Friday, March 20, 2015

activist researchers and community up research as fresh words and deeds

One of the benefits of being at Uniting College is our connection with Flinders University. This includes their extensive professional development workshops. So yesterday, on a beautiful autumn morning, I found myself learning about models for successful post-graduate supervision.  I currently am involved in supervising 9 postgraduate students- 5 PHD students, 3 DMin, 1 MMin – so it was a morning bound to benefit not only myself, but a number of gifted, competent and hard-working colleagues in ministry.

During the morning, the presenter noted that only 15% of those who gain PhD’s in the United States find academic work. This is partly because of a shrinking job market and growth in PhD candidates. But it is also, according to research, because people study for many reasons. These include those who have no desire for an academic job. Instead, they research because they want to impact a group they are working with, or bring change to wider society.

A word began to rattle around in my head “activist researchers” – those who study in the hope of wider change.

It made sense of my own PhD journey. I was planting a new form of church and it was attracting considerable critique.  So the PhD was a change to think deeply about what I was doing. I deliberately wanted to expose my musings to rigorous processes of thought, both for my sake, for the sake of those who were joining this experiment in mission and for the sake of the church in society today.  Academic work (at that time) was the last thing on my mind. (Ironic now I realise :))

Now I’m not saying that those who find academic work are not activists! (I’d like to argue I’m an activist academic, but that’s for another post). I’m simply noting that this is a very different motivation from say those who study to get a good job, or to become a lecturer.

It also makes sense of the students I supervise.  Everyone of them has a question that has bugged them. They turn to post-graduate study in order to have a sustained period of in-depth reflection. The reward is personal and societal. They want to be better practitioners in their field, they want to be part of making a difference.  They also are “activist researchers.”

The church I serve, the Uniting Church, makes specific mention in it’s founding documents of scholarship.  Paragraph 11 of the Basis of Union acknowledges that God gives to the church “faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture.” What is interesting is how these scholars (and presumably their research?) is placed in this paragraph within an activist framework.  “The Uniting Church thanks God for the continuing witness and service of evangelist, of scholar, of prophet and of martyr.”  In other words, the Uniting Church does not conceive of the stand alone scholar (or the stand alone theological college). Instead, it envisages partnerships among evangelists, scholars, prophets and martyrs.  (Funny how we have theological colleges for scholars, but not colleges for evangelists, prophets and martyrs).

And the horizons, in the Basis of Union, for all these charisms is activist – “It prays that it may be ready when occasion demands to confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds.” The task of scholars and research is, in partnership with other parts of the body, to be a pilgrim people on mission.

This then suggests some interesting implications for research methodologies.  How do scholars work on partnership with these wider gifts? How does the thinking and writing serve these missional horizons?

At this point I’d turn to the Community Up framework provided by Linda Smith. In Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, she notes that the “term research is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism.” (4)   She advocates that we stop thinking about research from the perspective of the researcher, and instead consider those researched.  This involves “community up” research, in which the research practices are forms of critical pedagogy. They transform the world. (5)  Researchers “map concrete performances that lead to positive social transformations. They embody ways of resisting the process of colonization.” (12)

So this is activist research. It does not need itself to activate. But it does need to uncover the performances that will benefit the community. Which sounds to me like “fresh words and deeds.” And made me glad of the activist researchers that I know and work with.

Posted by steve at 10:46 AM


  1. I’ve been thinking about this, as I’ve been wondering if ethnography is a “normal” activist research methodology. I suspect that ethnography suited/suits you as an “insider” in a wider system: in the case of your PhD, as a church planter, doing something similar to the groups that you studied. The activist aim of your research was not to change the organisation you were studying, but to better understand that/those organisations so that you could help to bring about change in a wider structural setting. I suspect some/many of your students are studying for that purpose (and it is why I am doing my PhD). So i was wondering, but is it activist research? According to this article (, yes. Activist research is “use-oriented basic research” which is exactly what you did/do and what I am attempting also. In fact Hale’s description of activist research as a third way, in contrast with pure and applied, is very much in keeping with understandings of practical theology. So, hmmm, may be rewriting the preface to my thesis. I like such a definition of practical theology.

    Comment by Lynne Taylor — March 20, 2015 @ 12:20 pm

  2. This would then fit with some of my lectures on change management I’ve done, when I’ve talked about change, in light of Certeau’s tactics, as naming a system, mirroring it back on itself, in order that it integrates identity with activity, for change.


    Comment by steve — March 20, 2015 @ 12:32 pm

  3. true

    Comment by Lynne Taylor — March 20, 2015 @ 2:21 pm

  4. I’ve been advised by people to ‘write to discover, not to reveal,’ and this has never been more true than in the process of creating my thesis that Steve helped supervise. It was a huge journey of discovery – not just about a fascinating period of ministry, but about myself too.

    Comment by Bruce Grindlay — March 20, 2015 @ 7:35 pm

  5. That’s lovely thanks Bruce,


    Comment by Steve — March 20, 2015 @ 11:01 pm

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