What do researchers (in social sciences) do, exactly?

Some weeks ago during sauna, my brother-in-law asked me: “What exactly do you do (as a researcher)?” Others in my Brazilian and Finnish families have asked the same. This text – my opening remarks at my PhD defense in 2016 – is my answer to the question. Read here if you ever wondered the same about research in general and my work specifically.

Tampere University, Finland, June 2016.


Questions are probably the most fundamental element of research. This is true to social sciences and all other disciplines. The work of researchers is essentially to ask and answer questions.

In research, we have at least three types of questions. Questions we ask about something that happens in the world. Questions we ask ourselves about our own actions and ideas. And questions people ask us about the work we do.

I started my doctoral studies in 2009. Since then, people have repeatedly asked me one very important question: “what do you do, exactly?” University colleagues ask it. My Brazilian and Finnish families ask it. Friends too. Even people I just met in our small talks ask it.

At first sight, it sounds like a simple question. Because of that, I’ve created a kind of automatic reply to it.

“I study how and why low-income young people use media technologies and journalism to fight for human rights, social justice and peace.”

Most of the times this reply seems clear enough. For most people, the research topic sounds important. But some people are not easily convinced. They want to know more and I understand it. My automatic reply doesn’t give many details what the research means in practice.

In social sciences, we have personal, scientific and political motivations. We must make decisions about what to analyze and what to ignore. We also have many doubts. Is this a good topic? Is it relevant?

That’s why I agree that my answer to “what do you do, exactly?” doesn’t exactly say much. For this reason, I would like to think about some other questions. By doing so, I hope to give more details about what I did in the past six years. I also hope to show what being a researcher means to me.


The first additional question that comes to mind is “what is media activism?”

In today’s world, communication and information are power. Media and journalism corporations are among the most profitable and influential. If people want to have successful careers in business and in politics, they must invest in media strategies. Most of us spend hours consuming information and interacting online.

It’s in this context of non-stop media use that media activism happens. Citizens, like you and I, have used online and offline technologies as political instruments. They use megaphones to discuss political issues on squares. They use mobile technologies to participate in political decisions. They use social media to organize collective actions for social change.

These are few examples of “media activism” means. It happens everywhere: in Brazil, in Finland and all over the world. Why, then, talk about “favela” media activism?


Media activism is a global phenomenon, but it happens in different forms around the world. That happens because different people have different social problems and demands.

In Rio de Janeiro, favelas are low-income urban places. They have low-quality infrastructure and public services. They also suffer from high violence rates. Most favela residents are black and mixed-race Brazilians. In general, they work long hours and have low salaries.

Another problem for favelas is discrimination. The first favela appeared 120 years ago. Since then, society has usually treated them as dirty homes of impolite and violent people. For many, favelas are not part of the city, but dangerous threats to their lives.

Media and journalism have contributed to the generally negative perception of favelas. News, TV shows and films mostly focus on the violence. Sometimes they talk about how favelas are rich in culture. They name favela residents who are talented artists or who have good business skills. But these people often appear as exceptions.

Media activism in favelas is specific because their actions focus on their everyday-life experiences.


For example, groups of young men and women have used cameras, mobile phones, and apps to denounce the abuses of police in favelas. They produce and spread information about how the government violates human rights of favela residents.

They also use social media to mobilize neighbors to act. Sometimes, for example, they call for meetings in public squares. In these meetings, they discuss policies that benefit or cause problems to favelas. These discussions also happen online. On social media, they organize demonstrations on the streets of favelas. It’s a constant cycle of face-to-face and online interactions.

In some cases, these discussions happen in more traditional types of media than the new digital ones. Independent groups of residents and non-governmental organizations have created radio stations and newspapers to discuss different topics of local interest.

In other cases, young and senior favela residents involved in media activism organize courses. In these courses, they teach how to produce different kinds of media materials. They also teach how to make journalism. The courses are opportunities to share knowledge and to mobilize other favela residents.


Talking about mobilization leads to another important question. As I mentioned before, favela residents work long hours. Some combine work and education. It’s an exhausting routine. They also often have low salaries. Affordable or free education and healthcare often have poor quality. They also suffer a lot from violence. How is it then that they get involved in media activism?

To understand how young favela residents get involved in media activism, we need to look at how they interact with other people.

Growing up they mostly interact with family members, friends, neighbors and school peers.

From their families and friends, they learn how to be honest and hardworking. Boys follow the footsteps of older men and look for work very early in life. Girls study more, but also learn how to take care of their houses and families.

From their neighbors, young favela residents learn how to be street smart. They learn how to avoid violence. They also learn how to work together and fix common problems. They also help neighbors who need help.

From the interactions in the city outside favelas, they learn how to deal with discrimination. For example, they learn that to get jobs, they need to hide the fact that they live in favelas. They learn that to avoid suspicious looks, they need to dress up and look different from the stereotype of favela residents.

At school, they study traditional disciplines. However, according to the people I met, the quality of education is very bad. For that reason, many people look for additional education in NGO projects.

For the people I met, the NGO projects represented the moments when they became interested in media activism.

