Posted by Simona Sarma

My recently-completed M.Phil. Thesis explored how folk music as part of culture can become a means to augment identity politics and at the same time be a recourse for women who seek to question the dominant gender stereotypes through folk songs. Throughout this period, I have been constantly besieged with thoughts that have pushed me to question the very notions of research and academia.

I am literally forced to draw a distinction between ‘research’ and ‘research practice.’ Can my research translate into practice? Can it bring about grass-root changes? What is its relevance today?

My peers often discuss the way that questions of ‘on-ground changes’ loom large in their day-to-day banter with common people. ‘Ye karke kya hoga?’ (What outcome will this bear?) is often a common comment to our work (the Women’s Studies background adds further fuel to this argument!). I then find it difficult to justify my research as bringing about direct benefit to the people.

But why is this justification always necessary? Is working ‘for’ others the only means of creating change? Can’t we be true to our research and hope that every piece of work adds some positivity and brings about some change or the other?

According to me, the arguments that question the relationship between research and practice often stem from an understanding that there exists a clear-cut distinction between ‘research’ and ‘activism.’ Especially with the ever-growing culture of protest, ‘doing research’ seems like something which remains only on paper, while activism seeks to bring about substantive changes in the world. Largely people would say, do something rather than just write.

‘doing research’ seems like something which remains only on paper, while activism seeks to bring about substantive changes in the world.

This drawing of artificial boundaries is what I would like to critique. I believe that any form of research can bring about important varied perspective on the everyday aspects of our lives. This may seem naïve at the moment, but research is essential for us to move forward and develop deeper understanding of “common-sense” issues. If people do not develop critical understanding to societal issues (that are both rampant as well as hidden), I see no progress.

I still remember my first class of Sociology at my alma mater Miranda House. My professor began with the statement, “It is time to go beyond common sense and see the sociology within it.” That sentence stuck with me. I try to hold on to it while exploring any thought, idea or event.

For me, women who choose to be a part of academia and choose not to engage in protests, given the various kinds of politics associated with such movements, do so with their own rationale and limitations. When I say, ‘politics of movements,’ I mean the various exclusionary practices that people may indulge in during and also as part of protests.

I remember reading a beautiful article by Johanna Hedva called Sick Woman Theory. Living with chronic illness, she posed certain very important and valid questions with regards to ‘protests’ and being political. For instance, she asks, who gets to be a part of the public? And more specifically who’s in charge of the public? Her questions bring out the exclusions prevailing in protest spaces too (based on several parameters like disability, sexuality, limitations of resources, depreciating levels of self-confidence, etc.)

If people do not develop critical understanding to societal issues (that are both rampant as well as hidden), I see no progress.

Reading this empowering article brought several thoughts into my mind, especially how doing research and writing feminism into it can itself be a kind of activism for several of the women out there. Writing, for many, does provide the space to critique and question the world of the various power structures that try to oppress and silence us in very many ways. Notwithstanding the various politics associated with writing itself, it will be “un-political” of us to not engage in a medium like writing, which can give us the power we have always wanted. Writing does not only have to restrict itself to academia. There have been several instances of Dalit feminists, for example, wielding the pen in writing songs, poems, plays, etc., as part of protest movements.

Having established the importance of writing, I wish to comment on how academic research (which is largely premised on writing) can also contribute to ‘doing feminism’. Yes, many feminist projects have seen success largely through movements and protests that women engage in. I do not wish to disparage the several rights and opportunities we have been able to achieve because of these powerful revolutions.

Also Read: The Historical Journey Of Rape Laws In India

However, I do not want to consider academia as distinct from them. It is through the work of several academicians that such movements have gotten their momentum. In fact, several of the policy changes today are based on research done by various institutes and researchers. The various think-tanks that have now sprouted in different parts of the country are a testimony to the wide range of researches that are equally important in this climate of protests.

Therefore, what if we establish academia as an alternative space of protest? I have always been very shy, which inevitably led to my fear of public-speaking. Such fears have often discouraged me from speaking, even within the space of classrooms. As a result, I would often find recourse in writing and expressing my thoughts and ideas through it. Therefore, academia for me has been a liberating force that allows me to learn and also apply my learnings in a way that provides me with an intense feeling of fulfilment. For me, doing research is equally a form of activism.

what if we establish academia as an alternative space of protest?

However, this is not to say that academia itself is free of power politics. It is important to recognize that the space of institutions themselves can be very biased in a way that only certain people with privileges get to be a part of its commune. I do understand that the axes of caste, class, gender, sexuality, disability, etc., play an important role in deciding who can become a ‘researcher’ and hence who ends up being ‘researched.’

Striving to move beyond this binary is something feminists have widely talked about and indulged in. Therefore, engaging in research in a way that we recognize our privileges as researchers is extremely crucial. Only if we consider these dimensions can we consider academia as a valid space of activism. And it is, in fact, high time we move away from the conventional understandings of activism and engage in “activism” in the myriad ways possible.


Simona is currently a PhD Scholar in the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, TISS Mumbai. You can follow her on Facebook

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