Movement-led research with Chris Dixon Q&A
(please note that this is an AI-produced transcript of the event and may have mistakes). Please see the full video or accurate recording of the event: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-N96S0BuMdE)
… Chris has been really influential to my own work and to many people, and really raising the bar about what research with movements looks like, what it can do, what it can achieve. I’m super honoured to be here and glad you can make it, Chris. And I’m going to start out by asking you if you’d like to introduce yourself more, more about who you are, what you do, and how you approach research.
Sure, first of all, Jen, I just want to say thank you for that really lovely introduction. And I want to thank Jacqueline actually and Beatrice, and everyone else who’s put in the work to create the infrastructure for this event, I felt like there’s been a lot of intentionality here. And I feel quite honoured by that. Plus, I’m a real fan of people preparing stuff well, and I appreciate that this has been prepared well, so that we can hopefully maximise our time together. And so in terms of saying a little bit more about myself, and maybe giving you all a sense, because I don’t at all expect you to be familiar with stuff that I’ve done in the past, or even really have a sense of who I am. So I’ll just kind of say a few things. As Jen mentioned in my introduction, I’m from Alaska from Anchorage, Alaska, originally, I grew up on Dena’ina territory there. And that actually profoundly shaped my experience and how I think about activism and how I think about colonialism, settler colonialism in particular. I spent a bunch of years living along the US west coast, where I went to university and then eventually I went and did a PhD at the University of California in Santa Cruz. And all along the west coast, I was involved in a variety of social and ecological justice organising efforts, and I moved into the Canadian context. Back in 2007, I moved to Sudbury Ontario, Atikameksheng Anishnawbek territory. And I lived there for five years. And that was actually a tremendously illuminating experience. And you’ll start to see that one of the continuities for me is that I’ve lived in many places that were based on resource extraction economies. And that has actually made me think a lot about extraction and how extraction is connected to research too. In 2012, I moved to Ottawa where I currently live here on unceded Algonquin territory. And basically the way I spend my time is, I did that PhD at University of California, Santa Cruz, not with ever the intention of becoming a full time academic. I didn’t want to be a professor. I went to graduate school in order to basically try to gather resources to support the movements in the struggles that I care about, and try and put that in as much as possible into furthering, you know, eventual and subsequent kinds of campaigns and organising efforts. And I have effectively de-professionalised academic. That’s how I understand myself. I call myself a de- professionalised academic. And I maintain a very tenuous connection with Carleton University here in Ottawa, where I have a research affiliation, which allows me to have a library card and an email address, which is great for my purposes. And I otherwise devote my time to activist work and writing and trying to do some of this kind of intellectual work with movements. And that’s really how I’ve kind of shaped and dedicated my time. And a lot of what I imagine we’re going to talk about today is coming out of particularly the experience I had doing the research for the book, Another politics: Talking across today’s transformative movements, that came out in 2014. And just to encapsulate that briefly, that involved me travelling across North America, both nation states of the Canadian context and the US context, doing interviews with longtime anti authoritarian activists and organisers about the kinds of lessons we’re learning the kinds of challenges we’re facing, and some of the big questions that we’re grappling with. And I learned a tremendous amount through that process. From people engaged in organising work, who I consider comrades, but also about research itself. Like it really profoundly forced me to think about how to engage in a kind of partnership with people engaged in movements in an ethical way that could really further the politics that I care about. So that’s what really frames how I think about stuff and probably will frame a lot of what I have to say today.
Jen Gobby 05:03
Thanks for telling us more about what you got to here today. Okay, so in your view, what role can research play in transformative, systemic, systemic social change in struggles for social and environmental justice, but also in what ways can it harm?
Chris D 05:23
So I think that there’s a lot of different roles that research can play. And I suspect that’s why we’re all here today, right to try to think about some of those different roles. And a lot of the way that I tend to think about it is that there’s kind of a spectrum of possibility for the research. First of all, I think the idea of research is constrained in academic research only. The production of knowledge is done only in the universities by people we call academics, but what I would like to say at the outset – and this idea comes from an Italian communist – any person who is in the world, who works in with the people, who cares for children, who has a job, is doing intellectual work. We’re asking questions, we investigate circumstances, we try to find solutions to navigate what may be difficult circumstances. So, I think we should not exceptionalize research. In fact, we need to look at the different reflections and engagements that are happening all around us. Then, I think we can think about capital R research. Research with is frequently undertaken by people who have letters after their name for example, or who are affiliated with institutions. So, what is the range of possibilities for people who do research. And within that spectrum, on the one hand, I think that there is a side that is harmful. For example, let’s think about CSIS, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service for example. There are people who are very good at writing reports, who can be doing research on the anti-globalization movement, for example. So you have to consider that there are parts of the state that do research on us and are our enemies. They do research on us because they see us as a threat. And this is the kind of research that can be very harmful. So we have to pay attention to it. There are police agencies of different kinds that do research too. It allows them to control us better. There are other types of research as well. For example, I have a friend who has a degree in geology…
that so much of the research in the area of geology is in the service of fossil fuel companies, right? resource extraction corporations of various kinds. So there’s those kinds of research as well, right, that are actually about more effectively destroying the world and turning it into profit, like a profit making entity for companies. I raised those examples, because I think it’s important to think about the kind of most extreme end of the spectrum of research that’s possible, right? Like, there’s research that’s actively working to undermine our efforts to make the world better, and is actively involved in destroying the world in various ways.
