Jeffrey Juris is an associate professor of anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Northeastern University. He has written numerous articles on social movements, transnational networks, new media activism, and political protest in Spain/Catalonia, Mexico, and the U.S. He has conducted collaborative research and published on Occupy Boston, including a widely read 2012 article in American Ethnologist called “Reflections on #Occupy Everywhere: Social Media, Public Space, and Emerging Logics of Aggregation.”
He is the author of Networking Futures: the Movements Against Corporate Globalization, the co-author of Global Democracy and the World Social Forums, and a co-editor of Insurgent Encounters: Transnational Activism, Ethnography, and the Political. He is currently writing a new book about media and autonomy based on 15 months of ethnographic research on “free” or pirate radio activism in Mexico City and beyond. He received his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley.
How did you become interested in studying social movement activism?
I’ve always been interested in social change, and I became interested in anthropology as a way of thinking critically about cultural politics and changing dominant ideologies and political and economic structures. When I was an undergraduate, I decided I could try to use anthropology or ethnography to study the kind of activism I was interested in.
The first project I did was in Israel Palestine, where I looked at a movement of Israeli soldiers who refused to serve in the occupied territories. I used anthropology as a way to look at how they were criticizing hegemonic ideas about Zionism, national identity, and masculinity. I wasn’t actually doing activism, but I was studying social movements.
As I went on to graduate school, I decided I could apply my anthropological training to working within and studying the antiglobalization, or global justice, movement.
Participatory democracy and activism have taken center stage in U.S. politics recently. How would you characterize this particular moment in American politics, and how would you critique it?
That’s a big one. I was listening to Steve Bannon’s little discussion at CPAC [the Conservative Political Action Conference], trying to figure out what’s going on in terms of the Right and those in power and then what’s going on in terms of the Left. I’ve been coming around to the idea that what’s going on is a real challenge to basic representative democracy. We’re not even talking about participatory democracy. Donald Trump is kind of inchoate, but Bannon’s vision seems to be some sort of authoritarian nationalism combined with neoliberalism. It’s kind of the worst of neoliberalism’s effort to destroy the state and unleash the power of the market, combined with all the worst of an intolerant and authoritarian, repressive state.
I don’t think that vision has been implemented yet—and Bannon himself has left the Trump administration—but we’ve seen it in the executive order attempts to deport immigrants and the attack on transgender rights; we’re seeing the beginnings of an effort to put that into play.
And so, in terms of the Left, since the beginning of the antiglobalization movement—or even before then; we can go back as far as you want—there’s been a kind of attempt to criticize the neoliberal economy and to try to reign in market forces, and that has gone along with an attempt to expand the meaning of democracy.
That’s a tradition that goes back throughout the history of social movements in the United States: to expand democracy in terms of who benefits from democratic rights, and also in terms of what it means to participate at a grassroots level—to engage in a bottom-up critique of representative democracy.
We’ve had various iterations of that, and I think Occupy Wall Street, after the antiglobalization movement, was another big moment in criticizing market forces in representative democracy. Many people criticized Occupy for its inability to have electoral impact and its failure to produce sustainable structures. I don’t necessarily agree with those critiques. It was a movement that achieved what it could, given the structures it was built up around.
Then you have the Tea Party on the right, which did provide a model for a broad-based, populist movement that actually did have electoral influence and moved the country’s politics to the right. What happened is, a lot of people thought Hillary Clinton was going to win. Some might’ve been happy about that, but I think there was a broad feeling that that was going to be a continuation of the kind of multicultural neoliberalism that had been characterizing the Democratic Party. When Trump won, I think it was a real shock. People didn’t know what to make of it.
What I see happening now is a radicalization of liberalism. You have all the progressive folks on the left who’ve been critical over the past several decades and are mobilizing, but you have a new group of folks who are really just afraid that basic democratic rights are being challenged. It’s a terrifying moment in terms of what’s happening on the right and the Right’s hold on power, but it’s also an exciting moment in terms of people actually realizing they have to get mobilized to protect democracy. Whether or not that can cohere into a broad-based populist movement of the Left that challenges the dominance of free market thinking at the same time it expands democracy remains to be seen. I think there’s some exciting potential there that I see in my own community.
How do you maintain a sense of neutrality and nonpartisanship when you’re teaching?
