Thursday, 13 August 2009

Reflections on the SSSP: Radicalism and the Academic as Activist

I’m writing this as I await my return flight but by the time it’s posted, I’ll be back in the UK. Inevitably, the end of a conference brings a moment of reflection. Many of the sessions I’ve attended have been linked by an agenda of radicalism. Sessions on various aspects of sexuality, race, age, surveillance and education have been tied by a desire by academics to move out of the ivory towers and ‘into the street’.

It’s perhaps not that surprising at this conference. As one delegate reminded me, the Society for the Study of Social Problems has a long history of activism and was a key point of resistance to the attitudes to homosexuality that saw it both medicalized and criminalized. One former President of SSSP had (apparently) talked about the need to take the credibility that an academic body such as the SSSP has, and ‘lend’ that credibility to a group in need. That was decades ago. At this conference, those campaigning for health and social care reform, a radical agenda on race, a new relationship between the citizen and state, reform of the law on sexual offences and nothing short of a cultural ‘enlightenment’ on aspects of sexuality, were largely seeking a return to those radical academic politics of the 60s and 70s. Yet, a return to such academic politics doesn’t seem to be on the cards.

In the UK, our conferences are even less ‘radicalised’. Countless papers have been presented on terrorism, sexuality and a host of other social issues, yet with a few notable exceptions there has not been the same focus on radical activism. The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) which informs the amount of funding each university gets for research activity is apparently going to place more emphasis on ‘impact’ in its new form of the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

That’s welcome. As academics, we need to recognise the importance of the research informed teaching agenda which sees us link what we research and study in the privacy of our homes and offices, directed back into the teaching we deliver but we also need institutions and professional bodies to value activities that also direct that research towards re-shaping our world. It is sad that we place more value on an article, that few may ever read provided it appears in the ‘right’ journal than work that actually makes an impact.

Academics often bemoan the lack of student activism on campuses in contrast to an older generations actvivism in the 60s and 70s. That generation continued to be activists as academics and now, as they retire and fade from the forefront of academic life, we are left with a void.

Academic lawyers have a key role in this agenda. Law pervades every aspect of life – whether its the type of food you can buy in a store, how that store came to be located there, the rules you follow as you return home, the condition of the vehicle you travel in or the state of the air you breath, law is at play. It is present in the boardrooms and in grand courts of law but it is felt way beyond that. By working with sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and others, by forging aliiances, we can achieve vibrant debate and ultimately change.

Right now in America, Proposition 8 (which effectively ‘banned’ gay and lesbian marriage) is totemic but the agenda is anything bu a radical one. As a couple of delegates discussed with me, being gay and saying “actually, do we want to get married? Do we want to join a straight institution and its control of power?” is not a socially acceptable thing to say within the gay community. If you’re gay, how can you not want equality? Equality or ‘the apologists’ as one academic said, are winning and the radical queer agenda of the 60s/70s and lesser extent 1980s has been largely lost, along with similar radical agendas on race and (as I discovered for the first time at this conference) on age.

Queer as an agenda of radicalism emerged in the 1990s and by the time I arrived at University had been and gone, yet there remains a small section of activists and academics who see value int hat agenda and a new generation of grad students appear to be seeking to re-vitalise queer as a tool of academic inquiry. Carol Stychin’s Queer Legal Theory has been largely ignored for far too long. Just before I flew out, I finished an article considering queer approaches to online ethnographic research and I’ve a couple of others looking at ‘barebacking’ and public sex that are in the pipe line. If anything, this conference has inspired me to re-double my efforts and work to move beyond the dominant equality agenda.

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