Catching up on social movement theory

In 2004 my friend and colleague Madeline Gardner and I embarked on an in-depth collaborative study of social movement theory. We had collaborated on a number of grassroots organizing efforts in the five years before (e.g. the Minnehaha / Highway 55 campaign and then A16 and the global justice movement) and we were both looking for an opportunity to reflect more deeply on our experiences. We both enrolled at the University of Minnesota and we found two professors, John Wallace and Patrick McNamara, who were interested in working with us on independent studies that we carried out in Argentina.

In Argentina we spent most of our time studying three movement forms that had emerged in the wake of the nation’s severe economic and political crisis of 2001. These three forms were: Neighborhood Assemblies, Recuperated Factories, and Movements of Unemployed Workers. (A great deal of our time was spent with the latter, volunteering with MTD Solano and MTD la Matanza.) We also studied Argentina’s political history, with an emphasis on the second half of the 20th Century. And we complemented our on-the-ground, Argentina-specific studies with an in-depth study of social movement theory — especially discourses from the 1980s and 1990s, primarily in sociology departments in the United States. This included reading books like Frontiers of Social Movement Theory and Waves of Protest, as well as academic journals like Mobilization. We were also studying popular educators Paulo Freire and Miles Horton.

This time of study and reflection definitely helped to clarify our thinking about social movements and political change. Returning from Argentina, I jumped right back into organizing, this time to direct a local organization that I’d helped co-found, the Lancaster Coalition for Peace & Justice. Still brewing on my studies, and applying lessons practically to local and national antiwar organizing, I then authored Building a Successful Antiwar Movement in collaboration with Madeline.

I continued organizing full-time for the next several years, and finally carved out enough space in my life for formal study. While still organizing, I enrolled at Goddard College and completed an independent BA in political behavior — with a multi-disciplinary approach that included courses in group behavior, social psychology, cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary studies, political theory, political philosophy, linguistics, and a lot of other stuff.

So I haven’t read all that much academic social movement theory literature since 2004. And now I’m catching up on the discourse, as I also research grad programs (applying this fall). I’m going to use this blog to jot down some reflections and thoughts on strategy as I go. Presently I’m digesting Dynamics of Contention, Patterns of Protest, and the past several issues of Mobilization. Posts coming down the pike. Readers, please feel more than invited to use the comment function to recommend further reading and resources. (If you do offer titles or links or whatever, please also say a sentence or two about it — thanks!)

A theory of political behavior (pt.4: imagined communities & populist alignment)

Modern society significantly complicates the group-oriented identity framework I’ve been discussing (in parts one, two, and three). Most of us juggle multiple roles in multiple spheres, each of which holds a degree of our individual identity. The temptation is to then look at identity as a predominantly individual matter. But each sphere of an individual’s fragmented life has its own group logic and group processes of constructing values and identity. It is no small development, however, that people in societies like ours now have more individual agency to choose how much of their identities to invest into which groups.

The term group can mean many different things. A group may be proximate, fully definable, and localized, such as one’s village, workplace, or place of worship. It seems logical that, if we do indeed have group-oriented instincts, these would have evolved in some such proximate, localized groups. But today, “group” can mean much more; for example, one’s gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, nation, economic class, political ideology, hobby, or sports team. With the label generic given group (introduced in part 3), I am accounting for this broad spectrum of kinds of groups, and I am implying that we tend to project group-oriented instincts onto the full gamut of social aggregations and constructions, to a greater or lesser degree that is proportional to our level of identity with the given group. Continue reading

A theory of political behavior (pt.3: political dimension of group identity)

Continuing from part 2


Where do values fit into this picture? Do I not construct my identity according to the values that I hold? This can certainly be the case, but those values are constructed by my identification and experiences with some group in the first place. As with identity, we may benefit by asking what beneficial purpose values serve? What is it about values that allowed them to develop into a phenomenon, to occupy a place in our cultural practices?

Below is a sort of “equation” intended to capture the group-benefiting purpose that values serve:

G = generic given group
G needs = perceived or articulated threats or opportunities that feel relevant to the group
Values = identity with G + perception/interpretation of G needs

According to the above, we develop our values based significantly on 1) our identity with particular groups, and 2) our beliefs and perceptions about what will best serve our groups. What we believe will best serve a given group is shaped by the life of group itself, through ongoing cultural discourse within the group over time, where the group makes sense of experiences, events, encounters with outsiders, developments, and changes. I use the word discourse in the broadest sense: values are expressed and developed and altered through many forms of discourse, including stories, music, ritual, rhetoric, colloquialisms, actions, service, leadership, norms, and really anything in the day-to-day life of a group. Through such a discourse—through the meaning-making processes of the group—over time, the group identifies and articulates which things pose opportunities and which pose threats. These notions become the values (and even the common sense) of the group. (It’s important to note that residual values can linger long after they cease to serve the group.) Continue reading

A theory of political behavior (pt.2: evolutionary logic of identity)

Picking up where I left off in part 1, the next axiom: identity serves an evolved, group-benefiting function. I am well aware that examining an evolutionary framework to explain behavior is something that not everyone is comfortable with. Indeed, it has provoked pushback from some of my cultural studies friends and advisors (but encouragement from others). After much deliberation, I decided to keep the evolutionary lens as an explicit piece of my theoretical framework. (For more background philosophical justification, see my working philosophy of social science.)

