Research Encounters with Activism and Solidarity Movements in Athens

A map of grassroots groups in Greece, created by Omikron Project ( The makers state that: “All the groups have been verified by us as grassroots, explicitly not-for-profit, Greece-based and active as of June 2014. By ‘grassroots’, we mean that the groups are open for others to join and that, at the time of their inception, they had no affiliation with a profit-making entity.” They also report that they were able to track down 60% more grassroots groups between their research in 2013 and 2014.

Since I came to Athens and started fieldwork for the Connectors Study, I have been engaged into researching (and trying to make sense of) activism and solidarity movements here. There are several reasons for this engagement, as for instance the fact that we, in Connectors Study, are interested in employing parental activism as a proxy for our sampling and thus to research into such groups is offering on one hand an understanding of the current state of affairs in activism and social welfare in Athens, and on the other hand provides an entry into potential recruitment gateways. However, another reason for this engagement is that solidarity movements, activist organizations and grassroots groups are so present in the Athenian society that are basically impossible to ignore.

A great number of activist/solidarity/grassroots initiatives have appeared and are particularly active in Greece in recent years. Examples of these are social and self-organised health centers (see here, here and here), social co-operatives and anti-middleman distribution networks and organizations (see here, here, here and here), social learning, education and knowledge exchange centers (here, here and here), social kitchens (here, here and here), self-organised centers for the homeless, arts and culture groups, groups for the promotion of human rights, for support to immigrants etc. (an extended list in english here) It is perhaps indicative of the situation, that the website ‘kinimatorama’, a sort of a calender-website for activist related activities in Greece, lists 46 events for today – Sunday December 7th – including items as reading groups, open assemblies, social kitchens, children film screenings, theater plays, theory groups, crafts workshops, demonstrations, group therapy among others.

There are a number of difficulties and complexities in approaching the subject of activism, some of which I will discuss in this blog post – and most of which touch upon theoretical, methodological and epistemological themes that are likely to ‘stay’ with the Connectors Study. One initial ‘obstacle’in the approach of such practice in Athens, is that it’s indeed very difficult to pin down and map the entire spectrum of activism (although this map is a fair attempt). In facing this problematic I have been led to wonder to what extend can we approach and understand the emergence and significance of activism and solidarity initiatives, if we cannot grasp the big picture? Certainly, when facing this question we realize the need to refine and re-think the very definitions that we employ to refer to practices – and which, additionally, as we are finding out in the Connectors Study context, tend to be quite culturally variable… But, this question also problematizes the very notion of activism – or what we often abstractly understand with it. The view from the ground proves to be in many ways very different to a homogenizing whole and in fact it reveals an unimaginable diversity among social activism and solidarity initiatives – in their scopes, in their purpose, in their prospect, in their organization and in their political perspectives. Facing this diversity I have been led to think that the complexity of the phenomenon is thus probably best also approached in its particular expressions rather than merely as a macro-sociological whole.

Another question that rose in my initial engagement with activism/solidarity – and volunteerism, in Greece is that of the context of its emergence. Why and how have such movements and initiatives multiplied within the last years? Certainly, these ‘last years’ were the years of the crisis, and this is an obvious answer to the question raised above. It is common place in Greece – as well as elsewhere, to connect the rise of the civil society here with the effects of the crisis’ austerity politics of recent years – i.e. the severe cuts in every single domain of social services. A new and important publication in Greece is consistently illuminating this line of thinking. The book ‘Crisis, Fear and the Breakdown of Social Cohesion’ by Associate Professor of Social Work in University of Thrace, Charalampos Poulopoulos (2014) provides a detailed chronicle of the collapse of social cohesion and the dissolvent of social welfare state in Greece. He documents the effects of the austerity politics imposed in public health, social care and the welfare state with reference to the emergence of the activist led civil society.

Indeed, the social welfare state is severely affected by the crisis. For instance, the national health system has been experiencing cuts in its funding, resulting in cuts on doctors and nurses wages, in great shortage of medicine and in hospitals no longer being able to purchase any new equipment. It is estimated that there was a 25% cut in real value spends in health care between 2009 – 2014. Only 83 Public Hospitals are functioning today (137 before 2009) while 1.950 public clinics have been merged into 330. It is not only about the dissolution of the National Health Care system however, rather it seems the crisis literally kills. The percentage of suicide rates in Greece, once being the lowest in EU, has raised 40% over the crisis years, while in the same period the HIV rates have grown by 200%. As analyst John Henley has put it, ‘recessions can hurt, but austerity kills.’ Along the same lines, according to the head of the largest oncology clinic Athens, Dr. Kostas Syrigos, ‘In Greece right now, to be unemployed means death’.

