Month: July 2012

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 …

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 …

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 …

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 …

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 …

What’s wrong with activism?

Originally published at BeyondtheChoir.org. 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 …

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 350.org, explained …

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, …

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 …

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: 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?) 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 …