Research or Represent

Can an academic, searching for their place in a professional community, with all of their concerns and responsibilities also represent themselves as influential activist?  How can one engage in professional research, produce journals and texts, maintain their academic reputation and appearance, as well take part in activism ranging from protests to blogging and social media posts.  Also, if it is possible to do both, should it be done?

Being an Activist

Paul Rogat Loeb has written a fantastic book that contains convincing accounts of how persons of all backgrounds and resources can become influential activists.  One statement Loeb (2010), makes that I found influential to those considering activism is “Yet for all the frustration we expect, when we do get involved, we get a lot back: new relationships, fresh skills, a sense of empowerment, pride in accomplishment” (p. 21).  Loeb challenges preconceived notions of who fits the mold of an activist with varied accounts ranging from an account of Virginia Ramirez who started out as an eighth grade dropout to becoming an influential activist with the COPS organization, to Harvard Law School professor Derrick Bell who refused to teach until hiring practices for women changed.  Central to Loeb’s writing is the message that anyone can stand up for what they believe in, represent others struggling from a challenge, make impactful change, and in doing so become an activist.  Anyone considering the academic and/or activist debate would do well to read Loeb’s Soul of a Citizen Text.

Being an Academic

Academics, from tenured established professionals to aspiring, graduate students engaging in research for the first time, have unique concerns when considering a role in activism.  Academics is an elite institution, composed of formal relationships and formal methodologies, centered on forwarding academic knowledge and tradition.  For established academics involvement in activism can appear as unprofessional, a waste of time, something younger less experienced engage in, and a smear on the academic community and tarnish a reputation among colleagues.  Less experienced academics potentially damage their future academic opportunities, engage in unscientific activity, and place themselves in the company of public audiences-certainly not a scholarly crowd some would say.  Indeed as stated in Flood, Martin, and Dreher’s journal (2013), “these and other forms academic activism can be risky” (p. 17).  Academics, as an example public sociologists, considering activism have additional concerns exclusive to their profession.

In Support of Collaboration-Be an Academic and an Activist (*additional readings)

  1. Combining Academia and Activism

From the University of Wollongong, there comes validity and support for academics to engage in activism.  From Flood, Martin, and Dreher (2013), “Academics can engage in and contribute to activism in various ways” (p. 17).  Martin and colleagues in their article discuss challenges associated with academics engaging in activism, such as threats, peer pressure, and silencing tactics, and in response include methods to address these challenges (Dreher, Flood, Martin, 2013).  Flood, Martin, and Dreher’s article reference four examples of the interface between academia and activism, including:

  1. Means to produce knowledge that connects with progressive social change
  2. Engaging in research that directly involves social change
  3. Progressive teaching strategies
  4. Reconstruction of institutional relationships

(Dreher, Flood, Martin, 2013).

Dreher, Flood, and Martin’s conclusions perhaps provide the most relevant information for a basic understanding of academics and activists.  Mentioned is the important consideration that those academics seeking to engage in activism should not act alone but rather consult with others in their community that have experience in activism.  Dreher, Flood, and Martin (2013) recommend “Talking to others facing the same dilemmas, and building friendships and support groups can be immensely valuable” (p. 25).  In addition it is advised that there is not a single plan of action that applies to all situation but rather that academics should consider multiple pathways to activism that will reduce their level of risk.

2. Toward a Self-Defined Activist-Academic Career in Sociology

Dr. Eric Grollman contributes to the debate regarding academics also acting as activists with personal accounts as well as references to academic professionals who double as activists.  Dr. Grollman (2014) states “Let me start by removing the question — “can one be an academic and an activist?”—from the table.  Yes it is possible”.  Grollman in this statement is eluding to the rhetorical nature of the question, and even more so leading to the question “should academics also be activists?”.  Dr. Grollman includes in his writing an interesting section that debates whether or not activism and science mix, which is an important consideration, especially knowing the arguments for and influences academics has on keeping to themselves.  The topic of publish or perish is discussed, along with the academic community’s desire to maintain a level of prestige that may be tainted by professionals engaging in activism.  Dr. Grollman includes the mention of sociological academics, both past such as W.E.B. Dubois and C. Wright Mills, along with contemporaries such as Patricia Hill Collins and Kimberle Crenshaw, all of who were also activists.  Dr. Grollman (2014) concludes with support for academics and activism, especially in concern of young, minority academics “Seeing the doubt that students from marginalized backgrounds experience, particularly in graduate school, makes it particularly important to support activist-leaning academics”.

