May 17, 2012

Sociology and Social Activism

clip_image001By Janis Prince Inniss

My undergraduate yearbook holds a treasured picture. It’s a picture of me and some friends standing on a shut-down Kissena Boulevard in front of Queens College, the City University of New York (CUNY). We were protesting a proposed hike in tuition that would have seen tuition increase from $1,250 a year. Initially, there was a proposal to raise tuition by $200 annually, but the Governor vetoed that proposal because of student marches and occupations of buildings. Here is a New York Times quote about the protest:

At Queens College in Flushing, students seized Jefferson Hall, which houses the offices of the bursar and the registrar, and blocked traffic at Cassena (sic) Boulevard and Horace Harding Boulevard, student leaders there said.

The pictures from my yearbook include one of students in front of Jefferson Hall; the student occupation of buildings went on for days at about two-thirds of the 21 CUNY campuses.

clip_image002Sociologists theorize. They study. They do all this research. They write articles and books that nobody but themselves can understand. They teach us about these things and seem so passionate about our social world. But do they ever really do anything about anything? (Do you think there is activist merit in writing, conducting research, and teaching?)

Indeed, some of us do. In this post, I’m going to share some of the ways that sociologists have engaged in activism and describe how we use our special knowledge and skills to do so; I will also describe some other strategies that people have used to try changing our world.

A recent New York Times article described some of the ways that social scientists have become involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement. The movement has been studied (of course!) by social scientists, but they have also taught classes on the subject, conducted research, given lectures, and written about it.

More of the same you say? How about sociologist Alex S. Vitale who gave a demonstration on resisting police? Or Héctor Cordero-Guzmán—another sociologist—who designed an online survey to learn about the participants of the movement; from that study we get some of the earliest demographic data on those involved in the movement.

Jeffrey Juris, an anthropologist, has not only held strategy sessions, but has also been involved in the creation of the Occupy Research website which allows those in the movement to share “ideas, research questions, research methods, tools, datasets, and (work) to gather, analyze, discuss, write, code, and otherwise develop the theory and practice of occupy research together.” Findings from a survey on the website indicate the activities that Occupy participants have been engaged in the following activities:

  • Meeting face-to-face
  • Posting on Facebook
  • Signing petitions
  • Marching in protests
  • Donating money
  • Donating goods
  • Making telephone calls to elected officials
  • Organizing events/actions
  • Writing blogs
  • Making videos
  • Getting arrested

If you’re thinking about becoming involved in a cause, this list might give you some ideas about things you could do.

A while back I wrote about Arizona’s HB 2281 being signed into law. As a reminder, HB 2281 prohibits education that will “promote resentment toward a race or class of people”. Essentially, the law bans ethnic studies programs in public schools. While I was busy writing about this issue, some of the students and teachers filed a lawsuit to challenge it; their argument is that the law in Arizona violates their First Amendment rights.

There have also been marches and protests about the law in Arizona—organizers and participants have made use of social media to help organize these in many areas of the country. (See for example, this Facebook page with information about a protest march regarding the Arizona law, planned for San Diego.)

Another response to the ethnic studies law in Arizona has been the institution of the Librotraficantes or “book smugglers.” As “book smugglers”, teachers, students and other activists embarked on a bus trip through Texas and New Mexico, which ended in Arizona. Along the way, the “book smugglers” collected books donated for the cause, and held readings by some of the authors whose work will no longer be read as the ethnic studies classes have been halted. The books that have been donated will go to what are being called “underground libraries” where several copies of each targeted book will kept.

Are you considering becoming an activist? What are some of the reasons that cause you to hesitate? One legitimate concern that many people have is that there will be negative consequences if they speak out. Due to his involvement in the Arizona debate about ethnic studies, for example, one Tucson teacher’s contract was not renewed. Losing a job, being shunned by friends and colleagues are all possible consequences of taking a stand. Are there any sociological causes worth these consequences to you?

Sociology as a field covers a vast array of topics and more than likely there will be at least one that stirs your sense of civic responsibility. What prevents you from getting involved? If you have been an activist, what spurred you on? Exactly, which activities do you think qualify as “activist”?


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While I was reading this,i was thinking that really wasnt alot of protesting and stuff like that going on before the back to war movements and the hippies etc. So it got me thinking, that this was a big social change in our society, people were becoming more outspoken and standing up for what they beleived in, not backing down, simply because some guy in a uniform said too. Along with that challenge of authority, people started to jump on the band wagon and do what others were doing. You mentioned the Occupy Wall Street, and i think when it started it was just in New York and certainly wasnt the whole city. And look how many people started getting in on the scene. More people in NY and alot more people all across the country! This big social change that happened so many years ago has stuck with society and really altered how everyone behaves- for the good and the bad.

Interesting insights. I am trying to subscribe to the blog but there is an error.

Reading this I realized the rights you had in this situation. You had the freedom to say what you wanted and stand up for what you believe in. A lot of people don't realize today that what you have to say matters and you have the right to say it.

It is very interesting to think about the rights that everyone in the US has. During this protest you were able to meet as a group and speak your minds. A lot of people in our society think they don't have a big enough voice to change anything, but we really do matter.

fear ,of losing job,yes i agree with you ,its 50-50,either you succeed or b silent forever

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