Petray, 2012). As Sudbury and Okazawa-Rey (2009: 3) argue in their edited collection about activist scholarship, academic activism involves ‘the production of knowledge and pedagogical practices through engagements with, and in the service of, progressive social movements’.

There is a kind of veneration of social movements which saturates these perspectives. While academia may have more rigour and theory, social movements have true and just causes at their heart. Accordingly, academia should meld to activism and become more ‘active’ and ‘practical’ in the process (Speed, 2006; Reiter and Oslender, 2014). Radical interpretation of the world is all well and good, but if it is not matched with political action, then it will never reach its potential. In this vein, academia is argued to have much to add to activism, and there is vast potential in academics resisting institutional demands to narrowly focus on topics of academic interest (Varkarolis and King, 2017), partnering with communities (Brennan, 2019), and bringing their knowledge to the aid of social justice (Sudbury and Okazawa-Rey, 2009; Yerbury and Burridge, 2013; Khasnabish and Haiven, 2015).

As I started my research project, I found that my own field of critical management studies (CMS) was replete with similar debates. From the very inception of my field, academics had debated among themselves how best to create change ‘out there’ (Alvesson and Willmott, 1992). This was a particular concern for ‘critically’ minded scholars, who were intent on questioning and challenging taken-for-granted assumptions about issues as broad as capitalism, neoliberalism, managerialism, neo-colonialism, and the importance of gender, race, (dis)ability, and class to work and organization (Alvesson et al, 2011; Pullen et al, 2017). The ‘C’ in CMS seemed, therefore, to be more closely connected with activism in its often-damning critique of mainstream managerial and capitalist practices and heartfelt calls for a radically different and more just future. By the time I entered the fray nearly 40 years after the conception of my field, the debates had shifted very little. In fact, there were ongoing calls that came out in academic journals which wanted more ‘performative’ research (King and Learmonth, 2015) and research that worked with alternative organizations and their social movement kin (Parker et al, 2014b) as a way of bringing a doing to critical work. I heartily chuckled at the comment that CMS scholars are too often ‘writ[ing] notebooks full of bad poetry that no one else will read’ (Parker, 2013: 168) and took the sentiments of bringing the doing to my critical work to heart.

It is worth widening our view here, to acknowledge that academic activism is one way, among many ways, of thinking about how change happens through academia. For instance, I had entered the university system at a time when there was an increasing fixation on ‘research impact’. Research impact is concerned with a greater connection between academics and the world beyond academia, usually characterized as ‘industry’ and sometimes ‘community’. Edited collections such as Achieving impact in research (Denicolo, 2014) or Bad to good: Achieving high quality impact in your research (Woodside, 2016) argue that research impact is understood as a ‘paradigm shift’ from a focus on curiosity driven, academically excellent research, to accountability driven, targeted, outcome-focused research. Meaningful outcomes are considered by proponents of research impact to be a natural flow on from good research (hence the pointed title ‘bad to good’). In simple terms: academics develop knowledge with the intent of being useful and then apply it in community or industry settings to improve on what is already present. In a similar way to academic activism, then, knowledge is not considered useful unless it is tied to action.

The quest for research impact, however, is rather a horse of a different colour to academic activism. Research impact is often conceptualized as the white horse with an academic champion proudly astride, having accepted their responsibility to industry and intending to improve their outcomes. Less metaphorically, research impact presents itself as a politically neutral and logical next step for researchers to produce knowledge for the good of all. Research impact is often also framed in relation to a ‘crisis of legitimacy’ (Denicolo, 2014), but one in which the university is required to produce knowledge for all because universities are (increasingly partially) publicly funded. In this sense, academics are conceptualized as needing to produce ‘bang’ for the ‘public buck’ by producing knowledge that is good for all rather than of benefit to an elite group of cloistered scholars. Knowledge for the every(wo)man.

As Rhodri Thomas (2018) explores, in Questioning the assessment of research impact, however, the conceptualization of research impact and the role of the academic is problematic. Thomas argues that research impact is underpinned by neoliberal values and assumes that universities should inform industry in a unidirectional ‘impact’. In this way, academics are framed as influencing industry or community if they undertake appropriately structured research. Thomas also underscores that the seemingly neutral political framing of research impact overlooks the power dynamics and social inequalities which form the fabric of research and society. Academics are situated in a relationship with communities in which they hold (value free) knowledge and set out to improve industry or community practice. Thomas contests this framing and argues that academics should focus on teaching as their primary method of knowledge distribution, and therefore changing where they can achieve social impact. In spite of such critiques, research impact remains an influential way of thinking about the role of academics in creating social change.