3.  STEPS-JNU Symposium

Elisa Arond, a doctoral student at Clark University has also contributed to the debate about academics who consider and/or engage in activism.  Elisa discusses two main points, one, the individuals role in contribution to social change, and secondly, to the apparent division between knowledge production and social change.  In discussion of the latter, Elisa speaks about those who are involved both in knowledge production and social change, and in my opinion her tone of writing eludes to it being a relatively easy task.  A quote from Arond (2014) “These ardent activists were, and continue to be, integrally involved in knowledge production ….—and see activism and knowledge production as complementary or integrated pursuits” provides support for the collaboration between the two.  Arnod’s writing mirrors that of others in terms of risk factors, such as establishing an academic career before risking opportunity but also includes information about how institutional structures discourage activism.  Most impactful from Arond’s writing in my opinion are the comments regarding the purpose of knowledge production and the tie to social change.  Arnod (2014) makes a great point in the statement “but also to unearth the creativity and alternative institutional structures or ways of doing that allow for more fruitful links between knowledge producers—wherever they may be located—and the spaces where knowledge may shape, transform, sustain or stimulate meaningful change”.



Barlow, L. (2016). Academic vs. activist? Retrieved from

Dreher, T., & Flood, Michael, Martin, Brian. (2013). Combining Academia and Activism.55(1), 17, 25.

Grollman, E. A. (2014). Toward a Self-Defined Activist-Academic Career in Sociology. Retrieved from

Kallis, G. (2014). STEPS-JNU Symposium: “are you an academic or an activist?”. Retrieved from

Loeb, P. R. (2010). Soul Of A Citizen: Living With Conviction In Challenging Times. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

4 comments on “Blog VI: Activism and/or Academics

  • This is great, Beni. I really like that you included the video. Did you know Dr. Grollman is a sociologist at University of Richmond? I was one told once by a mentor–what someone does pre-tenure (and now, there’s a lot of folks who aren’t even tenure-eligible) is what they’ll do post-tenure. With over 70% of new hires in the academy being non-tenure track hires, I wonder how this will influence people’s ability to be activists, should they chose. In many ways, with more precarious jobs (contingent faculty–adjuncts and full time lecturers, such as myself), I wonder if this will actually dissuade people from engagement. I also wonder your thoughts on various disciplines–do some disciplines, like sociology, have more of a moral imperative to be activists, than say, chemists?

  • Dr. Katz,
    I was unaware that Dr. Grollman was a sociologist at U or R, great to have another local on the team. I found the readings on tenure very enlightening. I was unaware of the scope of stress and concern from young academics to receive tenure-so much so that they sacrifice experiences with non-academic audiences they started out wanting to serve. The 70% statistic speaks volumes about trends in the profession and in my opinion would lead more sociologists to engage more in public sociology. Academics who realize the trend is moving away from hiring tenured professionals that would lead them in other directions, one of which could be more time in the field. In terms of individuals in other disciplines and their involvement in activism, I would right off hand say yes, public sociologists have a greater obligation to serve the public. Sociology goes hand in hand with activism, community engagement, and understanding of social systems in order to identify, address, and make impactful change in societies. Other areas of study that carry the same responsibilities include environmental science, health care, and social work. Within these areas of study there is an inherent focus on improving conditions and educating others to increase awareness of their impact and how progress can be made.

    • Great thoughts, Beni. Yes, it’s really interesting to see the future of higher ed. In one respect, I see what you’re saying–more public sociology. In another, I wonder about time and commitments and depending on what that public sociology would look like, whether people are willing to engage. I agree with you re: the obligation to serve the public in Sociology, and other related disciplines.

  • Beni,

    I really like how you summarized all the readings and external blogs in one post. Thank you for including the post by Dreher, Flood, and Martin: Combining academia and activism: Common obstacles and useful tools. It includes a really descriptive account of how one can deal with academia and activism together. While reading this week’s text and other readings, I came to a conclusion that there should be a healthy balance of both professional and activist work in a life of an academic. The article by Dreher et al was very important in understanding the aspects of such perspective. How to manage both successfully? I think academics do have an advantage of knowledge and information when it comes to activism. However, like Dreher et al suggest that activists face challenges such as threats and peer pressure. I went through that article to understand more about author’s perception of combining academia and activism. I thoroughly enjoyed and agree with the table 1 on page number 24. It includes the summarized tips and strategies to deal with such dilemmas, specific to each issue an academic might face while involved in activism. I think those guidelines are for every academic who wants to be involved in activism. I have taken a screenshot of it and saved it in my collection. Thank you for introducing the article.

    The textbook readings for this week were really interesting. I especially liked that they included the examples of ordinary citizens becoming activists motivated by their personal or societal issues. I am still in a very initial phase of my sociology career. So, I consider myself ordinary citizen more than an academic. However, the current political climate and the unpredictability of highly skilled non-immigrant visas (which I have) has forced me to look at this problem through the lens of sociology. When I read about ordinary citizen’s plight to feel like “I need to take care of this issue”, I understand it because those are my thoughts right now. It makes me realize that one should be an activist and support the issue about which they are really passionate and care about. And then if they are an academic they should bring their own knowledge and expertise as an contribution to resolving that specific issue and they may also use their position in academia to influence policy change.

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