Now,moving along the spectrum. I think there are also forms of research that are more inadvertently aligned with harm, right? They’re less about people who are researchers who are saying they want to try and undermine our efforts there, or they want to try to actively further colonialism and capitalism or something like that. But they’re in various ways complicit in those systems in those ruling institutions through the research that they do. I mean, here we can take just the example of thinking about the discipline of anthropology, right, and its long history of engaging in colonial efforts around the world, and actually sort of parsing out the world in a European colonial organisation. Now, I think anthropology has in interesting ways reckoned, or at least parts of anthropology have interesting ways tried to reckon with some of that past, but it’s certainly there. And we could similarly I think, look at, say, political science as a discipline, right, that in many ways adopts the state mentality,adopts the kind of ruling language and orientation of dominant institutions, and tries to think about how they operate and work within them and rarely actually calls into question any of the major systems that operate through the state. I mean, we won’t even talk about economics, right, as a discipline, I mean, economics, there’s, there’s a lot to say about economics and its complicity. But so, in those cases, I think there actually are people who think that what they’re doing is worthwhile. Right, think that what they’re doing is in service of something. But in many ways, it’s actually very much in line with ruling relations and institutions. It’s certainly not in any way explicitly aligned with those of us who are involved in transformative struggles.
So I think, on the other end of the spectrum, I start to look toward forms of research that are actually about very consciously taking up this standpoint of people who are trying to overturn this existing order, and build a more sustainable, equitable society. And that does necessarily mean confronting ruling institutions and ruling relations. And doing that kind of research, I think, can be really valuable. And there’s so many different kinds of research that can be valuable in service of those struggles, right? I mean, everything from the people who do legal research, in order to defend land defenders, or protesters who’ve come under attack or surveillance by the state, to the people who research the supply chains, right, that, that run across our world and actually, are fundamental for resource extraction, economy and profit making on a global scale. To you know, the some of the stuff that’s closer to my heart is the kinds of research that’s about really engaging with movements to think about some of the kinds of collective knowledge that we’re developing together, as we struggle, to figure out how do we sharpen some of our own analytical tools and our own organising approaches and capacities through sharing some of those lessons, and through kind of lifting up some of the collective theorisation that is often happening in struggles.
But I do feel like there’s a lot of space, and actually many different kinds of forms there, research that’s aligned with transformative movements can take, but I do think we have to constantly remember about these other kinds of more harmful ways that it can go. And the last thing I’ll say on this is that there are so many kind of forces of push and pull, to move even the most good hearted researchers toward more alignment with ruling institutions and relations and away from alignment with transformative movements. And any of us who have ever spent time in university, I think you’ve probably experienced some of what that looks like. And we could talk in more detail about what if some of those push and pull factors are, you know, how we can relate with them and maybe resist some of them, but I think we actually need to be really upfront that that is the kind of gravitational energy that’s like where it’s moving. And we have to figure out what are the other kinds of ways that we can set up pulls that counter that that gravitational energy?
Jen Gobby 14:25
Yeah, I would love to hear some of those …let’s get to that in Two questions from now, I think. Let’s talk a little bit more about this, this end of the spectrum, this more positive end of the spectrum. So even amongst the things I’ve read in my doctoral research and other places since… I’ve come across many different framings of ways to do research, with movements. Everything from research about movements, research with movements, movement-relevant research, research in service to movements, research by movements and movement-led research. I think all of those are sort of on that positive end of the spectrum, but they’re not identical. And I wonder if you can talk a bit about some of the differences between them and what kind of research you’re advocating for.
Chris D 15:27
Yeah, I’ve encountered many of those same terms, Jen and I, and I’m of two minds about this sometimes. So. So one thing is just that, as any of you who’ve spent time, particularly around the social sciences in universities will know, there’s a lot of people who love to nerd out on the question of methodology, right, like methods. Like if you ever had to write a thesis or something that you probably in the social sciences, you probably had to engage with some of this stuff around methods. And part of thinking about methods and methodology also often involves taking up some of these terms, like some of the terms that you mentioned, Jen, like people kind of really mapping out sort of different, what’s their particular approach going to be for doing, that particular kind of research that they’re doing? And so there is a part of me that is very impatient with discussions around methods and methodology. I feel like sometimes that stuff gets really fetishized. And it takes us away from talking about some of the much more kind of concrete and often very thorny questions that come up, when we are trying to directly engage with people who are involved in struggles, right. And we’re trying to do that in an ethical way. It’s actually about furthering those struggles. It’s easy, I think, sometimes to kind of hang those more difficult questions on conceptual frameworks than it is to talk about some of the really specific kind of questions that come up.
Like, for example, what do you do when someone tells you about activities that they’ve been involved in that they could potentially be criminalised for? Right? Like, how do you navigate that kind of situation in an ethical way, while also really taking up seriously that, like, they engage in that activity for sound political reasons, right? That’s just one example. But there’s, there’s a lot of these kinds of things. So I want to be careful about not getting too, too focused on the right, kind of methodological terms, I do think there’s useful stuff to get into with some of it, and I’ll talk about that in a moment. But, but I, I always want to kind of stay focused primarily on the practical end of this, and not less off the hook, basically, by using a particular methodology or methodological terms.
So of those, those kinds of approaches that you named – research about movements is frequently an orientation that scholars in the subfield known as social movement studies use. And they would talk about doing research about movements. And I think some of that scholarship is really, really useful. I mean, these are basically folks who are trying to understand how movements grow and develop what some of their internal dynamics are, look at things historically. But often, the about part means that the researchers themselves are not identifying as part of the movements. And they’re not even necessarily thinking about what they’re doing as in service to those movements. Although it can be, it’s more just writing about something, right. And so I think the research about movements approach is often the weakest of the ones that you mentioned, because it doesn’t have a lot of space for any kind of tangible connection, or any kind of basis of accountable relationship between a researcher and a movement.
I mean, I, I have said in the past, that I’m not so much interested in research about movements, or even research for movements, as I am about research with movements. And that’s the research with movements is the kind of, if there’s, if I have a preferred approach, it’s that one and that’s, that’s one where I see a kind of fit. I think, together side by side, researchers can be involved in movements as participants ourselves, and engaging in a research process together with other people around us where we’re identifying questions, we’re talking through those questions or refining some of those insights. We’re trying to develop some kind of collective theorisation out of that experience together.
