‘Autonomous Geographies’ is a two-year Action Research (see 6.) project run jointly by critical geographers at the University of Leeds and the University of Leicester, and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The main aim of the project is to critically explore and support autonomous ideas, struggles and practices in the UK. The project will run from October 2005 to September 2007. At the end of this period, we are required to submit a report to the ESRC (see 10.) outlining how we met our research aims.
The project is run by three people: Paul Chatterton (University of Leeds); Jenny Pickerill (University of Leicester); and Stuart Hodkinson (University of Leeds). In differing ways we are activists (that is active campaigners on various issues), and academics (people who teach and research in universities). Importantly, our educational work is also directly related to social movement struggles. Here are a few lines about us.
Paul Chatterton. I teach international development and alternatives to development in the School of Geography at the University of Leeds. My main areas of writing and research are: the popular uprising in Argentina since 2001; the corporate control of city centres; and alternative models of development. I am also involved in various solidarity and campaign groups around the UK and beyond, including: Kiptik, a solidarity group helping to build appropriate technology water systems in the Zapatista autonomous communities in Chiapas, Mexico; the Common Place social centre in Leeds; Leeds Asylum Seekers’ Support Network, which provides voluntary support, advice and friendship to refugees and asylum seekers; and Trapese, a popular education collective working on climate change, development and poverty.
Jenny Pickerill. I am interested in how collective action, participation, spaces for dialogue, autonomy and anarchism can create pathways towards environmental and social justice. I explore these themes as a researcher, teacher and through daily life. I have been involved in a variety of different campaigns in Britain and Australia, am currently building an eco-house in Leicestershire and volunteering with a support group for refugees in Leicester. My aims in life include minimising my environmental impact, undertaking useful and ethical research, encouraging discussion and radical debates through teaching and using my love of photography to explore the beauty of, and challenges facing, society. I am currently a lecturer in human geography at the University of Leicester and have published a book and a number of journal articles on these themes.
Stuart Hodkinson. My research interests revolve around the themes of globalisation, corporate power, democratic deficit, popular struggles and action research. I am currently working on three main areas: (i) mapping networks and distributions of power and control in the city, with specific reference to enclosure through privatisation; (2) developing autonomous political theory and practice; (3) exposing the neo-colonialist policies of the G8, the UK government, celebrities and mainstream development NGOs towards Africa, focusing on the Make Poverty History campaign and the forthcoming 2007 bicentennial celebration of the parliamentary abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. I am active in the Common Place social centre and the No Borders network that takes direct action against the detention and deportation of migrants in the UK.
From its Greek origins (’autos-nomos‘), autonomy means literally to ‘legislate for oneself’. We use the term ‘autonomous geographies’ to define ‘those spaces where there is a desire to constitute non-capitalist, collective forms of politics, identity and citizenship, which are created through a combination of resistance and creation, and a questioning and challenging of dominant laws and social norms’.
Our starting point is an understanding of autonomy that rejects capitalism as a way of organising our lives. We see an emerging interest in autonomous politics in the UK, influenced by anarchist and autonomist thought and characterised by: a rejection of hierarchy and power; a belief in mutual aid and solidarity as opposed to competition and independence; a commitment to direct action and radical change rather than policy reform; creative forms of resistance which are independent from parties and union structures; and a reworking of the idea of revolution from seizing state power to ‘changing the world without taking power’ through the ‘revolution of the everyday’.
So whether it is the spectacular acts of overt resistance like blockading an oil tanker or the less glamorous everyday grind of setting up a workers’ co-operative or squatting a disused building to open a social centre, through these actions, people together question and show ways beyond the dominant laws and norms we live by.
The geographical implications of such activities are important to us as autonomous projects raise important questions of scale. They are never just local – they connect local issues with bigger questions at the national, regional or global level. By considering the interactions between these different levels, we can learn more about how our lives operate and how we can live more autonomously.
