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Movement Knowledge

When people come together to struggle for justice and dignity, they frequently produce some of the most vital and innovative ways of understanding themselves and the world. Robin Kelley puts this well in Freedom Dreams: “Social movements generate new knowledge, new theories, new questions. The most radical ideas often grow out of concrete intellectual engagement with the problems of aggrieved populations confronting systems of oppression.”

This is something I love about movements: at their best, they create ways of doing and thinking that point beyond taken-for-granted ideas and toward visionary possibilities. Consider, for example, the successes of feminist struggles over the last half-century in politicizing parts of social life that were previously considered “personal,” such as sexual violence, intimate relationships, housework, and child-rearing. Or, to take another example, consider how prison abolitionists are creating approaches for reducing harm and creating community safety that don’t rely on cops, courts, or incarceration.

In highlighting the capacities of movements to generate knowledge, I don’t believe I’m making a novel or controversial point. In fact, I think it’s a pretty obvious one. Most people who have spent time in movements have experienced collective forms of learning, research, and analysis, even if no one used those sorts of terms to describe what was happening.

But it turns out that this point is controversial in many scholarly contexts, where the reigning assumption is that academic intellectuals are the ones who come up with the most important ideas about the world. In “Stupidity ‘Deconstructed,’” Joe Kadi points out that this assumption fundamentally rests on “the social lie that poor people are stupid.” It separates out a specialized set of people as the only ones capable of producing knowledge – or at least knowledge of any consequence. And in this way, it reinforces systems of domination, exploitation, and oppression.

I encountered this assumption in graduate school when I was required to read a lot of books and articles in the academic subfield known as “social movement studies.” In Learning Activism, Aziz Choudry tactfully describes much of this literature as showing “a relative lack of attention to, awareness of, and sometimes even condescension toward the processes and practices of learning and producing knowledge in movements.” Put more bluntly, this scholarship mostly ignores or belittles movement knowledge.

Reading that literature, with its self-importance and frequent disregard for actual people in struggle, made me angry. So, my friend Doug Bevington and I began channeling our shared frustration into writing a critique of social movement studies that was eventually published as “Movement-Relevant Theory.” Among other things, we emphasized what we called “movement-generated theory” – the self-reflective activity of people engaged in struggle. We saw this as a modest contribution toward validating movement knowledge in one small corner of academia.

Since publishing that article in 2005, I have regularly encountered people in and around universities – mostly graduate students, but also undergraduates and professors – who are attempting to do relevant movement-based research while facing intense skepticism, and sometimes outright attacks, from supervisors and colleagues. They’re frequently looking for resources to help them justify movement knowledge as a legitimate source for their academic scholarship.

To help, I’ve been actively curating a list of books to share. I suggest these texts not only for their insights into movement-based research, but also for their use as a kind of “citational shield” (i.e., you can cite them to defend your focus on movement knowledge). I include my list here, which I’ll update with new additions as I find them. And beyond these books, I also recommend looking at the work of Convergence, Interface, the Radical Imagination Project, the Research Group on Collective Autonomy/Collectif de recerche sur l’autonomie collective, the Team Colors Collective, and Undercommoning.

On Movement-Based Research:

Aziz Choudry, Learning Activism: The Intellectual Life of Contemporary Social Movements. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.

Aziz Choudry and Dip Kapoor, eds. Learning From the Ground Up: Global Perspectives on Social Movements and Knowledge Production. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Caelie Frampton, Gary Kinsman, AK Thompson, and Kate Tilleczek, eds. Sociology for Changing the World: Social Movements/Social Research. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2006.

Jeffrey Juris and Alex Khasnabish, eds. Insurgent Encounters: Transnational Activism, Ethnography, and the Political. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013.

Charles R. Hale, ed. Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

Stevphen Shukaitis and David Graeber, with Erika Biddle, eds. Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations, Collective Theorization. Oakland: AK Press, 2007.

Examples to Learn From:

Dan Berger, Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity. Oakland: AK Press, 2006.

Douglas Bevington, The Rebirth of Environmentalism: Grassroots Activism from the Spotted Owl to the Polar Bear. Washington: Island Press, 2009.

Andrew Cornell, Oppose and Propose! Lessons from Movement for a New Society. Oakland: AK Press, 2011.

Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che. London: Verso, 2002.

Barbara Epstein, Political Protest and Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Action in the 1970s and 1980s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Deborah Gould, Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Emily Hobson. Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.

George Katsiaficas, The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1997.

Robin Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile. The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.

George Lipsitz, A Life in the Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.

Jenna Lloyd, Health Rights Are Civil Rights: Peace and Justice Activism in Los Angeles, 1963-1978. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Ian McKay, Rebels, Red, Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2005.

Scott Neigh, Gender and Sexuality: Canadian History Through the Stories of Activists. Black Point, NS: Fernwood Publishing, 2012.

Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward. Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.

Francesca Polletta, Freedom Is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Laura Pulido, Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Vision. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Judy Rebick, Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution. Toronto: Penguin, 2005.

Marina Sitrin, Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina. Oakland: AK Press, 2006.

Kimberly Springer, Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968-1980. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

Michael Staudenmaier, Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969-1986. Oakland: AK Press, 2012.

Becky Thompson, A Promise and a Way of Life: White Antiracist Activism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Harsha Walia, Undoing Border Imperialism. Oakland: AK Press, 2013.