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Combining Scholarship and Activism: Challenges and Opportunities


Alison Des Forges. Photo © 2005 Human Rights Watch, used under a creative commons license.

In an article commemorating the late Dr. Alison Des Forges, two major scholars argue that, “scholarship and activism are often seen as separate domains — even as antithetical to each other. Activism is understood as moral action, defined by commitment; scholarship is assumed to be an analytic endeavour, defined by rigour…  An activist optic is often assumed to distort ‘objective’ scholarship, while a scholarly approach is assumed to obscure the compelling clarity essential for activism.” (Newbury & Reyntjens, 2010). Dr. Des Forges, who passed away in February 2009, combined activism with scholarship with regard to her work on the African Great Lakes.  Similarly, Prof. Lee Ann Fujii, who passed away in March 2018 and also conducted research on post-conflict countries, including Rwanda, was described as “an activist at heart” (Busby, 2018) who practiced her activism through her mentorship and battles she fought on campus (McNulty, Tolley, & Turner, 2018). These two inspiring scholars provide examples of how academic work might involve more that accumulating citations; and of how activism and advocacy can be informed and supported through careful research. Indeed, scholar-activism has a long history (Hale, 2008).

In a panel event and roundtable discussion on April 5th 2019,  we commemorate the legacy of two individuals dedicated to breaking down the barriers between activism and scholarship, and we invite participants to reflect on the opportunities and challenges that social and political engagement represent for academic researchers.

Themes for discussion include:

  • forms of activism and ‘voice’ in research and the classroom;
  • legal constraints on contacts with some of the actors and communities we engage;
  • institutional dimensions of scholarship-activism, such as the ways in which universities and colleges – and even research communities themselves – open or close opportunities for collaboration between activists and researchers;
  • ethical dimensions, such as questions around confidentiality of research data and relationships between researchers and research participants in a context of decolonizing scholarship;
  • implications of global online connectivity for scholar-activism;
  • theoretical dimensions, such as the ontological and epistemological challenges of working with particular theoretical frameworks in the name of human rights and social justice.

The event is being held at the Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa, from 9am -12pm. The meeting is public but participants should RSVP to

I will update this page following the event, to provide a short personal reflection based on some of the highlights.



Hale, C. 2008. Introduction, in Hale, C. (ed.) Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship. University of California Press

Newbury, D. and Reyntjens, F. 2010. Alison Des Forges and Rwanda: From Engaged Scholarship to Informed Activism. CJAS / RCEA 44 (1) 35-74

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