As Action Researchers, the overriding motivation of our project is social transformation rather than the accumulation of academic knowledge. In the words of the Italian Marxist, Antonio Conti, ‘the goal of research is not the interpretation of the world, but the organisation of transformation’. In this vein, our objective is to make a strategic intellectual and practical intervention that promotes and progresses autonomous ideas and struggles in the UK. Our research project has five specific aims:
Human society faces unprecedented crises under late capitalism, such as the crisis of democracy, irreversible climate change, the coming shortage of oil, the growing precariousness of work and welfare and the gradual disappearance of public spaces due to privatisation. In response, many inspiring examples exist of people collectively resisting these crises and mutually creating alternatives to our profit-run society that could lead to autonomy from capitalism.
Despite this, the practices and potentials of living more autonomously in the UK are disconnected from the majority of people and marginalised in media and policy circles. Although an enormous amount of collective ‘thinking whilst doing’ takes place by activists in the course of their struggles and mobilisations, more could be done to ensure that these exciting ideas, practices and potentials of autonomous politics reach outside of intellectual or activist circles to mainstream society.
We want the Autonomous Geographies Project to contribute to resolving these issues.
The starting point to our approach is the belief that research and teaching should contribute to improving the welfare of marginalised communities and those working for progressive social change, and not the interests of powerful elites, including those within higher education. Our project is therefore grounded within the general academic tradition of Participatory Action Research (PAR), which involves working in bottom-up ways with grassroots groups to help them meet their aims and so break down some of the traditional barriers between ‘expert researcher’ and the ‘researched community’.
Our own approach to PAR, however, goes further in eroding the expert-public distinction. We believe that there is no such thing as value-free or neutral research – unlike much research from universities which claims to be neutral, we are open about where we are coming from (a critique of capitalist society) and the political alternative we propose (that of autonomy and self management). So we prefer to see our Action Research as organically connected to, and not distinct from, social movement struggles.
We are committed to making interventions that increase the success of social movements by developing the capacity for ‘self-empowerment’ through leaving a legacy of skills, tools and critical understanding that could lead to social transformation rather than the production of accurate knowledge. We do not privilege the university as the primary site for learning and thinking.
Our aim is to participate in four case studies of existing autonomous projects in the UK. We will work with each case study project to define areas of need and create an action plan. The final case studies will probably be drawn from the following areas:
The specific details of each case study will be decided through formulating action plans with the groups in question, but will involve a combination of life history work, interviews, focus groups and video.
In contrast to many academic research projects, our approach is to create as many joint-outputs as possible in partnership with the people involved in the autonomous projects we focus on. The aim of these outputs is to create socially useful knowledge to promote the idea of autonomy. We have begun by setting up a dedicated project website, which contains useful resources for autonomous politics and will evolve as the project develops. We want to publish a number of magazine articles, reports, ‘how to’ guides, history pamphlets, resource packs and education workshops. We also plan to compile film footage shot during the project into a short film montage.
Finally, in terms of academic journal articles, we aim to co-write at least two in collaboration with some of the case study groups, and we are committed to writing one which explains and critically reflects our methodological approach.
Two criticisms are correctly levelled against academics engaged in research about social movements. First, that we may collect sensitive information that could fall into the wrong hands. Second, that by analysing the politics and organisational forms of activist groups, we show up particular characteristics that can be used by hostile political forces to disrupt and repress them.
These concerns are real and have to be addressed. To do this we are committed to collective ownership of research material. In other words, any information gathered belongs to the group, and if they do not want us to use or share the material then we will not. Throughout we will make appropriate arrangements to store it securely. We also guarantee that the information from our research will only be released with the authority of those involved. Where information is collectively agreed that it is to be used in the production of the outputs suggested above, the group or individual will decide if it is to be anonymised or not. It is important to emphasise that we enter this research project committed to co-developing the nature and direction of the research with case studies.
Autonomous Geographies is funded by a research grant from the ESRC, the main body in the UK that funds social science. Although the total award for our project is £120,977 over two years, the actual sum available for research is far less. £44,000 is taken in charges made to us by the university for hosting the project, like employer costs, heating, room space and administrative back-up. Just over a third of the money is allocated to pay the wages of the Research Fellow (£23-28,000 p.a); approximately £16,000 is for funding travel costs during research for both the researchers and participants; £8,000 is reserved for transcribing interviews, producing outputs such as videos, books, pamphlets and guides and running dissemination workshops around the UK; and £2,000 is allocated for equipment (such as a laptop, camcorder and digital voice recorder). None of the money goes to the grant holders, Paul and Jenny, who are already employed by their respective universities.
