The Curious Life of Social Justice in Academia

When we do research, there is no button to press which would dissolve or disavow us from our politics. Our view always comes from somewhere, including our subject-position(s) and a range of other influences we’ve encountered in our lives. The politics of one’s scholarship is not always explicit but remains present, informing our identification with our disciplines and methods. The type of scholar that we identify as can have a name that acts as a shortcut to defining this — feminist, postcolonial, anti-racist, Marxist, critical, engaged — but even those who do not lay claim to these adjectives are informed by more or less embedded politics. These politics influence how scholars contribute to the making and unmaking of worlds through knowledge production, as well as in their teaching, supervision, service, and community engagement. In this chapter, we explore how our scholarly identities and the commitments we make in these activities can create split affinities, leaving dirty traces in our work that are particularly important to recognize and address in social justice work.

To unpack these scholarly identities, we might reflect on the communities benefiting from our research. How does our scholarship in its various forms contribute to their needs and priorities? How do we know? Are we determining the goals of a community on their behalf? Could we discover their priorities and involve them in our work in other ways? Even without another more specific community in mind, we might say that our students are the beneficiaries of our teaching, and our academic discipline or subfield the stakeholders considered in our research. We are all engaged with communities in our work, regardless of the signifiers we affix to our scholarship, because we are always in conversation with ideas, questions, and priorities that have been set within broader academic and institutional communities. Not all of these politics are politicized, but they always come with their own commitments and expectations. Digging these up, unearthing them, is a key part of embracing dirty methods- recognizing but also productive working with the entanglements presented by our research work.

While perhaps the answers to the above questions may seem straightforward for some researchers, others may realize that the commitments presented by their work do not always align. Scholarship with multiple priorities due to engagement with diverse communities, such as arts organizations, advocacy groups, grassroots initiatives, government bodies, and funding institutions (see shifting governance policies and practices), often entails the need to wear many hats and serve several missions. We may come to feel like double agents, toggling split affinities in academic work. While not a spy per se, the double agent must negotiate between diverging priorities and at times what might feel like betrayals, constantly reflecting back on relations of power between their roles, communities, and the agendas they set and operate within. This is inherently a dirty part of our scholarship, but a dimension rarely discussed. Unearthing these split affinities and opening them up for discussion is the goal of this chapter and for dirty methods more generally. Without acknowledgment of the grounds on which we engage in our work, we cannot understand how it is shaped at its core by broader structural forces often beyond our control.

In this chapter, we consider split affinities by looking at social justice research conducted within the contemporary academic climate across international contexts. We present here two case studies focused on distinct digital media practices and communities where we grappled with the utopian impulses of our projects and the banal and at times anti-social justice politics embedded in our working environments. In the first case, we explore a critical feminist research agenda for seeking more inclusivity in digital games and its transformations in international academic settings. In the second, we reflect on the challenges of negotiating risks of co-optation when working with vulnerablized communities such as young refugees. Through these examples, we dig into how social justice is enabled or constrained by split affinities across communities. Through a reflection on encounters with in particular research funding and policy in practice, we explore what institutional forces reveal about the ideal academic research subject as well as the conflicts and tensions underlying this figure. After unearthing the commitments elicited by these specific institutional norms, the chapter examines the challenges posed by these trends for critical media and communication research. Through this consideration of the entanglement of politics, policy, and discourse in relation to academic scholarship focused on social justice, we demonstrate the ways that funding priorities enter into conflict with politicized approaches and perspectives, establishing restrictive new definitions and standards for ‘excellent’ research and creating split affinities for scholars at all levels. We argue that beyond social justice research, the commitments imposed by the defunding of education and cynical instrumentalization of scholarship are dirty realities that must be confronted rather than taken as status quo.

Situating Social Justice in Ambivalent Institutions

The first case study was written when one of us, Alison Harvey, was a permanent academic staff member at the University of Leicester (UoL) in the United Kingdom, which — like many higher education institutions — is a contradictory organization in terms of engaging in social justice work, specifically feminist scholarship. The university was an official partner of the UN in the HeForShe campaign, which according to their home webpage offers “an invitation for men and people of all genders to stand in solidarity with women to create a bold, visible and united force for gender equality”. Yet in 2018 the University appointed in the symbolic leadership role of Chancellor a Conservative MP who once claimed that economic stagnation in the UK can be partially attributed to women’s entry into the university and workplace, leading to a lack of progress for working class men (Prince, 2011). These contradictions are manifested in stark ways in a material sense; UoL has a larger gender pay gap than the sector average, reporting 24.1% mean gender pay gap in 2017, when the sector average was 17.2% (University of Leicester, 2018). At the same time, the institution boasts an area of strength in social justice research, including scholarship on gender, sexualities, critical race theory, critical migration studies, and postcolonial approaches across its College of Social Sciences, Arts, and Humanities. Divergent and at times opposing commitments clearly also characterize academic institutions!

