Possibilities for Engaged Scholarship

I’ve been thinking lately about engaged and other forms of participatory scholarship and how it might apply to the work that we’re doing at Civic Paths.  Engaged scholars are intentional in crafting a relationship with their work that includes a dedication and involvement with their subject matter; the scholar admits to becoming a stakeholder rather than attempting to remain objective and uninvolved.  This kind of framing connects to a trend in qualitative methods where scholars deeply consider the potential impact of their work, and attempt to challenge the power dynamic that appears to so starkly distance researchers from their subjects.  By engaging with participants in this way, researchers can also begin to employ different notions of traditional concepts like validity and voicing.  For instance, new knowledge and findings can be validated by the participants, rather than just the researcher, and the voices of the participants can be utilized within the writing process alongside the voice of the researcher.

Although our research collective sometimes shies away from discussing our relationship with organizations, it seems that there is a standard default that has been assumed—we are studying and learning from these organizations, and we are not intervening in their work in any way.  Whether or not it is intentional, this assumption upholds the position that we must remain academics, and they must remain practitioners, and that a divide exists between the two.  I would like us to question these assumptions, for a number of reasons.  First, our process of growing knowledge and developing insights about how young people become civically engaged via participatory culture could be strengthened by a sense of collaboration and reflexivity, rather than assuming the traditional posture of the (knowing) academic and the (unknowing) subject.  Although I don’t feel that anyone actually believes that academics are superior to practitioners, we still need to consider the implications of choosing conduct our research in a traditional fashion.  Given the unique relationships that we already have with these organizations (for instance, that we present together at academic conferences), it seems natural to begin to question our own methodologies.  Moreover, it is safe to say that we already are stakeholders in the project of helping young people to become civically engaged—we have a firm opinion on the matter, which is that our society is improved when more people are civically engaged, and so we are invested in learning about this process so that we can find new ways to encourage others to do the same.

In my own work with the organizers at Racebending.com, I have found many similarities between myself and those that I study.  With regard to research interests, we are both curious to know how to best utilize the energy and passion of fans toward a political movement.  We both want to know what has been more successful and what has been less successful, and how we can move forward from here.  With regard to method, we both consult professors and previous scholarship in order to educate ourselves about things like how Asian Americans have been represented in the media, and how the media impacts children.  We are both interested in statistically surveying the participants at Racebending.com (although they do not have to pass through the IRB in order to do so), and in general want to know as much as possible about the reasons people have for joining and becoming active members.

Given that we share so much, it has made sense for me to approach my work with this group in a more participatory, collaborative fashion than traditional social sciences or humanities methods.  Although plenty of articles have been written about the difficulties of such partnerships and the inequalities that remain even in doing so, I still think there is valuable ground to be gained in the effort—if nothing else, to  actualize my commitment to queering research methodologies and boundaries within academic institutions.  I have shared my own thoughts and analyses about their organization in my academic writing, including critiques and questions that the leaders may not have come to on their own.  But they have also been able to push back–to explain themselves, to reflect, or to simply accept that we are each entitled to seeing the group through our own lenses and frameworks.  I’m not saying that we reached any great understanding or that our partnership amounted to positive change, but I do think that realizing and acknowledging our overlapping goals helped both of us to reconceptualize the processes of both research and activism.

With regard to Invisible Children, I am reminded of the way that individuals within the organization have repeatedly talked about their own difficulties in negotiating power dynamics.  For them, their identity as a largely white, middle class American organization trying to help children in Uganda can all too easily fall prey to critique from outsiders—Who are they to tell the Ugandans what is best?  How can they truly understand the experiences of another group of people?  Aren’t they just trying to capitalize on the suffering of others?   In their own daily struggles to negotiate their position as an advocacy organization, I see many similarities to the debate that I have outlined above.  In that sense, I think that this conversation about who has the ability to theorize, speak widely, and impact social change would be of particular interest and resonance to them and other like-minded organizations.

Although this kind of work can be challenging and suffers from a unique set of problems, these are questions that I know our research group is ready to engage with.  I am excited to see what possibilities we can imagine for conducting our work in a way that is beneficial, forward-thinking, and honest to all parties.