Bridging the Divide Between Academics and Movements

Aerial view of slum

The university – they have no impact – they just do their own. The university does research; it is of no use to us.”

These words were spoken by Felistus Ndunge, a community leader from Nairobi and member of the Muungano Alliance, when asked about her experience of working with academics. Felistus went on to identify positive benefits emerging from such collaboration, but in her eyes engaging academics was different from academic research.

As academics accept the significance of demands to decolonize and democratize the academy, the need for more equitable research processes moves center-stage. The potential contribution of multiple types of knowledge and expertise has led to a wide range of efforts to co-produce knowledge and address the concerns of community leaders like Felistus, but for movement activists engaging with academics can often be problematic.

The Muungano Alliance is the Slum/Shack Dwellers International’s (SDI) affiliate in Kenya. SDI is a network of social movements and support NGOs that work in the urban informal settlements of 33 countries in the Global South. SDI affiliates recognize the significance of academic knowledge, both in defining problems and solutions. However, they also know that academic research interests may not align with their own goals. The following insights come from both SDI members and academics and focus on the tensions that need to be shared and discussed for the co-production of knowledge to be authentic from the perspective of social movements:

This article by Diana Mitlin, Jhono Bennett, Philipp Horn, Sophie King, Jack Makau and George Masimba Nyama originally appeared on the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog as “Co-producing knowledge with social movements, a critical perspective” and is reposted under the Creative Commons license (CC BY 3.0).

Interrogate “theories of change”

Most of the academics who engage with SDI and other social movements do so because they wish to support more equitable and inclusive cities. For the most part, their theory of change is that rigorous evidence, properly presented to key policy actors will result in decisions that improve the lives of marginalized communities. This theory of change is very different from that of social movements, which secure change by building mass organisations that gain influence because of the implicit or  explicit threat of disruption and/or electoral opportunity, rather than through the goodwill of the state. While SDI movements do place a considerable emphasis on co-production approaches with local government, the purpose of producing this knowledge is often to mobilize members around a program for change, rather than contributing directly into policymaking processes.

Differing theories of change mean that it is vital that both parties engage in a full and frank discussion about them at the outset. It is the quality of this dialogue that enables joint action to achieve shared goals.

Incorporate education

While academics tend to place greater emphasis on generating new knowledge, urban social movements give greater emphasis to enhancing the visibility of existing knowledge through educating professionals or university students.

A major challenge is the entrenched way in which professionals, including town planners, architects and engineers, guide urban development processes. A key motivation for engagement with academics is therefore the chance to influence the teaching programs for these officials.

SDI’s Zimbabwe Alliance has worked with students for many years enabling students to choose dissertation topics that address the realities faced by low-income urban residents. SDI led sessions have also helped students and communities work together, challenging students’ understanding of urban issues, by exposing them to the realities of informal neighborhoods. The Alliance’s experience is that when these students subsequently work for local government, they are better equipped to deal with real world problems. In Johannesburg, members from the social movements aligned to SDI’s South African affiliate worked with students at the University of Johannesburg to develop codes of engagement to ground relations between community groups and NGO staff, thereby further contributing to and enhancing engagement between social movements, NGOs and academics.

This strategy is also relevant in the Global North. Since 2010, community leaders from SDI affiliates have visited the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester annually, to contribute to a masters class in citizen-led development.  Community leaders deliver lectures on their local processes and expose students to the realities of urban poverty and the work of activists.

Teaching and knowledge generation are mutually reinforcing. The exposure challenges students and academic staff alike. Students can also become active participants in the co-production of knowledge as they share their own reflections. Community activists can return to their work more confident that insights and actions are recognized and have the authority to drive change.

Address status

SDI members are clear that one of their key motivations for collaborating with academics is their status as acknowledged ‘experts.’ According to Sekai Chiremba, a community leader from Zimbabwe, the contribution of academics to their data collection “gives a punch”; the circles in which academics operate open “an avenue to the city that was different from the traditional ways that we spoke to the city.”

Effective collaboration with academics has helped to authenticate claims for inclusive urban planning policies and legislation, and shift city authorities to be more pro-poor. However, status inequalities can be problematic. As Dumisani Mathebula, a community leader from an informal settlement in Johannesburg, notes:

“Sometimes as communities – we are waiting for someone to come to the settlement to bring something … When you behave like a professional or intellectual – then you give them this impression – that this person must be right on those points.”

For Dumisani, the solution was to invest in a different kind of relationship that ensures that community leaders and residents recognise that academics do not come with answers. Once the limits to academic knowledge are recognised, what they do know becomes more useful.

Institutionalize accountabilities

Relations between academic departments, universities and social movements benefit from being institutionalized. Effective institutionalization creates a framework for social movements to to academics who come promising processes of knowledge co-production, and who perceive themselves as being supportive of movement processes, but whose actions have consequences that cause concern. The most serious tensions can be prevented through more long-term collaboration and greater accountability over, for example, the ways in which resources are allocated, the timing of research (and teaching) activities and the use of research findings.


While the term ‘co-production of knowledge’ is widely used to describe academic–movement knowledge relations, in practice there is a continuum of engagements. At one end of that continuum is SDI’s engagement in academic research for reasons of income generation; at the other are projects that are jointly developed and which emerge from shared values.

Academic investment in long term relationships with urban movements can resolve some of these tensions. This enables the relationship to move from an exploratory stage, in which beliefs and principles are shared and tested, through to shared research projects with common goals and jointly identified roles. Yet, it is not enough to build relations and understanding. Consciousness about the unequal distribution of power has to be centre-stage throughout the process.  The honesty of Felistus’ words should catalyze a dialogue in which academics and movement activists learn together about how they can contribute to more just and equitable urban futures.

Drawn from
This post draws on an open access working paper: “Knowledge matters: the potential contribution of the co-production of research to urban transformation”. The authors gratefully acknowledge the support of the Leverhulme Trust for their networking and collaboration.

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Diana Mitlin, Jhono Bennett, Philipp Horn, Sophie King, Jack Makau and George Masimba Nyama

Diana Mitlin (pictured) is professor of global urbanism in the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester. Jhono Bennett is a socio-technical architectural urbanist based in Johannesburg, and co-director of the social enterprise 1to1. Philipp Horn is a lecturer in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Sheffield. Sophie King is a research fellow for the Realising Just Cities program at the Urban Institute, University of Sheffield. Jack Makau is director of Slum Dwellers International in Kenya. George Masimba Nyama is programme coordinator at Dialogue on Shelter in Zimbabwe.

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