Ethnographies of Activism

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March 1 and 2, 2008

Henrike Donner (Anthropology) and Sharad Chari (Geography)
London School of Economics

Our small workshop on Ethnographies of Activism took place at the LSE on March 1 and 2, 2008.

The workshop focuses on activism, defined as an early 20thc "philosophical theory which assumes the objective reality and active existence of everything" and, secondly, in the later 20th century normative sense of "a doctrine or policy of advocating energetic action." The first definition - the ontological commitment to realism and the mutability of things - persists in the second definition, as energetic human action. If we combine both elements, it is reasonable to suggest that activism is energetic action oriented towards changing the order of things. Pausing with this definition for a moment we note that this action has to be significant for it to represent change.

For the purpose of this workshop we focus on activism and activists, who encompass the 'vanguard' and 'rank and file' of various political self-professed 'progressives' of various stripes: whether as 19th century socialists and unionists, contemporary non-governmental organisations and campaigners, feminists or 'traditional' women's groups, gay rights campaigners. Indeed, some of the most challenging work on these kinds of groupings finds innovative ideas about humanity, justice, welfare, intimacy and mutuality in these collectivities. For the purpose of the workshop we would like to focus on activism that is self-consciously oriented towards transforming social relations in a radically progressive, rather than conservative directions, with expressed intentions to transform social relations in order to expand spaces of equality, justice, redistribution, and redress of violent legacies, however these notions translate into practice. In doing so we do not deny that the will to change social relations has multiple origins and idioms, but that far from emerging from revolutions in European philosophical thought, it emerged from many struggles and various peripheries. The purpose of this workshop will be to highlight these multiple origins of 'progressive' theory and practice.

This concern with global diversity and multiple origins is central to our second keyword, 'ethnography.' Among the central presumptions of ethnography is an empathetic yet critical solidarity with the other. It is fair to say that the majority of those who understand themselves as professional ethnographers find it difficult to put their social science to the test of social change, and one would be hard pressed to pose ethnography as intrinsically activist, in other words. However, many ethnographers have shaped their work in relation to broader political commitments, despite the fact that professional ethnographers are treated with scepticism from the academy when they engage in activism. If we think with Antonio Gramsci's vision of all humans as intellectuals engaged in interpretive labour, however, we are freed from linking 'ethnography' solely with the practices of professional ethnographers. Humans who put this interpretive work to use in representations that express empathetic yet critical solidarity with others could be ethnographers, even if they don't build their careers on these skills.

The workshop asks how we can think of these two domains as interconnected: energetic action to transform social relations, on the one hand; and representation of the other through critical yet empathetic solidarity, on the other. It is here that our notion of 'progressive' activism becomes more defensible as an endeavour, as any activism that is truly built through critical yet empathetic solidarity with the other must necessarily aim to build mutuality rather than relations of harm and exclusion.

The workshop will bring together people who have an interest in ethnography, and who think critically and in solidarity with various forms of activism and activists. Some of them are self-defined activists, but all relate, if not find solidarity with, various attempts to envision 'progressive' social transformations, whether posed in terms of social justice, political economic inclusion, property redistribution and spatial justice, feminism and queer politics, anti-racism, etc. We have invited people writing or thinking ethnographically about activism and activists across forms, sites, topics, regions, rhetorical strategies and modes of representation. The workshop does not aim to be comprehensive, and indeed, we note at the inception of this project that our own biases with respect to South Asia and South Africa are reflected in the set of people who are invited as paper-givers and discussants. What we aim at is to create the conditions for empathetic yet critical conversation linking ethnographic and activist commitments across disciplines.


Professor Peter Hallward, Centre for European Philosophy, University of Middlesex, "Activism and Commitment : The Case of the Haiti's Zanmi Lasante"
Professor Sophie Day and Dr Victoria Goddard, Anthropology, Goldsmiths College, "Hannah Arendt's Notion of Action, and Women's Activism in Argentina and London"
Dr Sami Hermez, Ph D Candidate in Anthropology, Princeton University, "Dialectics of Ethnography: Reflections on Fieldwork in a War Zone"
Professor Richa Nagar, Womens Studies, University of Minnesota, and the Sangtin Collective, "Solidarity, Self-Critique, and Survival: Sangtin's Struggles with Fieldwork"
Dr Sharad Chari, Lecturer in Geography, LSE, "Revisiting Anti-Apartheid: Problems of Activism and Memory"
Dr Henrike Donner, Lecturer in Anthropology LSE, "Cultural Repertoires in Maoist Life Histories in India"
Shannon Walsh, Filmmaker and PhD candidate in Media Studies at Mc Gill University, "Ethnography-in-Motion: Theory as a Political Practice"
Dr Naisagari N. Dave, Assistant Professor in Anthropology, University of Toronto, "Activism as Ethical Practice: Queer Politics in India"
Dr Toby Kelly, Lecturer in Anthropology, University of Edinburgh, "Human Rights Activists at the UN"
Dr Tilde Rosmer, Research Fellow in Anthropology, University of Oslo, "Studying Academic-activists and the Politics of Representation"
Dr Hugo Gorringe, Lecturer in Sociology, University of Edinburgh, "Everyday Activism? Dalits Organising for Social Change"
Dr Francis Cody, Postdoctoral Fellow, Cornell University, "Paradoxes of Enlightenment and Reflexive Practice in Tamil Literacy Activism"
Dr David Featherstone, Lecturer in Geography, University of Liverpool, "Contested Relationalities of Political Activism"
Dr Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Associate Professor of Geography and Director of American Studies and Ethnicity, University of Southern California, "Differential Alignments: Left Action"
Dr Alf Nilsen, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham, "Ethnography Beyond the Here and Now"
Dr Laura Liu, Assistant Professor of Urban Studies, New School University, New York, "Grassroots Knowledge and Theory in Community Organisation"
Dr David Graeber, Lecturer in Anthropology, Goldsmith College, "Revolution in Reverse"
Dr Biju Matthew, Associate Professor of Business, Rider University, USA, "Critical Distance, the Organizer and the Organized"
Professor Kamala Vishveshwaran, University of Texas, Austin, "Remembering Horror: Remnants of Genocide"
Dr Alex Luftus, Lecturer in Geography, Royal Holloway, "Post-Apartheid Activism in South Africa"