ENG – Notes about activist research in SqEK

Some notes about the SqEK’s activist-research perspective

Miguel Martínez1

June, 2012

We could define SqEK as an information and social network of activist-researchers. This should be distinguished from a formal organisation; it is neither an institutionalised research group nor a research institute. Instead of formal externally imposed regulation, SqEK members reach particular consensus decisions which are valid until the next face-to-face meeting. Decisions are usually based on previous debates which have arisen through the email-list or during one of the regular encounters. Just as with squatting itself, no university, state agency, NGO or private company was behind the origin and development of SqEK, although members may use the resources of the institutions to which they belong in the course of participating in this activist-research network.

Membership in the network is also quite open and flexible. The first call to meet in Madrid in 2009 was addressed to researchers all over Europe who had published books or academic articles about squatting, but it was an open call that also appealed to students researching in this or related topics. Later meetings were even more public with the aim of inviting activists and people interested in squatting. New scholars, students, squatters and activists attended the presentations and discussions, although only a few remained involved in SqEK – those who did joined the e-mail list, or later wrote a short letter of introduction and motivation, and asked to join. Most of those who approached SqEK via Internet participated in the regular exchange of messages and in the upcoming meetings.

While the name chosen refers to the existence of a ‘collective’, this is a specific and variable outcome of the activities that all the members perform through the network. Every time we meet, gather in order to write a book or a special issue of a journal, or form a group in order to research a particular topic, we produce collectives. All are part of SqEK. The unitary name may be misleading. The way of working is as a ‘collective of collectives’, that is, as an active network producing research activities with a collective dimension. The general collective entity, then, has looser boundaries than the subgroups. However, these would not be possible without the general umbrella, and the flows of information which are constantly underway within the network.

At the end of the second meeting SqEK held in Milan in 2009, a “manifesto” and research agenda was written collectively and published soon after in ACME (e-journal of critical geography) and the ISA-RC-21 (International Sociological Association-Research Committee) newsletter. This text emphasised that “critical engagement, transdisciplinarity and comparative approaches are the bases of our project. (…) Self-funded research in different countries, internal meetings of the research group and public events are, at the present, our main activities. Diverse methods of research and theoretical frames are also remarkable aspects of our methodology.” At first glance, this declaration does not suggest any exclusive method or theory within SqEK. Nonetheless, there are some approaches that are strongly endorsed within this network.

SqEK encourages methodological approaches in which the researcher is critically engaged in squatting. This is an open and not uncontroversial issue, but at least, explicitly invites self-reflection on the researcher’s involvement with the practices and struggles carried on by squatters. There are different ways to express that engagement, from the researcher who lives as a squatter him/herself, to his/her availability to offer advice and information to squatters who request it. To make this commitment clear, we decided to hold public talks and debates with squatters in each of the cities where SqEK met. The same heterogeneity we observe within the squatters’ scenes is also present within the SqEK. There is no canonical model of the kind of activist-researcher that SqEK promotes, but the common ground is to consider this relationship crucial, and one which should be debated explicitly. We take it for granted that most who are affiliated with SqEK are sympathetic with squatting, or even joined this network due to their previous experiences as squatters. However this does not exclude critical perspectives regarding, for instance, squatters’ contradictions, failures and unintended effects.

“SqEK will seek to critically analyse the squatters’ movement in its relevant contexts (historical, cultural, spatial, political, and economic ), trying to involve the activists in the research practices, and sharing the knowledge thus produced with them and society. (…) Furthermore, in view of the diverse composition of our network we seek to challenge the traditional dichotomy between researchers and their subjects/objects of knowledge. Whenever possible, we would like to involve squatters and activists in our research practices, thus favouring a collaborative and dialogical approach to knowledge production in the belief that social movement activists, just as any other social actor, are themselves producers of knowledge. Consequently, we are not sure activists and academics are necessarily irreconcilable categories. Obviously they are irreconcilable if considered as identity “positions”. Things get a little muddled if we take the angle of the life- course of concrete individuals. One case in point is the composition of our research group. All of us (whatever our differences) are activists and the majority are full-time researchers. We are aware of the difficulty in reconciling the two positions, a difficulty has a lot to do with embedded (and embodied) structures of power. While we believe that this issue is worthy of investigation in our project, we are also aware that problematising our research persona commendable as it is, in our case runs the risk of essentialising our activist one. How should we try to challenge such (an apparently) neat distinction? How can these tensions be productively explored? In more general terms, what constitutes the “activist” activity as active as opposed to what other social actors (don’t) do, is it their “passivity”? In what sense are they “passive” actors? We are an open network and we would welcome participation, suggestions, contributions and collaboration to tackle such questions and investigating the research agenda we are proposing. ” (SqEK Research Agenda)

