Self Determined Participatory Action of Marginalized Groups: The streets of São Paulo


KEYWORDS action, activist, action research, activist research, research framework,participatory, knowledge production, emancipatory transformation, standpoint, partial,social movement, alternative content, academic, movement, theorizing

I determined Action Research [AR] as the overall methodological framework for this thesis. This choice has been sudden in a sense that I honestly didn’t know anything about AR prior to the thesis research actions. Neither for academic nor for activist purposes. It is also just now, while writing this section, that I understand more comprehensively what AR represents and what it could include. I would like to dedicate some space for those aspect in this chapter.

While gaining a more comprehensive idea of AR I am immediately and for the first time confronted with the question: ‚how is knowledge created and disseminated?‘, a question of Epistemology , the studies of knowledge (24)(25). Hence I would like to dedicate some room for this question as well as to its effects on [my] knowledge production.

Currently I would say that my personal practice intuitively includes some of the approaches AR can be chosen to be composed of. However, as it is the first time that I get in touch with Action Research as an approach to research and actions, I can already say that I did not and could [and should I anyway?] not fully assimilate it. This holds partly also true for the self-conception and my personal practice and conviction, which are to a large extend the foundation of my determination of AR.

So, what is hidden behind the term Action Research? In a sense, the word Action Research by itself seems already matching the way I intend to do research. This may be a relatively weak justification but nonetheless it nearly hits the mark. Action Research is research that emerges from within a social movement, from within its actions and struggles against oppression and discrimination, by playing an active role in movement theorizing, in the movements analysis of the reality it is embedded in and in the intended transformation of this reality (Morell, 2009, p.40 ).

I understand social movements as collectives or groups that care to act (26) , whose intention is the resistance against existing oppressive power structures and their transformation into a [more] emancipatory power. Looking at AR as mere methodology, not bounded to a particular attitude but composed of a set of tools that can be used in many contexts (Morell, 2009, p.21), AR is adopted by academic social movements research (, , p. ), by activists and movement themselves (Periferies Urbanes, 2010, web) (28) or as a research [or consulting] praxis that may even contradict emancipatory praxis, ie. in international development (29)(30) (31). In the course of this thesis I am always referring to my first notion of Action Research as approach to movement theorizing.

In practice, one flavour of movement theorizing through AR is workers inquiry, the subjective workers view >on< and analysis >of< the situation in the fabric, of being exploited and alienated, their knowledge about their needs and the necessary transformation according to those needs. Workers inquiry emerged from within the movement, conducted by the activists, the workers, themselves. In Italy for instance, visible in the Workerism [Operaismo] movement that originated from debates in the journal Red Notebook [Quaderni Rossi] in the early sixties of the 20th century, that finally led to the Italian workers’ struggle at the end of that decade (Wildcat, 1995, web) (32).

[…] sie waren durch ihre Untersuchungen auf kommende Kämpfe vorbereitet, hatten die Probleme innerhalb der Fabrik analysiert, hatten die Arbeiterdiskussion verfolgt, um die Arbeiterforderungen auf die Flugblätter schreiben zu können und auf Versammlungen als politische Linie durchzusetzen. Siehatten gelernt, »daß es schon Kämpfe gibt, bevor sie offen ausbrechen«. (Wildcat, 1995, web) (33)

Another example of movement theorizing is the publication ‚Trashing the neoliberal city‘, that compiles accounts of ‚Autonomous Cultural Practices in Chicago From 2000-2005‘. It contains narrations of the scenes and proposals that has been put into action on the streets of Chicago in order transform the city, to take-part in shaping the city and by that criticizing its neo-liberal restructuring.

