An Ethnographic Moral Dilemma?

The presence of injustice, marginalisation and social exclusion has always provided social science researchers with a rich terrain in which to critique society. This is especially true when research contributes to an emancipatory project for those who are subject to such injustice, marginalisation and/or social exclusion.

The ethnographic methodological approach is certainly no stranger to critiquing societal conditions with a view towards human emancipation and the eradication of injustice. However, and as with other approaches within social science research, ethnography can be fraught with ethical and moral dilemmas. While most of the moral dilemmas that confront ethnographers tend to centre on researchers being witness to abuse or illegal activities, we also need to consider the moral dilemma of whether a researcher desires an injustice to occur in order take advantage of a research opportunity. This is the very type of dilemma that I – as a researcher – am facing.

Currently, I am in the process of conducting fieldwork in Atlanta, Georgia on undocumented persons who are migrating to the United States from Mexico. As part of the process of gaining access into Atlanta’s Latino community, I have recently applied to volunteer with the Athens-based Freedom University. Established by several academics from the University of Georgia (UGA) in the wake of Georgia’s draconian anti-immigration law, the University is striving to provide a university education to former UGA students who had been expelled due to their status as undocumented persons.

It now appears that my application with the Freedom University is on-hold, pending the disposition of SB 458, which is being considered by the Georgia state senate.  In brief, SB 458, will deny undocumented persons the opportunity to study at any of Georgia’s publicly-funded universities.  As someone who is researching the relationship between the presence of structural violence in a country like Mexico and its effects upon migration to the United States, SB 458 (which would affect mostly Latino students) typifies the kind of structural violence (e.g. the avoidable denial of life chances) encountered by their parents in their country of origin.

The structural violence in their countries of origin could quite possibly have resulted in the emigration of entire families to the United States.  Herein lies this researcher’s dilemma.

On the one hand, the passage of SB 458 would not only be personally abhorrent, its passage would no doubt result in a grave injustice perpetrated on students with precarious legal status, and exacerbate their social exclusion. With these distinct ramifications in mind and its concomitant affect upon the condition of social justice within the state of Georgia, it goes without saying that SB 458 should not be passed by the Georgia senate.

But, on the other hand, the passage of SB 458 and its companion bill, Georgia House Bill 59, would reinvigorate Freedom University’s raison d’être. Moreover, with a renewed relevance of the Freedom University, my application for a volunteer position with its possible access into the Latino community would be greatly enhanced.

Given this moral dilemma, I feel almost ghoulish; a bit like those who watch a F-1 race wishing to witness a crash; or a football fan hoping that a player gets a red card to give their team an advantage.

The ethnography literature does stress the importance of reflexivity; yet, this dilemma may not be resolved by reflexivity in and of itself. The fact that potential research opportunities could come at the expense of injustice is personally problematic.  However, some solace might be found in Michael Burawoy’s contention that participant observation studies of social movements locate them within their political and economic context (Burawoy 1998: 6).  If, in fact, SB 458 is approved by the Georgia senate and becomes law, the purpose of the Freedom University will thrive.

While it remains unclear as to whether the Freedom University accepts my application to work as a volunteer; what is clear is that, to the extent that the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that the passage of SB 458 will most likely affect only 300 of the 318,000 students attending Georgia’s publicly funded universities, injustice will most likely rule the day.

Peter S. Cruttenden

Kony 2012: Oversimplification or Advertising Genius?

Below are two responses to the Kony2012 campaign. The first is from a member of staff, and the second is from one of our first year undergraduate students. Let us know what you think.


Oversimplification (Eddie Tembo)

I was first asked about the Kony2012 campaign during a seminar on Human Rights and Intervention. I confess: I did not know what my students were talking about. But I did go and check it out. I have a number of reservations about inferences made in the video, some of which have also appeared in the press.

Let’s be clear: the campaign is a marketing ploy. Therefore, it is unsurprising to find some factual inaccuracies. For example, when the video refers to a total of 30,000 child soldiers, it is not overly clear that it is referring to an estimated 30,000 child soldiers over the past quarter century. The current number of soldiers (children and adults) is actually approximately 400. Also, while the campaign implies that the LRA is primarily based in Uganda, it actually appears to be operating in neighbouring countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. The video seemingly misses these points.

An additional issue concerns the presence of U.S. military advisors in Uganda. Deployed last year, there is no threat to the presence of U.S. military advisors in Uganda. President Obama has had nothing but support for their presence. But I am a little confused as to why the video is focusing primarily on U.S. officials as opposed to the African Union (AU), or other heads of African states. The AU has much more sway in the region than the U.S. Furthermore, the transnational nature of the LRA (i.e. the fact they operate in multiple countries) means that an AU or UN force would be more appropriate for a pursuit that may end up crossing multiple borders.

