Instrumental & expressive aspects of collective action

rally-bw

A very basic breakdown:

Instrumental

  • We join with others to take collective action in order to achieve measurable goals. Our actions are tactics within strategies, which we hope will result in tangible successes/gains/improvements to people’s lives.
  • We are concerned with results. We evaluate whether our actions are moving us toward making substantial change.

Expressive!

  • We also join with others to take collective action because it makes us feel good. Our actions express our values, our identities, and our sense of belonging in the group or the movement.
  • Expressive aspects of collective action and movement participation are important — this is what feeds us, makes us feel like we’re not alone, and keeps us going.
  • WARNING: you can fulfill your expressive motivations without ever winning anything!

A longer elaboration of this dualism, authored by Joshua Kahn-Russell, Zack Malitz, and yours truly, is available at BeautifulTrouble.org.

Too many Leeroy Jenkins

leeroy jenkins

Another intense semester has come to an end and suddenly I have some time to relax, to catch up with friends, and even to indulge in wasting a little time on the Internet. Just now I remembered old Leeroy Jenkins — the disruptive antihero of World of Warcraft — and I thought I’d watch the Youtube video of his performance from ten years ago.

Because of my predisposition to see WoW as an unforgivable waste of time, I’ve always loved Leeroy’s utter disregard for the norms, processes, and careful strategic planning of his WoW teammates. Unilaterally cutting the collective planning stage short, Leeroy enthusiastically runs headlong kamikaze-style into enemy territory, embarking on what is sure to be a suicide mission, while narcissistically shouting his own name, “LEEEEEROOOYY JEENNNKINNNSS!!!” With the action kicked off prematurely, his teammates have no choice but to follow Leeroy into the field to do battle with beasts and demons and who-knows-what-else, hoping against hope to salvage something from the unfavorable situation created by the asinine antics of their stupid/brave comrade.

This time watching the clip, I realized how tragically perfect Leeroy Jenkins fits as a metaphor for way too many of my experiences in grassroots social movements. From the global justice movement to Occupy Wall Street (*not these movements as a whole, but particular episodes therein) to countless local campaigns over the past two decades, I have spent so much time and energy running headlong into an asymmetrical battle terrain prematurely — because a few ‘heroes’ self-righteously interpreted the imperative to act as an excuse for neglecting to develop a strategic plan. And once the action is underway, others follow, of course — in order to protect their comrades, to bail them out of jail, to fundraise for their legal defense, and on and on; essentially doing ‘damage control.’ (To be clear, I am not at all suggesting that everyone who gets arrested at street actions is akin to Leeroy Jenkins, or that willingness to endure arrest and repression never serves to further the strategy of a movement.) I have struggled in so many situations like this to try to reframe actions that have already been unfavorably framed by our shit-show first impression.

Yup, I have reluctantly followed Leeroy Jenkins on doomed and costly missions. I can also remember being Leeroy Jenkins at least a few times. Fuckin’ Leeroy Jenkins, screwing it all up. And it just takes one Leeroy Jenkins.

The individual rational actor paradigm (is dumb)

Boring warning: Just like yesterday’s post, this one is also boring. You have been warned.

In the individual rational actor paradigm, the unit of analysis tends to be the generic, atomized, essentially selfish individual. When applied to social movements, the paradigm clumsily attempts to illuminate the “mystery” of collective action by examining the peculiar types of individuals who join collective efforts—and their individual reasons for joining—rather than by examining particular contexts or situations that tend to activate people (more often in blocs and clusters than as lone individuals). Frankly, when a scholar assumes that collective action participants are atomized individuals whose involvement can be explained by individually rational choices, I am inclined to assume that their research is probably not worth much.

The use of the term entrepreneur to describe social movement innovators betrays this same view of the benefit-maximizing, cost-minimizing individual; a view that is taken for granted as the modus operandi of Homo sapiens. I think it is problematic and grotesque to transpose an individual profit-maximizing logic and terminology onto a thoroughly collective project. Those who are central in facilitating the latter are commonly referred to as leaders—not entrepreneurs—on account of their skills in building consensus and solidarity and in articulating values, goals, targets, and strategies that can move whole groups. Their mission is not to maximize private profit. Sometimes their mission is precisely to challenge or dismantle private profit! Continue reading

Political action’s psychological layer

fucking-angry

The “classical model” of social movement theory explains the emergence of social movements in terms of collective psychological reactions to structural changes in society. In short, people are alienated and therefore join protest movements. Hating on this approach is something of a cornerstone of the sociological canon of contemporary social movement theory. Central among the numerous problems with the classical model is how it pathologizes individual social movement participants, treating them as alienated, anomic, maladjusted, and deviant specimen. Reasons for rejecting the theory are plentiful. The framework had to die; good riddance!

So then, is it too soon to ask whether there might be a few useful gems buried along with the rotting corpse of the classical model? How bad of an idea is it to exhume the casket in order to pan for gold?

“For the mass society theorist,” Doug McAdam explains (in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency), “the movement offers the atomized individual the sense of community he lacks in his everyday life.” Such a framework does not seem to fit with “the development of black insurgency” described by McAdam. He details how individual participation in the civil rights movement was hardly an individual matter; it tended to stem from community membership—especially membership in black churches, black colleges, and chapters of the NAACP—rather than from a lack of community. Continue reading

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

Values

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