Now, I want to touch on movement-led research, though, because that’s the name of this event and I feel like that’s also really crucial. For Research for the Frontlines as an initiative, and I think that in some sense is a slightly different approach, in that it’s about specifically saying, Look, not all researchers are necessarily embedded in movements, right? Sometimes there are circumstances where we’re working as researchers. And what we want to do is offer up some of the skills that we have, some of the particular access to resources that we might have, to people who are involved in movements that we’re not actually super directly connected to, or currently embedded in. Now, I don’t think that precludes the possibility that we might become more involved in some of those struggles and organising efforts. But I think it’s about recognising that we might be situated in different places socially.
And this is another crucial point, right, in terms of thinking about research is recognising and always thinking really carefully about how we are coming into this research? How are we coming into relationship with organising efforts? Where are we coming from? And when I say, where are we coming from? I’m really bringing up the question of social positionality. Right, I’m thinking specifically about what kind of race, gender, sexuality, citizenship status, ability, educational circumstance, professional standing, like there’s so many questions, I think, that go into shaping who we are and how we enter into what we’re doing. And I think these are things that are really worth thinking about. And with a movement led research model, I think we can, particularly those of us who I think are coming from more advantaged positions where we have access to certain kinds of skills and resources, we can think about, what do we want to do with this? Like, where do we want to plug this in?
But as I said, I don’t want to give up also on the possibility of us participating as comrades. Right, as direct participants ourselves. So I don’t think that some of those models that you mentioned, I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I think that we can, perhaps, take up one or another at different times, based on the circumstances that we’re in. And the overall orientation that I think many of those terms are getting at is one where we’re trying to work in accountable ways on research that benefit movements, principally.
Jen Gobby 22:44
yeah, I agree. And I think the way you frame that is really helpful to thinking about them as fluid and different entry points, but different potential end points. So maybe now let’s go back to that push and pull, and the different forces, pushing researchers towards doing research that benefits the ruling institutions and powers as you called them. So I’d like to hear your thoughts on some of the barriers you see, for folks who are trying to do this kind of research … barriers, both personal, interpersonal and institutional, that are being faced. What are some strategies that researchers can use that you think might be helpful in overcoming some of these barriers to doing the kind of research we’re naming here?
Chris D 23:36
Yeah, so here, here, you know, I’ll talk specifically about some of those kinds of barriers and some strategies for navigating those barriers that I think those of us who have been inside universities or I have worked adjacent to universities have had to deal with, because I suspect that that that’s kind of the the majority of what we’re thinking about here. Although I recognise names from folks on this call for whom the university actually is not a primary reference point at all. And I think that’s actually really wonderful as well, like, I think that allows for other possibilities, but also some other and different challenges, too. So, in terms of barriers, one thing I want to name is just like time and resources, right? Like, I think all of us in various ways are experiencing, having less time and fewer resources, and in universities, time and resources are often allocated based on you following a particular programme. If you’re a student, right, that’s about you getting through your course requirements. That’s about you producing perhaps a thesis that fits in some way with university expectations and being directly accountable to people who are supervising you, or are teaching you right. And in many ways, your time and your resources are governed by that kind of matrix of power as it operates in that institution. I mean, there is a particular way, in fact, that produces a specific form of accountability. Like I often like to think about these questions in terms of like, who’s our accountability to? And the university in very material everyday ways, makes you accountable to itself … to people who are employed in supervisory roles within the university. And it makes it harder then for you to develop relations of accountability, with movements, with organisations, with people who are engaged in struggle, who, for whom the university is not their primary reference point. And in fact, one of the barriers that really comes up is when we’re doing research that’s trying to work alongside movements, we can face real disdain, and sometimes actually, real consequences for choosing to keep ourselves focused and keep our resources directed toward people who aren’t in that university context, and who are perhaps doing disruptive kinds of things that are unsettling for ruling institutions.
I mean, there are many kinds of barriers that we could talk about. But I do feel like resources, and time frame a lot of this in the material day to day. And I think, part of navigating that, because we can’t just kind of magically make it disappear, we can’t wish it otherwise, these are the institutional contexts that we’re in. So I think part of what we have to do is actually name these things as they’re happening. The other thing that I think is really useful is to not go it alone. Right? So one of the fundamental organising functions of the university is to get us to act as individuals and understand ourselves as individuals who are pursuing our own kind of very individual trajectory through the institution, whether that’s as a student, or as some kind of an academic pursuing a professional career. And that actually takes away the possibility for us to build relationships that can push against, that could push against some of these some of that, like gravitational pull that I was talking about earlier. Right.