I also have serious reservations regarding the charity, Invisible Children, which is running the campaign. Charity Navigator – an independent evaluator of U.S. charities – has not given Invisible Children a very good rating in a number of areas. This is particularly worrisome as they rate badly in areas related to accountability and transparency.

Last but not least, a sense of proportion is needed. The U.S. cannot intervene everywhere and at the same time. Priorities need to be made. Surely, today’s priority should be Syria? That is where the immediate danger to human life lies. If our focus is on Uganda, then let us remember: the LRA never operated across the whole of the country; the situation with the LRA is far more complicated than the video suggests; and we should also note that, today, far more people die in Uganda from viruses and diseases such as HIV.


Advertising Genius (Sam Deaner)

For me, the most interesting aspect of the Kony2012 campaign is not the charity, questions over intervention, but whether the campaign really CAN make a difference. If it can, then the implications are substantial.

I find the manner in which ‘fame’ can be subverted very interesting. It says a lot about our culture. For me, I find the hundreds of articles that are critical of the campaign fascinating but also self-defeating. Whether people rant on blogs, in newspapers or among their peers about how stupid or dangerous the campaign is, they now all know who Joseph Kony is and are helping make him famous. The campaign has beaten them, whether they like it or not. That is the genius aspect: Kony2012 has succeeded in making Kony famous, and no amount of criticism will change that.

Also, it is important that we do not focus only on Kony2012. Cynicism should not stop people from considering the bigger picture. If the campaign gains enough support, will governments across the West begin to see the benefit of intervening in similar issues? Will people more generally be mobilised in greater numbers to make their government take action on topics that lie outside of the core issue agenda? If so, this would not simply be regular lobbying: it would mark the rebirth of ‘power to the people’ politics.

That said, I am not denying that there remain problems with the campaign. I do not like the idea that America is going to ‘save the world’. Nor do I like the way that the campaign oversimplifies the situation in Uganda. But, more than anything, it is the public cynicism that I do not like. I do not think that wearing a bracelet, t-shirt or putting up a fancy poster will stop people like Kony. But I do think that the campaign and its attempt to raise awareness through social media could lead to far broader and positive change. This, in my view, is something that we should be excited about.


Sam Deaner – First Year Politics and International Relations Student

Eddie Tembo – Teaching Fellow in Politics and International Relations

Art and Revolution

In 1939 the Mexican artist Jesús Escobedo produced a work simply entitled ‘Las clases’ that captured in a single composition the history and imagery of the outcome of the Mexican Revolution. The artist was part of the Liga Pro-Cultura Alemana (whose membership included Hannes Meyer) that was engaged in incorporating the emerging geopolitical conflict of the period into a local context, aiming to combat the spread of fascism in Mexico and facilitate the dissemination of anti-Nazi propaganda.

Escobedo’s ‘Las clases’ was soon incorporated into the political poster ‘Como combatir el fascismo’, advertising the labour leader Vicente Lombardo Toledano as a guest speaker at one of its conferences, with the aim of projecting to the public the unity of the various factions of the Mexican Revolution in the 1930s against reactionary threats. This specific example of socially committed artwork contains four figures standing equally side-by-side and arm-in-arm: the bourgeois, the soldier, the proletarian, and the campesino. The ordering in terms of importance and priority is, perhaps, significant. Equally, the inclusion of neither a female character, nor an indigenous member, in the group, is revealing in terms of assessing ‘Las clases’ as a representative image of Mexico’s post-revolutionary state and society. The significance of this artwork, however, as a window on the historical sociology of modern state formation in Mexico should not be underestimated.

Concurrent with Leon Trotsky, in Literature and Revolution [1924], ‘the development of art is the highest test of the vitality and significance of each epoch’. In microcosm, then, Jesús Escobedo’s depiction of the post-revolutionary Mexican state captures what can be called the paradox of revolution: how conditions of social revolution and popular mobilisation, such as the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), eventuated into new forms of authoritarian rule.

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci recognised similar situations as instances of what he termed passive revolution meaning processes of revolutionary rupture that become displaced, thwarted, and averted leading to a continuation of the old political order and, commonly, the furtherance of capitalist processes. Such social conditions, however, are not literally passive but are often violent transformations.

Is this process of revolution in Mexico, then, that paradoxical, especially for post-colonial states that might generally emerge within the context of geopolitical pressures and the uneven and combined expansion of capitalist development? For states in Latin America, commonly confronted with an impasse between contending social forces, or a lack of any established class hegemony, how are the social relations of capitalist development commonly set in train?