Based on staff expertise in social justice, in 2018-2019 the School of Media, Communication, and Sociology launched an interdisciplinary MA focused on critically-minded social change, a unique degree program that, partially because of its recognition of NGO and community work and experience in entry requirements, resulted in unprecedented recruitment of applicants from diverse backgrounds. In this way, the new program contributes to the so-called ‘widening participation’ agenda in the UK, a longstanding policy critiqued for making simplistic assumptions about how to target those who have previously been excluded from higher education, potentially leading to re-entrenchments of disadvantage and inequality (Thomas, 2001).

Such imperatives are not confined to the UK context and are executed in unique ways across settler colonial academic settings. Canada, for instance, is home to similar agendas seeking a more heterogeneous and racially pluralistic university environment. In the last few years, the focus has been on increasing the number of Indigenous faculty and students on campus (Canel-Çınarbaş & Yohani, 2019). To understand this move, we have to recognize that hegemonic whiteness is embedded in Canada’s universities, which operate on unceded territories. Attention to diversity thus comes about as a direct result of the long history of preferential treatment of white students and faculty members in settler colonial contexts. Frances Henry and Carol Tator urge us to recall the “traditional models that have guided university life for hundreds of years, [which are] based on a social environment that has focused on White Europeans and their new world descendants” (2009, p. 7). This directly translates into the bodies that are present on campuses as well as the norms, values, and practices that created and continue to sustain university cultures and administration, including as Zoe Todd (2018) notes, the hiring of white-passing Indigenous people that sustain a public space saturated by whiteness in the university commons. 

Indeed, whiteness is the universal standard for analyzing educational and social conditions. Roland Sintos Coloma addresses this by critiquing a Maclean’s article from November 2010 entitled ‘Too Asian?’ In a very divisive way, the article focuses on the number of Asians at certain Canadian universities (namely the University of Toronto, University of British Columbia, and the University of Waterloo) alongside the controversial limits that were being imposed by some universities in the United States on Asian applicants. White students interviewed for the article argued that “competing with Asians… requires a sacrifice of time and freedom they’re not willing to make. They complain that they can’t compete for spots in the best schools and can’t party as much as they’d like” (Coloma, 2017, p. 366). Coloma details the historical backdrop to the critical discussion that unfolded in the wake of the article, including political, economic, and social policies that once welcomed Asian migrants to Canada as ‘labouring bodies’ (particularly the Chinese, Indians, and Japanese) but later turned against them by prioritizing Western Europeans as “preferred immigrants, settlers, and citizens” (2017, p. 364). The stereotypes put to work in the Maclean’s article — drawing on white supremacist ideology and imagery embedded within the ‘yellow peril’ and ‘model minority’ narratives (Yu, 2010) — showcase the conditions in which attempts to diversify an otherwise white university takes place. Considering the more contemporary focus on increasing Indigenous presence on Canadian campuses, scholars such as Jennifer C. Nash (2019) have shown how new faculty members quickly realize the differential treatment, workload, and affect they must contend with as an added burden that white faculty members have never confronted, as well as disproportionate reward and security compared to their white, male colleagues (CAUT, 2018; see also Nidhi Subbaraman’s 2020 interview with the creators of the #BlackInTheIvory hashtag). We can thus see a disconnect between questions of representation and redistribution, a disjuncture that can raise challenges with missions to decolonize the curriculum without addressing the labour force in knowledge production. 

With this impurity of university practices and visions in mind, let us return to the context for conducting social justice work in the UK. While the new program at the University of Leicester highlighted the social justice strengths of the institution’s staff and was built on principles of critical feminist pedagogy (Enns & Sinacore, 2005), it still represented a fraught pursuit for its organizers. This is because ultimately the program serves the interests of the marketized university, where every student that enrols represents a significant profit margin and where international students like those applying from the continents of Africa and South America are charged premium tuition fees (in 2020, this was £18,175 compared to the £8,190 paid by Home/EU students). 

In addition, the fact that the development of this MA program represents additional service work for those involved without commensurate reward or recognition supports the argument that feminist labour is often uncompensated, unappreciated, and undervalued while also required for the optics of the institution in the contemporary ‘pro-diversity’ environment (see Ahmed 2012 for an in-depth discussion of how anti-racist feminist scholarship at the university can become about the university itself). Furthermore, a great deal of the planning work on the program, including efforts to construct a uniquely transnational and transformative curriculum, and the creation of an alternative to a dissertation where students can engage in action research with a community organization, occurred in tandem with faculty members across the UK going on strike to protest cuts to staff pensions, all of which are further examples of diverging and conflicting commitments for both those who teach and those who study on these programs. How could we approach teaching social justice in an institution riven by precarity and inequity that materially impacts marginalized groups historically and on an ongoing basis? What does it mean to legitimize social justice practices within university spaces that are more likely to be interested in optics than any active commitment to decolonizing practices or equity? 