Receiving funding from the ESRC inevitably places some boundaries on our research project – a short timescale, the requirement for ‘academic’ outputs and the need to submit a final report outlining what we did and how we met our aims. We are also aware of how using money to explore autonomy from a government-funded institution such as the ESRC might seem problematic. However, a common misconception is that doing ESRC research is the same as doing research for the state. This is not the case. The ESRC does have an agenda and commissions work around a number of core themes which are set by social scientists such as economic development, health, citizenship, environment and learning. Within this framework, individual academics can apply for resources to undertake a project that they have conceived.
Hence, the research grants do not come with any conditions apart from that they address the ESRC’s themes and the research aims that the academics set themselves. Proposals are assessed by other academics, experts and users identified by the applicants in their own field. This research was proposed by Paul Chatterton and Jenny Pickerill and was subsequently developed in consultation with people involved in autonomous politics. It has not been commissioned by the government and we have full independence to conduct this project in line with the principles of Solidarity Action Research. At the end of the day, we are not advocates for the ESRC, but see it as a useful vehicle to get resources to undertake this type of research.
The first port of call is our website: www.autonomousgeographies.org
You can contact us by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
You can contact us individually or collectively on the following details:
University of Leeds
University of Leicester
University of Leeds
On 28-29 August 2009 in Manchester, activist geographers from around the world will share experiences, insights and methods in relation to defending people’s ‘right to stay put’ and resisting gentrification, displacement and privatisation as part of urban regeneration schemes.
‘Third time lucky’ was Lammas’ motto as they resubmitted their planning application in November 2008. Despite being beleaguered by Byzantine bureaucratic bungling the group remain committed to developing nine eco-smallholdings and a community hub building on their first site in Pembs, Wales and the land purchase is going ahead.
A new book on Low Impact Development has just been published. Edited by Jenny Pickerill and Larch Maxey, with contributions from Simon Fairlie, Tony Wrench, Simon Dale and many more, Low Impact Development: The Future in our Hands explores the radical form of sustainable housing and livelihood in tune with the natural environment and offering innovative solutions for the environmental, social and economic challenges of the 21st century.
Engaging Geography is a seminar series (funded by the Economic and Social Research Council) that aims to explore and respond to key challenges facing geography in 2008 and beyond. Our first seminar will be held on Friday and Saturday January 23rd and 24th, 2009 at the Star and Shadow Cinema in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK (see www.starandshadow.org.uk ): ‘How did that happen?’ The creation of time and space for public geographies.
University of Leeds, Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre, 6-8pm.
The teach-in will examine the origins of the credit crisis and why it has become so severe; the policies now being pursued nationally and internationally; and the long-term economic and political implications, particularly in relation to financial regulation and global governance.
The Permaculture Association (Britain) is a small education and research charity that supports individuals and groups to learn more about the theory and practice of permaculture. It is currently advertising two vacancies for a Project Coordinator and Finance Clerk at its Leeds office. Closing date: 27 June 2008. More information can be downloaded from its website
A former PhD student and current employee Nottingham University faces deportation to Algeria on 1 June following his unjust arrest under the Terrorism Act 2000 after he printed an Al Qaeda manual as a favour for a research student. Read on and see the Free Hicham Yezza campaign.
A new book has been published bringing together the diverse stories about many of the UK’s social centres, along with thoughts on their effectiveness, the problems they encounter, and the political ideas they encapsulate. What’s this place? has been written by activists involved in social centres with support from the Autonomous Geographies project.
Undercurrents have released the latest episode of their video series ‘Living in the Future’ about Lammas and many other ecovillage type projects around the world. Living in the Future highlights how people have come together to build their own homes, grow their own food, and create lively and sustainable communities.