What activists and marketers have in common: advocacy

Last weekend, I got to speak on anthropology and advocacy at the Rebellious Media Conference held at the Institute of Education and Friends House on 8 and 9 October 2011. Given that the event was headlined by the likes of Prof Noam Chomsky, John Pilger and Michael Albert of ZNet, I was nervous, but I also felt very honoured.

The stream I was asked to contribute to was “Out of the Ivory Tower: Making Academic Research Relevant to Journalists and Activists”. Prof Richard Keeble of Lincoln University School of Journalism asked me to present alongside Prof Cynthia Cockburn, Visiting Professor in the Department of Sociology at City University and Prof Phil Hammond, Professor of Media & Communications and head of the Centre for Media & Culture Research at London South Bank University. The session was moderated by Marc Wardsworth, a famous journalist, activist and journalism lecturer.

They were all ‘professors’. I was the only MSc small fish there representing Sojournposse Purpose. It was scary. I felt like bailing out a few days before, but I could not. Fear aside, I had something to say:

Design and R&D can be direction action

I want to advocate design as direct action, as exemplified via our London Design Festival events as well as through the anthropological research I am doing on the sociality around digital applications.

Prof Cockburn pointed out something profound during our session: the best of theories tend to come when you are on the field, while doing research. Academics must go out there and do fieldwork if they don’t want to get cooped up in that self-referencing Ivory Tower. I agree. Creatives and technologists think through tinkering or making. The very action of crafting an object or coding a digital application generates ideas. I repeated Peter Dormer’s ideas (1997) in my talk that we should not have this divorce between “having ideas” and “making things”. I believe Digital Anthropology can be the academic discipline that allows these two concepts to come together. Of course, I was not 100% generous to anthropology in my talk. I made a few criticisms: its passivity during the London riots, the risk-averse behaviour of the academics and the researchers’ tendency to hide behind theories, which isn’t “restraint” but really is “deception” (Orlans, 1975).

You’d have to watch the video online or buy the RMC DVD if you really want to hear the whole thing.

Opportunity for activists, marketers and advertising people


If you are a marketer or an ad creative, you should check out events such as RMC and Netroots UK. While the digital activists are good at mobilising and organising using Twitter, Audioboo and such, the trade unionists, with an extensive experience in ‘organising’ (this is the term you hear a lot among these people, apart from ‘outreach’) people on via chapel meetings, events, demos, strikes and so on, are very good at carrying out the ground works.

Ok, I know trade unionists can be off-putting to corporations and bean counters. Their opposition to ‘open source platforms’ in the name of protectionism at times annoy me, I confess, but marketers, just go there with no preconceptions and observe how they work. They get things done and they follow the brief well. And they’re good at converting people to their cause.

I have always believed that marketers and activists have one thing in common: advocacy. They both use research data to inform their actions and strategies. And they’re both into ‘communities’. I love both sides. I love making money, I love to promote a good concept and I would like to make money on the back of a good cause. Given that the former is what I use my creative and digital skills for to earn a living, and the latter is what motivates me to be creative and acquire digital skills, I would like to carve a career where I can use my research to help create a better social product, promote it and then make profits out of it.

Any commercially minded do-gooders out there who agree with me?