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Between research and activism: The role of ‘organic intellectuals’

Once an activist, always an activist. This maxim seems to prevail even when one enters the world of research and academia, marked by its ostensible “objectivity” and “neutrality”. I started as an activist and ended up – for now at least – in academia. However, in my research experience, both through field visits as well as in the theoretical component of my current work, I don’t seem to let go of the activist constituent in me; that drive towards making a difference, even if it is on a small scale.

I have pondered many times whether and how the two worlds can merge in praxis exactly, if at all. Not only because in academia we are taught about the principles of “objectivity”, but more importantly because academia, inevitably, has a tendency to push one towards becoming an “armchair” researcher. This, at times, has instigated a feeling of being stripped away from the actual world one is trying to understand, analyze, and ultimately change, which in turn has led, occasionally, to a sense of skepticism not experienced during my years as an activist. Are the two spheres really so different from one another? Or do the theoretical and empirical components merge to form a praxis that is intended to improve the surrounding conditions?

Such reflections have led me to question the role of researchers as intellectuals, in particular during my field visits to Kabul, Afghanistan. Once in the field, many aspects I had read in methodology books to orient my research seemed to have become rather irrelevant. This is not to question the importance of a sound methodological design. But when one conducts research in a conflict/post-conflict context where, above all else, security concerns become the dominant paradigm, all that seems to matter is the safest way to get to a location where interviewees can be approached, questions can be asked, and answers can be obtained. Despite being a native researcher, equipped with a cultural, socio-political, and environmental compass, I nevertheless found it difficult to find my own position in all this. Where do I stand in relation to those I interview?

I have been researching transitional justice and war victims since 2008. I took a deep interest in this topic because of my own background. Like most Afghans, over decades of conflict I have lost close family members, and before coming to academia in 2005, I served as a full time activist to advocate for human rights and women’s rights in particular. This background has obviously left a deep mark on my engagement with academia, including on my own relationship with the war victims that I’ve been studying. Many questions have come up in relation to this, such as: What exactly is my role as a researcher, who knows the empirical reality of my case study so well? Is there a place for me to represent the victims I interview, and if so, through which means? Does the question of representation even matter in academia or is it something to be left only to the realm of activism? How do victims perceive me as someone who, on the one hand, shares and understands their pain and suffering, and, on the other, as a researcher ought to keep a distance, thus becoming the “other”? Such questions have been whirling in my head ever since I started my research, particularly as a PhD scholar.

What seems, however, to lend itself as a valuable lens through which to reconcile such incongruities is the Gramscian concept of “organic intellectual”. Gramsci, in one of his essays in the Prison Notebooks (written between 1929-1935), discusses the process of the formation of intellectuals and their roles in society. He defines traditional intellectuals as those who see themselves as autonomous and independent from the ruling social group, believing to stand for truth and reason. Organic intellectuals, on the other hand, emerge from and are tied to a social class within an economic structure. As such, they speak for the interests of a specific class or social group.

Gramsci’s proposition challenges the supposed “objectivity” and “neutrality” claimed to exist in academic work, and the argument to fit within the traditional model of intellectual activity. As we know, the academic world is predominantly Western ruled, often serving a particular social group or class. It is perhaps more candid to adopt Gramsci’s notion of the organic intellectual in our academic work, as has, arguably, been pursued by great thinkers such as Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Mahmood Mamdani, Stanley Cohen, and many others who have challenged the dominant, traditional pattern. This approach, perhaps, can also bridge the gap between activism and academia. It provides a venue where scholars, like me, can engage with research in contexts and with people who have predominantly been studied and written upon by outsiders. This way, I see research as a commitment as well as a tool to challenge and change the status quo, as opposed to merely engaging with idealist notions in abstract.

Headline image credit: Kabul by Huma Saeed, used with permission.

Recent Comments

  1. Owen

    Excellent, thought-provoking. Surely it is the “organic intellectual” , emerging from a particular social, economic group, culturally bridging the two worlds, whose research findings will be most influential in bringing about needed change, respected by policy makers because of his her ” origins”‘ which gain the trust of the group under examination, this is particularly relevant to uncovering the myths and deceptions in the context of gender issues, transformational restorative justice. Objectivity , in academia, often extols the top down approaches, we need to support thevGramsci, Chomsky, Cohen model. Huma you explain this elegantly and compellingly. Thankyou

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