Friday, 19 September 2014

Activist Scholarship in an International Resistance Project

By Stevienna de Saille, University of Sheffield

How do activists develop the knowledge they need in order to make credible claims, particularly in movements which deal directly with technology, rather than social identity? That question, combined with my own history as an environmental activist, an intense curiosity about the new biological fields which were emerging in the wake of the Human Genome Project, and my involvement with the Feminist Archive North (FAN), led me towards the topic of my PhD, discussed in an article  recently published in Sociological Research Online.

 As part of my work as a volunteer archivist at FAN, I had helped unpack a huge collection of books and documents belonging to the Feminist International Network of Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering (FINRRAGE), a loosely organised network of individuals and groups who had opposed the burgeoning permutations of reproductive technology, as well as bioengineering and genetic modification of plants and animals. Although largely associated with the writings of a small group of British, American and Australian feminists, during its international phase (1984-1997) it had representation in 37 countries ranging across all six inhabited continents, and is estimated to have included about 1000 women in national FINRRAGE groups and affiliated organisations. FINRRAGE groups continue to exist in  Japan, Australia and Bangladesh, and there are individual women outside these countries who still identify as FINRRAGE activists, but there had never been an internal hierarchy or an official membership list, making the network difficult to study through typical social movement models. FINRRAGE was not quite a movement of its own, not quite an umbrella organisation, and not merely an information-sharing network.

More important, I quickly found that FINRRAGE's form of 'resistance' was not accounted for in either resource mobilisation or new social movements theory. The network did not seek to promote mass street-level protest, and although local groups and individuals did occasionally create protest actions or join larger campaigns against specific technologies using the name of FINRRAGE, there was never a co-ordinated, FINRRAGE-sponsored international campaign. Instead, the women mainly engaged in what one respondent notably called 'demonstration in publication', a tactic which required verifiable facts -- such as success rates, risk factors and psychological impact of undergoing IVF -- which did not exist in the mid-1980s, when the network began. Because FINRRAGE had a disproportionate number of women in both industrialised and developing countries with advanced degrees, their strategy was therefore geared towards developing and communicating both technical and non-technical knowledge, so that women around the world could engage in public debate on their own terms.

How then to study this kind of activism? As a science and technology studies (STS) scholar, and a former activist who has frequently been asked to decipher highly technical publications to bolster the accuracy of campaign information leaflets, I have long been interested in the way knowledge functions as a component of protest. Within social movements theory there is one model which has been developed to study these kinds of questions, the cognitive praxis (CP) paradigm developed by Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison (1). This gives a formal structure through which the organisational, technical and cosmological (or underlying belief-system) aspects of a movement can be reconstructed through the documents it produces.

The FINRRAGE collection at FAN includes books and peer-reviewed articles published by FINRRAGE women in English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and other languages; a research archive of newspaper cuttings, scientific papers and governmental reports; as well as organisational correspondence, minutes, newsletters and other internal documents. Supplemented by lifecourse interviews with twenty-four FINRRAGE activists from a wide range of countries, it was therefore well-suited to a cognitive praxis approach.

The CP paradigm has some limitations which the case of FINRRAGE made clear – for example, despite its acknowledgement that science and society are intertwined, CP is still based on normative assumptions about science, scientists and technical experts existing in a separate sphere from the 'messy' movement field. FINRRAGE showed that both social and natural scientists can and do become centrally active in social movements, bringing their understanding of data, information, and evidence into the movement field to be shared and utilised, whether or not the topic of the movement corresponds to their professional expertise. While still identifying primarily as FINRRAGE activists, the women were able to carry out some of the first systematic studies on the experiences of women on IVF programmes, on clinical success rate reporting mechanisms, and on variability in dosage, outcome and side effects for the most common drug used for ovarian hyperstimulation, and to publish and use this counter-knowledge when arguing against scientific claims of safety and efficacy. FINRRAGE women also produced some of the first PhD dissertations in the area, thus helping to legitimise it as a valid topic within traditional disciplines, and for several years published a peer-reviewed journal, Issues in Reproductive and Genetic Engineering, which gave both academics and activists a specific arena in which to publish. Additionally, because various legislatures were intensely debating regulation of IVF and embryo experimentation at the same time FINRRAGE emerged, there was an unusual window of opportunity to offer a woman-centred analysis comprising both technical and social scientific expertise to these consultations, some of which is reflected in subsequent legislation.

Drawing from work on expertise and epistemic communities emanating from STS should help to overcome some of the limitations of the CP paradigm. However, as its use in the study of FINRRAGE showed, it can be an effective tool for studying the ways in which activists use social scientific data in order to create counter-arguments for new technologies whose systemic risks cannot actually be scientifically gauged. It also showed that some of FINRRAGE's technological topics, such as unregulated expansion of international commercial surrogacy, should remain of great social, as well as social scientific, concern. 

This blogpost is based on the following article, published in the August issue of Sociological Research Online: de Saille, S. (2014) 'Fighting Science With SocialScience: Activist Scholarship in an International Resistance Project' 19 (3) 18. The Feminist Archive North is located in Special Collections of the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds.

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