Abstract: Expert Activists: Interests, Values, and Moral Authority in Indian Community Organizing (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Expert Activists: Interests, Values, and Moral Authority in Indian Community Organizing

Saturday, January 18, 2020
Liberty Ballroom J, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
John Mathias, PhD, Assistant Professor, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Background and Purpose: In scholarly and pedagogical literatures on community organizing, self-interest has an ambiguous, debated role. Some claim that interests are the primary motive and catalyst in the organizing process (e.g., Alinsky, 1971; Bobo et al, 2001), but others give shared ideology and values a more central role (e.g., Fisher; Hyde, 1996). This paper takes a fresh empirical angle on this enduring debate, examining how community organizers in India strategically make claims about self-interests and values in order to gain moral authority. Kerala, India’s “people’s struggles” are conducted as collaborations between a network of environmentalist organizers and localized groups of victims. These are campaigns against environmental justice concerns like industrial pollution or displacement by development projects, and they are mainly aimed at attaining state intervention. This paper compares how environmentalists and victims’ groups differently represented their interests and/or values in making authoritative claims that intervention was needed.

Methods: This presentation reports findings from twenty-five months of ethnographic research among two groups of environmental justice organizers who collaborated on a campaign to shut down a gelatin factory in a village in central Kerala. The first group were local organizers (i.e., the victims of the pollution) residing in the village. 24 informal interviews and 51 semi-structured interviews were conducted concurrently with 700 hours of participant observation. The second group was a network of environmentalists engaged in such campaigns throughout Kerala. 37 informal interviews and 60 semi-structured interviews were conducted concurrently with 900 hours of participant observation. Two researchers (the primary investigator and a trained local assistant) were present during participant observation, and fieldnotes were compared daily to reduce bias. In-situ coding employed MAXQDA qualitative analysis software to identify emergent themes, which were iteratively refined based on further analysis of fieldnotes, recordings, and interviews.

Results: I find that environmentalists and local organizers employed two distinct strategies for attaining moral authority. The victims of the gelatin factory invoked their own experiences of suffering. In doing so, they sought to represent themselves as “the people” whose interests had been injured. The environmentalists, on the other hand, distanced themselves from appeals to interests, claiming to work on behalf of the people and nature. Through this strategy, environmentalists sought to position themselves as both moral and scientific experts. These claims to expertise depended, paradoxically, on 1) grounding their authority in the interested claims of victims while, also 2) making interests and values separate and even incompatible. Even as the environmentalists’ work presupposed the self-interested rhetoric of the victims, environmentalists were also deeply dissatisfied with this rhetoric, creating tension in the collaboration between the two groups.

Conclusions and Implications: Debates about the relevance of self-interest vis-à-vis values in community organizing should consider the diverse strategies that various actors in the organizing process use to establish their authority. Interest-based and values-based organizing approaches can appear to arise from incompatible theories about human nature, but they may actually be a function of the strategic options available to differently positioned actors.