Date on Senior Honors Thesis


Document Type

Senior Honors Thesis

Degree Name




Author's Keywords

activism; paradox; Marcuse; Weber; profession; myth


Activist organizations have been at the forefront of countless progressive efforts, seeking to ameliorate social injustices, expand the rights of marginalized people, and strengthen democratic institutions. However, the efforts of activists always seem to lead to incremental victories or a minimal change to the status quo. In this paper, I argue that the primary cause of this largely stagnant social justice landscape is the professionalization of activism. Activism in its professional form, as people who make a living out of their activist efforts, brings with it numerous issues, the most problematic among them is the manifestation a paradox. Namely, professional activism purports to work within the very system it seeks to interrogate and dismantle. They professionalize a negation of the norm in order to mobilize against it, an impossibility. What can be done to adequately address this professionalization? And are we able to free ourselves of these paradoxes that have become so pervasive within our efforts for change? I will attempt to find a sufficient answer to this question in five parts. In the first three sections, I investigate how activism has become professionalized, the mythos of activism, and two potential (yet unviable) options for change. In the fourth section, I outline the paradox of activism in detail. In the final section, I offer a potential “way out” of this paradox through professional activists’ self-awareness, of the risks they may constantly face and the paradox that can shut down their ability to call for change.

Lay Summary

Activism as a mode of action encompasses everything from lobbying to protesting for change and has been a recurrent focal point of many societal debates. The focus of this paper is to investigate activism and its professionalization, or, in other words, the process of activism becoming a source of income, through a philosophical lens. Professional activism may be influenced by different forms of oppression that diminish their ability to fight for change. This phenomenon leads to a distinct paradox concerning the position of professional activists, which I examine at length. The paradox of activism concerns the increased difficulty of creating change when professional activists adopt some social trends to make their work easier, while trying to change those same social trends. After looking at two unsatisfactory solutions to this paradox earlier in the paper, I argue for a potential solution. This comes in the form of a warning to all activists, professional and non-professional, of the dangers of this paradox and the risks associated with professionalization.