Political action’s psychological layer


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

more geeking out about floating signifiers

I’m reading Dynamics of Contention by Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly. I’ll be posting some notes as I digest it over the next few days. It’s been interesting to see different language for some of the same concepts—or at least overlapping concepts—that I’ve been working on, influenced by many others of course. I keep translating in my head their concepts and descriptions into the language of hegemonic struggle — a term that they do not use. Nor do they refer to floating signifiers, but I’m beginning to think that maybe they should — that this concept might add clarity to their accounts of what they call contentious episodes.

Presently I’m reading their discussion about Benigno Aquino, the longtime opponent of then-Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, specifically about Aquino’s assassination upon his return to the Philippines from exile. Aquino played the part of a catalyzing symbol—a floating signifier—similar to Juan Perón during his exile from Argentina. Both men were seen as popular symbols of opposition to their nations’ respective ruling regimes. I don’t know nearly as much about Aquino, but the case has been made by many (including Ernesto Laclau) that Perón was able to play this symbolic role far more effectively in exile than on-the-ground in Argentina, because in his absence the disparate factions of the broad opposition could each imagine Perón standing for their particular vision or agenda. Had he been there in-person, it would be much more difficult to maintain this floating quality—i.e. an ambiguously broad appeal—over a long period of time. Eventually the real contents are filled into the “empty” symbol, and the symbol will likely lose its charm for at least some parties of the ephemeral alignment. Continue reading