I start most of my classes by saying I don’t believe in objectivity. I actually distinguish between impartiality and objectivity sometimes, and the idea is that it’s important to look at different points of view. It’s impossible to say that I’m completely objective, and my own biases can be extracted from what I’m teaching and what we’re talking about. The most important thing for me is to put out there where I’m coming from and then give students an opportunity to interact with that perspective, to engage with it, to challenge it. That’s one thing.
The other thing I say depends on the classes I’m teaching. If I’m teaching a class on, say, the anthropology of globalization, then I usually start off by saying, “We are going to take a critical view of globalization or of neoliberal globalization, in part because that’s the kind of view most anthropologists take, so you should know that’s the perspective you’ll be getting. There are many other classes in University that will give you other perspectives, and I encourage you to take those classes. That said, we’re going to have opportunities at various points throughout the class to debate basic issues.”
So, I’m pretty clear about where I’m coming from politically, intellectually, epistemologically. At the same time, I try to create a space where students can engage and critique that. I actually like when there are students from different perspectives, so we can have an interesting discussion. Most of my classes aren’t trying to strike a balance between different perspectives, because that’s just not the way they’re designed. I don’t think that would be particularly interesting for a class on the anthropology of globalization, although there might be a class on the introduction to globalization generally where you might see something like that.
For my social movements classes, it’s same basic idea: I tell the students I have been broadly supportive of most of the movements we’ll be looking at. That said, they’re encouraged to critique, to debate, and to recognize there are different perspectives within movements. In that sense, I invite a diversity of perspectives about movements I support. Then we also look at right-wing movements I don’t support.
Again, it’s being really upfront about my perspective and, within that, trying to create a space for engagement and debate and distinguishing between objectivity and impartiality. I’m certainly not objective, but I try to be impartial within the parameters I set for the course, if that makes sense.
And then what about neutrality or impartiality within your research?
In my work, I try to develop a perspective I call militant ethnography; that, specifically, is a method for studying grassroots social movements from within. The argument is that to understand the everyday practice and experience and logic of social movements, you actually have to be participating as an activist; that that kind of knowledge creates better knowledge.
During the moment of research itself, I push the divide between activists and researcher. There is never a neat divide, and you’re constantly going back and forth. So there are moments when you’re critically analyzing and distancing yourself, and some when you’re more actively engaged. But I think that’s the same kind of experience activists themselves have. You’re constantly moving back and forth between full support for positions, internal critiques, and distancing yourself. As an anthropologist, as an ethnographer, I’m shining a light on that process of critical self-reflection.
That’s the kind of research I produce. At the moment of writing, I distance myself even further and try to stake out particular positions within movement debates that are informed by an anthropological or ethnographic sensibility. There is never a moment when I’m completely detached from the movements, but neither is there a moment when I’m completely sucked in and not able to gain critical distance or purchase on a set of issues. After reading my work about militant ethnography, people are often surprised that the analysis I provide also sheds important light on broader theoretical debates within social theory, within anthropology, that speak to multiple audiences. I’m not just giving an activist or political account. In the analysis I generate, I try to forward scholarly debates as well, but I do that by engaging as an activist, moving back and forth between an activist and an academic sensibility.
That works for anthropology and ethnography, but it doesn’t necessarily work for all disciplinary approaches to movements. I don’t think there’s any one that’s better than the others; they just produce different kinds of knowledge.
Going off of that, what do you find to be the most interesting or exciting parts of your work? What are the biggest challenges?
I think my work is most interesting and exciting when I’m actually in the field, when I’m actually able to be doing activism, whether it’s with the antiglobalization movement or my work with free radio in Mexico. Right now I’m doing a lot of community work where I live in Roslindale, which is a neighborhood in Boston. It’s just really exciting to be a part of these political, not just movements, but also moments, and then to be able to think critically about them with other people. I find that pretty exciting, and teaching can be exciting when you get a good group of students who are really interested in understanding the moment and trying to engage critically.
The biggest challenges are how to negotiate those divides between activism and research and how to produce something that is helpful or useful for different audiences. How do you speak to these larger debates while translating them into a kind of language everyday activists can understand? Conversely, how do you take everyday strategic and tactical issues activists are facing and try to connect them to broader theoretical and political issues?
That can be challenging. Activist collectives are often divided and rife with political debates, and you have to situate yourself within those debates and try to make sense of them but not get sucked into them too much. That was particularly challenging in Mexico, because I was working with a more closed collective. Another challenge is in the classroom, when you’re teaching a large, more introductory course. How do you engage students from different parts of the political spectrum while staying true to your own pedagogical principles?
