Opinion: The Opportunity and Importance of Combining Academia and Activism (November 2019)

By Melisa Yasav, Master’s student of Development Studies in Helsinki University

While studying international politics in the UK I had barely given any thought to the possibilities of combining academia and activism. During that time I was a member of the university’s human rights society and I remember us never expecting nor getting a thumbs up from our political science lecturers for the demonstrations and other activities we organised regularly. When there were bigger demonstrations for refugee issues our staff would just participate to take pictures and leave. It sounds paradoxical now, but similar occurrences led us to believe that our teachers of international politics were more interested in their own research conducted inside their offices than in what was going on in the world. During our lectures we would learn about civil society, activism and political upheavals, as well as Marxism, post colonialism, and feminism. While those theories did deepen our interest in social issues I felt annoyed that we were not encouraged to do anything practical with what we learned. Only when I began my master’s degree in development studies in Helsinki University did I became conscious of the calls to action within these theories, of my own responsibility in actualising these calls but also of my over-simplistic understanding of what exposing and tackling social issues could look like.


I have seen our associate professor in television’s current affairs programmes and public talks discussing about Finnish companies’ unjust practices in developing countries, I have heard about FSDR’s efforts to inform our decision makers about development cooperation, I have participated in a climate change demonstration organised by the staff of Development Studies discipline and I had the pleasure to interview brave individuals who are both academics and environmental activists while collecting data for my thesis research abroad. One of our professors has even encouraged us to take more radical direct action. Experiencing these numerous ways in which academics have stepped outside of their offices and comfort zones has made me a proud development studies student. Journal articles and conferences include powerful words that matter but they are rarely heard where they matter the most.


Fridays for Future, Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and other Western-produced movements barely scratch the surface of what global injustice has meant for the majority of the world’s population and us development studies scholars and students know this better than many. We also know how easy it is for erring perceptions and greedy interests to redirect any efforts for a more just society. Concerns are valid. Politically active academics might unpurposefully ignite a public conversation that would end up harming people’s perception of scientists as pursuers of objectivity despite the benevolent purposes of such political activism. Some say that academics should not be activists but I selfishly disagree as such a viewpoint would make my motives for academia redundant. The reason we go beyond research is that we make moral connections between us and those whose lives we study, between the comfort of our offices and the discomfort of our sense of responsibility, between our privileged ability to choose to act and their inability to make that choice, between our feelings and our science.


Please Note: All opinions expressed are solely those of the authors.