Special Thematic Section on ‘Rethinking Health and Social Justice Activism in a Post-Liberal World’
Guest editors: Catherine Campbell, Flora Cornish and Cristian Montenegro (London School of Economics and Political Science)
This special section is a response to a changing socio-political order. It aims to advance an intellectual agenda for a social psychology of activism for health and other forms of social justice in a post-liberal world.
Community psychology for health and social justice
The field of community psychology emerged in the 20th Century as a critical response to the health inequalities and other forms of social injustice facing marginalised communities. Here we use the WHO (1940) understanding of health in terms of physical, mental and social resources for living. Drawing on social and political psychology, social theory, collaborative research and health activism, community psychology has advocated mobilising communities, in partnerships with the powerful, to achieve social and institutional change towards reducing inequalities, redistributing power and celebrating community agency. It was based on assumptions that there was a broad societal consensus in favour of human rights, tolerance, freedom, cohesion, and the need to eliminate social inequalities. Dialogical communication, involving equal and respectful engagement among community members, and between marginalised communities and powerful groups, was seen as a key tool for activism. Common identities, shared meaning, solidarities, and sense of community were key concepts. As much as critical psychologists and activists specialised in identifying gross transgressions of such values and failures of dialogical ideals, those ideals remained benchmarks or touchstones.
A post-liberal social and political order
We have suddenly found ourselves in an era when these liberal values are no longer taken for granted, and where the social preconditions for relations of dialogue, trust and mutual respect have been eroded. While North/South inequalities have been vividly embodied in (attempted) migrations, the visibility of inequalities within European and American countries has been catapulted to the forefront of public consciousness in a particularly stark way. And while these inequalities and their detrimental effects on citizens’ well-being are connected through transnational patterns of economic speculation, exploitation and structural violence, appeals to solidarity or cooperation appear unrealistic.
Political polarisation of citizens is more notable than cohesion. Solidarity across class or identity or political boundaries appears out of date. Communication, expanded and multiplied through the internet, offers unprecedented opportunities of exchanging and sharing, but with indifference to norms of dialogue and mutual understanding. Social media, once hailed as affording greater equalisation of opportunity, improved participation and greater democracy, are widely blamed for undermining efforts at reasoned mutual engagement through censoring ‘filter bubbles’, homogenising ‘echo chambers’ and affording aggression and abuse. The conceptual scaffolding which sustained critical and community psychologists in their critical engagements with the social order doesn’t seem to be ‘fit for purpose’ in the face of the rapidly evolving economic, political and social developments we are faced with. The present discontinuities call for re-theorisation of the tools of critical and community psychology, directed first at a clarification of the current social scenario, and second at ways to respond to it. This special thematic section devotes itself to these two challenges.
In this, we take inspiration from the Frankfurt School’s attempt to face the wake of fascism in Europe as an intellectual challenge, based on a deep reflection upon the very categories and aspirations guiding the hopes of reason and the ideals of progress. While the context and the ‘problem’ is substantially different, the gesture of exercising reflexivity in the face or threatening forces inspires this call for a renovated intellectual agenda.
Implications for health and social justice activism
In this context, what are the appropriate strategies for activists in the fields of health and other forms of social justice? It could be argued that the complexities we are faced with have generated a proliferation of theoretical frames and political positionings, overlapping and operating simultaneously. Some scholars and activists maintain that class remains the primary source of social division and most urgent site of struggle. A generation of younger activists has emphasised the relative autonomy of race and gender (‘identity politics’) as sites of contention beyond class. Yet categories such as race, sexuality, gender or class increasingly seem to be blunt conceptual tools for those battling to make sense of, and respond to, the emerging ‘post-liberal’ order. Some argue that struggles around broader issues such as climate change and environmental justice stand above distinctions of this nature. For others, notions of intersectionality address many conceptual shortcomings through showing how power relations such as race, gender and class dovetail to reinforce one another in driving social inequality and environmental degradation. Some argue that existing bodies of work exploring the impacts of critical race theory, political economy, the history of colonisation and imperialism, globalisation and neoliberalism on contemporary activism provide a useful starting point. Others argue that we need new and far more complex categories and new knowledge systems for thinking about these issues.
