On being an activist academic


Sombath Somphone – Thanks to New Matilda for the image

Long before I become an academic, I described myself as ‘an activist’. Though it is a vague term, most people associate it with left wing protest movements. While I would say that I have an affiliation with these movements, I also never comfortably squeezed into any ideological framework. Once, for example, a dear friend described me as ‘left-leaning neoliberal’ – not quite how I see it, but why not?


When I became a full-time academic, many people commented that my activism would be left behind. While the shape of my activism has changed, I do not see what I do as anything but activism. As I have written before, the role of an engaged academic and an engaged university, is to promote social justice, fairness and attempt to speak truth to power. Academic method, academic and mainstream writing and public debates and interactions are now my preferred tools.

Recently I have been working with an emerging academic, Kearrin Sims, to raise awareness about the disappearance of Laos activist, Sombath Somphone (pictured). This story, which Kearrin and I wrote for New Matilda and is available here, should concern us all: it relates to a respected human rights advocate who went missing after subtly criticising his government. There is a mass movement that has emerged around Sombath’s disappearance which continues to remind the authorities that he has not been forgotten and push for action to find him.


The Australian government has a role to play here: something that Kearrin and I discuss in the article.


But so do we: all of us including members of academia. This is the essence of being an activist-academic: it is about promoting justice, working with partners on an equal setting and ensuring that the vulnerable are supported in acts of solidarity. Like any profession, academics have pressures, deadlines and stresses. We should never forget the privileged positions we are in, however, and ensure our actions are driven by this solidarity.


Without this vision, I think we are failing to live up to the ideals of universities: ideals that are sometimes easy to forget in this neoliberal world, but never lose their importance.

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5 Responses to On being an activist academic

  1. Mazzaus says:

    Hi James, I’ve just recently been part of starting a regular gathering of academic activists in my city. Great to read your post! I hope to see you speaking on teaching like a pirate very soon… Mary

    • James Arvanitakis says:

      Hey Mary…

      Thanks for the comment and feedback! Inspiring to meet other people who are doing great stuff! I think we are meeting up in the next couple of days!

      Speak soon, james

  2. Betsy Greer says:

    “When I became a full-time academic, many people commented that my activism would be left behind.”

    What a shame to think that some people think the two are mutually exclusive!

    “While the shape of my activism has changed, I do not see what I do as anything but activism.”

    I think that activism is a way of life, and once systemically ingested, our very selves turn into vessels of activism via our daily efforts, struggles, and search for justice. Good on you for seeing that and for doing the work you do!

    • James Arvanitakis says:

      Hey Betsy

      Thanks for the email… really appreciated! A passion for social justice is something that should be part of everything we do.

      Best, james

  3. Pingback: Living IR: Lessons from Manuela Picq’s arrest and detention | Duck of Minerva

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