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16Mar2016

PROBLEMS OF ACCOUNTABILITY

I am writing the theoretical section of my research project Other People’s Struggles, which concerns the place of outsiders in social movements: when, how and why are they useful? When, how and why are they not? The answers to these questions seem to vary according to the sort of work the movement – or the groups within it – are trying to do. I distinguish between three ‘orientations’: that is, three different directions in which the movement – or groups – might be facing, and their corresponding types of work. They can face outwards to seek external change by influencing power-holders, e.g. to changing a law, winning a concession (oriented to power). They can seek to express their own distinctive identities, needs, desires, etc (oriented to expression). Or they can face inwards to seek to change themselves, by empowering themselves as activists, or deepening their own solidarity (oriented inwardly) Each of these orientations has its own characteristic set of dilemmas.

In the first of these orientations- the power orientation – the main work is the pursuit of interests and representation, and the dilemma concerns accountability. How can those who represent the interests be held to account for their work? This is a problem no matter who does the representing, but there are specific problems that arise when it is done by an outsider – or an ‘adherent’ as I call her. There can be situations in which a movement gains in effectiveness through being represented by adherents. But there can be situations in which it loses through misrepresentation, appropriation or the forms of distortion. One striking point is that it is precisely the same features of the adherent – her ‘connections’, her articulacy, her empathy – which make her both asset and liability.