Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 208 | Noviembre 1998


Latin America

Research and Social Action: Keys for an Alliance

By Ricardo Falla, sj, a speech he gave at the annual meeting of the Latin American Studies Association, upon receiving the Martin Diskin Award sponsored by OXFAM and LASA, in Chicago, September 1998.

Ricardo Falla

Academics look down on grassroots researchers. Social activists complain that researchers are slow and removed from reality. Some analysts are bureaucrats and some activists frustrate the poor. What should we do? How should we do it? Who should we do it with?
What is the relationship between research, analysis and science on the one hand, and social action on the other? Nearly 30 years of work in both fields, sometimes more involved in one and sometimes more in the other, along with the experiences of other Jesuits in Central America and elsewhere in the world guide my answers to this question.

These answers and reflections, though certainly guilty of utopianism, are directed particularly to the younger generation. My reflections and answers are motivated by something that must also be the measure and the criterion to judge the integration of research and action: the promotion of justice in the world, especially in our continent.

Justice in its broadest sense includes various dimensions: economic, social and cultural relations. And this is what is at issue here, seeing how research and social action can mutually empower each other to solve the great problems facing people in our societies, so that actions and research lead not to senseless or insipid activities, but rather to efforts that encourage just relations among human beings.

Among the poor, seeing through their eyes

Without objectivity and analytical rigor, there is no science. Nor can there be solid, strong and lasting social action. However, researchers' views and interpretations of facts are always colored by an epistemological horizon created by our living conditions.

The situation in which researchers live must be affected by the world's injustice. This will allow them to see and interpret the facts the way those who suffer from injustice do. They will thus share the same epistemological horizon, to the extent possible. The vision of the world's poor may be narrow and short sighted, because they do not know much about the world that lies beyond their town or neighborhood. But the important thing is not so much the extent of their knowledge of the world outside as it is the angle of their vision, their perspective and point of view.

The source of inspiration for this vision is usually only achieved by some direct contact with the poor, through what we call insertion in their world. There are many kinds of insertion, depending on how deeply we live with the impoverished and excluded. Deep insertion involves eating, sleeping and working with them. It means living like them, without using our own money for some period of time. We anthropologists have been trained to do this. I remember how I ate worms and went hungry with the Yaruros of Venezuela when, as a student inspired by reading Levi-Strauss' Tristes tropiques, I went to do agricultural work alongside them on the plains of Apure. Cultural collisions that change our lives come from this kind of insertion. There are also more superficial kinds. I now live in a poor, marginalized neighborhood in a Honduran city, but do tedious administrative work outside the neighborhood and am ashamed to drive in and out of it in a car.

Most researchers who have experienced either deep or superficial kinds of insertion cannot maintain them, since such a life does not facilitate the kind of work they need to do after finishing the data collection. Shorter periods of insertion alternate with periods of writing in an office or giving classes in a university. Given this reality, the most important thing is to ensure that the epistemological horizon not dissipate because of the distance and that some mediation always remain.

The Jesuits now have a general policy, although I don't know to what extent it is implemented: all the young people during their formative stage must spend some period of insertion among the poor, preferably among those from a different culture.

Three kinds of research

Social science research should take its inspiration from the poor so that it can influence society through transformatory action. We are all familiar with the main kinds of research and analysis. Academic research is carried out in universities and consists primarily of study, reflection, research and writing. The research involved in policy planning and design is carried out in the offices of governments, the United Nations and NGOs, and generally aims to understand a particular situation in order to prioritize actions or services. Research for grassroots consciousness-raising and organizing begins among marginalized people and seeks to motivate them by linking their needs to the struggle for justice.

These three different kinds of research are not usually as complementary as they should be. Academics tend to disdain the work of grassroots researchers as unscientific, and grassroots researchers accuse academics of distancing themselves from reality and the vast majority of people and of having minds clouded by the unconscious prejudices that internal competition in the academy create. Planning researchers are branded as impersonal bureaucrats dependent on their institutions and without much influence over the decision-making bodies where they work.

Keys to transformatory research

The analysis based on these three kinds of research should follow three guidelines, in order to create a basis for better understanding that will allow them to converge in transformatory social action:
1. The research should be motivated by and directed to solving the great problems of injustice: poverty, violence, environmental destruction, the spread of AIDS, discrimination against women, political corruption, etc. This motivation determines the selection of issues to investigate and the angle of interpretation. Selecting the most relevant issues is not easy, since freedom is often conditioned by the interests of institutions and those financing projects. Some topics do not "sell" and others are "in fashion." In any case, it is essential to try to maintain the orientation towards justice against all threats.

