Activism: Deviation

From the Series: Activism

Photo by Jonathan Harrison.

Beyond Established Models and Pathways

My first reaction upon learning of the intellectual and political uproar surrounding Thomas Piketty's recent book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (see Haugerud), was one of mild amusement and sarcastic disdain: "capitalism produces inequality, what a groundbreaking discovery!" After speaking with many activist and intellectual colleagues, I realized I was not alone. To be fair, I have not yet read Piketty's sizeable tome—I tried to buy it on the same day Krugman's op-ed column on the book came out in The New York Times, and not surprisingly it was sold out everywhere. It now sits in a stack on my night table along with Matt Taibi's Divide (2014), which addresses similar themes, and a fascinating account of Neandertal mental life and culture called How to Think Like a Neandertal (Wynn and Coolidge 2012). Perhaps it makes sense to think about the return to pre-depression era levels of inequality as resulting from "neandertal economics."

Despite the tendency of many self-defined "radicals" to dismiss such popular debates as naïve—a mere diversion (dare I say "deviation") from whatever critical tasks may be at hand—we do so at our own peril. Such discussions represent an important opportunity to intervene in the shaping of political and economic reality, and the fact that they are happening cannot be disconnected from social justice activism and organizing. What is required is to break out of our academic and activist ghettos and use such popular debates as an opening to "provoke" critical thought and action and to "translate" between different visions, languages, and concerns, as this forum tries to do. This is also precisely the work of activists and critically engaged ethnographers. And it requires a firm commitment to deviation: "an action, behavior, or condition that is different from what is usual or expected" (Merriam-Webster).

Deviation is important to activist and ethnographic practice on many levels. For one, breaking out of our intellectual and political comfort zones can help us reach out to many more people, and the force of numbers is a prerequisite for any kind of radical change, whether in relation to inequality, climate justice, or myriad forms of racial, class, and cultural domination. Moreover, what books such as Pikkety's, as well as movements such as Occupy or the global justice movement before it, ultimately call for is a deviation from the status quo; not just in relation to neandertal economics, but also in terms of how we perceive and understand the world and our place within it. Radicals take this one step further, seeking to de-naturalize dominant forms of knowledge, subjectivity, sociality, and socio-political organization in order to imagine (and begin to build) possible alternatives. In many ways this is also part of the classic vocation of cultural anthropology—from Boas and Mead to the present—and why so many of us, as evident in Osterweil's (2013) perceptive piece, deviate from Hale's (2006) distinction between cultural critique and activist research (see also Juris and Khasnabish 2013).

In this sense, what counts as activism and what counts as engaged ethnography are variable and open to interpretation. With regard to the latter, my own research has moved between militant forms of ethnographic practice—with global justice movement networks in Barcelona (Juris 2008) and, most recently, with free radio collectives in Mexico City (Juris 2012)—and more formalized kinds of relationships with Boston-based grassroots organizations in the context of the U.S. Social Forum (Juris et al. forthcoming). The informal, largely middle-class character of the groups I worked with in Barcelona and Mexico City allowed for a more fluid and intimate, though not unproblematic, form of ethnographic engagement. In Boston however, the greater race, class, and other power differentials between me and my collaborators, who were from largely working-class people-of-color communities, required a more contractual relationship where our research would help the organizations involved conceptualize and assess the impact of the U.S. Social Forum in relation to their goal of "movement building."

Just as it is important to deviate from pre-established models of engaged ethnographic research, the same can be said for diverse forms of activism. Too often, observers and activists pit one mode of activist practice against another: direct action vs. lobbying, performative protest vs. community organizing, electoral activism vs. self-management, militancy vs. non-violence, art vs. politics, etc. These are age-old tensions, and the very real political contradictions they capture should not be denied. Yet powerful movements require broad constituencies and multiple strategic visions and pathways. Effective organizers are often precisely those who are able to understand the logics of diverse activist communities and find ways of inter-linking them, while recognizing strategic openings for particular kinds of ideas and innovative practices. This is why good organizers are often skilled ethnographers, and vice versa (Juris 2008). And this is also why radicals should not be so quick to dismiss the recent debates surrounding Monsieur Piketty.


Hale, Charles R. 2006. "Activist Research v. Cultural Critique: Indigenous Land Rights and the Contradictions of Politically Engaged Ethnography." Cultural Anthropology 21(1):96-120.

Juris, Jeffrey S. 2008. Networking Futures: the Movements against Corporate Globalization. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Juris, Jeffrey S. 2012. "Frequencies of Transgression: Notes on the Politics of Excess and Constraint among Mexican Free Radios." In Radio Fields: Anthropology and Wireless Sound in the 21st Century, edited by Lucas Bessire and Daniel Fisher, 160-178. New York: New York University Press.

Juris, Jeffrey S. and Alex Khasnabish. 2013. "Introduction: Ethnography and Activism within Networked Spaces of Transnational Encounter." In Insurgent Encounters: Transnational Activism, Ethnography, and the Political, edited by Jeffrey S. Juris and Alex Khasnabish, 1-34. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Juris, Jeffrey S., Erica G. Bushell, Meghan Doran, J. Matthew Judge, Amy Lubitow, Bryan Maccormack, and Christopher Prenner. Forthcoming. "Movement Building and the United States Social Forum." Social Movement Studies.

Osterweil, Michal. 2013. “Rethinking Public Anthropology Through Epistemic Politics and Theoretical Practice.” Cultural Anthropology 28(4):598-620.

Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Taibbi, Matt. 2014. Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. New York: Spiegel and Grau.

Wynn, Thomas and Frederick L. Coolidge. 2012. How to Think Like a Neandertal. Oxford: Oxford University Press.