Social psychology and politics
Social psychology and politics

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Social psychology and politics

5.3 Scholar activism: An interview with Carolyn Kagan

The term ‘scholar activist’ is used to describe academics who take an explicitly political standpoint in their work. These academics use their work to address the big problems of society, for example, inequality and exclusion. They have an explicit social change agenda and engage in activities like influencing policy or public opinion, or taking part in different forms of social activism (e.g. protest).

Listen to the following short interview, where Carolyn Kagan outlines what it means to be a scholar activist in relation to her own work in liberation psychology. She talks about the importance of including scholar activism in her teaching with students and how universities should use their resources for the betterment of society.

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CAROLYN KAGAN
My name is Carolyn Kagan. I am Professor Emerita of Community Social Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University where I've worked since 1976. My interests are in working with people who are marginalised by the social system in different ways. Around agendas of increases, pursuit of social justice and greater social equality. Those are the areas, in various ways, that I've worked on all my career.
RACHEL MANNING
It would be really useful for you to tell us about how you understand scholar activism and how that relates to your own background?
CAROLYN KAGAN
I think scholar activism from a university perspective is both the same and different from scholar activism outside of the university. At its most simple it's the informed thinking and critical appraisal of social issues combined with strategies and actions that better the social conditions in which people live in pursuit of a social justice goal. There's a very clear goal and purpose. Scholarly activism requires collaboration, it requires partnership, it requires strategic alliances but most importantly it requires critical reflection. I think there's different ways of thinking about scholar activism. I think that we can think about it in terms of ... There is a literature on scholar activism and Rachel Payne describes three types of scholar activism. One is activism that is brought into the university so the research is informed by politics and informs politics. Another is participatory action research that works with people who are in marginalised situations around betterment for their conditions. The third is critical engagement with policy.
They're not mutually exclusive conditions and I would say that those ways of define scholarly activism apply to research. Being a scholar in a university is more than research. I think it's useful to think about what does scholar activism mean for teaching and what does it mean for engaging with other university practices and institutions. There's a bit of a tendency in the literature in some of the discussions for scholar activists to bemoan the difficulties of working in a neo liberal university. Yes it's difficult and yes it needs to be challenged but those very challenges and those who are working both within and against some of those near liberal processes are part of scholar activism.
I think there's something else to say about community collaborative research because it's within from universities there's why would you do it? It's not the easy option? That comes down again to it's almost like the moral position of the university. The question is to what extent the university resources, human, material, financial sometimes, to what extent are they used for the betterment of society directly. Not just indirectly through academic work. There's the idea of the engaged university and of engaged scholarship where a question to ask all the time is whether you're doing teaching or whether you're doing curriculum design or whether you're doing research, is there a way of doing this in a collaborative way that you can achieve whatever you're trying to achieve within the university but you're also benefiting collaborative partners. One of my areas that I would say of scholar activism is to work within the university to try and get the university systems to be more engaged. It's working both in and against the university but saying, "We need university commitment, we need university systems, we need systems of recognition for this kind of work, not just for publication in peer review journals. We need to get this kind of work recognised in workload management. All sorts of university systems.
I've been doing that since the 1970s with varying degrees of success. Very successful I the early 80s and then that whole system disintegrated as senior management changes within the university and other priorities come on. Quite successful in the 2000s and then that system disintegrates. The last thing that I've been doing in the university is again another process of involving people in the community to say what's needed for access to university resources so what's needed in the university to support that. Those different cycles of engaged university over time are interesting in terms of learning about the importance of context again. The policy context for universities is different in the 70s and in the 90s and in the 2000s and now. In some ways in the 70s, 80s it was much more difficult. There were no policy contexts that enabled you to spend time outside the university sitting in people's back rooms drinking tea developing trust. You're witnessing their lives which as a former scholar activism I can look them up in a moment if you like.
Now there's the impact of research agenda. Social impact of research everybody's jumping around like cats on a hot tin roof to think how they can maximise the impact of their research. I'm not suggesting that we play right into those artificial and target driven ways of allocating resources to universities and universities competing with each other. We can use some of the interest in those agendas to open the university to my agendas, to social justice agendas, to collaborative work with communities, to communities making demands of universities and using university resources and expertise in ways that aren't just situating the knowledgeable university people versus the ignorant external people. The boundaries are much more permeable that that.
The key to any kind of scholar activism has to be a commitment to reciprocity and mutuality that it's about combining different life worlds and different bodies of knowledge and of thereby enhancing both sides. One of the things about, just coming back to social movements, when I think of scholar activism in terms of some of the big social movements and activist movements, we're not talking about different life worlds. It's the same people, the educated elite running a lot of the campaigning groups. What is much more interesting, I think important, that work's important but the work that we're doing in community psychology more is working with the people who have different world experiences, different knowledge bases.
The knowledge that people who've had their children taken into care, and who are alcoholic and living poverty and maybe victims or survivors of domestic violence or survivors of sexual abuse and living in appalling housing their knowledge is quite different than the expertise knowledge in the universities. It's a real challenge to try to work across that boundary. It's a useful boundary and I think if there's a commitment to reciprocity and sharing it can benefit both parties, even to the degree that one project that we were involved with which wasn't a defined project, it was just something that we did over a long period of time was working with a group of women who lived on marginal estates. Every now and then they'd be talking and then I'd say something like, "Oh that's rather similar to what we'd call the psychological sense of community." They'd say, "Oh what's that?" You'd explain what that is and the next thing is they'd send me a copy of a letter that they'd written to the youth service to get some footballs over the summer period and saying, "What we're trying to develop here is a psychological sense of community." They're absolutely convinced that that got them their footballs.
Equally some other work that we did with the same group of women around, this must've been around housing, and this was the time when there was council house sell offs. We didn't do much work but we wrote about some of the tensions that there were for residents in those campaigns. We wrote a report about it and filed it and they said, "This report is too interesting for you to just hold on to. Give us 20 copies." They sent them to all sorts of different people of influence. To the press, we've always found it really difficult to get the press interested in anything that we're doing but if they sent it to the press they're interested. To some of the trade magazines like Housing Today and things like that. Sent it all sorts of different places and over the years, literally maybe 15 years later I might get a phone call saying, "I need another copy of that paper because there's someone else that needs to see it."
In terms of pursuing our agenda of dissemination of knowledge and the rest of it, collaborative work can be really helpful. Now they're doing this because it's helpful to them which is of course the purpose of it but there are mutual gains.
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