These projects taught photography, video production, journalism and Internet. At the same time, they discussed human rights, social justice and discrimination.

At the NGO projects, favela residents meet, debate and exchange knowledge with university students, academics, professional journalists and members of social movements.

In the projects, the people I met got familiar with civil society organizations. These relationships and interactions motivated them to get involved in media activism and other forms of political actions.


Whenever I tell the stories I learned during my research I listen to another question: “What kind of impact on society does favela media activism have?”

I usually think that people who ask about the impact of favela media activism have a mixture of hope and disbelief.

On the one hand, we all like it when people act together to make positive changes in society. On the other hand, we know that individuals and groups have little power compared to big corporations, rich politicians and crime organizations.

Then, we have mixed feelings. We feel good when favela residents protest against the human rights violations before the FIFA World Cup, for example. But at the same time we feel the impact of the protest is small. It will not change the course of history. The World Cup will happen. Injustices and violations will keep happening too.

What I learned in this research is that we can’t expect favela media activism to change everything from day to night. That’s unrealistic. We should not feed false hopes. However, these actions do create different forms of slow, maybe small, but very important changes.

For example, I can see more young people in favelas doing media activism now than when I started. They are also creating networks of mutual support. Together they slowly get more visibility, recognition and influence.

It’s like singing at a square. If you do it alone, few will listen. If you do it together, like a choir, more people will listen. More attention it will get. More relevance too. This is more or less what is happening with favela media activism in Rio.


You may insist and ask: what kind of political impact have these networked actions make in Rio?

In some cases, big journalism companies have changed how they make news about favelas. Journalists don’t only talk about violence anymore. Political actions in favelas are also making the headlines. I believe the pressure from favela media activism has helped to create this change.

Favela residents involved in media activism have also become references for their neighbors. For example, some people I interviewed have inspired relatives and friends to discuss and get involved in politics.  

They have participated in debates with governors and policy makers too. In these situations, they use their visibility to demand services. They are also in a position that allows them to confront politicians.

Media activism has slowly become a legitimate method for favela residents to speak up and to be heard.

When I started this research, I was worried about one thing. I didn’t want my research to be about Brazil, but about the political actions of poor people. I asked myself: “How can the knowledge about favela media activism be useful elsewhere?”


I believe that even very different societies from Brazil, like Finland, can learn from media activism in favelas.

The fundamental problem in Brazil is social inequality. The gap between rich and poor is huge. But inequality is more than the differences in income and living conditions. Some social groups – like favela residents – are also discriminated and marginalized in public debates. Their voices are almost never heard. Favela media activism is fortunately helping to change that situation.

Like Brazil, Finland also has marginalized voices. Think about immigrants and their descendants, for example. Many immigrants speak Finnish. Many others in their communities are actually Finns. Despite that, the immigrant participation in media, politics and public debates is still very small. Very few journalists are non-white Finns. Therefore, news about immigrant groups often reinforces stereotypes and even contribute to discrimination.

The problem of marginalized voices is global. With that in mind, it is possible to think about another common question. When some people listen to stories of poor people in poor countries, they tend to ask: “What can we do for them?” What people don’t usually ask in these situations is: “What can we learn from them?”

The political actions of young favelas residents can also teach important lessons for countries like Finland. They can inspire immigrants to create their own media. They can be examples for politicians to create participatory policies. They can help journalists understand their own responsibility for more inclusive public debates.


Finally, I would like to address a question that not everyone asks directly, but many people think about. “What’s the point of this kind of research?”

This question is in the minds of beloved people who wish that we have a good salary and a stable future. It’s also in the minds of economists who want to cut taxpayers’ money from social sciences. The question is also in our own minds as we try to convince politicians, universities and foundations to invest in our plans.

What’s the point, then?

In my case, the point has always been to do research to produce knowledge. I believe research can contribute to the reduction of inequalities in the world. It sounds huge, I know. But I believe doing, publishing and spreading social sciences can cause positive change. Even if it’s a small and almost invisible change.

Researchers can do it, but not alone. During my research, I learned that we can join forces with other social groups outside the academic environment. Most importantly, we need to respect them. Academics are not semi-gods as a favela resident reminded me. For example, we can’t tell favela residents what is good or bad. They know that for themselves. What we can do is respect their knowledge and listen to them. Then, we can take the knowledge we have and let them evaluate how useful what we have to offer is to them.

The point is not to ignore our position of privileges and tell them what to do. Instead, we must be humble. We need to join them in their struggles for a better society for all of us.

In other words, it is not possible for researchers to empower or give voice to people. Instead, we can use our academic knowledge and institutional power to facilitate their entrance in environments they could not otherwise access. Once they are in, they can become self-empowered and speak for themselves.

The point is to understand that research in the social sciences is much more than investigating how or why people do what they do. It’s also much more than market-friendly economists and politicians consider “useless” science. This kind of research is also about studying and acting for change.

In all this, perhaps we all – academics, journalists, politicians and citizens in general – can ask ourselves another simple, but also very complicated question: what do we exactly do for a more just, egalitarian and inclusive society?


Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash.