Political activism across the life course: Special issue for Contemporary Social Science

A special issue that Melissa, Vinnarasan and me have edited for Contemporary Social Science,’Political activism across the life course‘ has just been published! The publishing of the issue rounds up a journey we set off on about a year ago, in our “Activism on the edge of age” workshop – which we organised last June in Brighton. After the workshop we made arrangements with  Contemporary Social Science journal for a special issue, and a call for papers was issued to which we got a great response with a large number of submissions. And after going through reviews, meetings, discussions, feedback, writings and re-writings,  the special issue, which we are particularly proud of, is finally out!

You can access the entire special issue here. You can also listen to a podcast, in which CSS editor David Canter discusses the special issue here. Below, I discuss briefly each particular article.

The special issue opens with an editorial introduction (“Political activism across the life course“),  which we wrote with Melissa and Vinnarasan and in which we discuss how the study of political activism, has neglected people’s personal and social relationships to time and categories such as age, life course and generation which have become increasingly important experiences for understanding political participation and political outcomes (e.g. Brexit), and current policies of austerity across the world are affecting people of all ages. At a time when social science is struggling to grasp rapid and unexpected changes to the political landscape, we argue that the study of political activism can be enriched by engaging with the temporal dimensions of people’s everyday social experience because it enables the discovery of political activism in mundane activities and in banal spaces.

In the following article (Embodying ‘the next generation’: children’s everyday environmental activism in India and England), Catherine Walker  documents children’s (11-14 years) narratives on environmental concerns/action at home and family life through multimodal ethnography. Her cross cultural, intergenerational analysis conducted in the UK and India provides insights on conflicting ways children’s identities are assigned, imagined and experienced in relation to their lived experiences as against official environmental discourse. Drawing on literatures from childhood studies and post-human understanding of environmentalism, she asserts that children have the capacity to make changes in life through everyday social practices, but, in order to enumerate such forms of ‘co produced activism’ we should be ready to move our frame of analysis beyond adultist and spectacular notions.

Jessica Taft, employed ethnographic methodologies in order to study the processes of ‘becoming activist’ among girls aged 13 to 19 (Teenage girls’ narratives of becoming activists). Her ethnographically informed analysis looks at the narratives put forth by the girls themselves and draws a picture of political socialization as an ongoing story rather than a complete tale; in so doing, the girls narratives and Taft’s analysis defies both the dualisms of being/becoming as well as of the often assumed generational break/continuity in political transmission, and instead draws a much more nuanced and complex picture.

Raquel Da Silva engages with thorough biographical interviews with activists against the dictatorship in Portugal (Narrative resources and political violence: the life stories of former clandestine militants in Portugal). Assuming a life-history perspective, she offers an in-depth and life-course perspective on how one ‘takes the leap into political violence’, offering through this perspective particularly valuable insights on a subject often neglected. But also, significantly, the biographical approach she assumes, in line with the work of Molly Andrews, allows her to thoroughly explore her subjects’ meaning-making of their political selves throughout their life-histories.

Jonathan Guillemot and Deborah Price’s in-depth qualitative interview with older people in the UK, aged 66 – 92 years, whose earlier biographies have no political history, but their political intent and activist urge surfaced only in later life, demonstrate the potential of studying ‘late activism’ in life history (Politicisation in later life: experiences and motivations of older people participating in protest for the first time). Their analysis further underscores a number of issues that exist in the literature, for example, political activism being temporally skewed on independent and active phase of the life cycle and, an ambiguous correlation between early orientation and later political life, and thereby suggesting that ‘activism’ can be transient, contingent, circumstantial and poignant at any point in an individual’s life history.

In our own paper (Talking politics in everyday family life) we explore ethnographically collected practices of talking politics through three case studies of families in Athens, Hyderabad and London. Through in depth discussion of ethnographic examples of political talk within families and within homes in the everyday life, we show how children’s political talk is performative and idiomatic, engaging thus with the phenomenology of political talk. Through the ethnographic perspective assumed, we problematize standard understandings of political socialization, arguing that what is transmitted intergenerationally is the practice of talking politics rather than its content.

Drawing on ethnographic data from a comparative ethnography in Italy, Spain and the UK, Veronica Barassi explores online digital activism and citizenship through the lenses of digital storytelling, biography and identity (Digital citizens? Data traces and family life’). The author shows how activist’s online identity narratives are not unrelated but rather interconnected with family life, and how they draw from, and act upon a person’s life-course. She also shows how the messy and affective processes of storytelling may affect such biographical narratives. In so doing, Barassi significantly expands debates on political participation and digital storytelling, as well as of political socialization and the life-course through an online outlook.

