Activist Methodologies, Collaborations, and Everyday Life
This eruption of activist and related geographies within the discipline is taking place at a time in which there is increased social mobilization and conflict around the world. Issues such as globalizing capitalism, trade agreements, failed development, neoliberalism, and the war on terrorism have been met by opposition ranging from the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, itself both locally played out and stretching its influence and effects worldwide, to what Paul Routledge and Andrew Cumbers term 'global justice networks' articulated through global days of action, social forums, and violent insurgencies (e.g., in Iraq). Hence, activism cannot be simply bounded off from other aspects of everyday life; our lives are always entwined with the lives of others – through the legacies of colonialism, through flows of capital and commodities, through modern telecommunications – which demand that we as academics become politically sensitive to the needs and rights of what Stuart Corbridge termed 'distant strangers' in his influential 1993 paper. Activist geographies require a broad interpretation of activism. Not least because activist practices have frequently required the construction of allies and enemies and the negative identification of outsiders, thereby creating divisions rather than connections between diverse communities, as noted by Chatterton in his 2006 paper.
Moreover, Ian Maxey, writing a few years earlier, had argued that activism is discursively produced within a range of sites, including the media, grassroots organizations, and academia, and this has led to a restrictive view of activism that emphasizes dramatic, physical, and even 'macho' forms of action. However, Maxey argues that the social world is produced through everyday acts and thoughts in which we all engage, and he therefore understands activism to be the process of reflecting and acting upon exactly this condition. This means that everybody is an activist, engaged in some way in producing the world, and reflexivity enables people to place themselves actively within this process and for geographers thereby to become overtly activist:
By actively and critically reflecting on the world and our
place in within it, we are more able to act in creative,
constructive ways that challenge oppressive power
relations rather than reinforce them. (Maxey, 1999: 201)
Such an interpretation opens up the field of activism to everybody, and serves to entangle the worlds of academia and activism, as Paul Routledge has insisted in his 1996 discussion of the 'third spaces' between academia and activism. There are no preconceptions about the forms that such an engagement might take; and the importance of this inclusive definition is that it is a palliative to the privileging of certain forms of activism over others, and to the exclusivist and domineering tendencies that occur in certain activist discourses. Indeed, a relational understanding of the activism that stresses connection and negotiation between diverse (activist, academic, and lay) communities is required to enable what Paul Chatterton terms ''learning, acting and talking together on uncommon ground'' (2006: 277).
As a minimal requirement, nonetheless, activist geographies must always stress the inseparability of knowledge and action, impelling them to be self consciously interventionist in approach. For a critical geography to be fully critical, one must therefore 'walk the walk' as well as 'talk the talk', that is, one must be critically engaged in some way with those others with whom one is conducting research. Such an approach grants no special privileges to the researcher and acknowledges that our understanding of the world as it is and our actions to achieve a world as it 'ought' to be are inseparable. Through such a broad approach, and through a variety of possible engagements, geography can be made relevant to 'real world concerns', producing a very different version of 'relevance' than that pedalled by the spatial scientists in the 1970s 'relevance debate' (as mentioned above) and their inheritors in more recent exchanges.
Activist methodologies are conceptualized with an eye to both communication and emancipation, confronting, and seeking solutions to, issues of social, economic, and environmental injustice. They are conceptualized and carried out in collaboration with activist (and sometimes academic) others – the precise contours of such collaboration being worked through in cooperation with those others, and including the possibility that some research will actually not be participatory at all, but carried out 'covertly' with certain powerful groupings in order to generate findings useful to resisting others. Such methodologies can be written about in a variety of ways in both academic and nonacademic forums, the extent of authorial distance from one's subject matter being a matter of personal choice rather than academic protocol. Critical engagement with issues of (in)justice can invest such narratives with political and emotional power, however, precisely because the activist researcher is writing from within a particular issue or struggle. Critical engagement also implies an active process of attempting to bring about specific outcomes (in practices, policies, etc.), and, while such involvement can raise concerns about the 'bias' of the researcher, particularly when viewed through standard protocols of academic knowledge production, this risk can be ameliorated through a critical reflexivity on behalf of the researcher.
Because the personal is political and relational, an activist geography implies a commitment to deconstruct at least some of the barriers that exist between academics and the lives of the people they professes to represent, so that scholarly work interprets and effects social change, again as had been the ideal for the advocacy geographers of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Critical collaborative engagement with resisting others must recognize that academics are entangled within broader powers of association and intellectual production – with the institutions that employ us and/or fund our research, and their location within a global hierarchy that privileges the West's economic systems, institutions, and policy 'experts' at the expense of those of the rest of the world. Such associations grant 'us' certain securities and advantages – for example, economic, political, and representational – that may not be enjoyed by those with whom we collaborate. Hence, academics frequently enjoy a range of privileges that may include mobility, funding, class, ethnicity, gender, and nationality.
Activist geographies seek to make these privileges work in political ways that attempt to effect social, environmental, and political change. This implies that the 'field' of our fieldwork becomes ''located and defined in terms of specific political objectives'' which ''ideally work toward critical and liberatory ends'' (Nast, 1994: 57). It further requires an ethics of struggle to be developed within academia, one that is 'with' resisting others as well as 'for' them, and that accepts moral and political responsibility as a crucial act of self constitution. As Doreen Massey notes, such responsibility is relational, embodied, and implies extension (i.e., not necessarily being restricted to the immediate or the very local). Taking on board such geographies of responsibility involves at least seven processes.