Academic activism: critical realism, reflexivity and the internal conversation

Author: Celina Valente

Valente, Celina, 2021 Academic activism: critical realism, reflexivity and the internal conversation, Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

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The adjustment of universities to the neoliberal logic has resulted in a severe restriction of academic freedom to question, resist, and transform the logic of market forces. Against this backdrop of devalued human agency, this research explores the possibility of academic activism in current times. In that exploration, it acknowledges that that possibility has two dimensions: structures of possibility and human capacities of possibility. This draws specific attention to the nature of the relation between social structures and human agency that persists as a thorny problem for sociology and the social sciences more broadly. The project takes a realist (anti-positivist and naturalist) route to address that problem. It assumes the task of investigating the human capacities for social change, because they represent potential impediments to the expansion of neoliberalism. To explore those human capacities, this research draws on Roy Bhaskar’s critical realism and its sociological operationalisation via Margaret Archer’s Morphogenetic Approach (MA). The framework provided by critical realism and the MA ensures a realist approach to answering the question: What kinds of reflexive capacities do academic activists possess and draw upon in their activist work?

This project takes Archer’s conceptualisation of reflexivity as the bridge between structure and agency. Reflexivity is revealed in the ‘internal conversations’ people have about themselves and their relations to wider worlds. This study employs theory-driven interviews to explore the internal conversations of seven scholar activists. As a result, the project offers insights into how scholars make sense of their activist practices and how they articulate their own self-transformation with broader struggles of social transformation in the neoliberal university.

Bhaskar’s critical realism proves useful in presenting an understanding of neoliberalism as an emergent form of capitalism that pervades all levels of the social being. This understanding, in turn, permits the re-conceptualisation of activism as an ongoing reflexive practice that is fuelled by powerful emotions and sustained by the real possibility of actualising alternative ways of being and acting in the world.

A key finding of this study is emergent forms of reflexivity informing the praxis of activism. Those emergent forms relate with the reflexive capacities to: (i) underlabour reflexivity; (ii) tap into the ground-state; (iii) practice selflessness; and (iv) adopt ‘grounded’ optimism. While further research is needed, this study suggests that these emergent reflexive capacities are linked to an increased understanding of the interconnectedness of all beings. This awareness, in turn, offers a solid base for enhanced agency towards resisting and transforming the different forms of oppression historically emergent in the workings of capitalism.

Keywords: Critical Realism, Activism, Reflexivity, Internal Conversation, Morphogenetic Approach, Neoliberal University

Subject: Education thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2021
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Ben Wadham