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

Not all groups have strategies.

Ah social movement theory… I get to read quite a lot of it this year. I’m enjoying it, but of course I will probably end up writing more about the things that I am critical of.

For example, the often loose usage of the word strategy. Scholars often make an implicit assumption that social movements have strategies. Of course many movements do. But all of them? Just because a group engages in activities does not inevitably mean that they possess a strategy that orders those activities. A strategy is essentially a plan to move toward the attainment of a goal; a kind of map to get from Point A to Point B; from where you are now to where you want to be, accounting for obstacles and constraints that must be navigated along the way. Strategies are often confused with tactics, which are the specific actions within the strategy; actions intended to move the strategy forward. Even in less strict usage, however, a strategy typically references a plan to achieve something; it is not a thing unto itself. Eating ice cream, for example, may be delightful, but it is not a strategy. The same principle applies to a group’s self-expressive aspects: maybe delightful for participants; ≠ strategy.

We should not make the assumption that because a social movement group exists, it must automatically have a strategy by virtue of its existence. Why should we assume that any group that is engaged in collective action is necessarily strategically oriented? A group that comes together because it cares about a given issue (or set of issues) does not inevitably possess strategic know-how. Indeed, I have worked in many groups that had highly developed analyses about the issues they were concerned about but had no strategy for how to make headway on those issues. It doesn’t serve anyone for scholars to describe such a group’s activities as strategic simply because the group is carrying out activities.

If the activities strengthen the identity of the group of actors, that could very well be beneficial for both the lives of individual participants and, potentially, for building the capacity of the group to carry out a strategic plan — but that does not mean that strengthening the identity of the group is itself an instrumental strategy, in the political sense. Such activities are often described by social movement scholars as expressive (as opposed to instrumental), which does not inherently mean these activities are unimportant. I would assert, however, that the extent to which a group’s internal culture comes to decrease its interest in interventions in the world beyond itself is the extent to which the group is effectively depoliticized.

school applications and the GRE

Where did I go? Why no new posts since late September?

I’ve been swamped with studying for the GRE and applying to PhD sociology programs. I took the GRE last week. And now I’m in the homestretch on my applications. The homestretch will last another four weeks or so. Wish me luck — and anticipate the flow of new posts to resume in late December.

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!)