With unemployment at 27,8% ( Spring 2014 – for those under 24years old it was 56,7%) and income falling 21,7% between 2009 and 2014, in addition to the public sectors’ apparent in-competiveness in providing decent health care, people are losing their health insurance rights too. Therefore it is more than reasonable that significant numbers of the population are now turning into NGO’s for healthcare, as well as into self-organised health care centres that are run by volunteers.

Another facet of the crisis and the emergence of activism and solidarity initiatives is in regard to children’s welfare, and it is indeed directly connected to unemployment and wage cuts. This is dramatically reflected into the rising numbers of parents who are putting their children into social care because of poverty. Poverty affects or threatens children in many ways; In 2013, 686.000 children were at risk of poverty, according to a UNICEF report – that’s 35.4%. According to the same report, children living in households with no working adults (and thus virtually with no access to social welfare and health insurance) rose to 292,000 (13.2%) in 2012, having increased by 204,000 compared with 2008. In a recent study made in 88 schools in Greece, 29% of children reported food insecurity/ hunger, a fact that basically explains the rise by 120% of families asking the Greek branch of SOS Children’s Villages for food aid in recent years, in a report by the Greek Social Workers Union.

Much of the solidarity activism is therefore understood within the context of a responsive philanthropy that ‘self-evidently’ and ‘reflexively’ arises in respond to the disruption of social cohesion. Although this is a quite sensible conclusion to draw, it is one that shouldn’t rule out consequent questions of what exactly are these ‘reflexes’ (or ‘instincts’) that are activated in response to the degradation of social welfare? Into what cultural-, family-, societal- and political circumstances have those been nurtured? What is the role of the authoritatively imposed austerity policies, of the recent protest movements, of the radicalization of police, of the rise of the racist discourses, of the endless revelation of political scandals – in losing one’s trust in the established authorities, and leads her in search of alternative ways of collaborating, helping and creating?

It’s becoming evident that the so-called apolitical generation that emerged in the turn of the century in Greece, was able to produce a previously unthought-of range of responses to the economic hardships and authoritative politics of recent years. The social research then, probably owes to widen its spectrum respectively and look for political actions and political education in non-obvious places in order to understand the change that is happening and the movements that are emerging in Greece. This is a point that is in fact taken by some social scientists in Greece – as for instance is the case with anthropologist Efthimios Papataxiarchis in another important recent publication (2014, ‘Politics of Everyday Life: Border, Body and Citizenship in Greece’).

To look for the reasons behind the rise of activism and volunteerism may prove to be more complex than it first appears to be. However it’s not only important to understand why an activist led civil society is rising but also the significance it has, both for the society in which it appears and acts – in the renegotiation of democratic structures, of decision making, of reciprocity routes etc, – as well on the individuals who are involved in it. (And, from the Connectors Study perspective we may add, to look at what impact does, both change in society as well as increased parental activism, have on children growing up/living in this historical moment.)

Poulopoulos ‘warns’ in his book that these movements and the emerging civil society often appear as ‘replacement and not as supplement’ to the social welfare, as by-products of the public sectors’ complete privatization in Greece. Although he makes a point about how these movements may actually be of complementary value to the public, social welfare, he sharply remarks that they cannot and they should not replace it. He brings up the example of UK’s Big Society project as such an attempt to lighten up the public sector by re-distributing costs and responsibilities of social welfare in local and volunteer work. He attempts to raise awareness in this and calls instead for such activist movements to focus their core efforts in securing the social welfare, health and education as public goods.

But regarding the impact that these movements have in society there are other aspects that might come up when one is looking carefully in the workings and power relations within activist and solidarity movements – aspects that might be lost among the numerical evaluations of the crisis and the movements that emerge therein – and Poulopoulos is aware of those too, albeit he doesn’t look at those in detail. But, issues of social interaction, of trust-building, of active citizenship, of participatory decision-making and of novel ways of collaborating are all issues that are lively resonating in my discussions with locals engaged in activist and solidarity movements. And this leads me to think that, as researchers, we probably owe to be open to analyses and explanations that diverge from (or are complimentary to) obvious reasonings, and also consider the impact that these movements have in society not merely within today’s mainstream political discourses. Within this precarious and fluid social reality, it’s probably better to maintain a raised awareness and be attentive to detail, because, as Rakopoulos – an anthropologist who recently studied ethnographically an anti-middleman group in Greece – put it, it might also be that a broader project of social transformation is at play, and it is rising from the ground.

These are then some initial thoughts on activist movements, from the first months of my fieldwork in Athens. There are much more to follow on the subject I think. Clearly, our ‘less is more’ blogging strategy that Melissa mentioned in her last post hasn’t bare any fruits yet..

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