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24 August 2022

Scholactivism and the Global South

Tarunabh Khaitan’s article “On scholactivism in constitutional studies: Skeptical thoughts” has prompted us to make a number of observations.1) It is a welcome intervention insofar as it may perhaps provide an impetus for a much needed debate within constitutional studies, which on the one hand seeks to lay bare certain kinds of privilege that undergirds the positionality of scholars arguing against Scholactivism, and on the other hand also makes the case for empirically grounded and interdisciplinary engagement in constitutional studies. We understand the position argued in the paper, which among other things, seeks to insulate the scholar from the perils of politics and activism to essentially preserve the purity of the pursuit of knowledge—and to contribute to the pursuit of justice by sticking “to their role morality as scholars more strictly” (at p2). Yet, to those of us located in, writing from and about the Global South—which includes both the geographical South as well as pockets of it in the Global North (including racialised and Indigenous populations)—this contention raises several concerns.

The Geography of Knowledge Production

First, the strawman examples used in the paper question the motive of Scholactivists. While such utilitarianist impulses may exist in the academy everywhere, a blanket assumption without marshalling empirical evidence is a reminder of the age-old colonial construction of “native mendacity” by colonial administrators who were producers of knowledge par excellence. Their largely limited encounter with and assumption about the local populace produced the dishonest category of the native. We are wary of the case made against Scholactivism based on particular experiences or observation and not on the basis of contextual realities, particularly that of the Global South.

A large body of work suggests that there are places in the world where Scholactivism is both necessary and sometimes not accompanied by the luxury of choice.2) Consider the example of Turkey where Erdogan launched a purge against academics, many of whom have been incarcerated or are in exile. As authoritarian regimes are increasingly outnumbering democratic ones, history provides ample examples where intellectuals, scholars and universities are the first targets for the consolidation of authoritarian power. When democracies like the USA experienced erosion of its democratic institutions under the Trump era, many scholars—who may not have taken to the streets as activists—produced scholarship that will serve as historical record, made the case for democracy or human rights (for example, on treatment of asylum seekers) or allied with activists who led emancipatory movements (Black Lives Matter). These types of scholars are often thrust into political projects or movements due to larger political and structural conditions. Furthermore, when institutions are too weak to withstand authoritarian encroachment, we should hope that Scholactivists will resist some of the onslaught.

There are also contexts in which Scholactivists connect overlapping fields of action and alternative sites of knowledge production. For instance, activists can sometimes be ahead of scholarship concerning Climate Action, especially in Global South countries where it intersects with movements for democracy. Hence, knowledge production can occur in alternative sites at a faster pace outside the academy in policy institutions. These institutions which are well-funded often work in conjunction with universities, producing research and connecting academy researchers to the “field”. Paradoxically, however, such funding and institutional agendas tend to cater to Global North dictates.

Critical Masses and Gatekeeping 

Secondly, it appears that embedded in the paper is both an assumption that Scholactivists are necessarily poor scholars, and (contradictorily) a fear of a “critical mass” of such Scholactivists. If Scholactivists are poor scholars, they are unlikely to get hired in the Academy in the first place and the question of critical mass would not arise. To cast such blanket aspersions about poor scholarship is to create a hierarchy between Academy scholars and those who are writing critically and engaging in activism from the Academy as well as those situated in alternative sites of knowledge production. There are ample Scholactivist examples in history from Marx to Ambedkar who were located outside the Academy; and more contemporary examples of Scholactivists operating inside and outside the Academy include Kamal Hossain (Bangladesh), (late) Neelan Tiruchevam (Sri Lanka), Rodrigo Uprimny (Colombia), Sylvia Tamale (Uganda), Boaventura Santos (Portugal), Cornel West (USA) etc.

At a time when universities globally are rocked by claims for decolonizing education and academia, and considering the rise of neoliberal educational institutions, we argue that a critical mass of Scholactivists is, in fact, quite necessary. However, achieving such a critical mass to a level which “pure scholars” have reason to fear is highly unlikely. For the decolonization agenda, one only ought to look at the “Rhodes must Fall” debate in Oxford University, and the rhetoric around “Critical Race Theory” in the United States to understand the scale of status quo gatekeeping that will be advanced in opposition. In the Global South, such a possibility of critical mass is even more remote. Scholars may receive accolades and publicity for their work, but they also risk personal safety and liberty, and may even become targets of government and other propaganda seeking to delegitimize their scholarship.