As these admissions and deliberative questions demonstrate, reflexivity about agency across working practices is necessary for understanding one’s split affinities in scholarship, contradictions that are uneasy and often impossible to reconcile. Reflexivity, a hallmark of ethnographic approaches and feminist methodologies, requires actors of all sorts to interrogate the fantasies they carry into their work, as well as the agendas they encode into their practices, materials, and technologies (Lather, 1991). However, though there is a healthy body of scholarship on the rise of the corporate, neoliberal, marketized university (Giroux, 2014; Readings, 1997; Hoofd, 2016), and indeed its implications in regards to gender relations and norms (Phipps & Young, 2014; Taylor & Lahad, 2018), gaps remain where academic critique is applied. As Rosalind Gill (2009) argues, despite the turn towards reflexivity in research, there appears to be limits to this practice within the institutions of higher education where we engage in knowledge production, and in particular in areas where vulnerability appears to be too fraught to politicize, a methodological and ethical issue taken up by Tiffany Page (2017) and discussed further in Conclusions. Inspired by conversations about workplace norms in cultural production, Gill explores ‘secrets’ in the university workplace — the reflections we cannot make publicly — including pervasive stress leave, workload creep, and other affective, embodied experiences that she argues need to enter into our conversations about knowledge production. How processes of normalization inflect these experiences is also crucial, particularly as they impact academics differently as a result of their positionality. For example, Nash (2019) criticizes the academy’s relationship to Black women in particular, noting that it “was not designed to celebrate or even support Black women’s intellectual work” (p. 30). As teachers, Black women have to confront students and others who view them from a position of “presumed incompetence” (Nash, 2019, p. 31). These and other such revelations are concerns that white academics must attend to, reflecting on the ways in which they take part in the systems that produce such conditions.

A key example of a pathologizing individualistic framing of collective and institutionalized concerns is that of the oft-mentioned (including without our own reflections here) ‘imposter syndrome’. The idea of ‘imposter syndrome’ derives from psychology research and the concept of Imposter Phenomenon identified in therapy with high-achieving women who felt undeserving of their successes (Clancy & Imes, 1978). Since this work was published, there has been a tendency to understand feelings of fraudulence or lack of belonging as an individual problem, including in higher education (Parkman, 2016), with commensurately individual solutions, such as doing more fieldwork (Bothello & Roulet, 2019) or seeking out mental health coaching (Chrousos & Mentis, 2020) to mitigate against what are seen as resulting consequences, such as lower teaching evaluations (Brems et. al., 1994) and self-sabotage in work projects. The vast body of research and public discourse (e.g. Bahn, 2014) on ‘imposter syndrome’ from this individualizing perspective acknowledges the prevalence of these feelings but often does not identify the institutional and structural forces that normalize them, especially for marginalized groups. 

Herein, we follow the suggestion made by Maddie Breeze (2018) to put this commonplace concept in quotes to indicate how it is a public rather than private set of feelings, generated by institutional norms in the academy. Breeze argues that ‘imposter syndrome’ is part of the affective landscape of doing feminist work in the neoliberal university, a pervasive and even ‘ordinary’ public feeling often framed as an individual problem to cope with through personal strategies rather than shaped by gender, race, class, age, career stage, and other subject positions historically marginalized in the academy. But the ambivalence produced by the intersection of feminism and neoliberal politics in these spaces can be generative, Breeze says, of alternate discourses and visions of ‘success’ and ‘belonging’. Rather than being a shameful secret, ‘imposter syndrome’ can function as a ‘diagnostic of power’ that sheds light on the impacts of the marketized university and its implications for labouring subjects therein. For example, in her analysis she considers how the audit culture of the UK implicitly functions to communicate the deficiency of academics asked to give accounts of themselves, supporting the internalization of research assessment as a judgement upon the self. While university initiatives related to wellness do nothing to address these structures, recognizing ‘imposter syndrome’ as a public feeling can support its use as a ‘resource for action’, removing its stigma and understanding it as part of feminist epistemologies and praxis as well as modality for challenging myths of meritocracy. In this way discussions about pathologized feelings of unbelonging and undeserving can serve as necessary critiques of structural exclusions rather than individual suffering.

Reflecting on such secrets and stratifications, and naming them as collective concerns rather than personal failures, is vital. The work that scholars do, from the first day of the undergraduate degree up into the management classes of the university, has been transformed, and academics are seeing structural shifts in higher education across the globe with neoliberalism’s impact on the shape and organization of the University and educational sector. Based on these transformations, we presume those reading have their own secrets and split affinities, making them double agents. At the same time, naming the consequences, conflicts, and costs of these, particularly but not limited to areas such as research funding, runs risks precisely as a result of this environment. Instead of framing these split affinities as questions of ethics or politics, they are often seen as a matter of individual ability, to successfully ‘game’ a system and reap its increasingly scarce rewards. In an environment built on achievement, competition, and ‘excellence’, we need to disrupt the notion that those who are not part of the fortunate 26% of applicants granted research council funding (according to the Economic and Social Research Council, 2018) or the few included as 4* publications or Impact case studies in submissions to the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) are somehow lesser scholars. These individualized ideas of winners or losers serve only to bolster the neoliberal university as opposed to supporting collective actions against the punitive and otherwise suspect consequences of the funding policy agendas discussed in this chapter. The purpose of these case studies is to argue for greater discussion, reflection, and focus at all levels on the challenges and opportunities arising for scholars in the neoliberal university in a manner that is focused on structural power rather than individual success or failure.

