The Praxis of Activist Scholarship in the Fight against Industrial Agribusiness

By: Dr. Daniel O’Connell

The history of activist scholarship, focused particularly on the work of sociologists who first analyzed and then confronted the effects of industrial agribusiness on rural communities in California, offers lessons in how to conduct research and direct its inquiry at locally situated problems in highly politicized arenas.

In our book, In the Struggle: Scholars and the Fight against Industrial Agribusiness in California, Scott Peters and I had an opportunity to enter into a century-long, ethnographic encounter with a handful of scholars who worked from a variety of locations: at universities, in the fields, and with local communities. Much of this activism, engagement and research was centered in the polarized San Joaquin Valley of California. 

Our research unearthed not only previously censored and suppressed histories (and in doing so, revisited some of the most iconic studies in rural sociology) but also enabled us to document lessons from the trials and experiences of eight activist scholars who participated in an intergenerational contest against some of the most formidable oppressing structures in the state and nation. 

In The Struggle concludes with a set of axioms to assist and guide the next generation who are now entering the fight. Based upon the testimonies, research, and activism of the earlier scholars, these lessons may now be relevant to coming battles, particularly at this moment when humanity is faced with existential crises. They are also useful in considering how to broadly mobilize sociological research to effect real change.

  • Practice supersedes theory –Strategies conform to the ground upon which they are enacted and put in motion. Similarly, applied social theory needs to correspond to actual lived problems. When crises arise, the need for activism becomes acute. Applicable theory tends toward conjecture without engagement.
  • Hybridize roles and shift positions as necessary – The valley scholars adapted their roles and positions in response to the realities they experienced, community needs identified, and opportunities to achieve through their engagement. They worked as labor organizers, policy advocates, government researchers, non-profit directors, community development specialists and coordinators of coalitions and networks. They closed the gap between their intellectual work and the lives of the people they wanted to learn from and assist.
  • Engage problems directly over extended periods of time – In many cases, effective engagement to create social and political change took decades, requiring the work of a succession of scholars. Their extended collaboration bridged shared values and common objectives, spanning social movements and historic epochs. Over time, as their understanding matured, they improved tactics, innovated strategies, and refined theory. Intergenerational engagement became necessary for a sustained assault against systemic and structural problems. 
  • Hold, carry and share truth – Contests over truth are wars of attrition. Once engaged, the valley scholars were obligated to hold their positions and defend their findings until they were socially accepted. Along this vein, there were a number of occasions where older scholars, nearing the end of their lives, passed on their intentions and extended invitations to younger scholars to continue the work.
  • Expect political reaction – In the valley, when political pressure was exerted on the scholars, it often revealed pertinent vulnerabilities in their adversaries. Some of the scholars tactically invited attack by baiting opponents. More often, powerful economic forces weighed in on the scientific process attempting to intimidate scholars and muddle or falsify results. 
  • Pressure indicates relevance – It is clear, in retrospect, that political pressure indicated that the scholars were hitting their mark. If they had identified a meaningful target and there was political reaction, it was because a worthwhile vulnerability had been breached. Threats and attacks from reactionary institutions are perhaps the best measure of a study’s effectiveness toward achieving social justice.
  • Leverage legal precedent and public process – While public universities and government bureaucracies were corrupted by agribusiness influence, breaking with their ascribed public purposes, these arenas were also the ground where the fight often took place most transparently and in ways that could leverage established public processes, legislative mandates and juridical directives. 
  • Design research to interrogate social problems – Research combined with community organizing and pedagogies aimed at empowerment, threaten power structures. Within this potent mix, valley scholars framed their research within adaptable, participatory methods. While scientific research produced groundbreaking findings, it was often that on-the-ground political engagement contributed most to the base-building work of educational empowerment, organizing workers, and securing community. 
  • Produce texts for varied constituencies – The production of texts mirrored the diversity of methods utilized by valley scholars who published in a wide variety of venues and styles, including popular magazines and with visual representations from photographs, films and maps. They adjusted their voice for different audiences and altered publication venues for strategic opportunities. 
  • Enable social movements – Social movements are inseparable from community aspirations. The work of activist scholars is directly linked to these movements for change. Their unique work, both tactical and strategic, assist in defining complex systems and mapping organizational structures so that they may be transformed for the public’s benefit.

The history of academic engagement against industrial agribusiness in California arcs from an early foundation marginally secured within universities into current on-the-ground organizing and engagement where the distance between theory and practice is tempered by the immediacy of the struggle. Inevitably, the most effective position for these scholars was to lead from the front and stay in the fight as long as possible.