Where research impact is the white horse with the champion academic astride (who has finally sorted out their priorities and realized impact should naturally flow on from good research), academic activism is more of an untamed beast, pretty sure that staying in the comfy stables is a bad idea but also unsure how to run free on the open plains. Again, less metaphorically, academic activism has an explicit political dimension embedded in a distrust of institutions (including the university). In comparison to research impact, academic activism is less concerned with ‘tinkering’ with the social world and more concerned with radical reimagining of the social landscape in the name of social justice. Moreover, whereas research impact is a unidirectional flow, Hale (2019) underscores that academic engagement with activists is (or at least, should be) mutually constituted. Unlike research impact where research is the ‘ideal’ fit for solving practice problems, Hale argues that the mutual ‘contributions materialize not through some idealized fit between activism and scholarship but rather through engagement with their multiple contradictions’ (2019: 22). Academic activism is more struggle than flow. But a productive struggle.

The conceptualization of both research impact and academic activism I have presented here are ways of thinking about the relationship between academics and communities (and sometimes activists) and social impact/change. My point is not to depict research impact as ‘bad’ and academic activism as ‘good’. Alternatively, I use this contrast to highlight the various ways that we can draw lines around what is ‘academic’ and what is ‘activist’ and between academic/activist and social change. The lines we draw have varying effects: research impact tends to overlook power dynamics; academic activism comes up against institutional norms. Crucially, the lines I have mapped here can be continuously remapped. There are many ways of conceptualizing the academics, activists, and communities (as I will return to in the next chapter). These are not static identities. What is important, then, is our knowledge of the lines we draw and our capacity to understand the possibilities and limitations of drawing lines in that way. These lines are shaped by institutional and social norms, political commitments, and power dynamics that permeate our relationships with others.

At this stage of my institutional story of arrival, however, my understanding of academic activism was dramatically less nuanced. I was acutely suspicious of research impact and its neoliberal (over)tone and felt that academic activism which situates academics developing theory with activists in service of the movement more clearly aligned with my political and ethical commitments. In the company of research about bridging academia and activism, I thought extensively about how my own research could provide that level of academic ‘rigour’ and community ‘engagement’ that were necessary for activist research. A feminist ethnography seemed a complementary research methodology that would allow me to work in the field with activists while continuing my academic research about identity and social change. I was prepared for the struggle between values and priorities (Hale, 2019). I wanted to research, as Naples (2010) (drawing on Anzaldúa (2012)), describes, in the borderlines between activism and scholarship, and had dreams of carrying academic/activist knowledge across these borders. I also questioned whether I should remain in academia if I was truly dedicated to creating social change. Surely if I was so dedicated to social justice, I should be out ‘in the field’ instead of cloistered in my comfortable office with its panoptical view of the city below me?

Settling in

This theoretical background provided me with the starting point to thinking about academic activism. As I have noted, however, my institutional story of arrival is only one of my intertwined stories of arrival at reimagining academic activism. I also have an empirical story of arrival. Armed with my initial view of academic activism, I came out from behind my books and entered into ‘the field’. Specifically, I started volunteering with an anti-violence feminist collective in Aotearoa New Zealand as part of my ethnographic research project about identities and social change. I was to volunteer with this collective for nine months as I also observed, interviewed, and analysed my colleagues’ actions. At the outset of my volunteer work, I carefully explained to the collective how my research expertise could benefit them and that I would be dually dedicated to their social justice mission as well as my own research. In more poetic terms, I offered to be a bridge between the academic world and the world of activism. I did, of course, see my research on identities and social change as ultimately beneficial to the collective’s work, but this was to be a separate contribution to my ‘on the ground’ contributions to their activist work.

The collective specialized in supporting women and children subjected to domestic violence. My homeland, Aotearoa New Zealand, has some of the highest rates of violence against women in the developed world. One in three women will be subjected to physical or sexual abuse from an intimate partner, and one in two women will be subjected to psychological or emotional abuse (Fanslow and Robinson, 2011). A feminist perspective on gendered violence has helped activists to unpick the ways in which institutional and individual violence against women is intertwined with the systematic devaluation of women (Ali and Naylor, 2013) as well as trans and non-binary folk, their needs, and experiences (Ristock, 2011). The likelihood of violence is also tied to other identities, with Māori women being twice as likely as Pākehā1 women to be subjected to violence (Te Puni Kōkiri, 2010) and bisexual women being most likely to be subjected to sexual violence from a partner (Dickson, 2016). Feminist activists have, accordingly, identified the multiple, interlocking systems of inequality which compound gendered violence (Wilson et al, 2016).

There has been a prolonged activist-led response to violence against women and gender minorities in Aotearoa New Zealand, with many networks of activists emerging from the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s (Else, 1993). Various activist groups have achieved huge shifts in public attitudes towards domestic violence as a gendered, social problem. Importantly, these organizations were grounded in feminism. Feminism is a particular way of thinking about social justice, usually related to gender inequality, and often centres on thinking about how our gendered experiences shape how we interact with one another in ways that are just or unjust (Ahmed, 2017). Feminist organizations opposing forms of gendered violence have taken many forms such as collectives, coalitions, and leaderless networks. These alternative ways of organizing have helped anti-violence activists to unpick systems of violence through creating new ways of organizing which attempt to be non-violent and democratic (Ferree and Martin, 1995; McMillan, 2007). Feminist anti-violence activism has, from this basis, successfully repositioned domestic violence as a social issue and impelled governments, businesses, and communities to address gendered violence.

