Knowledge is produced in social movements: NMMU gathering

FEBRUARY 17, 2016

A MOVEMENT like #FeesMustFall, with its protests, marches, sit-ins and meetings, is viewed by some as a disruption to formal learning – yet Aziz Choudry says the knowledge that emerges out of such movements should not be overlooked.

Choudry, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at McGill University in Canada and Visiting Professor at the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg, led a conversation on “learning and knowledge production in social movements” among students and staff at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University on February 10.

“Learning and education happens in many different settings. We learn in many different contexts.”

NMMU’s Education Department, which organised Choudry’s talk, said it would be the first of many where students and staff could get together to critically discuss and debate some of the issues facing South African universities today.

“We need the conversation to keep going,” said NMMU Education Lecturer Nadeema Musthan. “There are many other issues we should be talking about … We are trying to collaborate with people to make real change possible.”

Commenting on his own experiences in Canada, when Quebec students in 2012 were protesting over a 75% fee hike, proposed over a five year period, Choudry said: “I remember overhearing conversations like: ‘If these kids don’t want to learn, that’s fine.’ Some felt there was no learning in student mobilisation, only in formal classrooms … But we need to look at what kind of knowledge gets produced in movements for social change … A lot of important theory has intellectual depth that comes out of collective struggles for social change .”

He said knowledge about women’s rights and immigrants’ rights, for example, would likely not exist were it not for movements that were “under the radar, that were not acknowledged, because of their lack of place within the existing formal structures”.

In his own research, Choudry has pulled together theoretical and intellectual work produced in activist settings, together with his own personal history in social struggles. “I try to stand back and reflect on learning that took place in those moments.”

He said it was the knowledge, learning and ideas that emerged often informally and incidentally in political and social organizations, such as “sitting around having tea with different generations and different communities in meetings or [while putting together and] mailing out fundraising letters … What did we learn? What are the educational aspects of that?”

Choudry is very involved in the rights of immigrant and migrant workers in Canada, and is a board member of the Immigrant Workers’ Centre in Montreal. He says the relationships he forms with those on the ground are critical to gaining a real understanding of the learning that takes place and the knowledge produced.

How to document the knowledge arising from a social movement was also problematic, said Choudry. It would defeat the purpose to be turned into an academic paper for only a handful to see. Rather it should be drafted, taken back to those involved in the movement to come together to pull it apart, and then it should be reshaped.

Choudry said there was often an “indecent haste” among academics to produce papers about a social movement, rather than conducting comprehensive, more meaningful and relevant research, in real collaboration with those involved in the movement.

“We need research that deals with the needs or concerns of people rather than research that merely looks nice in order to seek funding – it’s a tension to think through.”