rn,wsn> Laurence Cox re: theory & praxis


Richard Moore

I'm pleased that Laurence was able to respond to our issue about 
how theorists and activists might work together more effectively.
His is a personal account, and he provides lots of useful-looking


Date: Thu, 07 Dec 2000 13:49:16 +0000
From: Laurence Cox <•••@••.•••>
Subject: Re: you might want to comment...
To: "Richard K. Moore" <•••@••.•••>
Cc: •••@••.•••
MIME-version: 1.0

Hi Richard,

thanks for this. I'm not quite sure how to respond! Maybe a
sensible way of talking about it is in the personal, since
this is where we start from and we all need to find our own
ways from where we are to where we'd like to be (one of
those ongoing process things....) Particularly since you're
threatening to crosspost this - it's hard to know quite what
to do with that!

I took part of the summer to think about this while doing up
a website that's basically documenting different projects
I've been involved in, and that has in a sense most of the
answers I've come up with to this issue over the years:

I hope this doesn't come across as too self-indulgent: part
of the results of doing this (which was mostly to reassure
myself that I had done _something_ useful over the years)
was realising that I hadn't found any neat trick or
proposition which could sum up ideal practice, but that
"best practice" in this area was always a matter of
responding to a given context as sensitively and openly as
possible, within the limits set by my own developing skills
and understanding. So I'd rather answer by putting that out
than in terms of "here's the key to success", which I don't
think I possess!

Basically I started as a straightforward activist involved
in movements like CND, anti-apartheid and Amnesty, graduated
into an anti-authoritarian left politics and started finding
myself wanting to know more about where the activist scenes
I was familiar with came from (.../phd.html). So I headed
off to Hamburg and spent probably the best year of my life
involved in the Hamburg Greens (very much the left wing of
the party) and the anti-Gulf War movement in the name of
"research" (.../szene.html).

Coming back, activism and academia diverged for a good
while: academia was something I put in a token effort at
while basically being a fulltime organiser trying to move
the Irish Green Party to the left (.../caorthann.html), and
it was only after the scholarships and teaching
assistantships ran out and I found myself having to take up
fulltime work teaching care workers that I had to think
about the specific contribution of academia to activism
again. As a researcher I started to realise again that
theory had a particular role to play in movement building,
and used it more or less effectively as a foundation for
various kinds of movement networking (.../ifb.html). As a
teacher and supervisor I found myself engaging with what
working-class women could get out of a sociology education,
working with community development activists who were trying
to theorise their own practice (.../ma.html) and offering
more straightforward technical support in setting up our
local anti-incinerator campaign (.../incinerator.html).

Now I'm in a more conventional university job for the first
time, and trying to find out what I can do with it. About
half my time is taken up with running an oral history
research project in a working-class estate in west Dublin
training local people to investigate the history of
community action in their own area (.../ballymun.html); I'm
also running an activist / academic mailing list in my own
research area of social movements (.../sm.html) and doing
talks, papers and workshops for the local anarchists,
sustainable development groups (.../activism.html),
environmental groups (.../afpp/ecosoc.html), Latin America
solidarity groups etc.

Over this time what I've found is a general shift from
"following my own star" to listening as hard as I can to
other activists, including to the kinds of "hidden
knowledge" they aren't yet able to articulate but which
comes out in what they do and the kinds of things they talk
about (.../afpp/afpp4.html). Partly this is through finding
that my own logics of research on movements, engaged
methodology, radical theory etc. push me away from
individualised practice and towards as close an engagement
as possible, and partly it's through finding that I now
reach the limits of any individual process of thought and
research fairly rapidly, so that real development happens in
interaction as we articulate a shared implicit knowledge,
born out of common involvement in particular kinds of
activism, for purposes which are starting to emerge within
that activism.

I'm currently exploring this with a group of people some of
whom are community or other movement activists who are doing
research (often on their own movements), some of whom are
activists who do research as part of their daily work, some
of whom are working-class people in the academy, etc. etc.
(see http://www.egroups.com/community-research for a
slightly more expanded account). We're still playing around
with this, because none of us really knows what direction
we're going in, but at least for the moment we're finding
enough in the face-to-face interactions to give us a sense
that yes, listening and talking to each other is helping us
firm up our understanding of what we're up to.

        >> What bothers me is all the activists and academics who
        are on one island or another and don't talk to one another.
        Academic specialization is the epitome.

This is I think particularly strong in many areas of Irish
academia, which is particularly class-bound. "Radical
practice" in sociology tends to mean doing quantitative
research which e.g. documents the extent of poverty and can
be used to push the state into doing something by the right
kind of NGOs - not that this isn't a useful exercise, but
that it ultimately positions academics as critical
intellectuals within the state, appealing to and hence
dependent on  enlightened elites within the state and the
media ("public opinion") and uninterested in or unaware of
the possibility of developing a more active engagement with
_movements_ of ordinary people struggling to change these
conditions, and whose limits are not set by the interests
common to state or media elites. (In other fields than
sociology, of course, economic elites might bulk much

What does however exist on the margins is a
"community"-oriented fringe of academia, some of which is
located within departments geared to training community
workers or adult education, other parts of which happen
within women's studies, sociology, etc. The good parts of
this (in Ireland) are the institutionalised edge of
working-class community-based movements, drawing on the
models of participative learning for local purposes
developed within those movements (Freire is one influence
that might be recognised outside Ireland). The people I know
in this area have a strong sense that they are trying to
theorise their own practice for a range of reasons -
providing tools for their own movement, training new
generations of activists, articulating oppositional
perspectives on the world which can challenge the status
quo, etc.

