An interview with Jan Blommaert on research and activism


Jan Blommaert 

Responses to a survey on this topic, March 2015 (courtesy Tina Palivos & Heath Cabot).

How would you define or describe research  and social action? Tell us a little bit about your background and your experience in both of these areas.

JB: Research is social action; the fact that the question separates both presupposes “social action” as an “abnormal” aspect of research, while research is always and inevitably social action: an action performed in a real social environment, and infused with elements from a preceding state as well as leading to effects in a posterior state.

The question, rather, would thus be which specific type of social action research would be, and I understand your question as pertaining to what one could call “activist research”, i.e. research that is critical of existing social relations and attempts, at least within the boundaries of research, to amend or alter them, usually in favor of a more equitable or balanced idea of social relations.

Such activist research, I would argue, takes sides in the sense that, based on a preceding analysis of social relations, researchers decide to side with the weakest party in the system and deploy their research in an attempt to provide that weaker party with new intellectual tools for addressing their situation. These tools can be self-analytic – to provide an accurate analysis of the situation of systemic inferiority in which the group is placed – or general-analytic – a critical analysis of the entire system with its various positions and challenges; and such tools are invariably discursive: the forms of analysis provide new discursive, argumentative and representational tools.

Briefly describe academic knowledge or know‐how? Activist knowledge or know‐how?

JB: Knowledge is one, the discourses in which knowledge is articulated are the point here. “Activist”, as in the description above, represents a discursive scale level in which “esoteric” academic knowledge is converted into discourses of wider currency (“simpler” discourses, if you wish), without sacrificing the analytical accuracy and power of the academic discourses.

Do you see them as distinct? If yes, how? How do they overlap, if at all?

JB: Note that the function of both discourses is different; while academic discourse is there to circulate in and convince small circles of peers, activist knowledge must circulate in and convince far broader audiences and systems of mediation (e.g. mass media).

In your experience, how do these areas complement each other?

JB: Personally, I could never find sufficient satisfaction in “pure” academic work if it would lack the dimension of advocacy and appeal to broader and more complex audiences. Science does have the potential to change the world, so one should not be satisfied with just changing the academic world alone. As a scientist, we all have a duty towards the power of science: to use it carefully, justly and for the benefit of humanity, not just a small subset of it. Being a scientist, for me, commits us to these fundamental humanistic duties.

In my case, I complemented my “purely” academic oeuvre always with the writing of low-threshold, Dutch-language books (12 or 13 by now), converting research achievements into texts that could be used in grassroots mobilization, professional training or general-interest reading and instruction. This activity comes with a great deal of lecturing and debating for the audiences addressed by the low-threshold books, which is both a lot harder than academic lecturing (academics are usually very civil and polite towards one another), and a lot more rewarding (convincing and changing the minds of an audience of 300 schoolteachers, train drivers or longshoremen gives one a sense of relevance rarely matched by convincing a handful of academics).

For you, what are the tensions or conflicts between activism and academic work that you have come across? What would you do (or have you done) to resolve these conflicts or tensions? 

JB: The conflicts are diverse:

-No real career bonuses can be obtained for “advocacy” work, if it doesn’t come with “purely” academic aspects; a real problem, specifically for junior researchers. In my research group, we also “count” advocacy outputs.

-A permanent battle against stereotypes of the researcher as ivory-tower fellows out of touch with “reality” (we produce “theory” as opposed to “reality”). Easy to remedy: just talk about reality, show relevance in their terms

-Debate is far harder, more violent and sometimes highly unpleasant in the wider public arena; one must be able to withstand brutal public allegations, insults and accusations. It’s not a good place to be in for sensitive souls.

But let me also address the advantages and benefits. In my experience, a connection between research and activism improves research. If you wish to solve one single real-world problem of one single individual, you quickly discover the inadequacies of our toolkits and the demand to come up with better and more precise science. If I have ever made “breakthroughs”, it was because I had a sharp awareness of the fact that someone’s life literally depended on it. Believe me, that is a powerful engine.

What do you think are the most important and necessary ways in which research and social action could be linked, bridged, or integrated?

JB: All science should benefit humanity, general interests rather than specific ones. In methodology, we attempt to achieve this by means of generalization from isolated facts (i.e. theory). And too little is done, in actual fact, to make this mechanism into a general educational principle for all.

Are there any stumbling blocks or concerns you would have around projects that seek to bridge or bring together research and social action, and academic and activist worlds, to create modes of knowledge and collaboration? How might these be ameliorated?

JB: My very first answer addressed the presupposition underlying your question: the fact that “social action” is seen as separate from scientific action, and I see this as a major problem, an “ideology” if you wish, in which research is seen as in itself value-free (“objective”), to which “value” can be added after research, either as hard cash (licences, patents, industrial contracts etc) or as soft capital (impact on the nonacademic field, as it’s called nowadays). It is a crazy assumption which denies the fundamental sociological given of research: that it is, like any social action, a historically, socioculturally and politically situated activity. I always ask the question “why now?” when addressing research questions – how come we find this a researchable question here-and-now and not, for instance, in the 1970s of 1990s? The real answer to this question leads us into an analysis of scientists as people addressing problems from within a subjective position, defined only partly by “objective” facts of science and far more by the concrete social positions from which they attack questions and problems.

This is clearest (while often least understood) when we talk about research funding. There is a strong suggestion that external money is “neutral” in the sense that it does not pre-script research. In actual fact, it does script it substantively. If the EU opens a funding line on a particular topic, think of “security”, this funding line incorporates the current interests and needs of the EU (combating terror and transnational crime, for instance), excluding others (e.g. not combating these things). The “priorities” defined in such funding calls are always someone’s priorities, and rarely those of the scientists themselves. Scientists have to adjust to them, and this means that they have to adjust to subjective positions defined by funding bodies, within which they can then proceed to do “objective” research.

It is this myth about research – that it is in itself only “good” or “excellent” if and only if it is “value free” – that poisons the debate and the climate on science and society these days. It enables scientists to escape their accountability for what they are doing, and denies them the dialogue on effective social effects of which they should be very much part.



Author: jmeblommaert

Taalkundig antropoloog-sociolinguist, hoogleraar Taal, Cultuur en Globalisering aan Tilburg University. Politiek publicist.

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