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Asking Tough Questions: The Ethics Of Studying Activism In Democratically Restricted Environments

Sandra Smeltzer
Published 2012 · Sociology
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In this article I examine the ethics of researching media-related activism in democratically restricted environments. Given that research participants in these locales often place a lot on the line to engage in their chosen political pursuits, including enduring government harassment and persecution, the ethics of conducting research about their activism deserves serious critical attention and analysis. Drawing on fieldwork examples from Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia, I also critically address the safety and welfare of researchers working in restricted milieus and of students interning with politically oriented non-governmental and community-based organizations. Through this discussion I explore what kinds of activism can and should be included under the broad umbrella of activist research, and how academics balance scholarly production expectations with activist commitments on the ground. I contend that activist-oriented research can include a range of complementary hands-on activities, from front-line, direct-action social justice pursuits to less visible, though no less important, “back office” support for local organizations and social movements.
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