Fitting Social Justice in Funding Policy Across Contexts

Alison Harvey

This case study begins with a commitment to community-engaged scholarship, or practices that draw on research expertise to contribute insight to topics of broader public interest, and to collaborate with non-academic stakeholders to address ‘real-world issues’ (Gelman, Jordan & Seifer, 2013), or as I like to think of it, spaces and contexts beyond the academic realm. This is an approach to thinking about the potential wider audience and uses of scholarship that are well-discussed in the Canadian academic context. Support for community-engaged scholarship is common, with institutions providing resources and promoting projects mobilizing this approach (see for example However, as the mission statement of the linked organization indicates, there have been some challenges in having this kind of work rewarded, for instance in career progression.

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) also emphasizes and recognizes the importance of this kind of work, and is included in what is called knowledge mobilization. KMb refers to a wide range of practices related to the use of research results, from communicating results via dissemination, synthesis, transfer, and exchange, as well as co-production of research with those who are understood to be the ‘users’ of knowledge. When applying for funding to SSHRC, applicants are required to describe potential audiences for their research, including those outside of the applicant’s specific discipline. This entails envisioning what SSHRC calls ‘appropriate research users.’ I highlight ‘users’ here because the term is somewhat odd in the context of social justice research with communities. Sure, certain groups of people may ‘use’ the knowledge created and mobilized within research projects, but the term ‘users’ draws a clear line, separating those who engage with research only after it has been completed and those who designed and created the terms under which research would be conducted. There is a disconnect between how SSHRC envisions the more participatory role of ‘users’ versus how SSHRC historically perceived users as a separated group within the research process. Given the earlier discussion about the traditional models that have defined Canadian universities and embedded hegemonic whiteness into their cultures and practices, we are reminded of the long histories of separating those to be studied from those doing the studying and often ignoring whiteness as an object of study altogether (Dyer, 1997).

In other words, knowledge mobilization perhaps builds most directly on more traditional modes of dissemination, but there are certainly ways of reframing it to fit with community engagement. Operating in an officially bilingual settler-language country (English and French) with more than 70 Indigenous, Inuit and Métis languages and more than 100 additional settler languages spoken, SSHRC encourages applicants to plan knowledge dissemination in both official languages as well as “in the language of the community where the research takes place, especially in the case of Aboriginal languages.” SSHRC emphasizes determining the most effective routes to knowledge mobilization in partnership with users and communities, and includes in their list of potential outreach methods not only reports, books, and refereed journal articles but also forms of expression such as dance, theatre, and festivals. They note best practices in working with users, including meeting with them at the outset of the project to forge “strong and lasting connections,” connecting across levels in organizations, bringing knowledge brokers into the project from communities, and creating materials with users considering these needs.

The subject-position of those engaging with research in these documents is a topic that should be explored further from a dirty methods approach focused on unearthing split affinities and divergent commitments, but something productive can be found in how SSHRC emphasizes connections, partnerships, and networks, and differentiates between outputs (traditional academic activities), outcomes (activities resulting from new insight, both directed or indeed as well as intended or unintended), and impacts (changed thinking and practice in the long-term, including social inclusion). This openness can enable a variety of approaches to envisioning social justice and for seeking research support to enable these practices in research.

As a junior scholar, focusing on knowledge mobilization along these lines was productive and generative for me. Undertaking my PhD at York University, a hub of activity related to decolonizing methodologies and Indigenizing the curriculum, I saw the political potential of recognizing and encouraging non-traditional modes of engagement with research communities. Therefore, my impression of the growing emphasis on community-engaged scholarship and knowledge mobilization strategies was commensurate with social justice work and activist organizing with marginalized groups, particularly in how it may facilitate a form of praxis, encompassing collaborative research aiming to understand the ways exclusion functions as well as action for change and transformation. 

It was within this context that I began working with my collaborator Stephanie Fisher on women in games initiatives (for more on this project see Fisher & Harvey, 2013; Harvey & Fisher, 2013; Harvey & Fisher, 2016). When we started our project on two incubators in Toronto, we were motivated by a desire to examine when and how the women involved in grassroots ‘feminists in games’ initiatives negotiated their gendered subjectivities as game developers and what prompted them to do so. These were our preexisting research questions. When we began our research, however, we encountered a set of tensions between the women participating in the sessions and those that were organizing them. Group interviews revealed that these tensions were the result of how sexism was (not) being addressed in these activities, even though structural exclusion was the reason for their previous lack of participation rather than any gap in their skills. The focus of the sessions, the organizers insisted, was on developing specific game-making techniques, not reflecting on the culture of games production. Based on this dissatisfaction, Stephanie and I began to organize and plan an intervention with these participants, which was the basis for our turn toward feminist participatory action research (F-PAR).