2. The research should be carried out with academic rigor, be critical of its own assumptions, and recognize the limits of its methodology. It should particularly be wary of the paralyzing effect of macro-level analysis, which frequently contrasts with the hopes of the poor, who struggle for life day after day and, despite the statistical data, manage to survive "without knowing how," as researchers often conclude, thus revealing nothing so much as their own distance from reality. Research must be characterized by intellectual honesty reflected in its theory, methods and techniques. And science must reflect on itself to see that it not serve to sustain injustice.

3. The analysis should be carried out through dialogue. Frequently, because of the dynamics of competition, intellectual training leads to an individualistic style of work. Dialogue should exist among researchers in the same discipline and among the various disciplines: anthropology, economics, history, sociology, philosophy, even theology. The globalization of society also requires dialogue between the micro and macro levels. One of the main criteria for evaluating the truth of the analysis must be dialogue with those affected, ether directly or through people in the forefront of social action.

Action and investigation: two dynamics

Depending on the objective to be achieved, social action can be classified various ways. There are acts of accompaniment, assistance, development, the promotion of individual and collective rights, gender awareness, environmental protection, international solidarity, structural change. Social action can also be classified according to the people to whom it is directed: ethnic minorities, marginalized urban populations, peasant organizations, migrants, people living with AIDS, the elderly... And it can be classified according to the kind of injustice it seeks to confront, the kind of service it offers or the identity of the activists.

The dynamics of analysis and research often conflict with social action. The needs are urgent and those on the front lines know these needs better than those doing the research. They cannot wait but have to respond to the daily course of events without having all the information. Research, especially academic research, is too slow and cumbersome and doesn't usually help the activists, who look down on it. "Intellectuals in air conditioned rooms," "theoreticians, come get your boots dirty," "they only publish books that collect dust on the shelves," "they earn big salaries while the people are dying of hunger". . . They say all these things and more.

Social action also deserves to be criticized. It can be blind or myopic, short on analysis and riddled with mistakes that hurt the poor: because of the dependency on NGO financing created by some projects, because the activists impose their ways of working on people, because of suicidal struggles based on ideological analyses, because of hasty, badly planned actions that end up frustrating the poor... As one technical expert with a critical disposition told us when looking at our grain dryer in one Honduran municipality, "This is one of so many fossils in the immense cemetery of Latin American projects." Activism has its own dynamic and feeds itself, more so if there is a lot of money behind it. It resembles the intellectualism of many large-scale research projects that also have their own dynamics and end up losing their sense of purpose.

Keys to effective social action

What positive features should characterize social action? Social action and research should mutually influence each other, so that action flows from analysis and analysis is fed by practice. The idea should not be that action only begin once an investigation has been completed, following a list of recommendations. Besides, it never happens that way. What happens instead is that, when an investigation touches the source of inspiration in the people, a process is unleashed that spreads enthusiasm. The investigation succeeds in emphasizing an issue, values a forgotten population, raises a challenge that is almost an adventure for the young. Action begins as a part of this process. We've seen this happen on many occasions. Based on an investigation carried out by several colleagues among the indigenous people in Panama, we committed ourselves to taking responsibility for a parish in the Guaymí region, with all that this implies in terms of support for grassroots organization from a religious perspective. From this commitment to action arose problems to investigate, such as the relationship between the indigenous people and the copper mine threatening their town. And each study we did, of varying degrees of sophistication, supported the Guaymí's struggle for autonomy.

Although social action is not usually based on a preliminary study, it should begin with an assessment of the people suffering from the injustice who will participate in the work carried out by the social activists. This diagnostic study helps the activists learn, from within, to work in accord with the people's wishes and discover what intuitive solutions can be put into effect with external support. This study involves participatory analysis carried out with the poor, in which they are also researchers. This explains the recommendation not to support projects designed from outside—which are not flexible—but rather processes that create room for the creativity of the people who are being accompanied. This makes it possible to avoid that relationship that often develops between activist-officials who come to supervise a project and the people, who deceive them because they aren't really interested in what the project is interested in, but rather in what they can get out of it.

Play the system's game?

Social action should not "play the system's game." This is an issue that sparks a lot of discussion, because no one is outside of the system and no one can claim that he or she doesn't get something out of it. Nonetheless, what this advice—often given in meetings to reflect on social action—aims to do is to alert us to the possibility that in trying to alleviate people's poverty we may end up, for example, taking on the state's responsibility to guarantee drinking water, improve the health system or ensure education. Another example is offered by those who say—it seems to me mistakenly—that by supporting the struggle for human rights in the maquilas one is playing the game of the North American unions, supposedly only opposed to the maquilas because they want to recover jobs.

Really, there is no recipe to know when one is playing the system's game. What is important is that social action take into account not only the immediate needs it seeks to fill, but also the social and political context in which these needs exist.

The necessary institutionality

The relationship between research and action, both of them inspired by insertion among the poor, need to be given some kind of concrete form in an institution, however small it may be, to ensure that the work of social transformation has a lasting influence even if people come and go. The difficult tension between research and social action can be successfully achieved in a single person, but that's not enough, even if this person becomes a source of charismatic inspiration for the whole institution.

The basic team in an institution involved in this work consists of a group of people, some dedicated to research and others to social action, all united in common, concrete tasks to promote justice. Some universities have tried to institutionalize the relationship between research and action and combine it with teaching. Experience shows that teaching tends to interfere with both tasks, although this should not be the case. Teaching, research and social action are represented in universities in departments, research institutes and centers for social action, which makes it possible to apply university studies in rural areas and poor urban neighborhoods. Ordinarily, the integration of these three areas leaves much to be desired and is neither the only nor the most influential way in which university analysis can be converted into action. When he was rector of the Central American University in El Salvador, Ignacio Ellacuría said that the university's mission is to be society's critical, pro-active conscience. The continuing exercise of this conscience cost him his life.

Something similar happened to the bishop of Guatemala, Juan Gerardi, two days after presenting a four-volume study on human rights violations committed during the war that showed that the Guatemalan army was responsible for the overwhelming majority of these crimes. They smashed his face and head with a chunk of concrete, thus symbolizing the destruction they sought to wreak on the report drafted by the Recovery of Historical Memory (REHMI) team. In that case, the investigation became a denunciation that became social action, but the action has not yet been sufficiently powerful to unmask the military forces hiding behind power.

The reality of globalization is currently opening up new levels of coordination through networks around new topics for research and action: the search for alternatives to poverty or the foreign debt, the integration of the greater Caribbean basin, counterproposals to ALCA, etc.

Keys to team coherence

Although it is hard to define guidelines to be followed in these coordinating structures, which range from teams working in community centers to those working in universities and networks, I would like to suggest the following:
• There should be certain basic agreement on the objective—the promotion of justice, broadly understood—and this objective should be a reality and not merely rhetoric. Each person or institution collaborating should be clear about his or her specific objectives and tasks. This clarity should lead to a judicious selection of information and tasks, so people aren't overwhelmed by endless meetings, networks or e-mail messages.
• There should be leadership personnel who coordinate the work and are supported by an efficient administration. A spirit of listening and mutual trust, which recognizes that everyone has something to say, should prevail among the personnel.
• The financial question should be managed carefully so that the research and action teams are not dependent on funds from the state or corporations that prevent their freedom of action or social critique. The question of investments also requires care, so that the interest on the capital that supports the work not come from corporations that exploit workers in other parts of the world.
• The expenses incurred in research or social transformation projects—extremely high salaries, conferences in five star hotels—should not offend the poor when the alleviation of their poverty is supposedly the point. The large salaries of foreign researchers in Latin America are proverbial.
• The insertion of some members of the team or institution among the poor should be taken as a shared responsibility—"if she's there among the poor, we're all there"—as an effective, living corrective to the inevitable differences in living standards imposed by the reality of our world, especially for professionals with families.

The influence of family and community

The relationship between research and action is socially shaped by family, friendships, community, all the social ties of the team's various members.

Researchers often dedicate their books to their spouses and children, who patiently support and put up with them. The family has an obvious influence on whether the research is open or closed to social action. It also influences the social action of its members. Constant, spontaneous reflection and analysis in the refuge of the family, in the circle of friends and in the community also influence the orientation of both research and social action.

As with everything in life, however, we cannot redesign our families and relationships as we like. In Latin America we grow up amid ideological contradictions imposed by life, where one's brother-in-law might be an army official and one's brother in the guerrilla movement. I still believe, though, that there is a certain amount of freedom in which to shape the home's constitution, habits and orientation. The goal is that there be no dichotomy between family life and a concern for the promotion of justice, one of whose dimensions is the relationship between research and action.

Keys to having a home that encourages change

Some homes offer positive sustenance to the relationship between research and action because:
• There is communication among household members, adapted to the age, sex and relationship of each one, which includes informal reflection on what is being done and what should be done. This reflection, aired around the table, during play, in all areas, serves the research and action team as a holistic counterweight, filled with common sense, that cuts through ideologies. It also serves as a support that sustains the lifelong commitment to promote justice in moments of failure, depression, unemployment or betrayal. This kind of reflective environment will encourage an orientation towards justice in the children who grow up in it.
• They offer hospitality and are open to people from diverse social classes and occupations, especially poor people. We've seen exemplary cases of researchers and social workers who provide lodging for peasants in their houses in the city. This is one way of maintaining the epistemological horizon of the poor.
• People share their daily lives, rest, celebrations and personal experience of art and spirituality, even if it isn't necessarily religious. In these moments of relaxation one takes a break from serious work and puts it in perspective as something that may barely affect the world, making light of the very seriousness and intensity we dedicate to our work. After all, the great transformations are out of our hands and we have to learn to see them as a gift of life. The spirituality of a family where children play is opposed to a Promethean ideology.
• Family, home and friendships are a living metaphor for a new inclusive, egalitarian, respectful, open and happy society, which gives hope to those who see it and get close to it. Such a family, by its mere countercultural presence in society, is in itself a focus for social change.

Hope for a new society

The inspirational source for the integration of research and social action to promote justice is the poor. But if this promotion is not viable, if failures have obscured strategies, if the very possibility of a global theory of society is in crisis and we lack a direction to move in, then inspiration can become a tremendous deceit. We need motives for hope that are not merely illusions.

In Central America, since the fall of socialism, we have already tried a couple of times to organize seminars to study the shape of a new society. We have studied experiences that provide enough motive to continue the intellectual search and not abandon the work of grassroots activism. A list of the main issues to investigate further in turn reveals the features of a possible new society.

• In the economic arena: the mixed economy, using both the market and planning, should be an alternative to the ideological posing of the market as an absolute and the failure of centralized socialism. The economy should aim to create jobs, improve the standard of living and protect the environment, and not just control and guarantee macroeconomic figures, even if this is necessary. Wealth should not be founded on financial speculation but rather on the incentive of production.
• In the social arena: the process of forming civil society and deepening participatory democracy should be expanded. In some of our countries the army remains a very active power. In others, electoral abstentionism is a dangerous sign. The broadening of women's participation in a traditionally macho world is a slow and necessary process that must give birth to a new society. De-bureaucratizing, shrinking and modernizing the state are necessary tasks, but so is strengthening it in relation to international organizations. Given the discrediting of political parties, the revaluing of political vocation and a focus on structural transformations based on local power are also necessary points on the agenda.
• In the cultural arena: the new society's tasks include the recovery of people's identity and values, crushed by the globalizing culture of the media, and the revaluing of the "civilization of the poor," as Ellacuría called it, to counter voracious, predatory consumerism.

It is increasingly evident that any solution to the problems, even those most localized in small communities, must be seen from a global perspective. Although transnational capitalism is creating an ever wider gulf between the poor and the rich, between the illiterate and the computer literate, between indigenous people living in villages atop steep riverbanks as they did a century ago and educated, professional indigenous people—and the list could go on—globalization also has positive effects that cannot be denied. One of these is an awareness of our universal citizenship and the possibility of a solidarity never before imaginable. This solidarity, which was highly organized and active in First World countries and among people committed to social change during Central America's wars, seems to going through a lethargic moment. It's time to reorganize and reinvigorate it, within a conception not of two blocs, but rather of one single world: the global village.

A banquet with room for everyone

We appear to lack defining metaphors for the new society. Some people mention the lifeboat as the metaphor of the society of exclusion. Only a few fit in and those who do not have no other choice than to drown. This is an image of social Darwinism, in which the strongest and best adapted to the environment survive. To counter this image, we have used the Jewish image of the banquet in our reflection circles, in which the more people who participate, the more there is for everyone, since there is more work, more enthusiasm to produce and more generosity to share. This banquet sounds like a myth. But the great myths of humanity have been the bearers of hope, which suggests that they contain some kernel of truth.

This diagram helps us contemplate the path and the dynamics implied by integrating research and action. We start with the poor as the source of inspiration, which is achieved through direct contact with them by means of insertion. From this inspirational well springs the motivation for the effort to promote justice, whether through research or through social action. This well is charged with negativity, because the most unreasonable injustice is felt there. But lights of hope appear in its darkest depth that allow us to speak of a new society in the future. We can see this spark of hope in the laughter of the poor and it feeds our hope.

This inspiration influences the relationship between research, analysis and science on the one hand, and social action on the other. But the influence does not take place in a void. Rather, it is concretely shaped by stable relationships, some related to work and others to life. The team that carries out both research and action is the prototype of a work unit that integrates research and action. The family or home is the prototype that integrates these two activities in a living unit. The team and family have a mutual relationship of critical support that gives affective roots to a commitment that, if real, will weather many storms.

Just as the inspiration of the poor pushes us forward because their reality is colored by negativity and they struggle to overcome it, the vision of a new society attracts us and gives us cause for hope. This vision helps us glimpse an image that cannot be schematically, rationally delineated. Rather, we make out a series of lights that shine in the midst of darkness. Seeing them all together gives us an idea of the possibilities and challenges we face in this difficult hour of history which is ours to live.

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