The need for anti-violence activism is ongoing, however. Gendered violence continues to be a pervasive social issue globally, with one in three women subjected to violence at the hands of a partner (UNODC, 2018). Moreover, anti-violence activists have grappled with ensuring their activism is intersectional and combatting issues arising from ‘mainstreaming’ of anti-violence work (Bordt, 1997); such as a de-radicalization of anti-violence work when it is addressed by businesses as an individual economic issue, rather than collective political issue (Weatherall et al, 2021). To add another layer of complexity, many once informal anti-violence groups have now been formalized as community organizations in the third sector. While this formalization has benefits, such as increased funding and public legitimacy, there are also limitations and complexities of doing political work in a more institutionalized way, such as being less willing to critique funders including the government (Arnold and Ake, 2013).

The collective was integral to the activist response to domestic violence in Aotearoa New Zealand. They continue to work throughout the country with victims of violence to support them in whatever they need, from counselling, to support in court, to emergency housing, to caring for pets, to empowerment programmes. Broadly speaking, the collective considers this individual activism. The collective also engages in systems activism, including conducting feminist-oriented research; meetings with government officials; training judges, lawyers, and health care professionals; protests; petitions; and public education. As a volunteer, I supported the systems activist team of about twenty women (the number fluctuated over the course of my voluntary work). The collective structure meant that power was decentralized, and systems activists worked for the individual activists, who in turn worked for victims of violence. Additionally, the collective was guided by four core principles: decolonization, diversity, collectivism, and LGBT+ Pride. As with other feminist activist groups in Aotearoa New Zealand (Huygens, 2001, 2011), the collective attempted to share power equally between Māori and Tauiwi2 and to centre lines of identity which shape individual and institutional violence against victims.

The situation of the collective in the broader context of the community sector was significant. The community sector in Aotearoa New Zealand is dominated by cultural, recreation, civic, and advocacy organizations; with small, grassroots groups making up about 84 per cent of the sector (Sanders et al, 2008). Although the sector has a significant economic impact, contributing 5.3 per cent of gross domestic product and employing 4.4 per cent of the workforce, it is the social impact of the community sector that is seen as most significant (McLeod, 2017). Community sector organizations engage in social support and activism; two features considered foundational to the sector itself. As part of my project, I also talked with a variety of community sector experts and activists in addition to my voluntary work with the collective. My conversations with these experts spanned a range of topics, but the core focus was on the role of community organizations in creating change in Aotearoa New Zealand. Without exception, these conversations underscored that community organizations amplified the voice for those impacted by inequality and held government and the private sector to account for those oversights and failings (Neilson et al, 2015).

My position in the collective and the broader community sector as both an ‘insider’ who was dedicated to the social justice cause of the collective, and an ‘outsider’ who was bringing an academic perspective to the organization’s activities seemed, at first, to neatly coalesce with the research I was reading about academic activism. I was crossing that bridge every day, deepening my knowledge of the collective and their ongoing role in anti-violence activism and analysing that knowledge through theory. My work in the field informed my teaching on a university subject about ethics and organizations. In my ethnographic work I consistently invited feedback on my observations from my colleagues and incorporated the feminist principles of the collective into my research. Inspired by my colleagues’ collective organizing, I also began creating a community within my university in which we supported one another to communally flourish in spite of the neoliberal context. This work continued after I left the field and moved institutions. If we return to Flood et al’s (2013) definition of academic activism, I was certainly engaging in all four areas of their criteria, from research, to teaching, to engagement with the grassroots community.

And we could continue to understand my ethnographic work in this vein. I used my research skills in the collective to carry out a study of economic abuse in Aotearoa New Zealand which was a contributing factor to the passing of the landmark Domestic Violence – Victims’ Protection Act. I met with police to argue for better responses from the judicial system. I went to meetings with politicians to advocate for the removal of benefit sanctions for women who refused to name the father of their child. We planned a protest in parliament, sticking black tape across our mouths if the government refused to pass legislation that would benefit victims of violence. I heard stories from victims who were subjected to abuse and shared these in magazines, newspapers, radio, social media, and television. My academic training gave me sharp analytical insights and my dedication to the social justice cause gave me a useful outlet for those skills.

All the while I took copious fieldnotes, undertook interviews with my colleagues, and delved into my (oh so theoretical) Judith Butler to analyse the relationships between identities and social change. I reflected on the role of the community sector, and regularly attended (and presented at) forums between researchers of the community sector and community sector activists. In my teaching, I encouraged my students to consider domestic violence as an industrial issue and committed to pedagogical practices that developed critical thinking and active citizenship. I connected with and supported other women in my department. In short, I was attempting to embody the principles of academic activism that I had carried with me into the field. Had I continued in this vein, from this point I would have gone on to demonstrate how these experiences offered insight into how academics could cross the bridge to activism. But my story of my arrival changed. Not long into my ethnographic work, the bridge collapsed.

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