The Case for Engaged Scholarship

In recent years, it has become quite clear that a new model is necessary for agroecological research. Given that agroecology is in part a social movement, grassroots coalitions have long been foci of scholarship. However, the nature of the relationship between scholars and movement has been, and largely remains, fraught. Scholars have largely analyzed social movements as external objects of study. The majority of these academics are external to grassroots movements, and while in many cases they are sympathetic to the movements’ causes, it has remained the exception rather than the rule that scholarship is collaborative or contributes directly in clear ways to movements’ self-identified needs or processes.  While in some cases researchers have not lived up to their responsibilities, and failed to repatriate their findings, in other cases, the research has actively caused setbacks for the movements themselves. 

Not surprisingly, grassroots movements are increasingly tired of scholars parachuting in and extracting knowledge. In many cases, movements, such as Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement, have begun training their own members as scholars, recognizing that these activist-scholars are uniquely positioned to conduct transformational work in their own communities, and that the products of movement-led research are more likely to resonate when the research process emerges organically.  

Zapatista scholars participate in a workshop at the Decolonizing Knowledge convergence in Chiapas, Mexico, December 29th 2017. Photo: David Meek

In other cases, the Zapatistas have pushed scholars to re-imagine science—away from an enterprise intertwined with the production of capital—and towards a system of knowledge production that is humanized, which has a transformative social purpose.  As a Zapatista leader known as Julía implored scientists at the 2017 ConCiencias convergence in San Cristobal:

“We need you to speak to others about rebelliousness, and organize where you are, in your neighborhood, in your research center, in your university… Study scientifically, figure out who is responsible for the problems that we have. Who are the really guilty ones? Be the ones who speak with truth, and not in order to get a model. Be honest. This might have consequences of humiliation and threats, but you don’t have to give up because of that. Brother and sister scientists, it’s time to be awake, vigilant, to not lose love for our struggle. We must work everyday to build a collective future.” 

Julia’s provocation is explicitly a call for engaged scholarship. It’s intended to incite scholars to get our house in order, to organize ourselves to support grassroots movements as allies and accomplices. Learning what this looks like is organic; it can only unfold in collaboration and dialogue with grassroots movements’ own processes.