Research for Social Justice: Some North-South Convergences

Orlando Fals-Borda

Professor Emeritus, National University of Colombia


Research for Social Justice: Some North-South Convergences -- Plenary Address at the Southern Sociological Society Meeting


John Gaventa, Department of Sociology, University of Tennessee-Knoxville and Program Co-Chair, Southern Sociological Society, 1995.

Orlando Fals Borda is widely recognized as one of the leading theorists and practitioners of Participatory Action Research in Latin America. Almost twenty years ago, at a conference in Yugoslavia, I had the opportunity to hear Professor Fals Borda speak. It was an important point in my work, for the first time providing a framework from which to build my fledgling attempts to conduct a new kind of participatory action research at the Highlander Center in Tennessee.

Following that meeting, and several other opportunities to hear Fals Borda in international settings, I hoped for an opportunity to help to bring his work to the United States, where it has largely been unrecognized. The 1995 meeting of the Southern Sociological Society, which I co-chaired with Ben Judkins, and which had as its theme "Sociology and the Pursuit of Social Justice" provided that opportunity.

The following address was delivered by Dr. Fals Borda at a Plenary session of the Southern Sociological Society on Teaching and Research for Social Change. The address was both moving and inspirational for several reasons. Dr. Fals-Borda received his PhD in sociology in the U.S. South (University of Florida, 1955) and had attended a Southern Sociological Society meeting while a graduate student. Yet, though he has been widely recognized for his work in Latin America and in the International Sociological Association, this was the first time that he had returned to the United States to present to a major sociology gathering. His cutting-edge Participatory Action Research (PAR) in Colombia had been shunned by North American sociologists. His alliances with peasants movements in Colombia had caused the U.S. State Department to refuse him entry visas as well. As he points out, after forty years of being away the event symbolically represented a kind of "homecoming," and a "convergence" of experiences in two "Souths" - the Southern U.S., a poor region located in the in the Northern hemisphere and "the South" meaning the poorer countries of the world located primarily in the Southern hemisphere.

Orlando Fals Borda is currently Professor Emeritus of the University of Colombia, where he was also Dean of the Faculty of Sociology for many years. He recently stepped down as a member of the Colombian National Constituent Assembly. He was the founder of the Foundation of Participatory Research in Bogota in 1970 and organized the first Latin American meeting on PAR, some 20 years ago. He has served as President of the Research Committee on Social Practice of the International Sociological Association and President of the Latin American Council for Adult Education.

As part of the same trip, Orlando Fals-Borda visited the Highlander Center in Tennessee and helped to inaugurate the Community Partnership Center at the University of Tennessee, a new Center founded to link research to the needs of low-income communities. I am pleased that the editors have asked to include this address as part of this volume.

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Research for Social Justice: Some North-South Convergences
Plenary Address at the Southern Sociological Society Meeting,
Atlanta, April 8, 1995
Orlando Fals-Borda
Professor Emeritus, National University of Colombia

I feel happy to be here with you today, with so many dear colleagues. But even more happy because this event is a sort of homecoming for me. As a former student of Lowry Nelson in Minnesota and of T. Lynn Smith in Florida, I thought at first that I could keep up with you. But I could not. For a long time I was left orphaned by American universities. In fact, this is the first sociological conference I have attended in the United States since I received my Ph.D. degree in Gainesville (Florida) in 1955. Rather, I went to World Congresses. Thus, it has taken 40 years for me to return to the U.S. sociological meetings, for reasons too long to explain, but which are now easier to understand: in a word, as is to be expected, during these decades American sociologists changed, and so did I.

Two important global elements have made it possible for us to meet again at last this week: one is the present overall concern for social justice; and the other, the role that social scientists can play to help achieve it for this country, for the southern states, and for the rest of the world.

These tasks are urgent and necessary, in fact vital for everybody. Therefore the Program Committee of this Society, in my opinion, has taken a significant step for the benefit of both the profession and the country. For this reason I want to thank Professor John Gaventa and his colleagues. And I also want to congratulate Professor Thomas Hood for his presidential address. It made me feel that I was sitting in a professional milieu quite different from the one I had been used to attending during my student days. For Professor Hood recalled the value-bound components of our discipline and emphasized the relationship between social justice and the common good as a derivative of American and Judeo-Christian historical traditions - traditions in peril if we do not rise up together as concerned scientists and human beings.