So I do think that a significant strategy for working with some of these barriers and some of that kind of overwhelming pressure to do research in a particular way in a particular direction is to find other people. Right, like build collectivity. And I mean, in a certain sense, this is a really basic point. And this, but I think it’s the fundamental point for basically, everything that we’re trying to do in society is to find other people. Build collectivity. Because it’s so much easier to push back against some of these pressures when we have other people alongside us, who we’re talking with, who we’re sharing strategies with, who were providing mutual support for one another through and when we can pool resources and ideas. And it’s actually much easier to collaborate with other people involved in struggle, other people involved in movements, when we approach them as collectivities, rather than as individuals, right? Because that’s how we can build some more accountable relations. When we’re actually we come and when I’m talking about working with other people, I’m also not talking about building like mass organisations necessarily, right, like I’m saying, find two or three other people that are you’re on side with, and figure out how you can start supporting each other and brainstorming together about what you’re doing, and what you can get access to and how you know, and what you can push up against, like, how far can you actually contravene some of the institutional pressures that you’re facing, in your particular circumstance, it’s going to be easier if you’ve got a few people who have your back. And then the other thing is, I think, part of working against some of the or getting around some of these barriers, or at least recognising them and sometimes sidestepping some of them is developing our own kind of accountability, like so recognising the way that the institution is setting up a particular kind of accountability for the type of research that we do. That’s in alignment with its particular norms and prerogatives. we can see that we can see what’s happening. And we can say, what other kind of accountability do we want to build? And I mean here, like I should mention, the Cree scholar, Shawn Wilson has this book, researchers ceremony, where he, which is all about indigenous research methods. And one of the, I think, very positive things that he offers in that book is a kind of conception of relational accountability, like a kind of indigenous research methodological approach that’s based in relational accountability. And I, I feel like I’ve learned a lot from reading and engaging with that. Also, I’m not indigenous. And so I’ve been very reluctant to sort of just like, take that up as my own. I’ve taken it more as a kind of source of inspiration, or kind of a question of like, what would it mean, for us to build relations of accountability, as researchers as part of transformative movements that are about that same that are about a kind of relationality, about a kind of ethical relationality? And I think, you know, there’s a few different parts to that.
I mean, one is asking the question, in a serious way, like, how do we determine what we research? Because if we just kind of go with the gravitational pull of the institution, it’s going to suggest, what we what we research is based on a complicated recipe or complicated kind of mix of what happens to be trending academically in our field, what we happen to have maybe some like interest or curiosity about, what are supervisor or someone having supervisory function is maybe what they know about. Right. So it’s this kind of like, weird mix. But I think it’s worth asking, you know, in the spirit of relational accountability, maybe you should consult with people involved in movements and organisations that we care about, ask them about the kinds of questions that are worth researching. And that might be the kind of beginning of a basis for a different kind of relationship. Right? That could kind of press up against some of those, some of those obstacles. I mean, I’ll just give you an example that came up for me a number of years ago where I, I was interviewing an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty in 2007. And, of course, I was asking him questions about direct action antipoverty organising. And you know, how OCAP does what it does in Toronto. And at one point, he said, You know, we’ve had so many graduate students and academics over the years who’ve approached us, and wanted to research us, but none of them have ever asked us, what would be useful for us to research like, what what would be what can we do that would be like, helpful for advancing the struggles that you’re involved in? And I was like, well, that’s super. That’s super fascinating. Like, what like, what would that be? And he immediately had this huge, long list right of stuff about like, it’d be very helpful for us to understand better the drivers of gentrification and dispossession in downtown Toronto, like, who are the real estate companies, right? Like, what are the connections between these developers? Like how, like, what is the kind of political economy that’s shaping this landscape that we’re struggling in? And he had a bunch of other examples, too. But that that stayed with me, right, this idea that perhaps we don’t start just with what ever question happens to be hitting us, but we start to develop questions in collaboration with with other people who are very knowledgeable, based in the struggles that that they’re fighting at the moment, you know.
And I think the other question, or the other sort of way that I’ve thought about, about this kind of accountability, as pushing back against some of those institutional pressures is around the question of how do we give back… when we do research, what are we actually offering? And who are we offering it to? And because, again, the sort of prevailing approach within the university is, well, you write journal articles, you give presentations at conferences. You maybe write papers for your courses, right? Like, this is how you, this is what you produce. And that’s important. And I don’t what I want to suggest is maybe that’s not actually the most important stuff, right? Like, it might actually be useful to think about the other ways that we can give back as part of doing research alongside movements. And they might might be much less tangible, right, they might be much less easily kind of fit into a thesis, or a journal article, they might be about helping to build a workshop curriculum, or doing a very small specific bit of research, that’s part of a campaign that’s never going to get published, but it’s actually going to be really useful for people in terms of doing a power analysis, right of their opponents. So, I think that’s one of the other core issues is recognising that not everything we do, as research with movements or led by movements is going to be legible or useful, or even welcome within the universities, that sometimes we might have to kind of go in some divergent ways at times. But I do think that the significant point here is being really explicit about it, like really recognising and naming these different kinds of pressures and dynamics. And then figuring out with other people, some things that are possible, some alternatives that are possible.
Jen Gobby 46:12
So Chris, I have one last quick question. And then we’re going to go to questions from the audience. So folks, you can indicate if you want to speak by putting up your hand in this digital hand function, or just indicating with a star in the chat that you’d like to speak. And you could also type your question right in the chat, and we’ll go for it that way. But Chris, so here’s what I want to ask you. Lastly, what advice do you have? I mean, you’ve touched on this, but if there’s anything left you have to offer, what advice do you have for researchers who are navigating the tensions between academic commitments, timelines, et cetera and this accountability to movements or community communities that we’re talking about? As well as if you have any sort of principles or guidelines that you think folks who want to contribute to a movement led research could take to heart?
Chris D 48:22
Yeah, I mean, it’s a big question. And certainly I feel like I’ve tried to touch on some aspects of this, particularly the question of building accountability, thinking through this, this question of relational accountability, and what are some of the ways that might look and also the, the point that I emphasised about collectivity, right about finding other people, I feel is a really a critical one. And, and I think part of what I was getting at, in trying to talk about recognising where we’re coming in from, right, like thinking about social positionality, in terms of our research, is understanding that our research, what we do, our research activities, they’re never separate from us, right. So like, one of the lies that academic institutions try to tell us is that we can do this kind of objective research work that has actually nothing to do with where we’re coming from and who we are. But in fact, who we are, where we’re coming from always frames what we’re doing, right. And I think recognising that about ourselves, but also recognising it about so many of the other people around us, particularly those who claim to have some kind of objectivity in the research that they’re doing, and particularly those who claim that objectivity, in defence of ruling institutions. But I think seeing that research is actually directly connected to us, right and actually getting real clear on what are our investments in doing what we’re doing, and I think this is actually something that comes up… Even in the case of movement-led research, where we’re trying to sort of put our resources and skills in the service of movements, I think it’s always better for us to be able to think about, what is our connection to this? What is our investment in this fight, because it’s never I mean, if we don’t have an investment, right, if we don’t have some kind of direct reason why we’re willing to throw down on this, it is just charity. And that’s actually another really sort of terrible model to go on here. We’re trying to think about a different model. It’s actually about collaboration based in a shared struggle, even if we’re situated in different places in relation to that struggle, right.