F-PAR as a method aligns politically and practically with community-engaged scholarship, entailing cycles of research planning, action, and reflection in partnership with community members. From the outset we were conscious of how this work immediately created split affinities, with the organizers who invited us to conduct the research and also in terms of addressing the power relations and dynamics framing our actions as researchers as well as participants in the incubators. As well, we were not impervious to how this work would align (or not) with our own professional needs and agendas. For both of us, in addition to meeting our commitments as doctoral and postdoctoral working subjects, we were interested in producing CV-building publications and conference presentations. There was some overlap with the participants here — they saw value in disseminating research on women in games initiatives, though at times the timelines and processes for these activities required more clarification work than we anticipated. In retrospect, one might ask how deprioritizing one’s own career as part of such work is necessary, but also who has the privilege of doing so. As already noted, such preoccupations with academic outputs are reinforced by the academy’s mechanism for career enhancement and development, and may create inherent barriers to conducting research that has activist goals. We did our best to ‘unlearn’ our privileges as researchers, drawing on feminist scholars such as Donna Haraway (1988) to focus on partial and situated knowledges in this context. We found F-PAR a particularly challenging but generative methodology for enacting this unlearning as it requires researchers to identify problems, deploy actions, and evaluate the process alongside members of the community in contrast to considering these from an outsider perspective. Drawing on the process embedded in this method, we endeavoured to remove the barriers that prevent people from speaking for themselves rather than ‘giving voice’ (Ashby, 2011), a positionality that aligned with the materials produced as part of research.

In practice, this included always asking ‘what can we do for you?’ to which we received a range of responses. Participants’ requests from us often entailed concrete forms of support, such as the use of equipment like laptops and space where available. But in response to this query, we also learned that academic work — including those outputs we thought of as valuable only within academic quarters — was viewed as important to community organizing in and of itself. Our participants as co-researchers were busy makers and activists, engaging in paid and voluntary work that did not leave them much time for reflection on action. For this reason, as one of the participants pointed out, the ‘thing’ that an academic collaborator can contribute is in the making of spaces and scheduling of time to engage in such reflection, such as the group interviews we organized, as well as the broader sharing of information related to their work.

In the midst of this longitudinal project, I relocated to the UK for my first permanent academic contract. Coming to grips with the new academic landscape there, I was gratified to see what appeared to be a shared emphasis on transformative research in funding body guidelines. The Research Councils of the UK (RCUK) all require summaries of and strategies for how a given project will bring a positive impact to the broader society. However, it quickly became apparent that what constitutes impact differed quite a bit from that of knowledge mobilization within SSHRC’s terms. At the time, the RCUK listed as examples “knowledge exchange, new products and processes, new companies and job creation, skills development, increasing the effectiveness of public services and policy, enhancing quality of life and health, and international development” on their website. Here the focus is on conservatively defined deliverables and narrowly demarcated ideas of what counts as “evidence of impact,” with successful case studies often involving direct influence on policy making at the governmental level. The RCUK also provides lists of impact areas and of potential ‘users’. Under impact areas are examples given for societal, economic, policy, and clinical impact, and under users those listed are school children, policymakers, refugees, and the public. 

A number of issues arise for social justice work and in my case feminist scholarship given this positioning and deployment of research impact. One, in this system, non-academic benefits such as informing policy or improving corporate practice are envisioned and enacted as quantified units that can be systematically audited, coded, measured, and tracked. Second, this vision emphasizes very specific kinds of outcomes for communities instead of emphasizing process, which in many cases does not lend itself to quantification or loses all meaning when quantified, as in our study of inclusion in game-making. For example, when we asked our participants “what can we do for you?”, identifying the needs and capacities of academic privilege and status for vulnerable grassroots communities, we were asked to share laptops, facilitate safe spaces for reflection, and, furthermore, write academic articles spreading awareness of their activities and issues. None of these activities would fit into the impact reporting spreadsheet that academics are asked to complete. For example, the impact on community might not necessarily be an ‘outcome’ that can be reported (rather it is a process), or it can be an outcome that isn’t quantifiable (or loses meaning when quantified) — for example, in the UK impact reporting structures, in what category would we slot in the ‘outcomes’ that were requested by participants, e.g., providing a safe space to engage in self-reflection? The third issue is even wider, which is that the successful case studies from the 2014 REF exercise show that in the current climate of big data, academics are also rewarded for big impact, typically through shifts to major governmental policy issues for the ‘user groups’ identified above. There is no sense that the public, and indeed refugees, school children, and other major user groups are constituted by segments with their own interests, needs, and situated issues, often linked to gender, race, class, and other subject-positions. 

In this formulation, general impact that serves ‘majority issues’ is deemed most significant while transformative work in smaller communities is read as too niche. This instrumental delimitation of the role of research in the UK is further intensified by the 2016 introduction of ring-fenced funding for projects that include Official Development Assistance for Global Challenges, or ODA. Here, the majority Conservative government in the UK manages to serve two commitments — the aid budget of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the research budget of the RCUK — with the same budget lines. Funding is reserved for projects that, for example, address global challenges in terms of “conflict reduction, increasing stability, promoting human rights, mitigating climate change, reducing poverty as well as promoting democratic and economic reforms that create new markets for UK businesses to trade with and invest in.” These projects must target low and middle income countries based on gross national income per capita, excluding G8 members and EU member nations. At one workshop on ODA, facilitators referred to this work as “commercial diplomacy,” a clear indication of how this approach to international development remains focused on economic aims as opposed to social or political objectives. In short, the emphasis on ODA-compliant research imposes a development agenda on research, one that critical feminist scholarship would suggest needs to be resisted (Aguinaga, Lang, Mokrani & Santillana, 2013).

