Dynamic, fraught and messy: The unresolvable ethical challenges of scholar-activism

Ms Laura Wynne1, Ms Pratichi Chatterjee2, Mr Alistair Sisson2, Dr Jenna Condie3

1University Of Tasmania, Hobart

2University of Sydney, Sydney

3Western Sydney University 


This paper traces our scholar-activist work with a resident action group that arose in response to the redevelopment of a public housing estate in Sydney, Australia. Over the two-year period of our involvement, the groups’ capacities to contest the redevelopment were gradually destabilised and neutralised by pressure from state actors and through intra-group tensions. In other words, the activism imploded and we were imbricated in that process.

In this presentation, we describe some of the ethical challenges that arise while through involvement in the struggles of others, in our various positions as scholars, as neighbours and as activists. We consider the difficulties of treading (too) carefully, and describe the balancing act we each played in efforts to not-intervene-too-much while also acting ethically and responsibly. We discuss the ethical complexities of engaging with an over-researched community, and our efforts to bring attention to the community’s plight while trying to avoid exacerbating their ‘engagement fatigue’. We draw out the ethical challenges that cannot be simply resolved through university risk management projects, illuminating ethical research and engagement as a dynamic, fraught and messy process. We argue for an approach that ’stays with the trouble’ (following Haraway), rather than treating ethical issues as resolvable.


The Institute of Australian Geographers (IAG) is the principal body representing geographers and promoting the study and application of geography in Australia. It was founded in 1958 and since then has promoted, supported and defended Australian geography.

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