Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Review: Learning from the Ground Up

[Aziz Choudry and Dip Kapoor, editors. Learning from the Ground Up: Global Perspectives on Social Movements and Knowledge Production. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2010.]

This is one of those books that I kind of read by accident -- and I'm very glad I did.

I had a chance to have a look at it when one friend was lending it to another friend, and it just didn't grab my attention based on that quick inspection. I think I hastily lumped it into a particular category of books in which it does not really fit. Those books, which I used to read occasionally but haven't in some time, are collections of essays about social movements and other struggles from around the world that have lots of description, lots of dry 'facts,' and lots of a particular kind of analysis (usually straight-up political economy or conventional sociology, or something similar). Their authors probably identify them as being rooted in and contributing to struggles for social change but the way they are put together has always made them feel quite disconnected to me, and not terribly relevant to my own choices as I figure out how to act in the world.

I'm thankful that after he was done with it, one of those friends encouraged me again to give it a look. This allowed me to see that its resemblance to that class of past reads was superficial at best. Yes, it has essays on movements and struggles from around the world. However, its primary focus is not political economy but rather knowledge production as part of social movement struggles -- knowledge production by and within movements, not knowledge about or related to movements produced from without. This focus interests me for its own sake, because my own book project using interviews with activists as a starting point to get at histories of Canadian movements (and Canada itself) has forced me to think a lot about knowledge production that is grounded in and useful to social movements. However, I think this focus for Learning from the Ground Up also means that the essays it includes provide accounts of struggle that can be read by other activists in much more practically useful ways -- that is, that provide the appropriate information such that other people acting to change the world can read it and understand what was done, why it was done, and what it did, and derive lessons they can apply in their own situations. I found this to be true even for struggles happening in contexts radically unlike my own.

It's hard to say much else that applies to the collection as a whole, because the locations, the kinds of movements, and even the ways in which they talk about knowledge production are all so different. Some focus on the practices used in constituting a particular movement, such as the excellent article on the vibrant work in Toronto to promote the call from many civil society groups in Palestine for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel until the apartheid by that state is ended. Some focus more on knowledge production in the context of the conscientization of grassroots participants, as with the article about organizing among marriage migrants in Taiwan. Then there is one about popular, collective media creation, written about filmmaking as a tool for social change among Mi'kmaq and settler fishing communities in the Mi'kmaq Nation territory now called Nova Scotia. A particularly inspiring one for me was the essay on anti-privatization efforts by a militant trade union in Colombia, where knowledge production was both part of deliberate cultivation of a consciousness of solidarity among union members and members of the broader community, as well as a way of producing tools based on professional knowledge for strategic use by workers in the course of struggle. The look at critical worker education in Canada and the U.S. was also really good. And there were also interesting essays looking at the building of a collective analysis through reciprocal processes among taxi drivers and organizers in New York; at dynamics of silencing and unsilencing of migrants as part of oppression/struggle in South Africa; and, at knowledge production as part of struggles over notions of identity and assumptions about shared interest and solidarity by dalits and adivasis in India. And more. In most cases, the descriptions of struggle were rich and respectful, rather than flat or shaped purely in the service of proving some thesis or other.

Another benefit to me of reading this book was that it pushed my attention up to the global context in ways that doesn't happen often enough. So much of my own research, reading, and writing focus on what goes on within the bounds of the canadian state. I try to take an approach that is organized around hearing different experiences and analyses and trying to understand the social relations that connect them, and certainly a focus on the social relations connecting different people and groups of people within the canadian state can do a lot to push a person's analysis towards the roots of things. However, there is still something missing if you don't regularly touch base with analyses and experiences grounded elsewhere. And this book was a great way for me to do that.

So please give this book a read -- it is more closely connected to your own struggles than it might at first appear.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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