As a researcher interested in social justice research and community engagement, these funding priorities and policies for me resulted in increasing pressure as my career progressed. While my projects, which continue to be focused on learning from and organizing with marginalized communities, have received continued support from sources including SSHRC and the European Cultural Foundation, these kinds of projects and indeed the kind you can conduct without funding are not recognized, rewarded, or validated in the same ways in the UK context. While the prestige of international funding is seen as ‘nice to have,’ RCUK funding is essential to every university’s financial health as these grants come with what is called full economic costs, or FEC. FEC is ultimately a buy-out of your salary costs, a relief on the burden of supporting research that universities desperately need in times of cuts to higher education budgets. This results by fiscal necessity in an increasingly narrow definition of acceptable and appropriate research, and in turn it creates a sort of ideal academic research subject. Multiple points of performance assessments — annual professional development reviews, probation meetings, promotion applications — create frequent checkpoints adding pressure to fulfill this subject position.

In practice, this meant that as an early-career researcher wishing to meet my probation conditions, I was strongly encouraged to apply for one of these large RCUK grants. What I envisioned at the beginning of this ultimately 18-month process of applying for such a grant was a project that engaged in qualitative research in formal education contexts to identify the grounds for a more inclusive set of practices in the university for game design training. What resulted from multiple rounds of feedback from colleagues across my College, however, was a massive set of policy-oriented discussions with lobby groups, industry representatives, and government officials. In the process, the terms ‘equity,’ ‘inclusivity,’ ‘justice,’ ‘community,’ and ‘feminist research’ were scrubbed in favour of ‘diversity’ and ‘multi-stakeholder consultations.’ Despite the slow leakage of feminist politics from this project, the proposal was ultimately unsuccessful, with two reviewers positing that ‘diversity work is simply too hard’ (echoing many of the experiences discussed by Ahmed, 2012).

This story is not one of sour grapes, but ultimately, relief. I did not actually want to spend four years managing a £350,000 project that required tremendous amounts of time spent with the Conservative MP that ran the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Video Games thinking about palatable policy recommendations for higher education. I wanted to continue on with the kinds of projects I had undertaken in Canada, learning from and centering local, marginalized ways of knowing and being, rather than the most powerful. But from my experience, the opportunities to engage in this kind of critical media scholarly-activism are very limited in the UK context. 

As this all suggests, when we are encouraged to engage with emerging and ongoing societal issues in our academic work, how this is envisioned and institutionalized will shape what kind of scholarship we are encouraged to practice. These forces can foreclose or funnel our efforts by necessity, creating untenable split affinities. Funding can act as an institutionalized form of constraint on academic freedom and community-engaged scholarship, contributing to that conflicting affinity of the double agent. Even when we are able to conduct work aligned with social justice philosophies, this work is often conducted uneasily and in a way that itself ‘games’ the system in which it is embedded. There is no purity in how our work is conducted, and considering the impurities- the contradictions, the shaping forces, the priorities and gatekeepers and resulting absences- is vital for understanding what research gains prominence and continues to be sustained. Indeed, if we dig into flows of money within academic systems, there are often invisibilized forces at play that when revealed can elicit ethical dilemmas and politically-motivated responses (from the revelations of Jeffery Epstein’s financial ties with the MIT Media Lab to the common practice of investing university endowments in fossil fuels). We explore research funding further in movement of money but in the next section we explore a second case study revealing other institution forces shaping community-engaged scholarship. 

On Being Co-opted / Complicit in Academic Social Justice

Koen Leurs

A second case-study pertains to doing F-PAR research with young mobile subjects. In recent collaborative projects, I learned that there are immense challenges (and rewards) in trying to do meaningful, engaged research with subjects who commonly face vulnerablization, marginalization, and stereotyping. From 2016 onwards, I have been engaged in collaborative projects with Ghadeer Udwan and Amanda Alencar in researching digital resilience of Syrians in the Netherlands, Jeffrey Patterson in studying queer migration and digital practices in Amsterdam, as well as with Sanne Sprenger, Hemmo Bruinenberg, and Ena Omerović to study media literacy education for/with young mobile subjects. Feminist ethics of care and co-creation were core commitments of these projects, built on parameters such as working with teams featuring both insiders as well as outsiders to communities, valuing process over outcome, and creating collaborative audio-visual documentation and open-access publications geared towards relevant communities and stakeholders. 

Here I take cues from dirty methods to demystify the research process and become accountable for doing research with mobile subjects in Europe, which is the deadliest migration destination in the world for irregularized migrants. By attending to the messiness surrounding every decision we made, I learned I had to challenge my underlying assumptions, as well as relevant research communities that I had considered my academic homes. In looking back at the last five years of work the following questions emerged: to what and to whom do we seek to contribute with our research? When researching mobile subjects and migrant communities, we become part of the migration industry — what should be our role in this industry? How can we acknowledge difference and power hierarchies in fieldwork and listen to informants, while furthering research that is beneficial and functions in solidarity with the groups under study?

