From Theorizing in the Ivory Tower to Creating Change with the People: Activist Research as a Framework for Collaborative Action

From Theorizing in the Ivory Tower to Creating Change with the People: Activist Research as a Framework for Collaborative Action

Denisha Jones (Trinity Washington University, Washington, D.C., USA)
DOI: 10.4018/IJAVET.2017040103
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This article provides an overview of activist research and how it is used in various field including anthropology, social movements, and education. It discusses the impetus for incorporating activism into theoretical frameworks and research methodologies and the distinct aspects of activist research. Youth participatory action research is examined to identify how activist research can be situated into the methods and outcomes.
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What Is Activist Research?

As someone who identifies as an activist-scholar, I was eager to learn if other researchers embraced activist research, why they made the choice, and how they went about it. Like most academics, I was taught to strive for objectivity, root out researcher biases, and distance myself from the participants I studied to ensure the validity of my work. As I became more engaged in grassroots advocacy and activism, I found traditional education research limiting and less appealing. Although the shift from positivism to critical social justice oriented research gave me the strength I needed to finish my doctoral studies, it still felt as though activism should be disconnected from research. Perhaps activism could be a party of my service, but my scholarship should be based on “real” research. This thinking led me to stray from doing any research and focus on my activism, until I decided to investigate if others had found a way to bridge their activism with their research.

It turns out that there is an emerging research framework—activist research—that is inclusive of multiple disciplines including educational research (Cushman, 1999; DeMeulenaere & Cann, 2013; Fine & Vanderslice, 1992; Knight, 2000; Malone, 2006; Nygreen, 2006), anthropology (Hale, 2006; Speed, 2006; Urla, & Helepololei, 2014) social movements and other social science research fields (Chatterton, Fuller, & Routledge, 2007; Choudry, 2014). A review of the theoretical frameworks, methodologies, findings, ethical issues, and challenges has allowed me to identify three characteristics that delineate activist researcher from other types of research: (1) combination of knowledge production and transformative action; (2) systematic multi-level collaboration; and (3) challenges to power. The rest of this paper will explore how each characteristic is utilized in activist research. Next, I will review two youth participatory action research studies to provide an example how they utilized an activist research framework, and a third youth participatory action research study that does not fit the criteria for activist research. Then I will discuss implications for theory and practice and limitations of using activist research as an emerging methodology. Finally, I will conclude by providing an answer to the original question, what is activist research.

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