In her essay on welfare mothers in the USA (Welfare mothers’ grassroots activism for economic justice), Sheila Katz explores the orientation, development and the effects of oppositional consciousness amongst her respondents in their fight against grass root poverty. Her ethnography evaluates the role of one particular grass root organisation called LIFETIME in creating awareness of welfare rights to welfare recipients and the stigma attached to welfare mothers within the changing social policy context of the USA.  

Rachel Rosen’s ethnography with children conducted in an early years setting in London, UK, instigate us to reconsider why children’s play can’t be viewed as a political matter and, the early years settings as a ‘resonant site’ for politics and ‘playful activism’, irrespective of children’s intent and the outcome of their actions (Play as activism? Early childhood and (inter)generational politics). Her thoughtful analysis on ‘insatiable monster’, an episode of children’s imaginative play that she encountered, expands a number of issues around this topic, namely, children’s political agency, struggle for claiming space/power, and a sense of self, where the subjectivity and space are at least temporarily reconfigured while playing imaginatively. She is cautious though in her claim making on ‘play as activism’ with due respect to people committed to deliberate political activism.

Thalia Dragona and Anni Vassiliou discuss the processes and the lessons learned around the Children’s Creative Workshops in Thrace, Northern Greece. In their paper (Educational activism through the divide: empowering youths and their communities’), which employs practices of action research with a longitudinal outlook, they discuss youth engagement in this process of managing cultural and linguistic tensions and of creating inclusion. By taking into consideration the wider picture around the workshops, including the children participants, the youth workers from the local community as well as their families, the authors provide a thorough exploration of how through narrative and imagination a space of coexistence was collaboratively built, how children and young people actively engaged with this process and how this resonated inter-generationally with the wider society.

Andrea Jones’s work on intentional communities in the UK (‘Housing choices in later life as unclaimed forms of housing activism’) traces the ‘housing pathways’ of two elderly people in their 60’s that criss-crosses with biography, space and time. Their stories illustrate why such ‘unclaimed activism’ or ‘intermittent activism’, as explicated by her respondents, can be counted as forms of activism considering the UK housing market and consumption practices. More importantly, her work shifts the frontiers of activism from public to private, and also ruminates on the emotional elements been involved in their housing choices and political action at large.

Molly Andrews, in the final article of this special issue, revisits her influential work ‘Lifetimes of Commitment’, 25 years after its first publication (Enduring Ideals: Revisiting ‘Lifetimes of Commitment’ Twenty-Five Years Later). In so doing, she repositions her arguments within the contemporary international political arena and examines political activism as a life-long project, challenging associations of idealism and activism as dependent on a person’s age.


Contemporary Social Science 12(1-2)

Special Issue: Political activism across the life course

Guest editors: Sevasti-Melissa Nolas, Christos Varvantakis and Vinnarasan Aruldoss – University of Sussex

Political activism across the life courseSevasti-Melissa Nolas, Christos Varvantakis and Vinnarasan Aruldoss, University of Sussex

Embodying ‘the next generation’: children’s everyday environmental activism in India and England. Catherine Walker, University of Leicester, United Kingdom

Teenage girls’ narratives of becoming activists. Jessica Taft, University of California Santa Cruz, United States

Narrative resources and political violence: the life stories of former clandestine militants in Portugal. Raquel da Silva, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom

Politicisation in later life: experiences and motivations of older people participating in protest for the first time. Jonahtan Guillemont, Kings College London, United Kingdom and Deborah Price, Manchester University

 Talking politics in everyday family life. Sevasti-Melissa Nolas, Christos Varvantakis and Vinnarasan Aruldoss, University of Sussex, United Kingdom

Digital citizens? Data traces and family life. Veronica Barassi, Goldsmiths College London, United Kingdom

Welfare mothers’ grassroots activism for economic justice. Sheila Katz, Sonoma State University, United States

Play as activism? Early childhood and (inter)generational politics. Rachel Rosen, University College London, United Kingdom

Educational activism through the divide: empowering youths and their communities. Thalia Dragonas, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece, Anna Vassiliou, , National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece

Housing choices in later life as unclaimed forms of housing activism. Andrea Jones, University of Sussex, United Kingdom

Enduring Ideals: Revisiting ‘Lifetimes of Commitment’ Twenty-Five Years Later. Molly Andrews, University of East London, United Kingdom