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Contentious politics and contentious scholarship: challenges researching social movements in South Africa

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journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-09, 16:11 authored by Matthew EvansMatthew Evans
This article explores challenges associated with conducting research on social movements in South Africa (and beyond). Scholarship and commentary on South African social movements is a contentious and contested field. This article reflects particularly on carrying out research relating to land and housing rights and on the relationships between scholars, activists and activist-scholars working in this area. There is a particular difficulty with regard to identifying and analysing the political biases present within various opposing accounts of the social movements taking action on land and housing issues and their relationships to other actors. The article argues that there are three main pitfalls which researchers should attempt to avoid. First there is the danger of taking the claims made by social movements and by their academic advocates at face value. The second pitfall, on the other hand, relates to the danger of dismissing the praxis of these social movements altogether. The third danger surrounds the risk of the debates and disagreements between academics and commentators overshadowing discussion of the issues upon which movements work. The article suggests that it is necessary to apply a critical lens to all knowledge produced about social movements taking action on land and housing issues in South Africa and, consequently, a number of questions remain unresolved when attempting to put together an accurate picture of the relationships between and praxis of groups and organisations working in this area.


Publication status

  • Published

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  • Accepted version


The International Journal of Human Rights




Taylor & Francis





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Department affiliated with

  • Law Publications

Research groups affiliated with

  • Sussex Centre for Human Rights Research Publications

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  • Yes

Peer reviewed?

  • Yes

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