Indeed, as you certainly know, such issues were not part of university curricula in my days, except when touched upon analytically in courses on social problems, or in readings for the history of social thought. During those days we believed that human improvement could be gained mainly as an orderly, systematic process of social engineering or simply left to destiny. Our heroes were Emile Durkheim and Paul Lazarsfeld. Fieldwork patterned on the natural sciences' distinction between subject and object was a potent ideal, and advanced statistics was a required course. In short, we were formed within positivist frames of reference.

In any case, looking back upon those years, I am glad to acknowledge how lucky we were as students: our professors gave us enough intellectual tools with which to go out into the world and fend for ourselves. Personally, I think that I did not desert altogether from the formal elements of study and conduct that they taught us. On the contrary, from those formative years I tried to keep, with gratitude, what I found compatible with subsequent tasks. It was an intellectual heritage which I kept and built on at least, although Professors Smith and Nelson scolded me for "going astray" whenever they heard about certain pots and dishes which I was starting to break in Colombia, in my local efforts to understand better and to act on the real injustices which I found in the field.

It is significant that our professors could not quite understand what I started to do in my country. The general framework of a sociology conceived with prophylactic gloves, impossibly patterned after the exact, hard sciences, was then the dominant paradigm. Perhaps this is still the case in many universities.

In any case, for impoverished countries such as Colombia, a social engineering goal had been presented by President Harry Truman in 1949. President Truman advocated that we of the South follow the lead and copy the patterns of socioeconomic development of the North. To this task many U.S. sociologists, including our professors, paid attention and devoted part of their research efforts, which included transmitting the implicit sociopolitical equilibrium model together with the 'trickle down" effect.

But as suggested before, even though I admired the United States for its tremendous achievements, the hard, earthquake realities encountered in the South had the inevitable effect of nibbling at and undermining the neat Parsonian structure of action which we were taught. The need was felt instead, by many of us in the South, to look for different kinds of explanation, not only to gain a more clear understanding of the conflictual social processes that affected our lives but also to assist in re-channeling collective energies toward a better course of action for justice and equity. And here we stand today, with Participatory Action-Research (PAR) as one of those resulting alternatives for our work in the South.

After almost half a century of trial and error with action research and its several branches, especially in Latin America, perhaps we can put in a few words about what we have learned. Apart from the conviction that the positivist paradigm is not the sole owner of truth as previously claimed, we gained experience or insight on at least four guidelines for field research and scientific reporting within PAR, as follows: Thus what you finally have in your hands with PAR is a purposeful life-experience and commitment combining academic knowledge with common people's wisdom and know-how. (See bibliography for further publications on this approach.)

You may say that there is hardly anything really new in these guidelines, and I am ready to grant it. But this is more easily said today than was the case decades ago. Yet what I have seen during my present visit in the south of the United States or listened to in this conference may be proof of the great distance covered towards a better understanding of the links between theory and practice and towards making sociology a more useful or pertinent science for the search of social justice. It is heartening when you participate in grassroots events like the celebration to honor Ralph Rinzler as a people's musician at the Highlander Center at New Market, Tennessee, or, hear a critical rendition of "American the Beautiful " and recollections of American working class and race struggles, and see puppets reinterpret the "contra" war. These are the still fresh undercurrents of folk culture that support peoples' striving for a better life, for corrections of injustices in the United States--especially in the south--that should also resound in the less developed countries.1

For these reasons it seemed natural at the Southern Sociological Society meeting to hear authoritative comments on people's power and coalitions, and on popular resistance to poverty and oppression; to see a powerful movie recovering the history of a workers' strike in Atlanta during the 30's2, and a session celebrating the activism of sociologists in the civil rights movement of this country. We received news that the University of Tennessee is for the first time establishing a center to link with community affairs.3 All this appears encouraging for science and society. Such is the sign of the times that gives us hope for the future of our discipline in the United States and elsewhere, that there is still a good chance for an active, living, pertinent social research.

But again, nothing is new under the sun. Even in the United States of my student days you could have found, in the interstices of academia, some seeds of what today we call participatory research. Professor Hood (1995) in his presidential address cited the contributions of Ruth Benedict (1959) on cultural relativism, Robert Bierstedt's (1964) concept of science with humanism, and Irving Horowitz' (1993) heterodox thinking on qualitative research and Social Forces (which is the meaningful title of the Southern Society's professional review). A need was already felt during those critical years of race and gender upheaval to go beyond empathy and participant observation into full dialogue and open advocacy. Kurt Lewin (1946) was starting in Philadelphia his pioneering action experiences. There were some unusual initiatives for the study and defense of exploited classes, like Norman Birnbaum's action research with Afro-American communities in Chicago, and the persistent work done by Myles Horton (1990) among the coal miners in the Appalachian mountains which became the Highlander Center already alluded to.