The Luxury of Value-Neutrality 

Third, the paper appears to suggest both a single and universal category of a Scholactivist who, no matter the risks outlined above, can exercise value-neutrality. It is here that positionality of the scholar comes into play. Scholars writing from elite schools of the Global North may have this luxury and “value neutral” scholarship is welcome. However, such positionality also comes with enormous responsibility, particularly as it relates to the large audiences they attract around the world. When a call to anti-Scholactivism is made, it ought to be done responsibly with caution, nuances, qualifications and some reference to available literature that one may be writing against. Otherwise, such scholarship may amount to a call for neutrality under political conditions which snuff out intellectual voices. The article in question itself alludes to the role of the academy as a check on power so we find the anti-Scholactivism bent baffling.

A call for value-neutrality also presumes that both academia and knowledge are accessible and equitable. Academic knowledge repositories, particularly knowledge about the Global South has been created by and is largely located in the Global North—making it inaccessible to a vast section of the world. In this milieu, scholars who take seriously the history of colonial appropriation of knowledge and implicit hierarchies and power that marginalize vast sections of the world are required to read and write critically and responsibly.

As most Global South universities experience significant resource constraints, the bulk of academic work shifts from producing research to teaching.  In such spaces, teaching becomes a powerful tool for change as evidenced by, for example, student politics in the Indian Subcontinent (notably, in 60s (East) Pakistan, and 70s India during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency); and the La Séptima Papaleta movement in Colombia (the Seventh Ballot student-led movement that contributed to the calling of a referendum on and adoption of a new constitution in 1991). Admittedly, there are perils of partisan politics in the university where it might trump merit and scholarship. Many Global South scholars—some of whom often migrate to Northern universities as a result of political pressures and turmoil in the Academy—would want to see their institutions free of partisan politics. However, to completely insulate the academic space from politics–particularly the kind that advocates for rights–is a disservice to academia’s primary responsibility of imparting knowledge to next generation’s leaders and thinkers.

Additionally, many countries have constitutions with imperfect social contracts—a reminder that constitutional studies cover more ground than constitutional design. Power, privilege, politics and practice are integral to understanding constitutional law. Hence, certain kinds of rights, for example, minority rights on account of race, indigenous, caste and other identities generate protracted debates about identity, discrimination and affirmative action. These issues may require enunciating rights which are presently not articulated in existing constitutions—a job Scholactivists are well-positioned to do.  Value neutral knowledge on these topics will teach little to the next generation about pertinent issues in constitutional studies that define the times in which we live.

A Terrain for Struggle

Finally, we envisage Scholactivism as academic work or committed activist work that is informed by rigorous academic research, and which is explicitly connected to political projects or movements. Scholactivists operate from multiple positionalities and fields. They are primarily but not exclusively located in academic institutions. They produce knowledge, do activist work and are connected to political projects or movements that seek to reconstitute legal institutions from the lived experiences of marginalized, oppressed and impoverished groups through scholarship or collaborative pursuits. Their frontline roles in advocacy and legal reform to either support or catalyze action, or challenge the inequities in-built within constitutional frameworks are crucial for knowledge mobilization and access. Thus, the university may itself serve as a terrain for emancipatory struggle and democratic participation.

The authors are co-organizers of International Research Collaborative 39 (Law and Society Association) on Scholars in the Global South: Scholars, Activists, Interlopers. This piece has been enriched by comments from IRC 39 Members and Affiliates including Professor Yugank Goyal (FLAME University, India) Professors Vasanthi Venkatesh and Shanthi Senthe from University of Windsor Law School, and Maryam Khan (SJD Candidate, University of Wisconsin Law School and Research Fellow, IDEAS, Pakistan).


1 For more information on “Scholactivism”, follow our work on International Research Collaborative 39 (Law and Society Association) on Scholars in the Global South: Scholars, Activists, Interlopers, which is collaborating with scholars from various countries including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka Myanmar, Egypt, Turkey, South Africa, Colombia and Venezuela.
2 See for example (non-exhaustive list), Sarat, Austin, and Stuart Scheingold, eds. Cause lawyering and the state in a global era. OUP, 2001; Munger, Frank W., Scott L. Cummings, and Louise G. Trubek. “Mobilizing law for justice in Asia: A comparative approach.” Wis. Int’l LJ 31 (2013): 353; Farid, Cynthia, “Legal Scholactivists in the Third World: Between Ambition, Altruism and Access.” Windsor YB Access Just. 33 (2016): 57; and other fairly voluminous bodies of work on law and social movements.

SUGGESTED CITATION  Farid, Cynthia; Latorre, Sergio: Scholactivism and the Global South, VerfBlog, 2022/8/24,, DOI: 10.17176/20220824-181812-0.

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