Academics Lost in “Arcane Unintelligibility”

Douglas Bevington and Chris Dixon, Ph.D. activists in the global justice and environmental movements criticize political theory about social movements for being obtuse and written in jargon for a small academic circle. It isn’t useful to activists so they read theory generated outside of academic circles. Bevington and Dixon call for a movement-relevant social movement theory. It would find patterns of success and address how to find “opportunity structures” and do “frame alignment” with propaganda and symbols. As well as tactics, relevant theory discusses inclusion and democratic practices within the movement—the role of internal sexism, racism, classism, etc.

Former Princeton Dean Anne-Marie Slaughter is also critical of academics: “All the disciplines have become more and more specialized and more and more quantitative, making them less and less accessible to the general public.”[i] A study of predictions of the Arab Spring found academics were the most in the dark.[ii] Author Nicolas Kristof adds, “A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. . . Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.” A history professor on my Ph.D. committee frankly told me he wasn’t comfortable with women in academia, and pilled research projects on me that weren’t pertinent to my dissertation. As a Women’s Studies professor who spoke up on campus, a provost told me, “You better start praying,” to keep my job. He and the president also threatened to walk out of a meeting I chaired. I said we all need to do what we think is right.

Bevington and Dixon give an example of a useful non-academic theory used by activists called “netwar,” developed by RAND Institute researchers, analyzing the use of decentralized “swarming’ tactics in the Battle of Seattle 1999 demonstrations against the WTO. (Kevin Keliy discusses the decentralized swarm connected by technology in his 1999 book New Rules for the New Economy.) They point to Jo Freeman’s 1972 article on “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” as the most influential piece of social movement theory, still widely read and used in activist trainings. That may be true in the US, but I would substitute Gene Sharp’s writing on using non-violent tactics to overthrow a dictator as the most influential globally. A retired political science professor who founded the Albert Einstein Institution for the study of nonviolent action in 1983, Sharp is an example of an academic developing applicable theory for social change.


[i] All references in this paragraph are in Nicholas Kristof, “Professors, We Need You!”, New York Times, February 15, 2014.

[ii] Ellen Laipson, editor, “Sismic Shift: Understanding Change in the Middle East,” Henry L. Stimson Center, May 2011.


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