The current organization of academic institutions creates a tension between knowledge and social change. Many scholars put inequality at the center of their research agenda. But they may also be subject to logics of exploitation linked to the commodification and marketization of knowledge and the precarization of the workplace. Such a struggle may appear especially salient now in British universities, where a long series of strike actions are taking place over pay equality and pay levels, casualization, and workload.
In this special issue, Elisabet Dueholm Rasch, Floor van der Hout and Michiel Köhne use the lenses of anthropology to analyze the very crucial question of how scholars can simultaneously become engaged activists co-producing knowledge with research participants while also navigating (and challenging) the logics that govern academic institutions. Their introduction to the issue analyses this “double contention” through the four core themes of care, horizontality, slowness, and engaged academic writing.
In the first contribution to the issue, Júnia Marúsia Trigueiro de Lima examines the question of double contention in Brazil. She reflects on her experience carrying out doctoral work in a Brazilian university while engaging with the Life and Territory Defense Movement (Modevite) in Mexico. In her analysis, she highlights the challenges of mediating between the different demands of academia and the field. Her experience shows how difficult constraints can become an opportunity for challenging processes of knowledge production in anthropology.
Michiel Köhne discusses the contradictions emerging from the encounter between scholarly and activist work. By analyzing his own experience of writing a “scientific” letter for “political” purposes, Köhne notes the different demands, expectations, schedules, and responsibilities implied in the two domains. Despite the risks of reproducing hierarchies between different modes of knowledge production, it remains imperative to pursue research that is “politically effective in resistance against environmental destruction and social inequalities while also resisting the neoliberal university.”
Reflecting on her experience of “accompanying” defensoras (women territory defenders) of the TIPNIS and Tariquía territories in Bolivia, Floor van der Hout highlights how the decolonization of research practices requires challenging the short-term non-committed academic “use” of participants employed in academic research. Conducting research with indigenous people requires learning from their ontologies and epistemologies and embracing their struggles, rather than merely “extracting” information for the benefit of one's career.
Elisabet Dueholm Rasch next analyzes double contention in the context of teaching. In modern academic institutions, teaching is a quantifiable, measurable affair. Students are evaluated and ranked based on their performance in exams or coursework. Professors and lecturers must orient their teaching towards student (customer?) satisfaction and measurable outputs. Rasch draws on her experience of teaching the academic course “Resistance, Power and Movements” to argue that double contention in this context consists of challenging the metric-oriented university while equipping students with the intellectual tools necessary to understand and engage in social change.
Further, Hanne Bess Boelsbjerg and Lina Katan address the issue of subjectivity in the production and dissemination of scientific research. In a framework that highly values neutrality and objectivity, Boelsbjerg and Katan dialogue in their text (or textualize their dialogue) to emphasize the importance of adopting different approaches to knowledge production. Therefore, the article symbolizes the process of social change the authors would like to see in academic practices and the relationships between academia and the social world.
Finally, in the last contribution to the issue, Domitilla Olivieri examines the challenges and opportunities associated with the concept of slowness. In the fast-paced, modern neoliberal academia, everything is in short supply, especially time. Olivieri discusses “slowing down” as a strategy of resistance that would allow scholars to reclaim the intellectual and practical space for meaningfully contributing to social change.
The editors of this issue have brought the notion of contention very close to home. The collection reflects on some of the paradoxes related to researching social change while non-critically accepting, reproducing, and perpetuating an often exploitative and objectifying academic system. As editors of Contention, we welcomed the opportunity of publishing this collection. This journal has always resisted isolated and isolating modes of knowledge that may, by prioritizing hyper-specialization at the expense of complexity, harm our ability to bring about meaningful social change.