        >> I'm trying to learn how to communicate with people in
        other worlds, because I think that is the key to what is

    > well, I've been trying to get academics and activists in
    the UK together for ages, and find much the same thing.
    Activists accuse academics of being reformists or of being
    all waffle and no action, and academics accuse activists of
    being irrational and unscholarly. I am of course, being
    somewhat generalist and stereotypical, as I do know people
    that make a genuine effort to cross boundaries and explore
    'the other side'. Better known activist-academics (or vice
    versa) include Patrick Bond, Richard Norgaard and the late
    Walter Rodney to name but three.

In my own field there is quite a regular cross-over and interaction at
events like the annual Alternative Futures and Popular Protest conferences
in Manchester (http://www.mmu.ac.uk/h-ss/sis/altfut2ka.htm), and the
occasional events on DIY politics etc. run at UEL and I think Durham.

>So what is one to do? Is there 'good practice' that  gets like-minded 
>folk together? I'd be interested to hear from anyone who has a foot 
>in both camps or has tried to make a bridge between the two 

There's a very interesting page at
http://comm-org.utoledo.edu/ which focuses on activist /
academic and theory / practice relationships in community
organising in the States. Check out particularly the
conference report at
http://comm-org.utoledo.edu//wgoa/fullnotes.htm. There's
also an interesting conference outline at
though not much to indicate what actually happened!

Along with Richard and Maeve O'Grady, a women's community
education activist, I organised something rather less
ambitious last year (.../ifb.html); the preliminary (and
only!) report from this is at .../ifb/report.html.

My own sense from this and the other projects I've been
talking about (to end on straight propositional statements)
is as follows:

1. Much of radical academia _is_ the sedimented results of
social movements thinking about their own practice. This is
most obvious in theories such as Marxism or feminism and in
institutional locations such as black studies, queer studies
or community development, but can also be identified in
methodologies (feminist and participatory action research,
for example) and approaches to teaching practice (adult and
community education, feminist practice, critical approaches,

2. As with other such sediments (from green consumerism to
the autistic kind of political sectarianism) it can
sometimes be hard to see the links between the current
practice and the movement, particularly when the movement
has ebbed drastically. Engaging with this issue from
different angles (e.g. feminist theory, environmental
studies, adult education strategies, community development)
can help to open up our sense of what is / should be going

3. A crucial issue here is the distinction between
contemplative and active forms of thought - not so much
between theory and practice as between theory and praxis.
The former tends to be propositional in form and ostensibly
value-free (more often, loaded with liberal values); geared
to the teaching of undergraduates and the supervision or
carrying out of research projects that derive from academic
rather than activist logics; and crucially has as its
implicit social location (the point from which it would make
sense to say these things) a position of power or a close
relationship to those in power.

4. Praxis is then more about active skills than passive
propositions, though the latter obviously play a part. It is
more contextualised, in that its purposes and subordinate
position are more explicit - though this doesn't necessarily
mean that it's more context-bound, since far more human
beings live in a situation of relative powerlessness and
struggle for existence than can implicitly position
themselves as powerful decision-makers.

5. One example of the latter, which is relatively widespread
in movement circles, is the "how-to" book, which ranges from
technical discussions about how to set up squats, create
pirate radios, organise roads protests to manuals about
group process, handbooks of organising, and discussions of
practical choices in current movements which have long-term
political implications. This is more visible as "theory
arising from practice", though often the theory is more or
less implicit.

6. Another kind of thing is the "why" discussion, which
ranges from the stylised discussions of revolution vs.
reform, the history of 1917 or the "socialism and..."
discussion via debates about light vs dark green, liberal vs
radical feminism, consensus vs conflict down to nitty-gritty
arguments about whether or not to invite local councillors
to speak on platforms, whether "lifestyle" elements of a
movement should be suppressed in order to make it more
acceptable to "the mainstream", or instrumental vs. 
expressive forms of action. A lot of this is ultimately
about "practice informed by theory", though how clear that
is varies.

7. Communication is the key, but particularly communication
within shared practice - where there's some kind of sense of
a common project is where it becomes important and useful to
develop a common language to integrate and develop that
project. Both the weakness and the strength of the current
situation is that it isn't clear what the common project is
- on the one hand, there's a lot of emotional investment
e.g. in the anti-globalisation movement, but relatively
little consistent and coherent thinking about how that will
/ should develop (Starhawk wrote a very interesting piece on
this, which was posted to the social-movements list a few
days back). So we're free to experiment and explore, in a
way that maybe a decade back it was harder to, when there
was a more normative sense of where "we" were going. The
downside of that is that often people lack any strong
experience of what it is like to be engaged with a common
project, and so reach for inherited languages from the
mainstream which are downright unhelpful. This isn't just an
academic problem - activists who can't get beyond talking
about the technicalities of the issue they're engaged with
or make the shift from "this needs to happen" to "how can we
make this happen?" have exactly the same difficulty of being
trapped in the contemplative mode. Their practice is often
smarter than their theory, but the absence of theory all too
often leaves them willing to buy into whatever enlightened
state or international projects (or innovative businesses!)
are willing to give them a bit of consultative space and /
or funding.

Right, that's more than enough of that!

thanks for listening,