And, you know, I think the other other thing I wanted to emphasise that I don’t think I’ve touched on is how useful it can be to consciously set our own goals. And because the institutions that we’re in, whether they’re universities or other kinds of institutions, they’ll set goals for us, right? Like they have default goals of like what we’re supposed to be doing. And again, if we want to resist some of that gravitational pull, then we actually have to set out some of our own aims. And I think those aims can be, answering questions like, what kinds of contributions do we want to be making to social transformation? Right? Who do we want to be collaborating with? And who do we want to ultimately benefit from what we’re doing? And I think if we can get clear on articulating some of those goals for ourselves, and again, even better, if you can do that, in collaboration with some other people, I think they can, they can kind of operate as load starts, right? Help us have a bit of a different orientation, perhaps trying to steer away from some of that pull that would otherwise take us towards just the kind of default orientations of a lot of academic institutions. So those are, those are some kind of general thoughts about trying to steer in different direction and some of what might be helpful for us.
But I don’t want to lie, it’s really not easy to try to do research alongside movements, particularly when you’re working in institutional contexts that press you in a different direction. It’s, it’s always about fighting, and then assessing particular kinds of fights, determining which ones are worth taking on. And often having people be really frustrated with you. And at the same time, it’s about being really vulnerable, in relation to the movements and organising initiatives with whom you’re collaborating, right? Because you’re basically saying, Look, I’m willing to be accountable to you, you know, I’m willing to try and build a relationship here, it’s about furthering your aims. And that means most likely that you’re gonna do some stuff that, you know, is imperfect, where people are going to be frustrated with you or critical of you. And part of what you’re going to have to do is own that, and figure out how to keep working in that relationship and do better, right, so it’s, none of this is going to be straightforward. And in fact, a lot of it’s going to be pretty challenging. And I’m sure as many of you know, it is really challenging. And anybody who tries to tell you otherwise is simplifying or lying to you.
Jen Gobby 53:56
Okay, that’s, that’s honest and fair. Thank you for sharing that. Okay, enough of my questions, time to go to audience questions. And the first one I see in the chat is from Simona. Simona is asking you, Chris, what advice do you have for researchers who are not affiliated with a university for getting started or involved in movement led research? What are the differences in terms of barriers for non university researchers?
Chris D 54:23
That’s great. Thank you. Thank you for asking that question. Because, yeah, as you see, I often end up speaking more to the people who are in universities than are not in universities. But I actually do think that there are some different kinds of opportunities and challenges for those of us who are largely not in universities and are not really even adjacent to universities at all. I think one of the challenges is that we may not have access to the same kinds of resources, whether those resources are specific tangible things like access to like university libraries and like digital access to journals and certain kinds of records and that kind of stuff. But we also might not have the financial support to be able to put in the time. On the other hand, we’re not bound by any of the expectations and guidelines that govern so much university based research. We don’t have to wade through ethics protocols in order to interview people, for example, right. And I think one of the real possibilities for researchers outside of universities, and I think Research for the Frontlines offers this possibility… really is getting connected without using the university as an intermediary at all right, like seeking out organisations, seeking out campaigns, seeking out collectivities of people in struggle, and being able to say, Hey, I’ve got some time, some skills, I’d like to be able to collaborate with you on some stuff, I’d like to be able to offer some assistance here, and really not having to worry about trying to make that legible, within a university context at all. Instead, being able to just set up, you know, what are your aims for this research in collaboration with who you’re working with. And, and then figuring out how you get access to the things that you need, in order to do that. But in a certain way, I think, those of us who are situated outside of universities, have some advantages, because we don’t have to deal with that kind of gravitational pull. But I think that the thing that we need to work on is building relationships with people who are doing stuff, because otherwise it can feel like we’re just kind of floating, right, like, disconnected from anything that’s going on. And again, I do have the same advice for people in and outside of academic institutions on this, which is find, find some people, find some more people. collaborate. Even if it’s just a couple of other folks that you know, who are interested in doing research for social justice, who are maybe similarly situated as you, like, figure out what you can do together, what you can start together and how you can connect.
Jen Gobby 57:32
Nice. So I’m hearing find some people. I’m hearing that coming strong across. Nicolas, Nicolas, would you like to unmute yourself and ask a question?
Oui Hello. Thank you so much for organising this. So hopefully people can hear me now. No, just the weird look. I’m currently doing an honours thesis, which is an undergraduate research sort of truncated, I get to have Bengi who is here as an advisor. And we’re trying we’re currently working on questions. Like I’ll make it quick, basically, I’m trying to use some of the climate movement’s capacity where you have 1000s upon 1000s of white people asking the government to do something. And instead, try to use a social reproduction lens, maybe you can give your take on what social reproduction is to you. And sort of try to build mutual aid groups or something like that. And I wonder, like, if this fits into the movement led narrative, I myself, as an activist, I’ve been part of this trying to build a coalition from marginalised voices. And my honours thesis I’m trying to use as a way of redistributing capacity, if you will, looking at like, you know, I’m hoping to ask what the issues, are that they’re facing the barriers that they’re facing that those with privilege that often are at university can help and support. I’m also trying not to land on my face. as some white dude going like what do you need? So I don’t know if you have any insights on your thoughts on social reproduction as a lens and mutual aid as a form of transformative action?
