Conference Paper: Borderlands Studies and Border Theory – Linking Activism and Scholarship for Social Justice

21 10 2009

Nancy A. Naples
(University of Connecticut)

To read this article and its associated commentary for free just click on the PDF links below.

Naples PDF

Commentary PDF – Anna Liisa Aunio (Centre de Recherche en Éthique de lʹUniversité de Montréal [CRÉUM])

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This paper traces contemporary trends in borderlands studies and border theory and argues for a feminist revisioning of border studies as a mode of praxis, linking activism and scholarship. I trace the trends from early borderland studies and Gloria Anzaldúa’s analysis of la frontera to the institutionalization of border theory in the academy. Scholars influenced by Anzaldúa’s work view borderlands as sites that can enable those dwelling there to negotiate the contradictions and tensions found in diverse cultural, class, and other settings.  Critical perspectives of this view include concerns that there is “the tendency to construct the border crosser or the hybrid … into a new privileged subject of history” (Vila 2003).   I examine tension between empirically-based borderlands studies and cultural studies oriented border theory, address the limits and possibilities of an interdisciplinary border studies, and discuss the dilemmas associated with academic institutionalization and interdisciplinarity. I illustrate the feminist revisioning I recommend with three case examples chosen from contemporary feminist and queer border studies that link local struggles with cross-border organizing against violence against women, labour rights, and sexual citizenship.



3 responses

21 10 2009
Nancy Naples

My thanks to Anna-Liisa Aunio for her thoughtful comments on my paper. The issue of “epistemic privilege” haunts feminist standpoint analyses as well as other critical methodologies. I have found Bat-Ami Bar On’s discussion of this dilemma most useful. However, if our epistemological stance follows from a feminist standpoint perspective as articulated by Canadian sociologist Dorothy E. Smith’s (1987, 1990, 2005) “everyday world is problematic” perspective, then which actors we engage with and what questions we explore can be understood as linked to relations of ruling that shape our fields of interaction. There is no one priviledged position from which or privileged knower from whom to understand and explore the dynamics of power and resistance. While not a solution to the dilemma of the positionality of the researcher, the authors whose work I highlight in the paper all position themselves to one extent or another within the struggles or communities they work with. The separation between the researcher and the subject of the research breaks down somewhat when both are co-participants in knowledge building and social justice efforts. A materialist feminist institutional ethnographic investigation makes it possible to disclose to those we work with (for example, in a particular institutional setting like education) how their daily lives are organized by processes of ruling and how these processes can be contested. The institutional and political knowledges that activist researchers uncover through ethnographic investigations like Wright’s, Staudt’s and Cantú’s illustrate the power of engaged methodologies. In the context of activist research, analysts explore the institutional forms and procedures, informal organizational processes, as well as discursive frames used to construct the goals and targets of the work that the institution performs. With a thick understanding of “how things are put together” it becomes possible to identify effective activist interventions. However, as Marjorie Devault (1999, 53) explains, “using research results effectively to promote change requires the pragmatic evaluative and strategic skills of activism, honed through more daily participation in front-line work than most researchers can manage. . . These comments point to a final element of institutional ethnographic investigation: to be fully realized, such inquiries should be conducted with an eye to their use by specific groups.”

To return to the insights of “outsiders within” and mestizo consciousness, I argue that these positions are also fluid and subject to revision. I developed the concept of “outsider phenomenon” to highlight the process through which community members are created as “others,” a process in which all members participate to varying degrees and by which feelings of “otherness” are incorporated into self- perceptions and social interactions. This leads me to wonder if mestizo consciousness can also be developed through critical self-reflection and “cross-border” dialogue and engagement. In other words, just like insider/outsider is a shifting dynamic and thus changes over time and in different circumstances, other border dynamics that can be unsettled by critical engagements over time.

Bar On, Bat-Ami. 1993. “Marginality and Epistemic Privilege.” Pp. 83-100 in Feminist Epistemologies, eds. Linda Alcoff and E. Potter. New York: Routledge.
Collins, Patricia Hill. 1990. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Boston: Unwin Hyman.
________. 1991. “Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought.” Pp. 35-59 in Beyond Methodology: Feminist Scholarship as Lived Research, eds. Mary Margaret Fonow and Judith A. Cook. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
DeVault, Marjorie. 1999. Liberating Method: Feminism and Social Research. Philadelphia: Temple University Press
Naples, Nancy A. 2003. Feminism and Method: Ethnography, Discourse Analysis, and Activist Research. NY: Routledge.
Smith, Dorothy E. 1987. The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
________. 1990. Conceptual Practices of Power. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
________. 2005. Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People. AltaMira Press.

13 05 2012

Thank you for this. I’m writing a thesis on Irene Nemirovsky, and this is quite helpful. I will be quoting you.

8 08 2012
Nancy Naples

Glad to hear that you found it useful. I would be interested in seeing your thesis when you have completed it. Best wishes, Nancy

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