It is perhaps Marx’s most oft-quoted piece of wisdom – that while the philosophers had interpreted the world, the point was to change it. Marx’s words were never intended to give the impression, however, that we must choose between understanding the world and changing it; both are absolutely necessary. Still, one could be forgiven for looking at the passivity and servility of most of today’s “philosophers” on the one hand, and the poorly equipped, often very ad hoc, and at times quite ineffective efforts of many social movements to interpret the world on the other, and coming to the conclusion that such a division was inevitable.
Sociology for Changing the World, a collection of essays edited by Caelie Frampton, Gary Kinsman, AK Thompson, and Kate Tilleczek, is a stirring call for us to pay heed to Marx’s original intent: to develop the analytical tools that social movements need in order to understand, and thereby overcome, the challenges we face. The book begins by outlining the basics of an alternative sociology known as institutional ethnography and goes on to describe and further develop a subset thereof called political activist ethnography, an approach that applies the insights of institutional ethnography to moments of confrontation between social movements and the institutions that rule us.
Institutional ethnography takes local, everyday, human experience as its starting point. All of the world that we can ever experience directly is what is right around us. Everything that is done by humanity, from the conquering of nations to getting food from seed to table to the making of revolution, takes its shape only through a multitude of local doings by flesh-and-blood people. Though books and television give us the illusion of being able to escape where we are, the act of consuming them is itself just one more element of us acting in our own local setting. From these truisms, it is a short step to the idea that all of the large-scale labels that we so often treat as being real things – “systems” and “structures” and “organizations” and even “society” as a whole – are abstractions of real, co-ordinated, local doing by real people.
This translocal coordination of doing is often accomplished by regulatory texts (though discourse propagated via other mechanisms can be crucial as well). In this way, local spaces are connected – bathhouse A to bathhouse B, boardroom to shop floor, welfare case worker’s office to provincial cabinet meeting to right-wing think-tank to mainstream news room. Welfare regulations, for example, are turned from words on paper into actions in the real world by bureaucrats employed to do so (who also bring with them the culture of the office they work in, the bad night of sleep they had last night, TV images of who welfare recipients are and how they are to be treated, and so on), which in turn shape the experiences of recipients in coordinated ways. Sociology for Changing the World argues that, by grounding your investigation in those experiences, you can go on to learn about how this coordination happens and how the larger complex of relations that we usually think of as “capital” and “state” have contributed to constructing it.
Because our actions produce the world, the arguments goes, they can also transform it – but only if we know what we’re doing. Political activist ethnography, first elaborated by George Smith in an article entitled “Political Activist as Ethnographer” in the journal Social Problems, takes the insights of institutional ethnography and applies them to moments of collective resistance. It asks what we can learn through our confrontations with ruling regimes in order to be better able to change them through social movement activity.
Smith’s classic example is the struggles of the Right to Privacy Committee against the police raids on gay bathhouses in Toronto in the early 1980s. By starting from the experiences of the men who were arrested and of those who were working to support them, it was possible to understand the texts and activation practices that lead to this oppressive outcome. Moreover, it grounded this understanding in what was actually happening, rather than in the knee-jerk answers proposed by many activists who initially fell into catch-all explanations like “homophobic cops” or “evil Tories.” Both of those things may have been operative, but they function as labels rather than as materially grounded explanations for events. Smith argued that by mapping out the relations of ruling it was possible to orient the movement towards making changes that might actually shift the everyday/everynight experiences of gay men in Toronto. Specifically, Smith points out that the bath house raids were made possible by Criminal Code legislation that could be challenged and changed. Today, this insight sounds self-evident. But it is important to remember that, at the time of the raids, the only gay organizing around the law took the form of attempts to extend Charter language to include sexual orientation.
Sociology for Changing the World begins by introducing some of the necessary background. George Smith’s foundational essay is reprinted and several practitioners share useful reflections on political activist ethnography. There are also seven original studies in the book. Three focus on methodology, including a fascinating examination of the role of direct action as a tool for research, a discussion by a long-time Toronto anti-poverty activist of the kinds of research that a movement of and for poor communities would want to do, and an initial outline of how political activist ethnography might be used in combination with ideas from autonomist Marxism to map out relations of ruling and social relations of struggle at a global level. The other four essays, oriented more towards practical application, consider topics like the regulation of gender from the standpoint of female-to-male transsexuals in Quebec and the plight of workers in the Canadian garment industry in the face of work restructuring and globalization.
