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Michal Osterweil, Rethinking Public Anthropology Through Epistemic Politics and Theoretical Practice, 28 Cultural Anthropology 598 (2013).

One intervention that has stayed with me from my first Law & Society Association meeting (Amsterdam, 1991) involved a British scholar who, midway through the conference’s feminist stream, spoke out against the assumed divide between academic and activist work. Scholarship, she commented, could be politically engaged work also. I was reminded of her words reading Michal Osterweil’s timely article on public anthropology and politics in which she explores how anthropological work might extend and enrich its political practice through both the engaged scholarship it carries out and by expanding the sites it recognises as theory-producing.

Osterweil starts by challenging the division in anthropology between activist research and cultural critique; she describes the former as working with and on behalf of marginalised communities, while the latter addresses politics in the realm of text and theory. Arguing that both are important as scholarly political practices, Osterweil challenges the presuppositions about action and politics underpinning the distinction between them. What gets counted and recognised as action or political also underlies a further, perhaps more fundamental, division, namely between academic and activist practices, as these get posited as two fundamentally different and separate spheres. As Osterweil puts it, there is a working assumption that academia comments upon the world it observes but remains steadfastly apart from. Imagining other worlds thus gets relegated to the academic sphere of intellectual imagining; outside practice, and so never able to flourish, or take hold, within it.

Osterweil explores the problems and limits endemic to these modes of dividing up practice through reflecting on her own ethnographic research with the Italian alter-globalization movement. At the heart of her account is the importance of recognising the experimental, reflexive and critical knowledge practices that contemporary activism undertakes. “Such practices pursue knowledge about the political and social context in order to arrive at better understandings of the present while also working to theorize, create, and posit alternatives to this present.” (P. 606).

Reinterpreting the activist side of the divide in this way is a crucial move. While many academics are ready to recognise the political character and traction of scholarship, there is typically more reluctance to recognise the theoretical work that activists also do. And yet, development of many bodies of ideas – from feminism, anti-racist and Marxist politics to environmentalism, anarchist, peace politics and others – come from activists. Sometimes, ideas are tied to individuals (who may work in universities although many do not); but importantly activist knowledge also emerges from the conversational and argumentative interactions that take place within movement counter-publics, circulating and developing through magazines and newsletters, meetings, and more recently social media. These collaborative processes of ideas formation are easy to miss in an academic environment where authorship is privileged; however, a great deal is lost when the complex, messy process of developing analyses and new ways of thinking are reduced to the output of named individuals.

In her exploration of what social movements do, Osterweil focuses on the relationship between contemplation, experimental innovation, and new imaginaries. Because the alter-globalization movement she is studying, known as the “Movimento dei Movimenti” (Movement of Movements, or MoM), is not simply a force operating in the “real” world, but as well a cyberspace event, a “concept, idea and aspiration”, MoM complicates conventional distinctions between observer and observed, between thinking and what is thought. In an interview accompanying her article, Osterweil comments “Their work is at the order of making visible the contours, sometimes limits, of our current episteme, and showing how new ways of knowing and registering reality could help transform the political terrain.”1

Movement engagement in epistemic politics reframes what counts as success, which Osterweil suggests depends on shaping the imagination and desire, making the revisioning of other worlds and institutions possible. Success is not necessarily about outputs and it does not depend on a simplification and closure that rules out complexity. Osterweil rejects the pervasive notion that social movements (at least in the case of MoM) disavow the need for questioning. “The theoretical practice of these Italian activists points to the emergence of a new political ethic based on a different kind of epistemology—one founded on a commitment to critical reflexivity and an open-ended, processual trajectory.” (P. 607.)

But, to the extent action, including academic action with its “claims, propositions, facts and knowledge-claims” (P. 610), relies on decision, temporarily bracketing complexity and uncertainty, does action nevertheless remain better than its alternative – a critique that opposes or impedes doing stuff? Again, Osterweil rejects the distinction. She writes, “truly taking on an understanding of the epistemic as a political terrain of struggle requires shifting our understanding of what constitutes both the criteria for action, and what constitutes action.” (P. 611.) This is an important point. As Osterweil suggests, many academics in their writing and scholarship recognise the significance of non-dominant registers and sites of action. However, when they turn to engaging in political action – understood as an intervention in the “real” world, their focus and engagement shifts to conventional sites and objects, such as the state.

Here, I temporarily part company with Osterweil. For her understanding of the political terrain as complex, and her argument that we need to reimagine and reinvent political forms, does not extend to the state, which is understood, or at least gestured to, according to a dominant state framework in which it is interpreted as a “macro-political entit[y with] formal decision-making and governing powers” (P. 614.) In this account, the state appears as a bounded, implicitly unified, thing-like thing – that exists separately not only from those who act politically in relation to it but also from the ways in which it is thought. Yet, the state like other social dimensions can also be addressed differently – whether by empirically challenging or complicating this prevailing imaginary or by reconceptualising what it means to be a state in ways that make it more extensively available as a productive site of radical or progressive politics. The “micro-political terrain[] of becoming” (P. 615) does not have to be imagined as existing exclusively outside of the state. However, while I would like to see the state subjected to the lines of thought developed in this article, I strongly recommend the piece for its interesting and accessible engagement with a set of prominent and important ideas as important to politically committed legal scholarship as other fields.

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  1. Interview with Michal OsterweilRethinking Public Anthropology Through Epistemic Politics and Theoretical Practice, Supplemental Materials, Cultural Anthropology (2013). []
Cite as: Davina Cooper, Challenging the Academic/Activist Divide, JOTWELL (January 13, 2016) (reviewing Michal Osterweil, Rethinking Public Anthropology Through Epistemic Politics and Theoretical Practice, 28 Cultural Anthropology 598 (2013)), http://equality.jotwell.com/challenging-the-academicactivist-divide/.