23 SES 02 C JS, Education Reforms, Democracy and Resistance
Joint Paper Session NW 13 and NW 23
In the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, we have witnessed a growing degree of political protest and activism by students across the world, including in the UK (2010), Chile (2010-13), California (2009) and Canada (2012). Students also played a significant role in the ‘Occupy’ movement, spearheading protests against social and economic inequality (Brooks 2017; Altbach & Klemencic 2014). Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork material generated in Auckland in 2012 and 2015, this paper explores how ‘space’ plays a central role in students’ activist engagement, outside the formalised student political organisations. Many student protests and political activities since the 1960 have centred on the occupation or disruption of certain spaces – like a university administration building, or busy streets in rush hour – which (symbolically) represent structures or policies that they disagree with. The right to (inhabit) a certain space also played a central role in the free speech movement of 1964-5, where students at University of California, Berkeley, claimed the right to free speech and political activities on campus (Cohen & Zelnik 2002). Furthermore, student activists could be said to constantly attempt to create what Evans (1979) has called ‘free spaces’, that is ‘small-scale settings within a community or movement that are removed from the direct control of dominant groups, are voluntarily participated in, and generate the cultural challenge that precedes or accompanies political mobilization’ (Poletta 1999:1).
Whereas much social movement literature, according to Sewell (2001: 51-52), ‘has treated space as an assumed and unproblematized background’, in this paper, I focus on space as a constituent aspect of contentious politics. Student activism and their political engagement is shaped and constructed through access to/fights over physical space; the development of certain social and democratic spaces, and is tied to particular spatial imaginaries of the kind of larger socio-political order they are concerned with (see Nicholls, Miller and Beaumont 2017). In other words, spatial struggle becomes social struggle and vice-versa. Following Lefebvre I understand space as both socially produced and socially producing; ‘itself the outcome of past actions, social space is what permits fresh actions to occur’ (Lefebvre 1991: 73).
In the paper, I explore how radical student activism - understood in terms of politics of space – in many Anglo-Saxon countries currently seem to be characterised by at least two different attempts to (re)politicise the university and, with it, wider society. One strand of activism, I argue, focuses mainly on a general critique of Neo-liberalism and capitalism; it highlights questions of economic inequality and have successfully mobilised around concrete economic reforms e.g. increasing tuition fees or introducing new loan schemes. Over the past 5 years or so another strand of student activism which focuses on identity politics and inequalities of e.g. gender and race seem to have gained more and more impetus. Here efforts to create ‘safe spaces’ for students who experience some sort of marginalisation (due to gender, race, sexuality etc) take centre stage in some cases accompanied by requests for professors to use ‘trigger warnings’ in class before discussing a topic that might upset some students and ‘trigger’ very strong emotional responses.
Obviously, the two strands often intersect and intertwine. However, with a point of departure in my ethnographic material from Auckland University I explore the different kinds of ‘free spaces’ the two strands of activism tend to bring with them, the kinds of voices that are (dis)encouraged in these ‘spaces’ (dissensual and safe, respectively); how they relate to larger spatial imaginaries of a (re-politicised) university and society and how they conceive of the main challenges in contemporary (capitalist) society.
Altbach, P. G., & Klemencic, M. (2014). student activism remains a potent force worldwide. International Higher Education, 76, 2-3. Boltanski, L., & Chiapello, E. (2005). The New Spirit of Capitalism London: Verso. Brooks, R. (2017). Student politics and protest: and introduction. In R. Brooks (Ed.), Student politics and Protest. International perspectives (pp. 1-12). London and New York: Routledge. Taylor & Francis Group. Cohen, Robert and Reginald Zelnik, eds. (2002) The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002 Evans, Sara (1979) Personal Politics. New York: Vintage Books Lefebvre, Henri. The Social Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. Miller, B. (2016), Conclusion. Spatialities of Mobilization: Building and Breaking relationships. In Nicholls, B. Miller and J. Beaumont (eds) spaces of Contention: Spatialities of Social Movements. Aldershot and Burlington; Ashgate. Nicholls, W.; B. Miller and J. Beaumont (2017) Introduction. Concpetualizing the spatialities of social Movements. In Nicholls, Miller and Beaumont (eds) Spaces of Contention. Spatialities and social movements. Aldershot and Burlington; Ashgate Poletta, Francesca (1999), ‘Free space’ in collective action. Theory and Society 28: 1-38. Rancière, J. (1999). Disagreement. Politics and Philosphy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Rancière, J. (2010). Dissensus. On politics and aesthetics. London, New Delhi, New York and Sydney: Bloomsbury. Sewell, W. (2001), Space in contentious politics, in: Aminzade, r., et al. (eds) Silence and voice in the study of contentious politics, Cambridge University Press, New York.
00. Central Events (Keynotes, EERA-Panel, EERJ Round Table, Invited Sessions)
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