From Black Lives Matter to the Hong Kong Protests, 2020 will go down in history as a banner year for social movements. But the practice of activism, described as “the use of direct and noticeable action to achieve results of a political or social nature” ¹, has been a fundamental component of the history of humanity.
In Europe alone, we can see that activism has played a role in civilization across the continent from as early as ancient Greece, through rebellions in medieval times, to the emblematic political uprisings of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century².
When we think of activism, we often visualise marches and protests, or calls to action from groups of people coming together. But while our deep interconnectedness with social movements through the ages is widely studied, the role of interdisciplinarity in activism is not so broadly understood. We may consider the way in which independent disciplines, like law or public policy, may be closely linked to issues of social justice – but often don’t consider how important collaboration across fields can be to the success of a movement, or conversely, the limitations of siloed thinking and action.
So how do different disciplines come together through activism?
If we consider the environmental movement, and within it the more contemporary focus on climate change as a serious and pressing challenge, we can see how various fields of study play a role in shaping and promoting climate change activism through the combined application of their theoretical perspectives and research methods³.
In the last century, we have seen the emergence of interdisciplinary fields of study that are linked to social justice, like women’s studies, post-colonial studies, and environmental studies⁴. But we are also now starting to see interdisciplinarity applied in the public arena as a tool with which to tackle real-world problems, being addressed through activism; projects that explore the ways in which a range of fields can contribute to understanding and enacting alternative solutions⁵.
Take, for instance, the biological sciences. Historically, isolated scientific data confirming the threat of climate change has done little to persuade corporations and the general public to act with urgency. But what happens when you combine the data with methods and knowledge from other disciplines? Some might argue that in order to present the data in a way that is compelling and drives action, we must consider the psychological implications: “What motivates or inhibits individuals from engaging in collective climate action?”⁶. Others may consider that anthropology could hold the key, by putting the weight of activism work on framing the data in the context of the impact climate change will have on humanity and the planet.
Some activist organisations like Extinction Rebellion have combined the scientific data with a powerful communications strategy, drawing on the fields of branding and marketing to support their grassroots movements across the world. The organisation describes itself as “a global environmental movement with the stated aim of using nonviolent civil disobedience to compel government action”, and makes its resources available to download directly from the website⁷.
Due to the nature of their protests, Extinction Rebellion has also been closely linked to protest art. Protest art has a rich interdisciplinary history, and the ability to influence the general public as well as government leaders by conveying information in a visually powerful and universally accessible manner⁸.
But beyond conveying the information and engaging people in the mission, the climate change movement will need vehicles through which to enact large-scale systemic change. Here, the fields of history, law and public policy come into play.
Understanding the history and context of climate change is central to environmental activism.
Interdisciplinarity in academics can serve as a comprehensive way to critically evaluate the merit, accuracy, and neutrality of the history we have been taught, and allows us to shape a more accurate, intersectional and representative view of the present.
Adjustments to legal approaches to climate change can have a direct impact by mitigating specific inequalities resulting from climate change, while comprehensive legislation reform can have a long-term impact⁹. On the other hand, policy can shape the national or collective response by proposing targeted programmes like the Green New Deal¹⁰.
As we have seen, work from across multiple academic disciplines can play a key role in activism. While the environmental movement continues to gain momentum, it will be imperative that activists and leaders continue to pool their interdisciplinary knowledge, skills and tools to tackle climate change.