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Ethnography, Commitment, and Critique: Departing from Activist Scholarship

International Political Sociology

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This article addresses the vexed question of relations between critique and political struggle. As emphasis upon the “impact” of research increases, possibilities of integrating research into practices of resistance have been highlighted. Such approaches lend themselves to ethnographic methods, with scholars engaged in these ways offering nuanced reflections on possibilities of “bridging gaps” between research and solidarity. Here, however, I draw on over a decade of “activist” ethnography to highlight risks of conceptual enclosure associated with this move. The politics of struggle are quickly erased through available categories and problematics, which are readily absorbed into existing constellations of power. By contrast, the gaps between solidarity and writing provide spaces for emergence of a critical attitude—along lines sketched by Foucault. Nevertheless, to “apply” Foucault to this sort of ethnography carries a risk of betrayal. Foucault's critical ethos can be neither starting point nor end of engagement with actually existing struggles. Inspired by the philosophical tradition in which Foucault's work was rooted, I advocate a practice that gives weight to ontologies emerging from struggle as conjectures perpetually in question. This implies not closing gaps but a persistent back‐and‐forth between critique and commitment—risking ourselves as subjects at both ends.