I believe that group-oriented behavior is built upon the scaffolding of evolved group-oriented instincts. We may prefer to think of our life choices as self-aware, rational choices. But the prefrontal cortex—the region attributed to the capacity for rational thought—is a new kid on the block, in the span of evolutionary time. A relatively small portion of our brain activity involves conscious rational thought, and that part is not divorced from primal and preconscious emotions and instincts. Our orientation as individuals toward the groups we are situated within certainly has conscious and rational aspects, but, like most of our behavior, it is predominantly primal and preconscious — similar to how bees do not consciously decide to do this dance or that dance to indicate to other bees where to find the pollen. Rather, these dances, and the ability to instinctively read (i.e. react to) the meaning of the dances, are the behaviors that served the group best and therefore survived. In a social species, the behaviors that best serve the group tend to be the behaviors that survive (and therefore reproduce) over generations.

I would, however, gladly skip the evolutionary logic—because of all the trouble—if I thought it extraneous. I believe it adds an important question to an inquiry of human behavior. The question is: for what benefit?. Looking at identity through an evolutionary lens, we might ask, “What does identity accomplish?” Why did this phenomenon—this behavior—survive and develop? What purposes does (or did) it serve? What drives us to invest so much energy into its construction?

Why, from an evolutionary perspective, might people be inclined to signal belonging to a group? Continue reading

A theory of political behavior (pt.1)

Why explore political behavior?

To inform my own organizing practice, I have been working toward a more explicit theory of political behavior, which this post will begin to lay out. Leading up to this exploration, last week I discussed some of my philosophy of social science, mostly asserting my embrace of a multiply-determined reality with all sorts of factors, explanations, and lenses—e.g. economic, structural, behavioral, cultural, psychological, even evolutionary—worthy of consideration in an examination of politics and political behavior. Then in The Problem of Collective Action in the United States, I briefly discussed the constraining context that has led me to study political behavior, namely that, “social movements in the United States do not presently have anywhere close to the capacity needed to mount sustained challenges to the entrenched power structures we are up against.” I want to figure out why that is the case, and how we can change it. Political behavior: Why and how do people—as individuals and in groups—become politically active (or not), with progressive or regressive politics? Getting clearer about a theory of political behavior is not an academic exercise here; the aim is to change the world.

Because there are some urgent matters at hand that require a massive collective response. In the most recent issue of Rolling Stone, Bill McKibben offers his latest warning of looming and already unfolding disasters from global warming. This crisis, I believe, will define my generation and likely more than a few generations to come. In response to McKibbon’s article, I wrote:

…we need a World War II-sized mobilization of society — the kind of sweeping narrative that inspires people to sacrifice comfort now—and sometimes much more—for the long-term collective good. Honestly, achieving that kind of scale feels pretty hopeless at the moment. But we have no choice but to dig in and get started. And as devastating climate events are likely to continue to unfold as predicted, the possibilities of mass mobilization may expand much faster than what may presently seem realistic.

Those possibilities of mass mobilization are much more likely to become realities when we are ready for them; when we are oriented to recognize openings and opportunities for mobilization. That’s the point of this exploration of political behavior. Continue reading

What’s wrong with activism?

Over the years I have often been asked how I became an activist. The question of how individuals as individuals become involved in social change movements, fascinating as it may seem, can carry equally fascinating assumptions about activism itself. It may imply a voluntary and self-selecting enterprise, an extracurricular activity, a realm of subculture, and a differentiating label; that an activist is a particular kind of person. When people refer to me as an activist, I have taken to correcting them: “I dislike the label activist,” I politely explain, “because it lets everyone else off the hook. We all have civic responsibilities. Social change happens when whole communities are in motion.”

This kind of individualistic thinking about collective action is mostly a recent phenomenon. In the past half-century our imaginations have been colonized and severely limited by the individual rational actor paradigm. This capitalist dogma gained currency in concert with tectonic cultural shifts in social identity and organization. In the past half-century, society has become more individualistic and self-expressive, as civic involvement demonstrably declined. It is little wonder that collective action itself has come to be popularly viewed as an essentially individualistic endeavor.

Examining these tectonic cultural shifts has profoundly changed how I understand political struggle. I have come to view much of what is today called activism as more self-expressive than instrumental. This is foundational to my paradigm, and a brief presentation of the relevant broad trends is necessary here. Continue reading

How do we mobilize society to stop global warming?