These were portents of things that have started to come, because the wave of change took on great speed among social scientists. As Professor Hood (1995) said, some ivory towers came tumbling down partially and radical caucuses went up. This should not surprise us. The Kuhnian (1970) and Feyerabend (1975, 1987) revolutions were advancing together with Barrington Moore's (1966) indictments on democracy and injustice in the northern advanced countries.

Even Truman's well-meaning idea of social engineering for development had to undergo retouching, for the sorry happenings of the Cold War and the dismal United Nations Decades that started in 1960. Disillusionment and protest for the irresponsible spread of capitalism in the world and the worsening of social and economic conditions everywhere were acknowledged. In fact, many scientists and philosophers, starting with Spengler, had already recognized that their societies suffered existential problems. They questioned the final purpose of their knowledge and unbridled technical accumulation with Cartesianism and instrumental manipulation of natural and human processes. Quantum physicists discovered the infinite in the internal structure of atomic particles , and Heisenberg (1950) proposed his principles of indeterminacy and anthropic observation. The gate was open for Prigogine's (1984) theory of chaos and serendipity. Alas, the natural sciences were becoming more fluid, open and fractal, as they reinterpreted the irregularities of systems and actors, just like the social sciences had been doing all along in spite of strenuous efforts to make themselves exact. But this unplanned encounter appeared to be fruitful for all.

In this changing context, social justice had another lease of life and it came to the open more decisively, like in the present crucial meeting of the Southern Sociological Society. This challenge, as everyone knows, was taken by concerned philosophers o f science and by poststructuralists and postmodernists, as well as by some politicians and statesmen. Peculiarly, the gaze of those leaders went from the navel of their northern cultures to the neglected and troublesome realities of the South. Several authors gained inspiration and insight by studying underdeveloped societies and stressing the overall need for justice. Levi-Strauss (1966), for example, contributed his admiring studies of the "savage mind", and demanded respect for the still surviving pre-Columbian systems of knowledge. Morris Berman (1981), inspired by totemism and African nature cults challenged the academic concepts of circuit and interaction and proposed to "re-enchant the world" with a participatory conscience. Gregory Bateson (1979, 1991) did the same through cybernetics and concepts of reciprocity with nature gathered from the poor people of the earth. Foucault (1972, 1980) spoke of "the insurrection of subjugated knowledges" thinking about the struggles of the Amerindians who illustrated for him the relations between knowledge, political power and social justice.

Such concern for knowledge, power and justice and their relationships had been growing independently likewise among intellectuals of the Third World, especially among Participatory Research practitioners. This parallel development had an important consequence: we finally merged. The meeting of minds and mutual support of critical research currents from the North and the South became frequent. Dialogics, for instance, which was introduced in Brazil with Freire (1970,1973), resonated among social researchers and adult educators of Canada (Hall, 1977, 1978), Holland (de Vries, 1980), United States (Gaventa 1983, 1993; Park 1993), Australia (Kemmis 1988a, 1988b), and England (Reason 1988,1994; Carr 1986). The world capitalist system and dependency, first postulated by Senegal's Amin (1974, 1976) and Brazil's Cardoso (today president of the republic)(1972, 1973), were taken up by Wallerstein (1974, 1979) and Seers (1981). Max-Neef's (1982) humanist economics from Chile found kindred spirits in Lutz (1988) and Ekins (1986), from the United States and England respectively. Much needed critique of the development concept went hand in hand between Colombia's Arturo Escobar (1987) and Germany's Wolfgang Sachs (1992).

Participatory researchers in the Third World contributed to this merger with a version of "commitment" which combined praxis and phronesis, that is, horizontal participation with peoples and wise judgment and prudence for the good life. In my particular case, this sociopolitical combination was placed in the service of peasants' and workers' struggles, which meant a clear break with the Establishment plus an active, sometimes dangerous search for social justice there.4 But I could not consider myself a scientist, even less a human being, if I did not exercise the "commitment" and felt it in my heart and in my head as a life-experience, Erfahrung or Vivencia. This methodology became an alternative philosophy of life for me and for many others. There is no need to make any apology for this type of committed research. Nearly everyone knows that PAR combines qualitative and quantitative techniques. It utilizes hermeneutics, literature, and art according to needs. And it joins with action simultaneously. There appears to be now some ample agreement that PAR can serve to correct prevailing practices in our disciplines which have not been altogether satisfactory or useful for society at large.

