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the life of the group vs. what the group accomplishes

occupy_london_tentThis Monday during Cihan Tuğal’s comparative analysis of revolts in North Africa, Southern Europe, and Turkey—part of the Berkeley Sociology Colloquium Series—he offered this gem about the occupation of Gezi Park:

Even though a non-commodified space monetarily redistributes resources among its participants, it does not result in an egalitarian world beyond the revolt itself. [from my notes of Tuğal’s presentation]

Cihan discussed multiple motivations for several kinds of participants. One key motivation that struck me—which I think relates to the above quote—was pleasure. Many bourgeois participants were motivated negatively by “the impoverishment of social life” caused by increasing commodification and positively by what Cihan described as “pleasure”. All this reminded me of Slavoj Žižek’s warning (to Occupy Wall Street) about “one of the great dangers the protesters face:”

…the danger that they will fall in love with themselves, with the fun they are having in the “occupied” zones. But carnivals come cheap— the true test of their worth is what happens the day after, how our everyday life has changed or is to be changed. This requires difficult and patient work— of which the protests are the beginning, not the end.

And both quotes remind me of a much older text, The Lonely Crowd, in which David Riesman et al discuss what they saw as a newly predominant character structure, embodied in the other-directed individual:

Thus the other-directed child is taught at school to take his place in a society where the concern of the group is less with what it produces than with its internal group relations, its morale.

I think Riesman holds a key to understanding the dynamic named by Tuğal and Žižek. The heart of the matter is the balance between the life of the group and the accomplishments of the group. Back in 1950, Riesman et al saw a pattern in the emerging predominant character structure in US society, wherein individuals oriented toward reproducing the group itself more than concerning themselves with what the group actually produced. Although Riesman was not particularly focused on social movements, I’m suggesting that the dynamic that Tuğal and Žižek are concerned with (me too! discussed here, here and here) is likely the manifestation in contemporary social movements of this broader pattern that Riesman expounded. While the tension between the life of the group and the group’s accomplishments has probably existed as long as there have been groups, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the balance may have tipped sometime in the past half century — in some societies and demographics more than others.

What demographics are we talking about? Ronald Inglehart argues that a politics of self-expression emerged contemporaneously within more affluent (e.g. middle class and above) demographics in highly industrialized societies around the globe, as individuals who grew up taking a certain level of abundance for granted could focus their attention on social networks and self-expression. What does a politics of self-expression have to do with emphasizing the life of the group? I’ll get back to that shortly.

Perhaps congruent with Inglehart’s analysis, many who study social movements have written extensively on self-expressive elements of modern movements, sometimes discussing a tension between participants’ instrumental and expressive motivations (and goals). A person might join a protest because it simultaneously expresses their values and because they think the protest might have an instrumental impact (e.g. to pressure lawmakers, change popular opinion, or overthrow a government). While both motivations are often at play simultaneously, they can also be in tension with each other. Someone might hold a sign at a protest that expresses their feelings, but the message may be incoherent to others if the protestor is not considering its instrumental purpose. It is important to realize that self-expressive desires can often be satiated without ever actually winning any tangible victories.

The expressive vs. instrumental framework misses something important, though. It implies individualistic motivation. Collective action is indeed collective. In such settings, participants act as collectively motivated and collectively oriented members of a larger whole, more than as “individual rational actors.” (Defending this assertion is beyond the scope of this post, but I have previously discussed it here.) The framework of expressive vs. instrumental can miss the group.

The life of the group vs. the accomplishments of the group may be a more instructive tension to frame. In a way, both sides of the tension share an orientation toward the group. The first motivation has to do with building the group itself while simultaneously signaling one’s place within it. These two aspects are inseparable, as group members signal belonging by committing time and energy to the group, which builds the group — even when the “building” is only about deepening the group’s distinctive culture through “expressive” activities (i.e. activities that express/signal the group’s existence and its values). The second motivation has to do with the realization of the group’s political interests, e.g., passing a law that benefits the group, overthrowing a structure that constrains the group, etc. — in short, actually changing the world that exists beyond the group.

Getting clear about the distinction (between the life and the accomplishments of the group) can help core participants within a social movement to strategically navigate this tension — so that we can hopefully win things, rather than just entertain ourselves in an enlightened subculture.


  1. Pingback: Power and self-selection | Devoke the Apocalypse.

  2. Pingback: Political action’s psychological layer | Devoke the Apocalypse.

  3. Pingback: The individual rational actor paradigm (is dumb) | Devoke the Apocalypse.

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