The book concludes by looking at future directions that these streams of sociology might take, and the ways in which social movements might take up research practices to make themselves more effective in changing the world. Overall, it is very successful in pushing discussion of knowledge production by and for social movements into important new territory.
There are several areas where the discussion of the underlying ideas could be more thorough, though I appreciate that the intent is more to concentrate on application by social movements than on theoretical elaboration. One area that could have stood further discussion is the way that institutional ethnography and political activist ethnography theorize standpoint. Because institutional ethnography insists on understanding knowledge as social and reflexive rather than subjective, standpoint is not treated as an essential character of particular people or classes of people, as it is in certain other approaches that use the same word, but rather as a shareable and shared space that is socially produced. Therefore you can, in practicing institutional ethnography, talk about exerting deliberate effort and taking up a standpoint that you might not otherwise be seen as occupying based on your everyday/everynight experiences. This is not a question of “knowing how it feels” to be who you are not, but of being able to participate in processes that begin from the communication of experiences by those who have them and proceed to generate knowledge about how those experiences were socially produced – and then taking action based on that knowledge. To a certain extent, I understand the anti-oppression concept of “being an ally” to be something akin to this – grounding one’s politics, at least in part and in accountable ways, on knowledge coming out of everyday/everynight experience which you do not yourself share firsthand.
In some places in the book, unfortunately, talk of “taking up a standpoint” occasionally seems too simplistic. I could not help but think of Sherene Razack’s essay “The Gaze from the Other Side” in her book Looking White People in the Eye, where Razack talks in practical terms about what happens when people in various settings communicate stories of oppression they have experienced. She concludes that our individual histories of privilege and oppression shape how we can enter spaces of shared knowledge creation. She does not call for a return to simplistic, essentialist ideas of identity or purely subjective epistemologies, but suggests, rather, that it is crucial that we explore what we bring with us when we enter such spaces. While Sociology for Changing the World does include a dialogue between two practitioners of institutional ethnography, discussing, among other things, some of the practical difficulties related to “taking up a standpoint” (Eric Mykhalovskiy and Kathryn Church, “Of T-Shirts and Ontologies”), I think it is critical for movements seeking to adopt political activist ethnography to explore these questions further.
Sociology for Changing the World opens up an exciting potential for embedding political activist ethnography into our social movement practice. The book’s editorial collective is quite explicit that it does not intend the project to be some sort of final word or “how to” guide, but rather as an intervention in what should be a lively and interesting process of action, experimentation, reflection, and discussion among activists, researchers, and activist/researchers. In fact, it is a shame that the book was not able to provide more concrete examples of this. George Smith’s reprinted essay presents fascinating material that is both methodological and concrete, and is clearly grounded in actual organizing by an actual social movement, and the three more methodological essays do take promising steps to apply their insights to the practicalities of struggle. However, none of the four essays that focus more on concrete application – as good, useful, and interesting as they are – did as much as they could have in carrying out the book’s provocative call to integrate research and collective struggle.
Of course, implementing more productive approaches for social movements to generate knowledge is not an easy task. Our comrades and allies in the academy face obstacles to doing this kind of work for and with social movements, and the book explores some of the relevant barriers and opportunities. Though such collaboration is important where it can be achieved, I was more intrigued by the possibilities the book opens for those of us who are not academics but who are involved in activism.
As Sociology for Changing the World makes clear, people involved in social movements engage in theorizing all the time, even if we do not often recognize it as such. We have much to gain, however, from making our efforts in these areas more explicit and more deliberate. We do not need to impose whole new vocabularies on our social movement spaces, but we would benefit from learning about the concepts and the practice of political activist ethnography and allowing them to influence how we talk, how we listen, and how we act.
As AK Thompson writes in his essay on the pedagogical aspects of direct action, activists need to break our expectations that knowledge be either objective (relating supposedly neutral “facts” that provide us with “the answer” to some problem or other) or purely subjective (relating personal experience as testimonial) and get into habits of seeing our experiences as a basis for reflexive analysis, for exploring social relations, and for actively knowing. When we try to shut down a summit meeting, when we disrupt a welfare office in support of a recipient’s individual demands, when we go on strike, or even when we are being processed in the police station, we are confronting the people and organizations that rule us. From our experiences, we can learn about how they are organized, and know better next time what to challenge and how to do it.
With Sociology for Changing the World as one of our tools, we can begin as individuals and as collectives to develop habits of mind, habits of listening, habits of talking, and practices within our movements that can refine our efforts at interpreting the world in ways that take us closer to what is, after all, the point: changing it.