Chris D 59:24
I’ll respond to this one. Yeah. Yeah. So, so that sounds super promising. And let me see if I understand when you’re talking about a social reproduction lens, the way that I understand that is taken up. So the concept of social reproduction being how do people go about daily caring daily and nightly, caring for one another, and producing ourselves as available to continue working and living together in society. And of course, social reproduction is a term that comes a lot out of the Marxist feminist tradition for thinking about, generational reproduction of people and reproduction of people everyday, being able to work and that sort of thing. So am I understanding correctly in terms of how you’re thinking about social reproduction? Yeah, so I myself have been really influenced by that approach for thinking about human activity. And I’m particularly interested in the work of care. I think social reproduction is like quite a fancy term that actually in some ways, is just talking about caring labour, or the various forms of caring labour that happen in society that kind of keeps society going, that are often really made invisible by colonial and capitalist relations. Like, that tends to focus on so-called productive labour, which is like labour that’s producing a profit for somebody in a workplace. So I think the question you’re raising, if I understand it, is about applying that kind of approach to thinking about mutual aid efforts, as organised by activists and organising communities. And to me, I mean, maybe some of you have read read Dean Spade’s, recent book mutual aid, which is, I think, a really super interesting intervention into thinking about some of these questions. I think this is actually a really rich and important topic for investigating right now. Because people have been starting up mutual aid initiatives all over the place, right, particularly in the context of the pandemic, but actually, mutual aid infrastructure, as part of movements has a really, really long history, particularly in, in and among people who have been have faced some of the most violence and exclusion. So I think this is a great, great thing to get into, I think the question in terms of doing research, that is, in some way movement led, that gets at these topics, is I think, does raise questions around. Well, how do you figure out what will be useful for people who are doing some of the mutual aid organizing work, right. And I think there’s different ways to approach that, but I do think it’s really worthwhile to have some open ended conversations, particularly with people that you hopefully have been able to build some kind of trusting relationships with around what’s going to be helpful here, like what’s gonna help build deeper collective analysis, what’s gonna help people to identify some of the perhaps major challenges that they’re encountering? And then think about how to circumvent some of those challenges? And even identifying, I think, questions that no one has good answers for right now, in that work can potentially be useful, particularly if that’s part of a conversation with people who are directly engaged in doing that work. So anyways, those are just some kind of general thoughts in response to your question.
Jen Gobby 1:03:49
Thanks, Chris. We’re gonna go to the next question. Thanks for your question, Nicholas. So the next one is about methodology. I’m going to paraphrase it a bit. This person Pelin is asking if you could talk a bit more about how you go about facilitating a process of deciding on methods together when you’re working with movements in a way that keeps the options open, and not just our conventional research methods that might be the obvious ones.
Chris D 1:04:17
Yeah. Thank you for that question. That’s, actually, I think, a really important one as well. So one thing is that you can’t always have a completely like fully participatory collaborative process around deciding on methods. Depending on what your circumstances are, you may already be locked into a particular kind of set of methods for what you’re doing. Whether that’s like you’re already engaged in talking to people, you’re already trying to interview people. That means that you’ve actually already embraced a particular methodological approach. or maybe at the request of an organisation, you’re doing some Information Act requests, like Jen mentioned earlier, right? That means that you’re taking a particular methodological approach that’s about trying to investigate what’s actually happening within the state, within some of these people who compose the state. So I think I, but then, of course, there are circumstances where you may be able to build trusting relationships with a group of people, and from the get go have a conversation that’s like, hey,I’m interested in doing research with you, what would be helpful here? And then you could talk together perhaps, about how you might want to do that and how other people could feel invested in doing that work together. So I think there are different kinds of circumstances for different people. But I think across all of those, the main thing that you can do, as a researcher with a commitment to working with movements, is to try to keep talking about it. Keep open the possibility for critically discussing what you’re doing, and remaining open to questions, even questions that may up end some of what you’re doing or how you’ve been doing it. To the extent that you might realise that actually, you might need to redo something a certain way, or actually, the particular way or approach that you have been using methodologically might be exposing people to harm in some way. You know, I do think there’s something to be said here about a trauma informed approach to thinking about research as well, that doesn’t reinscribe harms and traumas that people have experienced in the past. But so the point is, I don’t have a formula for you on that. I think it’s more a question of how you build relationships, and keep open the possibility for reassessment as you’re doing things.
Jen Gobby 1:07:18
If I may, I wouldn’t mind chiming in on that one. So one thing we’ve been doing with Research for the Front Lines is having a very, very clear line, that the community or movement folks that we’re doing research with, are the main decision makers – all the way through from the research question through the main methods choice. And sometimes the researchers, one of the things they’re tasked with is to find out what some possible methods that could be useful are. And then being able to say, here are some options. What do you think? So I have found that very clarifying. Instead of sort of wondering how we do this together, just having a very clear, clear position that the movement or community folks are the decision makers at all times. I found that really useful. But at the same time, there’s a lot of power in which methods you bring to the table as options, and what you might not know about, what you might be missing or not considering. So we need to be thinking about that too. And constantly wondering, what we might be leaving off the table. There’s my two cents. And the next question for you, Chris is a two part question from Antonio. Where have you seen this go bad? Do you have any examples of research, it’s set out with an intention to work collaboratively with a movement, but then it failed. Failed in that intention? And the second part is how have you dealt with the personal tension of being embedded in a movement as a researcher, but not explicitly being a member of them?