Activists have been responding to these socio-political shifts. Events of 2016–17 have crystallised a ‘post-liberal’ tendency into, for example, a referendum result in the UK, a presidential election in the US, widespread legitimation of anti-immigrant rhetoric, advancement of protectionist rather than globalising economic policies, etc. But these processes were at work earlier. These developments follow a disappointing series of outcomes of (old-style) activist struggles that had held great promise for social transformation – but resulted in increases in xenophobia and authoritarianism in settings such as southern Africa and India, and in the context of the Arab Spring. For some activists, the environment is not new: they have been contending with illiberal regimes and illiberal responses for decades. Their experience gains new relevancies in the current context. We do not wish to predetermine which locations or forms of activism are most relevant, or how they are interconnected, but welcome a diversity of submissions. Their interconnections will be an outcome of the special thematic section.
What are the potential strategies for activism in this post-liberal order? Some advocate traditional methods of political engagement, using grassroots organising to change the make-up of political parties and movements. Others use protest, supported by satire and humour. Some aim to build bridges across polarisations through traditional means of dialogue. Some argue that inclusive, diverse local communities need to be nurtured and celebrated, to counter division and the homogenising ‘echo chambers’ of communities of identity. Others reject engagement, preferring to ‘opt out’ or to disrupt and destroy means of oppression. Many intellectuals seem bewildered by the changing order, responding with fear, denial, or paralysis. This special thematic section aims to develop a critical community psychology response to this situation through dialogue between authors of different generations, locations, and disciplines. It will explore the nature of the nascent ‘post-liberal’ order, its continuities and discontinuities with the established ‘neo-liberal’ and ‘social democratic’, liberal orders, focusing on the implications for community psychology. It will seek to develop conceptual tools, frameworks, and understandings of the dimensions of progressive activism for health and other forms of social justice in this post-liberal era. Theoretical, review, empirical, and position pieces will all contribute to the debate.
Questions and areas of discussion by special section contributors
- What are the main contemporary transformations affecting the practice and the values commonly associated with the field of activism and community mobilisation in health and social justice?
- What are the premises and assumptions underlying the theory and practice of activism that need to be scrutinised in the light of contemporary cultural, political, and economic re-configurations?
- What are the implications of these re-configurations for the scope of interest and the definitions of what’s relevant for the field?
- What is to be learned from the anxieties and uncertainties that these re-configurations introduce in the field?
- Has critique in fact ‘run out of steam’ (Latour, 2004)? Is critique the only form of approximation between community psychology and its objects of description and enquiry? Is it possible to think a ‘post-critical’ community psychology?
- How can experiences of mobilisation and activism in the ‘global south’ inform and inspire responses to the challenges faced in the north?
- Where are the ripest opportunities for activism to make a difference in this complex scenario?
- Does it still make sense to talk about common identities as the basis for activism?
- What ‘social contract’ do people understand themselves to have with others and with the state?
- In what ways does the state of increasingly polarised approaches (e.g., left and right) constitute a challenge or an issue from the perspective of community psychology? Is there space for dialogue and attempts at understanding?
Content of the special thematic section
We anticipate theoretical articles, review articles, position pieces, and empirical papers. Theoretical papers should aim to develop new conceptual tools for analysing contemporary manifestations of inequalities, and the activist strategies to tackle these inequalities. Review articles synthesise relevant literature to shed new light on key issues. Position pieces might address the changing role of intellectuals, health activism, collaborations, and opportunities for progressive social change. Empirical papers could present investigations of the current dynamic socio-political order or might provide case studies of existing activism, highlighting their responsiveness to, and/or production of new socio-political orders. To spark debate and development, commentaries will be invited (on individual papers or groups of papers, depending on the submissions), and the editors will produce an introduction which frames and synthesises the advances made in the special section. An optional workshop will be held in London to develop the individual papers and the themes of the special thematic section. Authors who are unable to attend will have other means of engagement made available.
To submit a paper
A two-round process of review will take place. Please submit long abstracts (1000 words) by 19 June 2017 to Cristian Montenegro (email@example.com). Following review, selected authors will be invited to submit full papers by 15 December 2017 for peer review. The special section will be published in early 2019. Queries may be directed to Cristian Montenegro (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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