Therefore, SqEK is a means for researching about squatting, for making collaborative research withsquatters, and advancing public understanding of squatting. Cooperation, horizontality and direct democracy within SqEK are procedures of self-organising that stem from our past (or many members’) experiences in squatting groups. When possible, SqEK members have supported squats under threat of eviction, or disseminated information about different cases of squatting, autonomous social centres and other urban struggles. Activists’ networks and squats have been important for hosting attendees to SqEK meetings, without restricting this mutual aid to the squatting scene. In comparison to most conventional academic conferences, time limits for debates were more flexible in the SqEK meetings. It was familiarly assumed that the group would try consensus concerning organisational affairs of the network. On the other hand, intellectual controversies were always welcome if they were able to shed light on the topics under examination. The depth of the discussions also varied according to the type of participants in each given situation. SqEK also learned from the activist style of do-it-yourself, launching research projects funded at a very low-cost scale. Not least, it has been a relief for activist-researchers to discover that hundreds of European squatters are also “shadow researchers.” That is to say, they research about their environment and about their internal life worlds without calling themselves ‘researchers’. This is a non-institutional or counter-institutional way of producing movement’s knowledge. Activists may not be entirely aware of their contributions to the public knowledge of squatting, but many are highly educated and involved in the kinds of debates, publications, talks, video-making and campaigns which inform a research process. SqEK members feel themselves very tied to those kinds of self-research processes, although they also remain connected with academic debates, bibliographic references and theoretical elections which may be of interest for activists. In addition, several proposals of publication in a non-academic language, accessible to a wider audience, also emerged within the SqEK meetings in order to popularise this collaborative production of knowledge about squatting.

Indeed, activist or militant research suggests that the boundaries between activists and researchers are blurred2. This also means conflicts. Activists may consider some information secret, or sensitive due to political reasons. Some activists do not want to help individuals in their academic careers. Some researchers only see activism as an academic subject from a distant point of view, and are heedless of activists’ concerns. There is great diversity among activists, researchers and activists-researchers, so stereotypes tend to play a harmful role. In general, whether activist or researcher, nobody likes to be treated as an abstract, simplified and static research object. Thus, either activists, the main challenge for all the people involved in a project of activist research is to agree on the terms of the interactions, the means and goals of the cooperation, and the specific combination of subjective and objective analysis. Whatever form the research outcomes adopted, there is also an unavoidable political debate about public access to the knowledge produced, and about the intended and unintended effects of spreading the knowledge. Accordingly SqEK decided to promote, as much as possible, copy-left licenses and practices in our publications. Still, some arrangements and concessions need to be made when dealing with corporate journals, since these are the institutional requirements imposed on an individual engaged in an academic career. To ignore this would be detrimental to the stability of the institutional researchers.

Further, while transdisciplinarity is conventionally claimed for the social sciences since the 1970s, it is not so often brought into practice. Since the beginning of SqEK there has been a common concern for how sociologists, political scientists, geographers, anthropologists, historians, economists and others with many different intellectual backgrounds can work together3. The initial measures adopted consisted of a collective listing of research questions according to each members’ ways of thinking. These questions were grouped into five general dimensions: 1) long and medium term structural factors that make squatting possible; 2) analysis of “conflicts” and “dynamics”; 3) networks of social centres / squats, their politics and culture; 4) empirical case-studies; and 5) squatting in comparative perspective. Then two subgroups of SqEK members were formed in order to work on two research topics according to that general research agenda. These groups produced articles by combining the different disciplinary contributions of their members. Transdisciplinarity was also manifested in the critiques during the SqEK meetings when research developed from a particular social science was subject to comments and criticisms coming from other different social sciences as well as from other intellectual and activists’ perspectives. Therefore, these transdisciplinary debates had a relevant influence in the individual writings in spite of the apparent belonging to a single scientific domain.

Finally, the comparative approach has been strongly supported by all researchers involved since the network was first launched as a means of connecting people from different European cities and countries. Some of them had also sought to compare squatting in two or more cities. All of us sought to obtain and share a deeper knowledge of all European countries as a way of assessing the transnational character of this urban movement. Systematic comparisons point a way to overcome both local and descriptive stories about squatting. Comparisons are therefore conceived as a means to discover cross-national patterns and similar phenomena in different urban settings. In addition, the comparative perspective, systematically applied, obliged SqEK members to collect empirical data in each place according to the variables agreed upon by all the researchers involved. While these intentions framed the whole activity of the SqEK in the long run, some of the publications were only able to collect articles with a national or local scope, leaving the reader with the task of attempting the comparison by his/her own. Not least, SqEK members also produced local ethnographies and collections of squatting stories which were extremely helpful for the comparative efforts of other researchers.

1 A previous draft of this text has received the comments of Alan Moore, Claudio Cattaneo and Andrea Aureli.

2 However, we should recognise that specialised moments of activity may also occur. This means that certain operations involve either an almost exclusive political either scientific work.

3 There is a long dispute about the meaning of ‘transdisciplinarity’ in order to distinguish it from both ‘multidisciplinarity’ (the mere addition of different disciplines) and ‘interdisciplinarity’ (the interaction and mutual questioning between different disciplines). Transdisciplinarity, thus, should attempt to produce integrated knowledge beyond the disciplinary limits, this also including the academic boundaries. Therefore, activists’ knowledge, collaboration, political agendas and assessment may contribute to cross those boundaries.