Skip to Main content

Activist knowledge

Activist knowledge refers to all kinds of experience-based knowledge originating from activists in a broad sense, including community groups, NGOs, women’s groups, trade unions, grassroots associations and so on. It is generally opposed to ‘official’ sources of knowledge stemming from academic, private sector or governmental research organisations. It is based on the fact that activists tend to develop their own independent knowledge about situations they are concerned with a process, which may result in radically different conclusions than ‘official’ knowledge. As explained by the post-normal science perspective of Funtowicz and Ravetz (1993), in many current socio-environmental problems of importance and urgency, ‘certified’ experts are frequently challenged by citizens’ groups. Strand and Cañellas (2006) point out that the unprivileged may actually perceive aspects of a given socio-environmental phenomenon more clearly than the well-off, as they are more directly impacted by it. The well-known case of Love Canal, a working-class neighbourhood in a suburb of Niagara Falls, New York, where toxic waste had disposed of by the Hooker Chemical Company for a period of over 20 years, is an example of this. Although activist knowledge continues to be regarded with suspicion by many scientists, its use in political ecology, ecological economics and gender studies is hardly new. Anthropologist Arturo Escobar (2008) is one of the best-known students of ‘local activist knowledge’. While activist knowledge can indeed be crucial for social sciences, it does not necessarily follow that research carried out by communities of poor or oppressed people by itself will bring deeper insights than a study carried out by, say, government.


Escobar, A. (2008) Territories of difference: place, movements, life, redes. Durham; Duke University Press.

Funtowicz, S., Ravetz, J. (1994) The worth of a songbird: ecological economics as a post-normal science. Ecological Economics, 10 189-196.

Strand, R., Cañellas-Boltà, S. (2006) Reflexivity and modesty in the application of complexity theory. In: Â. Guimarães Pereira, S. Guedes Vaz, S. Tognetti (eds.) Interfaces between science and society, Sheffield: Greenleaf, 94-111.

For further reading:

Mellor, M. (1997) Feminism and ecology. New York; New York University Press.

Paulson, S., Gezon, L.L., Watts, M. (2003) Locating the political in political ecology. Human Organization, 62 (3) 205-217.

Rocheleau, D., Thomas-Slayter, B., Wangari, E. (eds.) (1996) Feminist political ecology. London; Routledge.

This glossary entry is based on a contribution by Julien Francois Gerber

EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos

Comments are closed.