“I am not a social activist, I only do activism”

BY Dr Tomi Oladepo


Sometime in 2013 I was on the field in Nigeria to gather data for my thesis on digital media and the culture of democracy. One of the categories of people I sought to speak with were the new (and traditional crop) of social activists who had been vocal in challenging the government to legitimise itself before the people through revising their decisions on certain policies (e.g. fuel subsidy). By simply leveraging on the soft power they had amassed online via social media networks, some had even successfully forced the hand of big commercial corporations in their favour. These were remarkable stories I was quite keen to capture in my thesis as part of my study.

However, there was one cog in the wheel of this process, some of these respondents refused the label, “social activist” – they argued that there was more to their identity online (and otherwise) than social activism.

This threw up all kinds of issues with my methodology design, because as you may well know, research likes to work in clear-cut boxes and categories for ease in measurement and discussion – even when it’s qualitative. However, this cannot always be the case. To this end, I had to adapt my research design to admit and present the data gathered on the basis of recurring themes that emerged from my interviews, as opposed to the dsitinct “categories” of my sample. NB: I also had to defend this decision in my viva (oral defence).

This morning, while working on a paper on digital media activism in Nigeria, I have found another by Chris Bobel (2007), titled, ‘I’m not an activist, though I’ve done a lot of it’: Doing Activism, Being Activist and the ‘Perfect Standard’ in a Contemporary Movement. In his 14-page piece, Bobel interrogates the question of identity in contemporary social movements. Through in-depth interviews with 33 individuals involved in a specific activism movement, he identifies the tensions associated with being labelled a “social activist”, and calls for a more nuanced and complex conceptualisation of collective identity in the context of social movement action.

Traditionally, being an activist is a collective identity associated with one’s participation in a social movement or some form of collective action. However, for Bobel (2007), the resistance of certain actors to ‘self-identify’ as ‘activist’ exposes a disconnection between what he calls “doing activism” and “being activist”. This misalignment between personal and collective identities signals the need for a “more complicated account of identity” in social movements, he states.

Bobel says the tension between “doing activism” and “being activist” is founded in what has been expressed as the “perfect standard”. That is, as identities are argued to be anchored in values and value systems (important elements of self conception), these values thus “shape the very definition of who is and who is not appropriately considered an activist.” It is his argument that “the conception of activist is anchored on key values of humility and rigour expressed as a perfect standard.” This “standard” he continues, “places the esteemed identity activist out of reach for many social movement actors who deem themselves unworthy.”

As I mentioned earlier, some of my respondents rejected the label not from a feeling of unworthiness, but out of a sense that the title did not adequately capture their identity/persona. It may also be that by accepting the label “social activist”, they consider themselves confined to a limited cocoon of interests, where they’d rather not. I find that it might be worth exploring the values and value systems they hold which might have prompted their rejection of the label “activist”. I suspect I might come to a conclusion far removed from Bobel’s submission – but you never know with research, until you embark on the intriguing journey.

Feature Image Credit: Gallo Images (as seen on fluxtrends.co.za)

This post was originally published on the Digital Media Culture blog. It has been re-published with permission.

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