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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.

Certainly the civil rights movement is not alone in how its participants were activated or recruited whole blocs at a time (often referred to as bloc recruitment). Does this mean, however, that no social movements exist whose participants are motivated in large part by a strong sense of community—and accompanying sense of psychic completion—that they felt lacking in their lives prior to the movement?

Frankly, I suspect that anyone who has organized within contemporary social movements in the United States would have a hard time denying that movements often do indeed attract some very alienated individuals. This has been a recurring feature within my experience of grassroots organizing, and there is a logic to the pattern; by publicly challenging aspects of the status quo, movements will unsurprisingly attract people who feel especially alienated from that status quo. Yes, it can be highly problematic to “psychologize” political movements, from a political or academic perspective. However, as someone who has had to navigate—toward political ends—this consequential social psychological level within social movements, I have no qualms about the need to candidly assess this level—internally, at least—including the pathologies.

To be clear, pathology is only a small part of a discussion of the social psychological level of social movements. While there are pathological manifestations related to social alienation, there is also a political aspect. While in Argentina in 2004, I interviewed a sister and brother from one of the Movements of Unemployed Workers groups, MTD Solano. In the wake of Argentina’s economic and political collapse three years prior, MTDs like Solano were an important movement organizational form that rapidly spread across Argentina. Interviewing the siblings separately, I asked them what they value most about their work with the MTD. Both answered that they like how integrated their lives are now. The sister said that while many join MTDs out of necessity, she joined by election, because her life felt too fragmented before. Now nearly everything she does is related to MTD Solano: her work at a collectively run cafe, a children’s workshop she organizes, her neighborhood, her family, etc. All of her activities share a singular meaning and purpose and relate to one group.

I myself felt a similarly intense sense of harmony during the Minnehaha Free State campaign and land occupation in Minneapolis (in the late 1990s), where our political aim was to stop the controversial rerouting of a highway through a neighborhood, parkland, and sacred sites to the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community and the American Indian Movement. For sixteen months we did everything together: cooking, eating, cleaning, building tree stands and barricades, meeting, working security shifts, singing, sitting around the campfire, getting arrested or roughed up by the police, and on and on. When I would leave camp, it was to produce or distribute flyers for events related to the campaign, or to meet with allied organizations. We regularly remarked at the sense of community we felt together (and we also had our share of problematically alienated individuals).

In the above examples, some pre-existing social networks were mobilized in a fashion that could be called bloc recruitment. However, these blocs were not nearly as homogenous or bounded as the social bases of the civil rights movement. Collective interests had to be articulated amongst far more heterogeneous and diffuse social bases. And self-selecting individuals were a prominent demographic within these movements.

Un-rooted self-selecting individuals were an even bigger factor in Occupy Wall Street, a movement formation that makes for a stark contrast with the civil rights movement. In many ways OWS resembles some of the classical model theorists’ descriptions—at times more than it resembles Doug McAdam’s framework. McAdam argues that, “Isolated individuals do not emerge, band together, and form movement groups. Rather, as numerous studies attest, it is within established interactional networks that social movements develop.” To a large extent what McAdam claims does not happen did indeed happen with OWS (though, of course, not entirely). On the other hand, this “banding together of self-selectors” could be part of why OWS quickly hit a plateau. In practice, perhaps precisely because of the alienation/community factor, OWS often elevated the life of the group over the group’s external accomplishments. Such a description may support Maurice Pinard’s argument that “If such a movement were to draw only on such people, it would be small indeed and very marginal.”

I am not suggesting that McAdam was wrong about the kind of movement that he was describing. I am suggesting that there is another essential type of social movement occupying the contemporary landscape, so to speak. The kind of movement that McAdam describes is comprised of members of relatively homogenous minority identity groups, whose fights have to do with discrimination, inclusion, and equal rights. A very different kind of movement has emerged in highly industrialized societies, whose participants tend to include far more “atomized” and “alienated” self-selecting individuals who do—as the mass society theorists claimed (except that there is no evidence that suggests such participants are any more alienated than non-participants)—genuinely feel a deep lack of adequate community in their daily lives and are thus both psychologically and politically motivated to participate in collective protest movements. (In future posts, I hope to engage with the works of Inglehart and Habermas to elaborate on this idea.)

Building from here, we might ask how capitalism—in its different stages, and in different communities’ political/developmental stages in relation to it—interacts with these two movement types. In different ways, it would seem that capitalism has been central to the emergence of both. So then, why should we count psychological motivation as something that is not political? If psychological strain is produced by an alienating underlying economic system, then psychological and political motivations can be one and the same, which is not to say that they will never be in tension with each other. It was classical model theorists who initially depoliticized motivations that they viewed to be chiefly psychological, but that does not mean we should—in order to assert the political agency of social movement actors—deny or be disinterested in the psychological level of motivation behind collective action. Certainly this level is part of the terrain we have to learn to navigate.


  1. Joe Strife says

    Thanks for this! A few thoughts…

    1) The alienation argument goes back to notions of socialization, where individuals were either well or poorly integrated into society. While its true that movements (secular and religious) tend to collect people who might be alienated from society for a variety of reasons (e.g. mental illness), I think it’s more compelling to think about how dominant society (i.e. liberal capitalism) produces alienated and isolated individuals. Willow Creek is a good example here – thousands of well-integrated individuals who are profoundly hungry for community. As individuals conform themselves to the commodity form, their lives are increasingly expressed through private choices, such as consumer preferences. Much of what is interesting and distinctive about individuals becomes relegated to a private sphere (e.g. religious beliefs, cultural heritage, family commitments, etc.) Richard Sennett’s work is interesting here.

    2) When thinking about the social bases you refer to, it’s important to see how those are involved in the same processes. The Alinsky model relies on neighborhood or area-based social institutions, mostly religious communities, coming together. But those sorts of institutions have been declining for many years, as individual lives and communities become more geographically, culturally, etc. “flexible.” Similarly, Adolf Reed’s work carries the Frankfurt School analysis into the composition and development of these social bases. I’m thinking in particular of “Black Particularity, Reconsidered,” where he talks about how racial particularity is rewritten to conform to the commodity form.

    3) Speaking about community as such, which you sometimes find in this literature, is not really helpful. The question becomes what kind of community, and what kinds of beliefs and practices does it sustain, and how do those relate to dominant systems, structures and ideologies? More than that, how do individuals negotiate multiple belongings, particularly thinking about participation in struggles for social change while still participating in institutions reflecting other formations (e.g. employment, media, etc.)?

    So I find the language about alienation still compelling, and very relevant to thinking about political participation. It leads to thinking about the role of “community” in social movements. But I’m nervous about the critique of this – what if this language about community and alienation is just a holdover from nostolgia for pre-industrial/pre-modern society, and in fact people are mostly comfortably or even deeply engaged in new/post-modern forms of community (e.g. around products such as video games or sports, Facebook, etc.)? It doesn’t really fit my experience, but it’s a serious critique. Thoughts?

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

  3. marigoldmama says

    Un-rooted self-selecting individual sure sounds better than dirty hippie.

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