‘Are You a Radical Now?’ Reflecting on the Situation of Social Research(ers) in the Context of Service-User Activism in Mental Health


  • Cristian R. Montenegro


The relationship between activism and social research constitutes a longstanding source of debate. In the mental health and disability fields, this tension has specific connotations: User-survivor activism is premised on the priority of first-hand experience over detached, ‘objective’ knowledge. Personal experience is the foundation for the specific and irreplaceable perspective that users and survivors bring upon issues of interest. Considering this, how do user/survivor activist groups relate and collaborate with academically oriented researchers who lack a first-person encounter with psychiatry? Drawing on my participant observer role in a user-led activist group in Chile and through three ‘reflexive vignettes’, in this paper, I retrospectively trace how my interests and presence were received, negotiated and contested by users and non-users in the field. The findings describe three episodes in which my own status - and that of others participating ‘in the name of research’ - was interrogated. Although the group was open to anyone, boundaries emerged in response to specific demands from external agents interested in participating. A sense of ‘personal connection’ with the aims and nature of the group was one of those boundaries. In parallel, professional members had their own way of signalling their legitimacy, usually through a self-critical, anti-professional and anti-academic attitude. Doubts about my commitment to the group emerged as fieldwork progressed. The vignettes map the tensions that I experienced, the efforts I made to navigate them and the way they affected my disposition towards the group. The article argues that researcher’s reflexivity towards their own situation constitutes a primary source of information in the context of emergent, user-led advocacy efforts. Attention to how these groups accept and/or resist academic agendas provide insights into the solidarities and affinities that shape activist efforts. More than a pre-defined, ‘ethico-political’ disposition what’s required from researchers interested in this field is reflexivity to navigate the interface between academia and activism, honesty about the limits of academia and openness towards the contingent outcomes of an encounter with activism.