The dissertation for my MRes in Geography, available here, was research with London Renters Union into member engagement during a period of high growth in the organisation. From the beginning I designed the research to have two outcomes, one being the dissertation, the other being the work with the union, and a small report I put together specifically for them at the end.
It might seem strange to many academics to think about producing two outputs for one piece of research, but what happened with those two outputs I think justifies my approach. Nobody who has read the dissertation has read the report I wrote for the renters union. Nobody who has read the report I wrote for the union has read the dissertation.
Alas academia finds it very hard to produce work of interest to social movements. A fair few people have tried to square this circle, most notably Laurence Cox, who heads the journal Interface. But academia militates against being useful to social movements. It typically produces writing difficult to read and full of jargon and over-use of words like ‘articulate’. But more than that it usually seems to ask the wrong questions. Social movement research typically asks how a particular social movement is like other social movements. That can be a useful question, but often it is the differences that are of interest to the participants. They are absorbed in the particular, while academics want to make generalisations.
Generalisations can be useful when they can be utilised to make changes in different particular situations. But this is not the type of generalisation that social movement research often makes. Instead it creates abstract ideas that are either obvious (an organisation tries to gather resources) or that are so abstract (collective identity) that reconverting them to the particular doesn’t work.
And what about the other way around? I could have included the report I wrote for the renters union in my dissertation couldn’t I? I suppose so, perhaps as an appendix. But what would have been the academic purpose of doing that? It didn’t count as ‘real’ research, since I didn’t reference every idea or justify every concept. It would simply have been an oddity, cementing my reputation for eccentric approaches to the academic literature. And I don’t need any help doing that.
So I hope to continue producing dual outputs as my research continues. One day someone may come along who wants to read both outputs. Since I am being a bridge between the two worlds others may want to play that role too. But when it does happen in other places it seems to be a rare, unlinked event. One person publishes in Interface or the Radical Housing Journal. Most people are too scattered to form collectives. So for the most part the two worlds continue to remain very separate, and I am happy to produce work for both of them.