The results of Participatory Research are open to validation and judgment just like in any other discipline, not only by fellow scholars and bureaucrats--who are now in a rampage to co-opt it--but also by the opinion of the subject peoples themselves. This validating opinion of base groups is for us the most determinant.

Finally, participatory techniques of this type have continued to hit the First World, now with your new tensions and plural societies, to the point of being assimilated by governments and foundations, United Nations agencies and NGO's disillusioned with misguided development practices. These institutions feel that they have to go along with PAR and beyond well-meaning but ineffectual policies, like "green revolutions" and "wars on poverty". Universities have also admitted PAR in their curricula.

Moreover, seven world congresses have been conveyed on PAR with its sister concepts of action-learning and process management in Yugoslavia, Nicaragua, Canada, Australia and England. There have been many more regional events with expressions from at least 36 strands or schools of similar types of research established in 42 countries (collaborative, naturalistic, clinical, cooperative, rapid appraisal, etc.). The next (eighth) PAR world congress will be in Cartagena (Colombia) in June 1997, proposed in England to commemorate the first such meeting ever held, which was in the same Colombian city twenty years ago. The central theme will be, "Convergence in Knowledge, Space and Time". You are cordially invited.

The North-South brotherhood of scholars concerned with meaningful research for social justice which I have just described is already growing. Only last month at the University of Bath in England there was the presentation of another case of convergence between PAR principles from the South and New York Professor Agnes Heller's (1984) "theory of meaning". This is a symptom of renovation in our disciplines and of the present search for alternative paradigms. Such North-South convergence has come not too soon, for the sad condition of the world so requires it. This meeting of the southern sociologists of the U.S. confirms it. Because the study of society is not worth the trouble if it does not help its members to grasp the meaning of their lives and to move to action for progress, peace and prosperity for all. PAR is now a proven way to approach this problematic.

If this type of committed, participatory research really helps the poor peoples (which are the majorities of the world) to exercise their human and social rights; if it unveils the conditions of their oppression and exploitation; if it assists in overcoming the constraints of savage capitalism, violence, militarism, and ecological destruction; if it endeavors to understand, tolerate and respect different genres, cultures and races, and to heed the voice of Others, then sociology and the social sciences can be expected to survive well and meaningfully the tensions of modernity. Above all, our disciplines will be justified as the truly human endeavors that had originally inspired our founding fathers, those I first learned to respect here, in the American South, in United States universities. Thanks to you, again, for this hopeful homecoming.

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1The Highlander Research and Education Center is located in New Market, TN. Founded in 1932 by Myles Horton, Highlander is a residential adult education center dedicated to the belief that working-class people can learn to take charge of their lives and circumstance. For more information on Highlander see Adams, 1975; Glenn, 1988, 1993; Highlander Research and Education Center, 1989; Horton 1990. On the weekend of April 7-9, 1995, at Highlander, the Ralph Rinzler Memorial Celebration was held to honor and remember the life of long-time Highlander friend Ralph Rinzler. The celebration brought together some of this country's greatest folk entertainers to celebrate working people's culture. Ralph's personal and professional work, as founder of the American Folklife Festival held each summer on the mall in front of the Smithsonian Institution, was about creating a living cultural presentation of folk and working class community-based culture. That linking of deep cultural roots and struggle for daily survival has guided Highlander's cultural work throughout its sixty year history.

2The Uprising of '34, a documentary film by George Stoney, Judith Helfand, and Suzanne Rostock, tells the story of the General Textile Strike of 1934. A massive but little-known strike led by hundreds of thousands of Southern cotton mill workers during the Great Depression is the largest single-industry strike in the US, yet one of the most silenced events in our history. The film is available from Independent Television Service, 190 Fifth St. East, Suite 200, St. Paul, MN 55101-1637. Tel. 612-225-9035.

3The Community Partnership Center is an interdisciplinary center established to link research to the needs of low-income communities in a collaborative way.

4Orlando Fals Borda may be referring to his own experience of being jailed several times in Colombia for his PAR with peasants.

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