As part of the commitment to co-create knowledge with young mobile subjects, my collaborators and I developed, along with the Amsterdam museum, ‘Imagine IC’: an approach based on considering smartphones of young people as ‘pocket archives’. In inviting young mobile people to share, annotate, and discuss selections from their photo, video, and messaging archives, they could keep ownership over their representation and interpretations. So-called ‘meet and eat’ sessions were organized in the museum setting, where young people connected their phones to a projector and talked through their archives. This created an atmosphere and setting not unlike ‘artist talks’ in a white box, where research participants can narrate their motivations, emotions, and sensations. This happened within a safe space of like-minded people, facilitated by a self-identified former refugee and migrant rights activist. In hindsight, the pocket-archive approach asked commonly vulnerablized mobile subjects to enact agency by narrating their experiences, and sharing selected personal, self-captured and self-archived material. 

Initially I saw this as a suitable and promising approach. Several informants joined in making short individual self-portraits, on the basis of smartphone material they shared. The narrative arc, editing, and music score to the short videos was decided in close dialogue with the young people involved. The resulting videos, generally aimed at an audience of white majority Dutch people, show distinct renditions of their own positioning vis-à-vis their perceived expectations of refugee performativity. Overall, alongside personal emotional narratives, a sense of happiness and gratefulness was communicated. The question of the participants’ motivations arises here: to what extent can this performativity be understood as illustrative of their desires to be seen in a specific frame, of their expectations of how they felt academic researchers would like to see them appear, or of one of many other possible motivations like peer pressure, normativity, context collapse, and so on that played a role? These would be questions to prompt a future project. Similarly, the question could arise whether this process amounts to amplifying voices and mediating solidarity, or whether it reinforces the fetishization of otherness.

In particular, the politics of labelling our research participants (in light of funding requirements, publishers, and community preferences) is pivotal here. Consider for example Terek, a 23-year-old, who is now working for the municipality of Amsterdam, and who questioned the detrimental consequences of being labelled:

I didn’t want to be this classified as a refugee honestly. I am, but it was just too much to hear the word the whole time. I think it’s a stigmatism and it’s like yeah. It’s like a stamp on your head. It’s all about refugee, refugee, refugee. I’m a freaking person as well. I’m a human. I think it was too much for me. Like I just was pushing it away without noticing, without thinking about it. But lately I think, I just hate the word and I just hate being treated like oh, this is how you do, this is what you have to do. (Quoted in Patterson & Leurs, 2019, p. 97)

Notwithstanding our good intentions or the transformatory potential of foregrounding difference theorized as ‘strategic essentialism’ (e.g., Spivak, 1988), do we ask communities involved in our studies whether they want to be empowered, or are they interested in our pity? Do we ask them, in line with the dominant academic script, whether they themselves feel underserved, vulnerable, marginalized, or underprivileged? We also need to be cognizant of these imposed frameworks and dare to move away from our own preconceived or expected research categories. 

However, what is perhaps more troubling and thus urgent in the context of doing social justice research in academia is the communication (or valorization) of knowledge to institutional stakeholders. In a time and place where researchers are increasingly expected to engage policy makers as stakeholders (see From Process to Policy and Back Again and shifting governance policies and practices), more attention is needed for the dirty methods and obstacles of such processes. On several occasions, my collaborators and I were invited to participate in meetings with government officials, on the topic of migration and the digital broadly conceived. Alongside presentations from refugee service providers and refugee rights organizations, who spoke about the role of the digital in service, health, and information provision, over time there were increasingly also presentations from government-related actors who spoke about their initiatives that were oriented toward exploiting the digital domain for different purposes, namely migration management and control. For example, social media data of those on the move are scraped by actors that seek to predict migration flows, and anti-migration deterrence campaigns specifically target some bodies on the move. The goal of doing social justice research through working with smartphones as personal digital archives starkly contrasts with the increased governmentality of personal digital archives. Research seeking to open up the black box of migration infrastructures are starting to reveal how social media logins and individual smartphone data play an increasingly important role during asylum interviews, to verify asylum claims (Bolhuis & Van Wijk, 2020; Brekke & Balke Staver, 2019). It is in these instances that we as researchers are confronted with our own complicities and roles as academics. While in some settings participatory research data might be agentic or otherwise transformative, on a personal, or collective level in other settings, such datasets may become potentially incriminating. Dirty methods invite us to challenge our own praxis, attend to paradoxical and unintended outcomes.  Outside of the justice context and framework, our F-PAR work, and rightly so, might for example be seen as a form of potential community surveillance. 

