engaging contradictions: theory, politics, and methods

This week’s reading establishes the idea of activist research. Hale’s introduction outlines the structure of the book, engaging with the various themes the volume will cover and making a case for activist scholarship. Hale begins by showcasing the contention between traditional scholarship and its positivist, neoliberal, objectivist application and politically aware scholarship, with its dialogical, person-centric collaborative approach. He spends the rest of the introduction countering three arguments against activist scholarship: that it is not methodologically rigorous, that its politics get in the way of its outcomes, and that practice makes for bad theory. Ultimately, Hale’s goal for this book is not that of a roadmap to follow but a provocation to pursue and reclaim scholarship for one’s own truths.

Part I of the book includes chapter 1-3 and covers the conceptions of space within an activist framework. Gilmore engages marginalized people within forgotten spaces by referring to the Malay term desakota which translates to town-country, a space that is neither urban or rural. I grew up in Kern County, where some of Gilmore’s research takes place and can attest to the prison infection the area has experienced over the last 30 years. Nabudere, continues by outlining the movement towards subject-centered research in the global south and describing participatory research approach or PRA and how it was deployed in Africa. Using this work as a compass, the Marcus Garvey Pan-Afrikan Institute was been established to preserve and connect the multiplicity of knowledges, traditional and otherwise, that a place like Uganda supports. Finally, Lipsitz writes to legitimize activist social movements and the knowledge they produce in order to “break the chains and to steer the ship.”

Part II in the book complicates the role of the researcher in activist work, introducing notions of positionality into activist scholarship. Pierre’s piece begins with a pithy observation from a Ghanaian asking her about her research: “[r]ace? [t]hat’s a U.S. problem.” The rest of the chapter goes on to disentangle the role of the researcher in defining the issue under study and how complicated that becomes when studying another culture. Pierre ends by noting the importance of situating knowledge, both one’s own and that of one’s subjects. Costa Vargas’ piece is my favorite in this week’s assigned readings. Very much like quantum physics, Costa Vargas warns against the impossibility of observing without influencing and makes the strongest case for becoming the subject through his research in the Coalition Against Police Abuse (CAPA) and the Community in Support of the Gang Truce (CSGT). Rather than engaging in the traditional participant observation, Costa Vargas inverts the anthropological standby into observant participation, the only way to researching activist groups like these is to become one of them. This piece was my favorite because it dealt with recent history, local politics, and COINTELPRO, a very relatable cocktail of information.


Hale, Charles R., ed. 2008. Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship. 1st ed. University of California Press.

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