My new book Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011) starts of with this puzzle posed by the artwork of the poster to consider the historical and contemporary construction of the revolution and the modern state in Mexico. It provides a fresh analysis of the Mexican Revolution, the era of import substitution industrialisation, and neoliberal restructuring as well as exploring key processes in the contestation of the modern state, specifically through studies of ideology, democratisation, and spaces of resistance.

As a result, my book aims to show how the historical sociology of modern state formation in Mexico can be understood best as a form of passive revolution, referring to the ongoing class strategies that have shaped relations between state and civil society, within the conditioning situation of uneven and combined development. As such, my book aims to make an important interdisciplinary contribution to understanding processes of revolution within historical sociology by situating debates on state formation and Latin American studies within wider Marxist currents. In so doing, my contribution is to convincingly contend that passive revolution can become an empirical tool for radical political economy and historical sociological analysis. Significantly, the book also casts out an original argument useful to approaching passive revolutions elsewhere in alternative situations of state formation. Combining insights from across Marxist state debate and historical sociology, I develop an interpretive method in order to facilitate analysis of interrelated instances of passive revolution within world-historical processes, where the particulars of state formation are realised within the general features of capitalist modernity. The book therefore makes an appeal to wider concerns in Marxist historical sociology beyond its own detailed focus on modern state formation in Mexico.

In graphic form, Jesús Escobedo’s ‘Las clases’ captures the amalgam of rupture and continuity stemming from the Mexican Revolution, those contradictions at the heart of the condition of passive revolution that unsurprisingly found expression in the art, literature, and architecture of modern Mexico. As the backbone of my book attests, new rounds of contemporary resistance have contested, and are continuing to contest, state power in Mexico. Ways out of the condition of passive revolution, by conceiving and putting into practice new spaces of class struggle, will be central to the course of future development and state formation in Mexico.

Adam David Morton

The Challenge of ‘Hacktivists’ for Political Science

The recent unmasking of the membership of LulzSec by the FBI and pronouncement of the organisation’s leader (Sabu) as a government informant has led to suggestions that LulzSec have been decapitated. Following an international policing operation, the arrest of Sabu (real name Hector Xavier Monsegur) alongside five other alleged co-conspirators has been reported as a significant counter-attack against hacktivism. The importance of this “decapitation” for the wider hacktivist movement has, however, been grossly over-stated by the media and, unsurprisingly, the FBI.

Quite simply, as Topiary (another LulzSec member) tweeted: you cannot arrest an idea.

Undoubtedly LulzSec, and other hacktivists, are ‘ideas’ not structured organisations that can be dispersed or decapitated. They have a potentially limitless membership and extremely fluid parameters of what does and does not fall under their ‘activities’. LulzSec could be immediately reformed with an entirely different membership. Moreover, intertwined hacktivist networks such as Anonymous continue to operate. Anonymous (from which LulzSec originally developed) is a radically decentralised political movement made up of disparate networks of individuals without an overarching organisational structure.

For political science, hacktivist networks present a significant challenge as existing conceptualisations of social movements and activism cannot be applied.  Anonymous pose a challenge to our understanding because they challenge (seemingly) relevant analytic paradigms, such as social movement theory, which assume the existence of a (more-or-less) continuous political programme. Anonymous lacks anything approaching this, other than being hedonistically ‘for the lulz’ – an exhortation to action for its intrinsic comedic properties. The movement – such as it is – lacks almost any degree of ‘holism’; there is essentially no central purpose shared between people who claim to be ‘members’, other than operating in a particular arena ‘for the lulz’.

Indeed, Anonymous exists almost completely without organisation; there are no requirements of membership, nor a list of members. Anonymous exists primarily online, and the actions of the movement are coordinated over the internet. However, Anonymous are not restricted to an online presence; the online coordination of Anonymous can and does lead to actions in the physical world. The objective of the actions of Anonymous as a movement is ‘formally’ described as ‘for the lulz’ (laughs).

Whilst pursuit of comedic outcomes may be the rubric of the movement, the substantive goals of their actions are often to support their conception of freedom. One set of members of Anonymous described their substantive concerns as:

[The] erosion of privacy and fair use, the spread of corporate feudalism, the abuse of power and the justifications of executives and leaders who believe themselves immune personally and financially for the actions they undertake in the name of corporations and public office.

The dynamics of Anonymous – its make-up, purposes and characteristics – could shift, at any time, to such an extent that the existing social movement model would no longer apply. In this sense, Anonymous is not a traditional social movement. Instead, Anonymous is a repository of discrete social movements which emerge in a way which cannot be adequately described by social movement theory.

The core ideas which drove LulzSec, and which remain embodied in Anonymous, can lead to the spontaneous formation of social movements. It is the idea, not specific members that matter. As such the arrests, while politically useful, mean very little.

Deirdre Duffy and Jonathan Rose
Postgraduates, @NottsPolitics