Can you tell us a little bit about your most recent work on media and autonomy in Mexico City?
I was doing participatory ethnography with a pirate radio collective in Mexico—they call it “Free Radio,” and it does illegal radio broadcasting as a way of getting information out about grassroots movements. This includes movements not just in Mexico City, where I was based, but also around Mexico, particularly in places like Oaxaca and Chiapas. I was looking at the efforts of grassroots media activists in an urban setting, mostly young and often student-oriented, and how they built connections around media production on the one hand but also with broader movements for autonomy on the other, particularly indigenous ones. There were a lot of connections with Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas, and other states around Mexico.
So, I did the actual ethnography awhile ago now. I’ve been taking my time, working through the book, and I have different chapters that focus on different issues. There’s a chapter on free media production and style and music and one on music technology and autonomy. There are chapters on internal conflicts and the struggle to maintain a directly democratic collective. The last chapter is on repression. I’m looking at the relationship between everyday practices of autonomy in the media sphere and broader movements for autonomy in the context of the authoritarian state. Hopefully, I’ll be done with it this fall.
You mentioned being an activist as part of your ethnography, but are there times when you are a solely an activist yourself? And then what about outside of activism?
In terms of activism, I’m always doing something, and there are times when I’m more and less involved. Right now, I’m heavily involved in a group in Roslindale, where I live. It’s called “RISE” (Roslindale IS for Everyone), and it sprang up kind of spontaneously after the election of Donald Trump. A vigil in the square turned into a meeting of two hundred people who came out in support of immigrant communities, marginalized communities, people of color, people who are threatened by Trump. Out of that came a large network neighborhood group, which is focused on keeping the community safe for everybody, but also on challenging the Trump agenda.
We have a bunch of different working groups. I’ve been working with an action group. We helped mobilize people to go to the Women’s March in Washington, DC, and to the science and the climate justice marches.
We also have an immigration group I’ve been working with. We have a lot of different immigrant communities in our neighborhood, so we’re trying to get those folks to be willing to organize in a public way, which is really hard because they feel particularly threatened right now. We’re making some good progress on getting a multiracial, multicultural group of people together around that. It’s a really exciting group.
There are all sorts of groups. There’s an electoral politics committee. There’s a committee on a thing called Civic Saturday, where we get together once a month to talk about basic issues of democracy. I’ve been doing that solely as an activist so far, but with many of my projects, when I get really involved, I decide I probably want to write about it, too. I may turn Civic Saturday into an academic project, as well.
Outside of activism, we have a five year old, so I spend a lot of time with him going to soccer, playing soccer. He plays the ukulele and does theatre, so we spend a lot of time on those with him, as well. He’s almost at the age where he can start going for longer hikes. We like to do that.
You were a member of the 2001 cohort. How did receiving an International Dissertation Research Fellowship award affect your graduate education?
It was amazing. I was doing work in Barcelona, and I had some other bits of funding; but without the fellowship, it would’ve been really hard to do the project I did in terms of getting into the field and doing the research. The fellowship was also great for the proposal process and then afterward, when working with the group really helped me focus what I wanted to write. It really promoted projects that were not only engaging in global issues, but were doing so in a critical kind of way. It really resonated with the kind of work I do.
I remember the conference afterward, I think it was at UT Austin, meeting so many great people and learning about really amazing projects—guerrilla fighters and youth in Africa, stuff on race, all sorts of interesting things—and I’ve been in contact with some of those folks since then. There was also the sense that you were part of a community of engaged, critical, global scholars, which was pretty exciting. I’ve continued to be in touch with some of those people.
All in all, I think it was really important in terms of helping me formulate my ideas and do the research for my project and then eventually disseminate the work I did, as well.
We’ve selected the 2017 cohort. What advice would you give to the incoming IDRF fellows?
We’re in a really interesting, important, terrifying, exciting moment, when the meaning of globalization, of neoliberalism, of nationalism, are all being renegotiated. I would say, I think it’s a real opportunity to use your fieldwork and your graduate study, not just to produce something that’s of use to scholars, but also to really make critical engagement and participate in important debates. I think the IDRF really supports that. Take advantage of that, and take advantage of all the resources you get access to beyond just the funding. Take advantage of the people who are working in the program, of the other members of the cohort, and see if you can stay involved with people and use it as a networking opportunity. I got involved with a program that the SSRC had on youth studies. As other programs open up at the SSRC, take advantage of those, as well.