Towards Transformative Research
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We truly live in unprecedented times: moments no longer remain as single occasions, however, they transform into movements from the grounds of a multifold crisis: “How we get free?”, the Black Feminist Combahee River Collective asks in 1977. “How can we win?”, Black Lives Matter activist Kimberly Jones asks in 2020.
COVID-19 uncovered the interlocked systems of exploitation and discrimination for human and non-human life, and sadly sums up in the last sentence of George Floyd while he died under the choke hold of a white police officer: “I can’t breathe”. This is how the multi-headed ‘capitalist hydra’ (cf. EZLN 2016) shows off superiority towards all living entities, whether dead, alive, or caught in-between; in this painful, vulnerable in-between space we face climate catastrophe, a rise in right-wing nationalism, a crisis in (social) reproduction, and gender-discrimination. We can no longer omit these entangled subjectivities, where historically marginalized identities intersect with biographies of indebtedness, austere care infrastructures, and medical mistreatment, i.e. Trans-/non-binary groups, BIPoC communities (Black/Indigenous/People of Color), neuro-nontypical or bodily disabled folx, who sometimes don’t even have health care access at all (also see: Medical Industrial Complex).
A Crisis of Capitalism
This pandemic is a global turnover, one that challenges heteronormativity, patriarchy, modes of present-day colonialism, and I dare to name it a crisis of capitalism. Remember the quotes from the first paragraph? One, “How can we win” within capitalism? Two, “How [do] we get free” from systemic oppressions that come in various shapes? And, three, what does it mean, eventually, to be human in today’s world? Who is seen as human, and how does this binary lens shape the un-conscious ‘us versus them’, the many “either-or” causalities, which so “naturally” seem to enter the discourse towards transformation?
What does it mean to not only accept that neoliberal forms of govern-mentality (cf. Foucault 1977) produce less viable forms of life, but rather shape-shift the ways they are produced in order to co-create new modes of being in the world?
Facing the pandemic as a portal, as the Indian poet and writer Arundhati Roy has phrased it, this crisis has become a possibility to break with the old and step into the new, as if we would practice what is yet to come.
Learning from The Apocalypse
As a matter of fact, new approaches towards possible non-capitalist futures will be utterly needed, and here, transformation is what I see as a goal and a value for future research, moving from what if towards so what.
Thus, we need to unlearn toxic frames and start to read, write, think, and act against the grain. For instance, why don’t we flip the narratives more radically? What happens when a pandemic is framed as ‘apocalypse’? How do we respond psycho-emotionally, cognitively, and somatically? Deriving from Greek, “apo” means “un-,” and “kaluptein”, which means “to cover, to hide”, apocalypse literally stands for ‘to uncover, to disclose’.
However, apocalypse is generally regarded as “a life-ending event. […] what if apocalypse was indeed an ending – but to all of the things we actually needed to end in order to sustain life on this planet” (Brown and Taylor 2020)?
There have always been forms of resistance, and lives lived otherwise. Thus, Transformative Research must be interested in other ways of knowing and being in the world; moreover, Transformative Research must be engaged with a political project of critical, feminist, queer, and anti-racist discourse. What if Transformative Research would challenge not only the harmful systems in place, but the researcher, their ‘school of thought’, the academy, and overall, all beings and subjectivities?
I am speaking from a position of a white, cis-gendered researcher, and I wonder how do I want to approach, reflect, and dismantle my own positions of privilege? How do I theorize and enable myself to radically rethinking privilege? How do I manage to let these considerations oscillate into my research methods to acknowledge both, the simultaneity that I am privileged in some areas and underprivileged in others? I argue that, Transformative Research has to ask these questions fervently to help understand the entanglements of systemic injustice.
If we start to face privilege, our understanding of how we feel and what we feel about ourselves, and the world, is going to change – and probably not in a good way. Because we come to grapple that a certain set of advantages grants us access that others have not.
Transformative Research, as I envision it, challenges these power relations and continuously reflects on the inobvious, the hidden transcripts of oppression. I agree, it is a big ask, it’s hard, it’s painful, it’s discomforting. But it is overall, transformative.