Chris D 1:09:06
So I have so many anecdotes of research that’s gone bad. And I actually don’t really want to try and single out any, any particular researcher on this. I just, I mean, a lot of the things that kind of came flooding into my mind in reflecting on that question are stories I heard from activists who are not the researchers, after the fact about a book coming out, for example, that quoted them as saying something or or describe some activity that they were involved in, and they were like, they never asked me if they could talk about this. And now it’s public record, right? Now I’m being portrayed as saying this thing or doing this thing or sometimes even published work that has recounted discussions within organisations, where the researcher didn’t actually ever check to see if it was okay to share those discussions. So that I mean, that’s like a particular kind of way that research can go bad when it basically is sharing information or portraying people in a particular way they never consented to. And that can be that they’re being portrayed in ways that actually don’t accurately represent them. Or it can be that they’re being portrayed or described in ways that may accurately represent them, but actually endanger them in some way, or undermine their objectives. So that’s one way, I think that research can go bad. I’ve also seen examples of people who’ve done quite principled research, and really try to be very ethical. And then at the stage when they had to turn it into a thesis, or a journal article, or something, completely cut off contact, because they just didn’t know how to then navigate the space of turning what was very kind of collaborative work into something that fit within the expectations of what that final piece of work would be. And then there was a lot of discord and conflict, around that final product, because there had actually been a pretty good process, but then that process was quite severed from the final outcome. And I understand the kinds of academic pressures that produce that. But I think that is another way that research can go badly, right, and can be actually really damaging to those attempts at building accountable relationships, can really undermine them in significant ways. There’s, there’s other examples too, but those are some of the things that come to mind, most prominently for me, as research that can go bad.
And then I’m trying to remember the second part of this question? Oh, right, the personal tension. So this, this is another thing where, where I feel like I should not sugarcoat it, it’s actually really difficult, I think, to do movement based research, when you are not explicitly a member of a movement. It’s actually much simpler, when you do have some shared political history, you have been in some way engaged in the struggle, even if just in us in a kind of consistent supportive role, it is much easier, I think, because you have the basis, to be able to build some trust and some relationship, it’s actually a lot harder to in some way be embedded, but not explicitly be a member of a movement. It’s actually a lot more work to build that kind of trust. And it takes longer, frankly, because you have to establish a track record as someone who is going to be trustworthy, who’s actually going to follow through, and is open to being accountable for what you’re doing. So in the kind of research that I’ve done, I’ve always worked on doing research with movements that I’ve been involved in before. And that’s the way that I’ve evaded that challenge. To do otherwise, I think it’s totally possible. I’ve seen examples of it, I have people who mentored me, who became involved in movements, as they were doing research on those movements. But it took a long time for them to get to the stage where they had some real trust, and a basis for collaboration. And part of that, as Jen, I think you really explicitly and helpfully pointed out was about being really open to people saying like, no, this isn’t this is not how it should go. Or I want to know what the other options are here.
Jen Gobby 1:14:25
Thank you for that question, or those two questions, Antonio. Now, it’s Bengis turn.
I don’t know how exactly to frame this and I don’t want to sound cynical or pessimistic, but I also kind of would like maybe Jen to to jump in or anyone to jump in. It’s more kind of my way of dealing with some of these issues rather than a question. But, so Chris, you started by mentioning or like outlining how there are different kinds of research that are being done. And there’s also kind of research that is done by movements. Maybe that’s in my mind there’s knowledge created through movements by movements. And what I’m trying to kind of grapple with as a researcher, and as someone who’s involved in multiple movements, not necessarily as a researcher is, but at the end of the day, yes, there are different ways of creating knowledge or doing research. But at the end of the day, the one that we do as academics attached to institutions are the ones that get codified as research. There is a hierarchy between different knowledges that are created, according to who does it, where it’s done and the kind of form it takes, as you kind of also mentioned in different ways, but, um, so I think like, we have kind of that we are the researchers and like, how do we were, I think that what we should be doing is more decentering the research we do or the the research that is attached to institutions. So I kind of guess what I want to know is like, How do you? How does anyone here, but mostly Chris, and maybe Jen? And yes, I mean, Kobe is mentioning Aziz who passed away last year as very eloquently and very systematically writing on activist knowledge all throughout his life. And he was a good friend of mine, too. And as he was probably of many people here, so how we do movement led research, especially if we are attached to institutions, or like institutionalised spaces of academia, while also kind of trying to de-centre the Research with capital R? And like, Chris, when you were mentioning about the research needs, and like a Power Map, for instance, or like, what drives like gentrification in downtown Toronto, in my experience, the movements that I’m in, they pretty much know, what’s happening, where it’s rooted, through the knowledge that they created, not only by moving together, so they created about organising, but also they’re very much aware of the systemic roots of like these things. It’s just they’re not taken seriously. And they need a researcher like me, or an academic or a professor to actually, sometimes go into court and testify, hey, this is what’s happening. So I mean I think there’s like, that’s kind of the conundrum. How do I keep doing this, but while also actually trying to kind of give more legitimacy and power to the knowledge that is created outside of academic spaces? How do you deal with this is my first question the second question, I think, if you can comment on, because you mentioned what you were most interested in, was kind of this collective knowledge created in movements and how we work together to sharpen the tools of organising, as you said, so can you comment on that… is there anything concretely you can tell us that would like maybe inspire us too?