Social Justice for Academic Workers

Reflecting on these experiences, concerns arise about how academic researchers’ own professional needs and agendas, reinforced by the academy’s mechanism for career enhancement and development, may create inherent barriers to conducting research with social justice aims. More broadly, we worry that these policies and the pressures they create pose significant challenges to academic freedom — how can we press on with projects not emphasized in policy mechanisms when our ability to work depends on securing this funding? How can we ensure that our carefully developed relationships with communities are not instrumentalized in funding trends, and then discarded when the tides turn to other ‘priority areas’? Troublingly, in a climate of assaults on social justice research and teaching from all directions — from reactionary right-wing news media outlets to government funding cuts — we see very little resistance to these trends. Heather Savigny’s (2019) research represents an important exception. Based on surveys and interviews with female academics about the UK impact agenda, she argues that quantified approaches within this agenda overlook challenges faced by women and people of colour as well as critical scholarship in racist and sexist contexts, ignoring the possibility of both ‘negative impact’ and harms faced by researchers in mediated public engagement work. Her participants discussed experiences of harassment, silencing, and other forms of symbolic violence related to their gender and race, experiences denied as significant within higher education contexts, leading Savigny to argue for the need to acknowledge the additional affective, emotional labour required by women and people of colour undertaking this work. As she posits, “the focus on individuals as the authors of impact denies the collective and obscures the structural workings of power” (Savigny, 2019, p. 289), an argument that parallels our own concern about critiques of research policy, particularly related to the increasingly important matter of external funding, framed only as a matter of individual success or failure.

In future work, these considerations can and should also be logically extended to considering the commitments made when performing idealized academic subjectivities, including expected forms of dissemination related to the final thesis and dissertation through the traditional approaches to writing journal articles and books (policed through peer review) and normalized modes of presentation at academic conferences. Equally worthy of scrutiny are the shaping mechanisms provided by moments of judgment on career progression and research ‘excellence’ — job applications, probation reviews, promotion and tenure applications — all of which entail the question of what kinds of academic work are legible and recognizable, which runs particular risks for work making the normative claims embedded within a social justice approach when it encounters those who hold dear standards of objectivity as a measure of ‘rigor’ in research. In what ways might these norms inhibit new generations of what Roopika Risam (2020) calls ‘insurgent academics’ — figures and actions that challenge and transform knowledge production within higher education contexts, often based on creative social justice approaches.

Rather than seeing these commitments as barriers to engaging in work oriented towards social justice, we want to conclude by reflecting on the opportunities, benefits, and challenges posed by embracing one’s double agent status. For one, the majority of this work is, by necessity, seen as collaborative, which becomes the grounds for not only debate but also the productive flourishing of new ideas. In other words, collaboration is the grounds for iterative conceptualization that would be nearly impossible when working individually. This is both productive when considering the work that results but also in terms of new ways of thinking about contemporary problems and potential solutions. It also highlights that authorship is never really a solo affair but always derived from exchanges with others, and it valorizes this co-creation. And if we look beyond the question of extrinsic rewards such as publishing and gaining funding, this kind of work also comes with intrinsic benefits, enabling academic resources to be mobilized by communities, organizations, groups, and individuals that usually would not have access to them. Doing this work, we as authors can also personally attest that it is deeply intellectually rewarding — challenging, inspiring, and refreshing in equal measure.

Of course, as the discussions about how the university is built on and perpetuates white supremacy indicate, we cannot lose sight of the important challenges of engaging in social justice work while embodying academic subject-positions. These challenges can be summarized in Audre Lorde’s (1984) oft-repeated question of whether we can dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. Is it in fact possible to subvert the system and act as a double agent from within, particularly those of us who are complicit with the whiteness of university publics? Or does working within the marketized university make us complicit regardless of our efforts? On the flip side, we might ask whether the language of community engaged scholarship, impact, and even participatory action research can be deployed to support an anti-intellectual standpoint that frames ‘real-world’ issues and their address as the only approach worthy of energy, as if the study of problems itself is insufficient? While we are committed to social justice research and teaching, we do not think these should close off other types of inquiry-based research, particularly as action research is impossible without it (how do we know what the problem is and how best to address it without prior research?). We have to sit within our own contradictions as well as systemic conflicts. Consequently, while we are arguing for an embrace of multiple commitments, we resist any emphasis on solutions over process in dirty methods. 

To conclude, let us return to the questions of what kind of scholar we are and whether we are acting as a double agent. It has hopefully become clear in this chapter that social justice in the broadest sense is in an uneasy relationship with the marketized university, entailing an approach to methods that digs up dirt in order to remain accountable to power. Reflecting on being a double agent is not about becoming frozen with guilt, or apathetic in the face of the power of the marketized university. It is instead about being reflexive about our commitments, our communities, and our actions, and also about being collectively-minded when thinking about resistance to these trends. Activism in the face of the increased emphasis on instrumental and otherwise limiting approaches to research, in funding and beyond, must entail addressing the working conditions within academic work, from the inequities in security and reward of women of colour academics to the overall precarity of new generations of academics. Social justice research and teaching requires academic freedom, and limiting that to only the most privileged is counter to its very precepts. As Savigny (2019) urges, we must “reflect on what and how wider social and political power structures may be reinforced, rather than challenged by public engagement and in the Impact agenda” (p. 290), and that includes normative systems contextualizing and also animating academic settings.  Agitating against contract-based and otherwise insecure labour within the academy is thus vital to supporting politically-engaged work, allowing us to not only recognize the truly incredible and inspiring research and community-engaged scholarship that continues to emerge from this context despite the challenges, but also the collaborative creation of more inclusive policies, spaces, and practices within the academy.


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