Challenging a Paradigm
I am not discussing Transformative Research as a paradigm, or a lack thereof. I think of it as a method and a theory, both in practice. Transformation in this regard is a continuous shifting, that is mutually constitutive and always gets discussed in relation to power. It must be clear that Transformative Research is emergent, and therefore, necessarily disrupts a knowledge production based on “absolute truth claims” toward means and ends.
A Transformative Researcher wouldn’t drop into a community and “leave with the goods” (cf. Writing Culture Debate). This would only perpetuate a colonial mentality of “mining the mind”, and would exercise an academic superiority while the researcher gets credited and paid, but the subjects don’t. Transformative Research might also want to challenge scientific knowledge (production) in favor of other, nonscientific forms of knowledges (Sousa Santos 2018).
If we, as (activist) researchers, would like to transform a stifled landscape aiming at a shift in perspectives within academia, we need to move: moving from hetero-normative perceptions towards a queering of theory, moving physically and intellectually, walking with the questions (as the Zapatista say), by critically questioning our ‘truths’ and shape-shifting our ‘targets’, and ‘objects of interest’. How do we undertake this? In radical collaboration and co-creation with the people we aim to interact with. In friendship. In solidarity. With care.
Moving Towards the ‘Not-Yet’
I hereby wish to invite you to envision Transformation as a movement that activates our agency, and allows us to sit with the discomfort and vulnerability. A movement that challenges us socially, epistemologically, culturally, politically, linguistically, geographically, technologically, and environmentally for another world to come, that is, for another world already possible: “We don’t really know what intentional post-capitalist interdependence looks like at our current national, much less global, scale. It’s still time to push off, go forward, into that unknown, holding each other, in pairs, in circles” (Brown and Taylor 2020).
*disclaimer: I’m identifying as a white woman, cis-gendered, neuro-typical. I am a first-generation college graduate and a non-native English speaker (ESL-English as a second language). Currently, I’m documented as ‘alien non-native’ in the so-called United States, residing on Ohlone territory in the San Francisco Bay Area, CA. My perspective is activist-informed and influenced by my lived experience in present-day California. I aim to express the need for change from subjective accounts within and against the current socio-economic, political order.
Josephine Eberhardt, born 1989, is an educational facilitator, writer, and activist scholar for racial and climate justice in the broader realms of Degrowth. She is interested in political economy, critical whiteness, anti-racism, and socio-ecological change. She holds an M.A. in Social and Cultural Anthropology from the University of Munich (LMU) and is an Angeles Arrien scholar at California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco, CA.
Adrienne Maree Brown and Aja Taylor, Interview on Rushing Towards The Apocalypse, published March 14, 2020, URL: http://adriennemareebrown.net/2020/03/14/on-rushing-toward-apocalypse-with-aja-taylor/.
Combahee River Collective & Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (ed.), How We Get Free. Black Feminism and The Combahee River Collective, Chicago: Haymarket Books,  2012.
Combahee River Collective, The Combahee River Collective Statement: Black Feminist Organizing In The Seventies and Eighties. Kitchen Table/Women of Color (n/p), 1986. URL: https://combaheerivercollective.weebly.com/the-combahee-river-collective-statement.html.
Sixth Commission of the EZLN (Zapatista Army for National Liberation), Critical Thought in the Face of the Capitalist Hydra, [n/p]: Paperboat Press, 2016.
John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power, 2002, URL: http://libcom.org/files/John%20Holloway-%20Change%20the%20world%20without%20taking%20power.pdf.
Kimberly Jones, “How Can We Win”, Commentary on the Black Lives Matter Protests in the U.S., recorded May 31st, 2020; published June 1, 2020 by David Jones Media, URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sb9_qGOa9Go.
Arundhati Roy, Haymarket Books Online Teach-In, In Conversation With, live-streamed April 23, 2020, URL: https://www.haymarketbooks.org/blogs/130-arundhati-roy-the-pandemic-is-a-portal.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos, THE END OF THE COGNITIVE EMPIRE. The Coming of Age of Epistemologies of the South, London: Duke Press, 2018.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos Epistemologies of the South. Justice Against Epistemicide, London: Routledge, 2014.
David Takacs, HOW DOES YOUR POSITIONALITY BIAS YOUR EPISTEMOLOGY? in: The NEA Higher Education Journal, Summer 2003, URL: http://www.nea.org/assets/img/PubThoughtAndAction/TAA_03_04.pdf.