Chris D 1:18:49
Those are big questions from Bengi. Thank you for those. And I should say, too, I just really appreciate all of these questions and I don’t think that I have definitive answers to any of this stuff. I’m happy to share some beginnings of thoughts with you. But I hope this is a conversation that we can continue in various ways as well. And you should never trust anyone who tells you that they have it all figured out, particularly when it comes to research on movements, if they do, they’re also lying to you. And so on the conundrum that Bengi just mentioned. I really appreciate you kind of focusing specifically on that kind of capital R research and particularly the way that there are certain kinds of roles in our society that get set up as the legitimate capital R researchers and certainly professors, right academic professors, but also certain kinds of other folks too, right? People who run like I live in Ottawa, right? So there’s like, oh, a layer of people who work in national level think tanks and policy institutions who are seen as legitimate researchers, these are the people that journalists quote, in addition to government officials, right. They’re all seen as experts. So yeah, I think there is a real question there around what do we do with that kind of official capital R research or expertise? And I think that that’s a different question. Or that question has different answers, to some extent, based on who we are and how we’re situated. Because for one thing, like not all of us here are professors, like a lot of folks are students and don’t have access to the same kind of forms of social legitimacy. But I think if we do have access to that kind of legitimacy, we can think about how to enlist it strategically at times, in the hands of organisations and campaigns. And I think that there are, there are times when organisations and campaigns make really smart strategic choices about trying to have a capital R researcher sort of put out something to support what they’re doing with the recognition that in our society as it’s currently structured, that’s what’s going to get attention. That’s what’s going to get legitimacy. And at the same time, I think we can resist getting too wrapped up in taking on that role or feeling that legitimacy like so always relating to it in an opportunistic way. Not in a way that’s kind of like as an operator or as a career builder. So recognising Okay, for the strategic purposes of this campaign, because people are asking me to fulfil this role, I’ll step up and be this pretend capital R Researcher, recognising that it’s based in a particular set of social relations. And that, of course, that other people have just as much important expertise to bring to bear on this.
I think part of the antidote for that is in our daily practice, avoiding having the only thing we do be research, avoiding having the the only movement work we do be research, right like, because in fact, some some of the people that I know and love who are academic intellectuals, who have been very committed to movements, the most valuable work they have done has not been writing about those movements, has not been doing research for those movements. It’s been doing some of the like nitty gritty, daily work of setting up meetings, facilitating things, being engaged in direct action, taking care of people, moving resources, fundraising of various kinds, right, like stuff that’s like, Super, thank you, Mike, baking cookies. Stuff that’s actually in some ways behind the scenes, but is just as vital. So I think that’s part of decentering it too is sometimes opportunistically. Oh, Kobe says coach check at activist events, right on yeah, there are so many ways, right. And that’s part of actually engaging in a movement, which means we all do all of the work, we share it in various ways, right. And rather than having these kinds of specialised roles, and then we make explicit decisions, when we take up those specialised roles, to further strategic aims, but in discrete kinds of ways, I think that it’s possible to work through that conundrum. And in that way, it’s not easy. I think it’s, there’s always a tension there.
So the second question that Bengi asked was about the building kind of collective reflection, which, as I mentioned it’s like something that’s really close to my heart. And me and actually, Doug Bevington, who is on the Zoom call right now, a whole bunch of years ago, when we were angry graduate students, wrote an article where we basically criticised a bunch of the existing scholarship on social movements. And one of the things we brought in – this concept that we called movement-relevant theory. Part of the argument we made in that article that I really stand by today, (I’m really glad that we dug into this together) was we talked about movement-generated theory, right? We said, look, there’s all this stuff that gets called theory, particularly in academic discourse. But in fact, if you spend any time in a movement, you’ll see that people are constantly theorising. They’re constantly coming up with new ideas, new ways of understanding things, of critically assessing the circumstances and the terrain of struggle that they inhabit. And of course, every movement has its own internal conflicts and debates and fights about things, which are also a part of movement generated theory. And so, I mean, I feel like basically, anytime that we’re trying to do research with movements, that’s actually about how people are organising, like what we’re doing. That should always be the starting point- what is the existing movement generated theory? What are the questions and debates and ideas that people are already engaged in producing? And I mean, this is something you know, the radical historian Robin Kelly, often talks about, particularly in his lovely book, Freedom Dreams – one of the most gorgeous things that movements create is new ideas and new visions. And I really do feel like that’s an excellent starting point, for a lot of research.
Now, that’s not necessarily a useful starting point for when we’re trying to research our enemies, when we’re trying to research ruling institutions. But I think it can actually still serve as a kind of grounding for us, even as we do other kinds of research that are, in some ways, much less uplifting. I mean, I’ll give you one final example of this, which is my collective here in Ottawa, Punch up. We spent the last year going through city reports to learn about all the complaints against the Ottawa police services to try to understand how much damage they are doing in our city. How do they account for that? And of course, their accounting is profoundly limited. But it was research that was really quite devastating, because it’s all about the cops hurting people in the place where I live. And for me, that was important, that felt like an important contribution to the defund campaign in this city to be able to look at some of these complaints and how the cops evade any accountability or criticism. But for me, it was important to keep coming back to the movement generated theory that’s coming out principally from the Movement for Black Lives. Saying, look, there’s another whole possible way that we could be living that doesn’t require this carceral state. And to me, that was kind of the compass that helped me through what was otherwise some like pretty just demoralising research.
Jen Gobby 1:28:00
Okay, folks, it’s time for thank yous and goodbyes. I want to start by thanking you, Chris, so much for spending this time, for sharing some of the insight and knowledge you’ve built over the years of doing this kind of work. Thank you so much for being here. It’s really appreciated.
Chris D 1:28:19
And I just, I just really want to thank you and everyone else again, for joining the conversation today. I wish we were all in one big room together so that we could actually do a solidarity clap, or some other cheesy exercise. But it’s really been a joy to talk about these things. I hope we have opportunities to continue some of these conversations.
Jen Gobby 1:28:41
Yeah, let’s let’s do it. Research with the front lines is aiming to host an event once a month. So last month, we talked to Kevin Welby. This month, we’re talking to you, Chris. And so we’re open to ideas for other events that help build our capacities, our collective capacities to do this kind of research in service of transformative movements or with transformative moments. So thank you so much to Bengi and to Jacqueline and Christiana and others who helped us put this together and to everyone who showed up into the folks who asked the questions. I’m sorry to the folks whose questions we couldn’t get to you. Yeah, keep in touch and keep up the good work everyone.