My own way in to thinking systematically about social movements came out of growing up in an activist family and ten years or so of increasing engagement in several countries, pushing me increasingly to ask questions about “what are we doing?” and “how can we push things in the right direction?” The first bodies of thinking about this I came across were coming from within social movements’ own knowledge production; it was only later that I realised that I could pursue this same line of questioning in an academic context.
With these starting-points, the issue for me has always been how to generate “movement-relevant knowledge” with a view to actually changing the world. This has been a central part of my own work, not only or even not mainly within the framework of my own academically accredited research and writing. In my own experience, the most fruitful work (and the work which people most often ask me about) has been in the form of dialogue: jointly written work, the PAR research programme for social movement activists doing PhDs on their own movements’ practice that we run at NUI Maynooth, various forms of popular and political education, writing for and editing a range of activist publications, and various forms of movement strategy and organising (which are both, of course, structured by theory and what we have learnt from the past and from other contexts).
There are of course differences between how activists and academics generate and distribute knowledge, or how what may on occasion be the same individuals generate and distribute knowledge within activist and academic contexts; and dialogue between the two is particularly important when it is possible. Hence for me the notion of a practitioner journal, comparable to what has long existed in fields such as popular education or community organising, is central: recognising social movements as a key location of knowledge production alongside academia, within academia privileging movement-relevant research, and trying systematically to generate a dialogue between the two. It seems important to underline this structurally within the journal (in our editing procedures), and to highlight that this above all is what separates the journal from the other journals of social movements research which already exist in English.
As an activist, particularly within the global “movement of movements”, a key problem that strikes me with some frequency is the difficulty of communication between different movements and different theoretical traditions; and the pressures to fall back on identitarian discourses, privileging the form of our ideas over their content. Learning from each other’s struggles, and coming to see ourselves in each other, are absolutely basic to any chance of actually winning; and in this context the role of translation (literally and metaphorically, as between different theoretical languages) appears as crucial.
The third thing that seems to me important is to create a particular kind of institutional space. Activists often say to me that they want to be able to get out of thinking about the immediate, day-to-day problems of their movements and reflect on a broader level. On the other hand, activist postgrads often seem to lack a genuine intellectual community which is not simply about “playing the game” in a cynical way — hence the importance of things like the Manchester conference. My hope would be that a journal like this can both create a broader space for (some kinds of) activist to breathe out in and a form of recognition for (some kinds of) researcher, and be rewarding in the process!
Cristina Flesher Fominaya
In the attempt to express my vision for this journal, I had to sit back and ask myself the questions: Why do we need another social movements journal? What is it that excites me about this project? The short answer is that the journal wants to strengthen communication between academics, activists and academic/activists, something I believe in. A longer reflection produces three main answers that are important to me.
The first has to do with the possibility of fostering communication across movements, cultural and political contexts, and language. My own political consciousness was born from a combination of having the great good fortune of being born to parents with a strong belief in social justice and having spent a significant part of my formative years living in countries where democracy — let alone social movement — was not a political option. My first ethnographic research was on the Green parties of Spain in the early 90s. I went on to study the British anti-roads movement and this fueled my increasing interest in autonomous politics. I later returned to Madrid to carry out participant observation on the “anti-globalization” network, taking in various alternative ESFs, and autonomous projects in Germany and Italy along the way. What struck me as I moved from one movement context to another was that despite the increasing communication between activists offered by cheap flights, Internet and summit hopping, activist networks were still very much bound by national historical cultural and political traditions. A case in point arose in the context of the issue of “precariousness” at the London ESF: some Continental European activists were baffled by signs carried by British activists demanding “reclaim flexibility” when the increasing “flexibility” of temporary “garbage contracts” was what they were trying to protest. There were clearly two different interpretations of the word flexibility at work in this encounter! So I am excited about a journal that can provide a forum for people to engage in cross-cultural dialogue about the issues that motivate them to protest and action, especially through the publication of interviews and conversations.
The second reason the journal excites me has to do with the practitioner emphasis. As a participant/researcher much of what I learned had to do with the effectiveness of certain methodologies and tactics, practical findings that could be of use to activists in their work. However this type of information was often inappropriate for inclusion in more theoretical or academic oriented articles. Although theoretical contributions are important, we hope to encourage contributions that can pass on some of the nuts and bolts knowledge that is generated in movements and help share some of the practical wealth too.
The third reason the journal excites me stems more from my experience in academia. There are excellent social movement journals available and I have learned a great deal from reading articles written by prominent and experienced social movement scholars. However, I think it is often difficult for work that might offer a fresh take on the more established theories to find an outlet. I would love to see some fresh and unorthodox work find its way onto the cyber pages of this journal, and hope we can encourage submissions from people who are still actively participating in the movements they’re writing about.
Unlike the other editors, I am neither an academic nor an activist — at least not as I would define those terms. I do have a background in the history and sociology of science (MA, University of Pennsylvania, 1996; AB, magna cum laude, Cornell University, 1992); I studied the history of evolutionary theory and biology in the twentieth century. I am a bit active, politically, but nowhere near an activist. I’m a member of the IWW; a blogger; a sometime target for pepper-spray. I actually am a real editor, though — as well as an instructional designer, tutor, project manager, and writer of fiction.
For some time, I have been looking to connect with academics, intellectuals, organizers, and real activists. Without mass organization, the forces of capital and power simply will not be challenged. I think that this desire to overcome the imposed alienation and atomization is what fuels my excitement about Interface. I imagine I won’t be alone in that excitement, either. It is not yet another academic journal. The entire point of the exercise is to foster links between and among people of varied backgrounds who are united in a common desire: to further mobilize people against structures of power. As I see it, this is our species’ only hope for survival.
The focus of Interface is on “knowledge production and distribution,” or, to put it another way, it aims to be a forum in which folks with varied experience can share ideas, strategies, and tactics. Barriers of language, jargon, and even geography are to be surmounted for the good of all.
As I mentioned earlier, I studied the history of evolutionary biology in the twentieth century. This brought me very quickly to the British lefty biologists of the first half of the century — people like J.B.S. Haldane, Julian Huxley, Lancelot Hogben, and others. These scientists were dedicated to bringing knowledge to “the people” in such works as Mathematics for the Millions, Science for the Citizen, and The Science of Life. Interface not only reminds me of the best features of that movement — to bring knowledge (and thus power) to the people in the face of rising technocratic “expertise”—but also improves upon the unfortunate one-way nature of that earlier relationship. “The people,” whether they be “experts” or no, have plenty, if not more, to teach the professional knowledge-producing class!
At Interface, then, we’re talking about uniting theory and practice (dare I use the term “praxis”?) in the very makeup of the policies, procedures, product, and participants. This is, I know, what everyone seems to talk about but relatively few manage actually to accomplish. I’m proud to be a part of this attempt.
I imagine that Interface will be a hybrid of a nineteenth-century “factory-girl” workers’ periodical and a twenty-first-century academic journal. Whatever I may imagine right now, however, I’m sure that as Interface grows, the skills and desires of an increasing number of people will shape its development.
Which is as it should be.
This post is also available in: Italian