Geographers have been activists in two primary ways. First, geographers have constructed new theories and explanations for social phenomena that have both substantially altered the ways that students and researchers understand problems, and the ways that academia evaluates research. Geographers, and other social scientists, have challenged the status quo in scholarly approaches, methods, and substantive areas by offering conceptual frameworks that have highlighted the structural dimensions of social life (e.g., Marxist geographies), empowered the participants in research (e.g., feminist geographies), and shifted the topics of research to socially relevant issues (e.g., critical praxis). Second, geographers have engaged in political action aiming at redefining the nature of problems, appropriate processes to address these problems, and alternative visions for the future. For activist geographers, scholarship, teaching, and political action are all necessary for a critical praxis that fundamentally challenges imbalances in power relations and leads to significant social change. In developing new and innovative ways of understanding social life, politics, and economies, geographers have been on the forefront of highlighting social and spatial issues that have been left out of research deemed classic by scholars. In emphasizing and studying the plight of marginalized groups and communities, for example, women, people of color, disabled and impoverished populations, immigrants, and others, geographers and other social scientists studying such issues have not only brought new information to students and researchers, but have also expanded the ways in which such issues are studied by promoting new theories of oppression, marginalization, and justice. Many have also changed the way that issues are studied by promoting participatory action research, where the participants and academics together define the research questions and appropriate research methods, and together interpret the results of the research conducted. Such geographers, and other social scientists, have used their research findings to promote public debate, to influence public policy and governance, and to realign public perceptions about poverty, oppression, and marginalization to help bring about social transformation. They have strived to open public arenas of political debate and decision making to those who have been shut out of processes that directly affect their lives to promote a more just global society.
For activist geographers, theory and practice go handin hand, not only providing alternative approaches in the classroom and among academics, but also bringing these approaches to bear in the political realm, advocating for justice, equity, and improved quality of life. For activist geographers, research and teaching alone are not sufficient for a critical praxis. Political action is also a central component, where research and teaching inform political action, and conversely, where activism defines research concepts, methods, and topics.
There are multiple obstacles to such a critical praxis in the contemporary academic environment, because of broader social, economic, and political pressures brought by neoliberalism and globalization. Two obstacles are especially important, and have affected academic institutions across the globe. First, there are rising pressures in colleges and universities to engage in applied research that is seen as beneficial by government agencies and businesses. Such applied research tends to support the current structure of governance and industry, striving for greater efficiencies in policy design and implementation. This focus on efficiencies clearly matches with neoliberalist governance approaches, tending to reinforce existing relations of power and privilege. Second, the expanding use of contract, part time, and nontenure track lecturers and instructors in universities and colleges creates challenges for activist geographers seeking to link their research and political action. The lack of tenured faculty positions results in a higher risk environment for those activist researchers engaging in politically unpopular actions in academic and/or public contexts because nontenure positions mean that activist geographers may lose their teaching positions if they engage in controversial actions. Moreover, academic institutions, by enlarging cadres of temporary and nontenure faculty, create groups of instructors who must take on multiple teaching positions at different institutions to obtain living wages. Consequently, such instructors have little time to engage in nonpaid labor associated with political action.
Even with these obstacles, geographers continue to make significant contributions to scholarly understanding of activism, and to provide clear and compelling linkages to researchers, students, communities, policy makers and elected officials, and broader society between scholarly work and political action.