Activated: Decentering Activism in and with Academia

A CSCW Workshop. Taking place Octover 24, 2021 (tbc)

++++ Send your submissions by September 17, 2021, midnight Anywhere On Earth to [hello at activatingacademia dot community] ++++

Who is an activist? With the advent of activism-related scholarship in HCI and CSCW, the current challenge involves thinking about what activism is, who an activist is, and the opportunities and limitations of activism. Recently, researchers in academia and industry, such as Timnit Gebru, demonstrate a commitment to stay activated for the structural changes we need, for example, diverse and inclusive scholarship, to address overlapping problems, e.g., sexism, racism, and tokenism. Additionally, there is a continuing dominance of Western, formally educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (WEIRD) perspectives. Countering this requires collective efforts in, citational justice and decolonial computing, among others. But such complex issues do not yet cover the inner conflicts that we face, such as mental health struggles while dismantling the prejudices stemming from the ivory tower, locating our privileges as academics while traversing less privileged locales of research sites, or the dilemmas on whether we are doing enough to fulfill our responsibilities to the people who have trusted us enough to work with us in the face of "publish or perish" culture. This workshop explores what activism means within the CSCW community and how we can remain activated while harboring doubts and hopes in calling ourselves "activists".

Potential Workshop Themes

The workshop will address a variety of aspects related to activism in CSCW and HCI work. Together, we will explore disparate but related topics such as understanding what activism is and how we can integrate it in our research, but we will also address the need to unsettle our understandings thereof within the academy. While the final themes we will discuss at the workshop will partially depend on participant submissions, we present three themes below which we have identified and which should serve as inspiration to potential participants.

Understanding activism

In this theme, we are interested in exploring different notions, understandings, and definitions of activism and how it relates to our academic work. What is understood and recognised as "activism" and which goals are recognised as legitimate might depend on the historical and political particularities of specific contexts as well as preferences for individualistic or collectivist approaches. To better understand activism, we have subdivided it into three sub-themes: (a) understanding differences in activist practices and reasons why we can or cannot call ourselves activists, (b) harms caused to ourselves and others because of our activism (and conversely also the positive aspects that come along with calling ourselves activists), and (c) explorations of the invisible work of activism and its impacts.

Position papers may respond to questions such as: What activities do we understand as activism? How do regional, cultural, geographic, language or other contexts shape our understanding and goals of activism? What kinds of activities and actions are recognised as activism, and why may or may they not be recognised as such? What are some of the cultural, political, and social risks surrounding activism?

Academic-activist relationships

In our second theme we move beyond our understanding of activism and instead address the impacts that this way of working has. It relates to the different ways academic work can relate to activist work, but also to the relationships that come about when engaging in activist-leaning work in our academic spaces. This relates for example to our interpersonal relationships with others inside and outside academia, as well as our more structural approaches to relationships in our research groups, departments, or university administration and management. This theme also relates to the relationships we have with the structures that govern our work on disciplinary, structural, or institutional levels. We also consider various burdens, e.g., psychological trauma, that academic activists carry.

Position papers may address questions such as: What are the actual and potential relationships that exist between activism and academia? How do academics and academic institutions engage with or relate to activism within and outside the academy? What structural and/or disciplinary hurdles and difficulties exist to create frictions in our activist-academic practices? And in what kinds of cases are these kinds of frictions useful or harmful to our activist-academic practices? What kind of support can be offered in both academia and outside to ameliorate individuals' activism fatigue that can leave physical, psychological, and emotional scars?

Unsettling activism and critiquing community fetishism

The third theme deals with often unintended side effects as well as motives behind activism. There are various forms of activism (e.g. guerilla activism), and what goals are attached to diverse forms of activism in different places and communities require a greater reflection. Hence, while a researcher's motivation may be to better understand a specific form of activism of a locale, this can be seen as community fetishism by people within that locale. Tokenism, in addition, may be at play in two ways: a tokenistic involvement of an insider as a community member and/or researcher and a tokenistic treatment of the ethos of specific activist efforts without in-depth and committed understanding of why such activism exists in the first place. This can lead to (false) labeling and shallow engagement. For instance, we greatly lack a follow up on which (academic) technologies have been appropriated by grassroots initiatives, i.e., traces of activism as a long-haul and collaborative effort that is not based on publication cycles.

Position papers may address questions such as: Given the different ways that activism is understood and recognised within and outside of academia, how can we be truly inclusive of local perspectives rather than risking tokenistic involvement? What value conflicts may arise during different phases of activism, e.g., Western ideas of democracy vs. local norms? How can we avoid fetishizing diverse communities, norms, and abilities as academic activists? In what ways can we better support long-term activism efforts with and through CSCW as a community?


With the workshop, our goals are (1) to build solidarity and community among researchers who are engaged in or interested in learning more about the relationship between activism and academia in our field, (2) to share expertise among people and communities who engage in different forms of activism (such as, but not limited to disability justice, gender justice, racial justice, or workers rights), (3) to give early career researchers an understanding of and tools to engage with an activist academic practice, (4) to encourage senior academics to step into their privilege and power to tackle injustices at their institutions, within the ACM, and in other spaces, (5) to better understand some of the risks involved in this kind of work, and to unsettle our own perceptions of the 'activist' impact of our academic work.