I just read Bill McKibben’s terrifying new article in Rolling Stone. I won’t recount the math here, but it’s enough to get anyone working on social issues (as I do) to question their priorities.

Clearly, we need a massive social effort to confront the power of the fossil fuel industry — and we need it soon (i.e. yesterday). But we face major hurdles in constructing such a movement. McKibben explains:

Most of us are fundamentally ambivalent about going green: We like cheap flights to warm places, and we’re certainly not going to give them up if everyone else is still taking them. Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself – it’s as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders. [my emphasis]

Social movements are born out of collective self-interest — but the self-interest has to be felt. As Phil Aroneanu, also of, explained at a recent conference I attended, “Climate is a great example of something that everyone feels and yet doesn’t really feel at the same time.”

This is the big nut we absolutely have to crack. The most impacted constituencies here are our future selves, our children, and grandchildren. That would seem to leave us with the task of organizing a solidarity movement (as opposed to a self-interest movement). Solidarity movements—i.e. efforts that mobilize in solidarity with others, despite no clear immediate self-interest—have played important parts in past struggles like the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, which McKibben smartly references in the article. But solidarity efforts are always complements to social forces that are motivated and organized by collective self-interest — at least when it comes to taking on the bottom-line of an adversary as powerful as the fossil fuel industries. Continue reading

Sunday afternoon rough notes on messaging for populist alignment

Messaging (/symbolic contestation) for populist alignment: very rough notes, pieces of the puzzle, for future exploration…

  • Messages and memes (i.e. carriers of messages) must be potent enough to penetrate the meaning-making processes of existing social aggregations (aka “groups”).
  • Proximate groups are the primary spaces where meanings are processed, judged, opinions shaped, etc. (A “proximate” group is an immediately-experiencable, graspable in size, often-local group. Proximate, as opposed to abstract or imagined, the latter referring to a society, nation, class, religion, etc.)
  • Explicate the modern dis-integration/dispersal of proximate groups; a society of divided selves; identities dispersed across several circles / groups of identity, etc.
  • Explore the “script” and pressure within groups to avoid internal friction, especially subversive challenge; to extricate the political into a distinct group unto itself (e.g. “activism”), and thus to minimize antagonisms within the proximate group, its life and functions.
  • In eras of identity dispersal and unrootedness—and the shrinking of the “tradition-directed” groups and character structures—the opening to frame more potent abstract “groups” (aka imagined communities). The technologies of the mass media (first print, through the novel and national newspapers) enabled these new publics to emerge. The idea of society itself became more imaginable. (See Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities)
  • The imagined public is still processed, understood, and judged within proximate groups, whose identities are also shaped by their understanding and interaction to the larger social abstraction. The way it seems to look and the way it should look are a projection of values, rituals, understandings, experiences, etc. derived from proximate group experiences and culture.
  • Continue reading

The Problem of Collective Action in the United States

Picking up from yesterday’s post, the central problem I have attempted to apprehend from so many angles has to do with political behavior — especially collective action in the context of the United States over the past 50 or so years. How and why do people act together collectively to advance or defend their common interests? How and why do people not act together for the same — or even resist collective action that would seem to benefit them?

In my estimation, social movements in the United States do not presently have anywhere close to the capacity needed to mount sustained challenges to the entrenched power structures we are up against, at least when it comes to issues for which change would threaten the current economic order (e.g. progressive taxation, public education, public health care, cutting military spending, public elections, corporate personhood, financial regulation, global warming, and so on). Thus, Occupy Wall Street has been something of a beacon of hope to many. But momentarily seizing the national narrative didn’t send the bankers and Wall Street executives packing. A far more massive movement will be needed if we are to actually challenge the formidable power of capital. Continue reading

A working philosophy of social science

For the past seventeen years I have clumsily staggered toward hopefully answering—at least partially—two big questions about social and political change:

  1. What will work? (i.e. In pursuit of building a more socially just, ecologically sustainable, compassionate, and participatory world, what will be effective? What can get us from Point A to Point B?)
  2. What’s in the way? (i.e. What constraints do we face, both inside our groups and movements and in relation to larger structures and society?)

The first question has led me toward a framework of hegemonic contestation (in concert with capacity-building operations). The second question has led me to a long list of overlapping pitfalls. Both questions have led me to study political behavior. A study of political behavior demands a deeper study of human behavior itself, and has predictably led to many more questions: What are key patterns of human behavior, in groups and as individuals? What motivates us? How and when do our motivations and actions become politicized? What are the relationships between groups, identities, and solidarities? How and under what circumstances do different solidarities become compelling?

I have long been fascinated by the internal dynamics of groups — particularly of social movement groups, but really I am fascinated by all kinds of groups. I want to understand what goes on under the surface. A social change organization’s stated purpose may be the achievement of X objective, but its members may stay motivated for the long haul at least as much because of feelings of belonging and other social benefits. I want to better understand the whole picture of human behavior: the verbalized, the conscious, the preconscious, the primal, etc. Continue reading