Researching on alterpolitics leads to be confronted with recurrent theoretical questions and epistemological issues regarding the relation between the researcher and the groups under study, the co-construction of knowledge, the feasibility of the alterpolitical projects and the researcher’s individual engagement.
A. Intercultural translation
The double approach we encourage, articulating immersion over the long term and diachronic and geographical comparison, makes it possible to identify the circulation of practices and ideas as well as to develop tools for intercultural translation. We can thus retrace the course of seemingly endogenous notions and show their persistence along the routes. Conversely, we can show that behind a priori uniform adoption of globally circulating notions exists processes of interpretation and appropriation. This decoding and translation work requires mastery of the language and socio-cultural codes but also a historical perspective and areal knowledge. This approach makes it possible to renew the meaning commonly attributed to certain social practices, such as endogenous political attitudes and know-how, often interpreted by the public authorities —and incorporated by the populations— under the prism of “cultural heritage”. This comprehensive approach differs from expert and top-down postures, but at the same time, the former can be regarded as subjects of inquiry in their own right. As such, they can inform social scientists on the circulation of ideas, misunderstandings, and innovative concepts that emerge through phenomena of friction between different kinds of populations and multiple layers of actors in charge of institutional decisions.
In addition, societies implement processes of hybridisation of symbols, practices, and knowledge with those conveyed by development models, ideologies, and norms from outside as well as, to more or less direct means, with the knowledge produced by scientists (Chlous et al. 2017). For example, the militant categories borrow from the social sciences, with the concepts of culture, hybridity, network, widely mobilised in the reflections of alterpolitical actors. Thus, it seems relevant to us to engage in a dialogue with the particular type of study subject, that is, alter-political groups, to better understand how the ideas and their meanings circulate and renew themselves.
B. Participatory approach in social science
A central question that arises for the majority of researchers working on alterpolitics concerns the limits of the participatory approach. Among the recurring questions, we wonder at what times citizen expertise can be encouraged and what are the limits of the co-construction of knowledge: what content do the populations wish to constitute, what is the minimum degree of consensus and what are the individuals legitimacies. We wonder how best to transfer/disseminate knowledge, whether or not involving citizen interfaces, or even governmental or private institutional relays. Thanks to the participatory support developed by our partners SEA-Junction and LP3ES, many concrete cases have already been tested regionally, making it possible to identify references and mobilise tools to be adapted in context. These partners offer arenas for discussion that are accessible and suitable for use by populations, professionals, users, and citizens.
Moreover, the participatory approach brings to light the asymmetries of power between the different interlocutors, the antagonistic expectations, even the effects of exclusion, the existence of controversies, and territorial conflicts. These questions shed light on the conditions for the appropriation of the debate by the various actors of the local population while questioning the legitimacy and (particularly legal) status of the knowledge produced. They also raise the complexity of the researcher’s role, who is in turn observer, expert, mediator, and arbitrator. The reflective work will, therefore, be reciprocal. For example, asking how the injunction to participate and being responsible can be transformed into a government or discipline technique. Finally, the ethical question is at the heart of our participatory approach, with the concern for an “ethics in context” articulating a normative, reflective, and political approach.
C. Scales: Scaling up, Scaling Down, and Unscalability
One of the conditions for the operationality of political projects, alternative or not, is their scalability, how local projects are linked to inter or supra-local programs, or, conversely, how state and international programs can be implemented locally. In these level games, the scale is always a political construction. The definition of the local as a scale can be the subject of controversy among people of the same social group, between elites, marginal members, or individual and collective external agents. On the other hand, while the speeches of national development decision-makers have an essential state dimension, the projects implemented show a strong proliferation of supranational entities and a robust personalisation in the implementation of projects at the local level, with the interference of established patronage networks that focus on capturing funds, raising resources and distributing aid. In this context, the state is in some cases personified by particular persons, such as leaders or political intermediaries, and the global is sometimes identified with elements of the state, for example, agents acting at the crossroads of public-private activities. This process of personification is one of the sources of patronage practices, providing them with resources for functioning and legitimacy. The scalar dimension of alterpolitical projects thus generates misunderstandings and gives rise to adjustments during programs’ implementation. We hope to explore the possibilities of alternative programs of preservation, adaptation, or transformation from these benchmarks.
Since some of the alterpolitical groups are also development entrepreneurs, their study can directly impact states’ development models. To highlight these potentialities, we are working on two concomitant levels. The first aims to shed light on the characteristics of groups that had hitherto been barely visible, such as their political action, their historicity, and the particular forms of sovereignty they exercise. These characteristics are levers of legitimacy to engage in collective discussions on public policies. From these levers, we argue that the multi-scalar articulation deployed by groups can enrich the repertoire of development institutions’ actions by promoting what can be called a “sustainability economy”. This perspective will be enhanced by drafting policy papers by reversing the top-down approach generally adopted in this type of format.
D. Social researchers engagement
Examining alternative movements to political projects conveyed by States, transnational agencies, and financial market players, numerous works have brought about a circularity of values and programs between social science, radical political theory, and social movements to apprehend and build other ways of thinking and doing politics. Reciprocal influences are reflected in the conceptualisation of themes such as egalitarianism, deliberative assembly, consensus, and solidarity. Inspired by the political anthropology of Edward E. Evans-Pritchard (1956) or Pierre Clastres (1974), anarchist, libertarian and post-Marxist anthropologists such as James Ferguson (1985), James C. Scott (1998), and David Graeber (2007) mobilise pastoral, nomadic, acephalic or “against the State” societies as counter-examples of political modernity. In return, anthropological and sociological studies are used by alternative movements as levers of legitimacy and activist information tools to supervise their activities, to challenge the public authorities, even for political mobilisation.
The intersections between social mobilisations and the epistemology of our discipline also resonate with the challenges encountered by scientists to defend their professional interests in a context of increased political and institutional constraints, leading them, on the one hand, to promote better their transfer activities (Gozlan 2015) but also to act to transform their concrete professional condition. More fundamentally still, some researchers question whether the social science research of alternative political forms should turn into research for these alternative forms and thus position themselves in a militant way.
Faced with these questions, participating in the transformation of the devices it analyses, social science must necessarily undertake a reflective process, reveal its subjective biases and allow a contextualised analysis of its conclusions to set up the conditions for its autonomy vis-à-vis the militant discourse. However, we are in favour of intervention research, when social scientists become activists for the place of research within the social space and to contribute to a more just and sustainable society (Marcel and Pichon 2019: 89), implementing what some call “responsible scientific research” (Citizen Science 2015) or —why not go back to Sartre and Foucault for once— “intellectual engagement”. On this condition, it acquires a double validity, scientific and social, that is to say, that it co-produces knowledge rooted in a place and at a particular moment in history.