Talk and Collectivity in Favelas to Change Academic Research

Last saturday, I participated in a meeting entitled “To whom and what for are academic research conducted in favelas?” (page in Portuguese) The event happened at a public school in Manguinhos, a favela located at the low-income North Zone of Rio de Janeiro.

After having inspiring talks, I returned home with a sense of relief, satisfaction and renewed strength to keep struggling for the construction of a more inclusive academic environment and for a more diverse and more participatory social science research.

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Ever since I started my research on favela media activism in 2009, I have heard residents and political actors from favelas complain about researchers who study characteristics of the places where they live.

For all these years and in the many favelas where I spend time, the denouncing voices echo essentially the same complaints:  residents are rarely informed about or benefit from the results of the research conducted in their favelas.

Throughout the same period of time, much because of the demands of the favelados, I have tried to come up with more transparent, respectful and socially relevant ways of conducting research.

This effort to act differently as a researcher led me to write a short and accessible book in Portuguese explaining my research, opening up my own trajectory as a researcher, and proposing ways for researchers to cooperate with favela-based media activism (I will write more about this amazing experience later).

In spite of all this, the problem in challenging the elitism and the traditional academic arrogance – as if it were something sacred, unreachable and unquestionable by the “regular people” outside the university – is that it can also be a painful and lonely task.

Fortunately, self-critical researchers have increasingly discussed and questioned the excluding nature of the academy. In many cases, researchers have joined forces to turn academic research into something more plural and inclusive.

In recent years, for example, I participated in academic conferences in which researchers from around the world described experiences of research processes that included the participation of poor, marginalized, criminalized and silenced people.

In some cases, I saw non-academics participating in data collection and in events to discuss the results of the research. Learning about and being involved in this kind of experience is great. They renew our strengths by demonstrating how the struggle for a democratized academic environment is legitimate and shared in different corners of the world.

The problem is that in most cases, people outside the university do not have access to participate in the elaboration, evaluation and development of research processes. It is as if they didn’t have enough skills to participate in more decisive moments of research even if the study is about their lived experiences.

The meeting on Saturday at the favela of Manguinhos was meant exactly to reflect about this kind of limitation. We were researchers, students, favela residents and social movement actors who got together in a cloudy day not only to discuss the excluding character of the academy, but especially to think and elaborate new forms of doing academic research.

The talk we had was absolutely productive.

For instance, among us there were people who had already developed research methodologies that include favela residents as members of a kind of “editorial council”. Their role is to revise and evaluate research projects from their outsets (instead of merely listening to results after the research had been published in hard-to-read academic jargon).

In other words, the favela residents is not treated as an “object”, but an evaluator of academic work. It may seem little, but it is an important shift in the power relations between the ones researching and the ones being researched.

At the meeting, we also talked about how blacks and favelados experience marginality and exclusion typical of their everyday life also within the university. There has been an important increase in the number of students from peripheral areas in academic environments. Ironically, however, the public universities remain a reflect of the habits and interests of middle and upper classes in Brazil.

For me, above all the relevant and urgent topics we discussed, participating at the meeting in Manguinhos was important for increasing even more the sense of collectivity among researchers, students and favela residents interested in changing the university.

By demanding and acting together for change within and outwards the academic system – even if from different projects, initiatives and institutions – we end up building a sense of collective struggle. This sense of collectivity relieves me.

As a Brazilian researching and building a career abroad, seeing that the democratization of the university is a strong priority in favelas gives me great satisfaction because it proves to me that I’m on a relevant path to follow.

Being in gatherings such as the “To whom and what for are academic research conducted in favelas?” is also exciting because it shows we are not alone in our efforts to turn research into a more participatory platform and also into a political instrument for social change and social justice.

On December 17 there will be another meeting in Manguinhos for those who speak Portuguese and may be interested. If that’s your case, click on the link in the previous paragraph to follow the event page on Facebook.

My name is Leonardo Custódio. I’m a PhD in Social Sciences at the University of Tampere, Finland. To know more about why this blog is called “Notes of a local outsider”, click here.