Towards the ends of that reinvention, this publication will take a look at a unique period of cultural activism that took place in Chicago from 2000 to 2005. At that time a widerange of activists, artists and hybrid coalitions responded to the spatial shifts in power created by neoliberal economic restructuring. Using a diverse range of methodologies, as you will see, these groups and projects address some of the most fundemental and urgent challenges of contemporary urban life. (Tucker and Forman, 2006, p.2 ) (34)

Many forms of knowing

Once I take a look at social movements and collectives and their organized struggle, I conceive the production and articulation of own content and analysis of a particular reality, the articulation and realization of necessary step(s) to transform and overcome it through struggle. Then, knowledge emerges from within the struggle and is supposed to benefit it.

In this perspective, movement theorizing is an aspect of the work that people do as they try to create institutions (movements) that will enable them (indirectly, through a change in the social order) to meet needs that are not currently being met.(Barker, Cox, 2001, web).

Different flavours of theorizing, knowledge and content can be distinguished now, flavours that are relevant for this thesis because its [research] actions are conducted in a social world, grounded on social realities:

academic theorizing and empirical research in a social world

Academic theorizing assumes that knowledge can be created independent of the existing social order, that it is therefore not biased by its producer, his/her point of view and the existing social context (Sprague and Kobrynowicz, 2004, p.31), that it is formulated based on neutral and systematic observation of facts and real world situations, where the academic observer and his/her subject of observation are distinct (Juris, 2007, p.171). This distinction reproduces social hierarchies, theorizing remains merely a theorizing >about< the subject of research, hence reinforces the distinction between the privileged [scholar] and the oppressed [subject of research]. Observed and described facts and evidences are supposed to be reproducible in order to be analysable and explicable (Sprague and Kobrynowicz, 2004, p.26), only so they are considered valid in academic terms and can become relevant for the derivation of corresponding generalized theories and ‘generic propositions’ (Barker and Cox, 2001, web).

movement theorizing and action research in a social world

Movement theorizing is concerned with a concrete struggle, formulated by the direct necessity of the people to change a situation that constraints and prevents their individual well being and freedom (Gramsci in Barker and Cox, 2001, web). Movement theorizing incorporates the existing social order (Sprague and Kobrynowicz, 2004, p.31). It is formulated from a subjective position according to personal or collective needs, formulated through praxis and actions, from a pragmatic and immediately affected point of view (Barker and Cox, 2001, web), destined to transform and overcome current structures of oppression (Sprague and Kobrynowicz, 2004, p.35), the current social order. Movement theorizing is in motion, continuously adjusting to the changes of the environment it is emerging from, to the impacts of the struggle it facilitates (Barker and Cox, 2001, web). It comes from below and is inconvenient for those that are interested in keeping the world as it is (Fox and Fominaya, 2009, p.1) . It does not break down its environment into atomic units, stripped off their context to be analysed stati[sti]cally. On the contrary, it draws on a flora of actions and situations, each of them able to change the direction movement theorizing is pursuing (Routeledge, 1996a, p.516).

Having the given notions of theorizing in mind, I would like to draw some attention to the previously given examples in order to argue for Action Research as a valid and emancipatory approach for conducting research and theorizing.

My conception of Action Research [and those of the given examples] originate from the people and their particular realities and struggles. Produced knowledge and content is the result of peoples intellectual work, that has for me the same significance then knowledge produced in academic space [or in journalism for instance]. Knowledge can be perceived as partial, not absolute, determined by its origin, because it is created out of a particular situation, out of a particular social order with its social relations and discourses, with a particular focus and perspective, from a particular standpoint (35). Therefore it does not represent a singular and mystical, one and only truth that is naturally given or justified (Haraway, 1994, p.157).

[…] each subject is specific, located in a particulart ime and place. Thus a knower has a particular perspective on the object. At the same time, this locatedness gives access to the concrete world; knowing is not relative, […], rather it is partial (Haraway, 1988) and (Hartsock, 1983) in (Sprague and Kobrynowicz, 2004, p.27)

Hence, this thesis prefers the standpoint of the the streets of São Paulo. Certainly, the form of knowledge creation, distribution and adoption differs from the [constructed] norm of academic theorizing, but Barker and Cox nicely describe this difference as at least complementary rather then contradictory when they write that theorizing in struggle…

[…] can be usefully understood as theoretical because itis not simply a product of ‘the situation’ or ‘folk culture’, but is rather a process of ongoing intellectual engagement, whose results […] shift over time. […] [it] is grounded in the process of producing ‘social movements’ against opposition. It is always to some extent knowledge-in-struggle, and its survival and development is always contested and in process of formation. Its frequently partial, unsystematic and provisional character does not makeit any the less worth our attention, though it may go someway towards explaining why academic social movements theory is too often content with taking the ’cream off the top’, and disregarding – or failing to notice – everything that has to happen before institutionalized social movement theorizing appears in forms that can be easily appropriated. (Barker and Cox, 2001, web)

Looking at the time in São Paulo, I would say that AR has been the consequential way of being together with the people from the streets, collaborating with them, participating in their actions. This has been possible because I left the academic space I was bounded to during my time in the city. This has also been necessary because I did not ‘know how to know’ (Cox and Fominaya, 2009, p.11 ) in advance. I had no idea about the city, I could not imagine the millions of spaces that shape this city, I could not know about the people I met, about the spaces they life in.

If social movements are knowledge producers, and generate ways of knowing grounded in particular experiences and for locally practical purposes, then (as activists and as researchers) we cannot know a priori “how to know”, still less how other people should know. What we learn in our own movements, as we work on particular projects, campaigns and strategies, is new to us, and what we learn from our allies doubly so – since it is grounded not in a remaking of our own worlds but in their remaking of theirs. (Cox and Fominaya, 2009, p.11)

I have also chosen AR, because I think that knowledge and theorizing formulated by the very people from the streets, is an enrichment for academic work in the sense that it could engage people (students, scholars, etc) to become more active, contest the status of the academic space and by that induce other ways of thinking and theorizing in order to transform it finally. The constructed spaces of academia and those spaces academia aims to explain and conceptualize are supposed to be deconstructed in order to facilitate a real [social] transformation (Routeledge, 1996b, p.400) and not just a reproduction of the current situation [which is build upon capitalism, race, gender, patriarchy, violence, power, the partitioning of the sensible]. Therefore I make plenty of use of the information and content provided and created by the people, along with my personal and collective experiences and general theories.

Tendencies of Action Research

Developing Strategic Thinking, Building Networks, Participative, Collaborative, Opening Knowledge, Alternative Content, by the Oppressed, by the Discontented

Figure 7.4 Five main tendencies Action Research is aiming for, according to Morell (2009, p.23, 24)

Continuing with the justification for choosing AR as main methodological framework for this thesis, I found the work of Morell quite helpful. In her article ‚Action research: mapping the nexus of research and political action‘ (2009)Morell distinguished different tendencies that are aimed to be achieved when drawing on Action Research. She is explicitly arguing from the perspective of social movement activism and theorizing, mainly from the standpoint of global justice and resistance movements (Morell, 2009, p.21-23 ), not explicitly ethnographic or anthropological but from an activist standpoint, from within the movement.

In short, the five main tendencies of Action Research that she distinguishes are…

participative and collective collaboration in actions and theorizing – based on methods – that immanently do allow everyone that collaborates (in a movement for instance) to participate in research – that reduce or overcome hierarchies in the best case – that allow research to be conducted horizontally, on an equal base, not directed from a central instance – where actions and theorizing are organized and developed autonomously according to the necessities of the struggle, its objectives, the desires of the people that determine the terms of research – that contests the academic way of knowledge production, access, distribution and acceptance.

the production of alternative content – composed of different data, information or medias, based on ones own particular standpoint, based on ones own skills, in opposition to generally accepted scientific and research products in shape of research papers  and >thesis'< for instance. This alternative content aims to explain and strengthen ones own positions and contests the status quo that is intended to be transformed. Content production is not the same as knowledge production in the sense that the produced knowledge becomes visible and understandable in alternative content.

the development of strategic thinking – for political processes that are necessary for the intended transformations the struggle is directed to. This also means a reflection on the purpose of struggle, thus a reflection on the questions ‚Who we are?‘, ‚What do we want?‘, ‚What do we do?‘.

the building of relationships and networking connections – where academic and movement spaces benefit and complement each other – where academic theorizing can be used to strengthening movement positions and allow for complementary analysis – where movement theorizing can benefit academic theorizing by providing different standpoints within areas of research and by criticizing the excluding structures of academic spaces – where networks of solidarity, knowledge and awareness can be weaved to allow for distribution of solidarity, information and actions across local and global levels, disciplines, themes and motives – that provides ground, reasons and inspirations to become more active and involved in concrete struggles.

the opening of knowledge – that contests the contemporary form of knowledge management and exploitation in academia, the contemporary concept of intellectual property rights, where, once knowledge is extracted from the source [the field], it is transformed from an open resource into a restricted, protected and monetized resource, not even accessible to those that provided it – that seeks for other ways of knowledge management and learning based on non-discriminatory forms of use, distribution and access and by that seeks to overcome the immanent power structures of the commodified and privatized knowledge systems – that seeks to expropriate knowledge and transform it into a common resource, potentially benefiting all.

Figure 7.5 Five main tendencies Action Research is aiming for, according to Morell (2009, p.23-24, 39-41)

Those tendencies present Action Research is an organic framework consisting of various concrete methods, tools, objectives and aims, that is depending on the context it is embedded in. Those tendencies should also not be seen as independent of each other but rather as complementary. They support and call each other, even if not all of them are always present in each particular approach of AR (Morell, 2009, p.24). One could argue for instance that the production of alternative content requires participative methods anyway because alternative content may reflect the position of a particular movement or a particular analysis by a movement, thus is drawn on a common understanding and standpoint of the movement.

In this thesis, not all of those suggested tendencies are present nor do they proclaim equal shares. The experience gained in São Paulo is illuminated by certain particles that I gather under my version of Action Research. I would like to shed light on those particles next in order to propose the aims of this thesis, that will allow a concrete positioning, a concrete statement about its intention, expectation and realization.


(24) A definition of Epistemology: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology/

(25) In German: Erkenntnisstheorie

(26) Social movements are not necessarily mass movements for me, and in the context of this thesis I meanany kind of group or collective, no matter its size or outreach. Marge Piercy wrote in her poem ‚The LowRoad‘ (27) (2006) that a social movement

goes on one at a time; It starts when you care to act, it starts when youdo it again after they said no; It starts when you say we and know what you mean, and each day you mean one more (Marge Piercy in Hall, 2009, p.48 )

(27) The Low Road: http://www.margepiercy.com/sampling/The_Low_Road.htm

(28) Periferies Urbanes: http://periferiesurbanes.org/?p=165


World Bank and Action Research: http://blogs.worldbank.org/category/tags/action-research


Local Governments and Action Research: http://www.lga.sa.gov.au/site/page.cfm?u=2420


International Development and Action Research: http://blogs.helsinki.fi/tzredd-actionresearch/

(32) Renaissance des Operaismus:


(33) […] through their inquiry, they had been prepared for coming struggles, they had analysed the problems within the fabric, they had been following the workers discussions in order to write the workers demands on flyers and to accomplish a political line during reunions. The had learned ‚that struggles already exist before they openly break out‘. (Wildcat, 1995, web)

(34) Trashing the neoliberal city: http://www.learningsite.info/NeoTrashing.pdf

(35) The concept of situated and partial knowledge is an articulation from a feminist standpoint that hasbeen extensively described in ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilegeof Partial Perspective’ by Donna Haraway and ‘A Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground for aSpecifically Feminist Historical Materialism’ by Nancy Hartsock.




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