From Riots and Political Protest by Simon Winlow, Steve Hall, Daniel Briggs and James Treadwell pg 157:

Many on the left believe the Internet can fill the gaps left by the disintegration of modern political organisations, but online discussion forums and the like simply do not work in the same way. This is not to say that new forms of medium cannot assist political resistance, especially in communicating very quickly repressive political practices that appear to demand an immediate response, but it is hard to imagine how they might compensate for the immediate social engagement that accompanied, for example, the establishment of labour unions and workers’ associations. Internet forums cannot reach out to the disinterested or the antagonistic and, over a prolonged period of time, seek to educate, persuade and establish trust and a shared vision. They cannot encourage the disengaged to become attuned to the attractions of progressive politics by interacting daily in bodily proximity with others keen to connect their shared situation to forces beyond their immediate comprehension. In the absence of everyday mass encounters in exploitative work situations, the task of building the kinds of organisation that might politicise the depoliticised is huge.

A really fascinating post on Lenin’s Tomb, saved here because I’ll want to come back to this for a second and probably third reading:

One of the most interesting theories of reification came from Gaston Bachelard who, in his Psychoanalysis of Fire, proposed that there sometimes exist “epistemological obstacles” built into the phenomena themselves, which can make it difficult to apprehend them properly and which permit an unscientific or incorrect apprehension of them to shape the experience of them. Fire was such a phenomenon, inasmuch as its materiality inclines one to view it as a substance or, perhaps, as some sort of spirit. The palpable experience of fire as an ‘object’ includes of course the appearance and the physical sensations it gives rise to when ‘touched’. And once these qualities have been fixed by a certain symbolisation, once we’ve said that fire is in fact a definite thing – a substance, or an animistic entity – these sensations are experienced as palpable confirmations of the symbolisation. And so it might be with the concept of ‘social movements’. The palpable experience of the social movement, then – the familiar displays of ‘worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment’ above all – can appear as confirmations of the category, so that there only remains the task of working out what essence, historical subjectivity or functional relation coheres all of the various and contradictory manifestations that are attributable to social movements.

From Inventing the Future, by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Loc 674-694:

Without the central focus of the occupied spaces, the movement dispersed and fragmented. Ultimately, the organisational form of these movements could not overcome the problems of scalability and construct a form of persistent power capable of effectively resisting the inevitable reaction from the state. What may work quite well on one scale –perhaps up to a hundred people –becomes increasingly difficult to operate effectively when extended beyond that.

A few thoughts, prompted by the dispiriting act of choosing cosmopolitan austerity over nationalistic austerity in the UK referendum:

  1. Our perception of transformative possibilities is culturally constructed. Certain ranges of possibility are foregrounded and others backgrounded. Our sense of viability is the most cognitive dimension to this, informed by implicit and explicit ontological assumptions about how the social world works. But perceived transformative possibilities are also shaped by much less conscious factors, ranging from the cultural raw materials with which we conceive of the future to the futurity  entailed by conditions of our everyday lives.
  2. Nonetheless, what concerns us are real possibilities inherent in actually existing states of affairs. The succeptabilty of social formations to transformative change reflects a complex constellation of causal factors: some serving to reproduce the existing social order and others latently contributing to its potential transformation.
  3. It’s because of this complexity that transformative horizons elude the ambitions of any one corporate agency. The very fact of different socially transformative and reproductive projects means that the social change that does occur is inevitably characterised by unintended consequences.
  4. This chaotic character of social change too rarely finds itself considered in the cultural construction of transformative horizons. Instead, we think and dream in terms of collective agents carrying forth projects of change, rather than of change as something resulting chaotically from the clashes between such collective agents in circumstances not of their choosing.
  5. Wilful withdrawl from this complexity can be read psychoanalytically as a refusal of the Real. What I’m describing (ontologically) as the chaotic nature of social change has its (epistemic) corollary in the fact that real horizons of possibility elude our  capacity to fully symbolise or conceptualise them.
  6. This is why dreaming of possible worlds or refusing Utopianism is so psychically charged: we fall into a tendency to over symbolise or under symbolise Real horizons of change because of the affective dilemmas involved in a continual engagement with reality, negotiating between what is and what could be.
  7. The materiality of our action means that these negotiations between what is and what could be are themselves contributions to the reproduction or transformation of social formations. The landscape is continually changing as we are orientating ourselves within it.

From Global Justice to Occupy and Podemos: Mapping Three Stages of Contemporary Activism

Call for Abstracts/Contributions

Special issue of tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique. Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society

Special Issue Editors:

Todd Wolfson, Rutgers University, US
Emiliano Treré, Autonomous University of Querétaro, Mexico / Lakehead University, Canada
Paolo Gerbaudo, King’s College London, UK
Peter Funke, University of South Florida, US

Across the last few decades the logic of activism, and of digital activism in particular, have changed dramatically. We have experienced what could be regarded as three waves of protests from the early 1990s to the present. Each of these waves is connected both by the transformations in global capitalism and the rise of the digital age, while still displaying differences or rather developments in movement-based organizing. Together however, we can conceive these three waves as part of one broader epoch of contention. Those particular waves of contention are: Global Social Justice, Occupy/Arab Spring, Syriza/Podemos. In this special issue, we propose to look at the logics of these waves of protest (or generations of digital activism) in order to explore their similarities and differences. The goal of the special issue is to mine history assuming a diachronic perspective, but more concretely to understand the strengths and weaknesses of this epoch of contention as we watch the current wave of struggle unfold.

Some of the questions that will be tackled in the issue are:

– How have capitalist transformations informed the emergence of the current epoch of contention and how has the activists’ relation to communication technologies evolved and shaped the logics of protests and mobilizations?

– Can we conceive of underlying meta-logics of movement politics informing the three waves of protests, and how are they best conceptualized, similar as well as differently enacted?

– How have the communication repertoires of social movements evolved, and how have the role of alternative media and activists’ media practices changed in an oversaturated media environment, where the influence of digital capitalism has grown and corporate media are increasingly dominating the digital activism scenario?

– What are the main challenges and the tensions that social movements and their communication face when they crystallize into political parties?

–   What lessons have we learned from the analysis of this epoch of contention and what are the future horizons of digital activism and protest?

Specifications and Key dates: 

Please send 300 words abstracts-proposals by 20 December 2015 to both the following email addresses: AND – with “Two generations special issue” as an object, indicating: tentative title, full name, affiliation and email. The abstract will have to include the methods deployed and the principal findings or, in case of more theoretical contributions, the main authors and theories used.

We particularly welcome original contributions that defy traditional understandings of social movements, digital activism, and digital politics, and critically reflect on their evolution in a diachronic and comparative perspective. Case studies and experiences from non-Western countries and contexts are also especially welcomed.
Other Key Dates: 

– Acceptance of selected proposals sent on January 20, 2016

– Deadline for complete papers for review on May 20, 2016

– Reviews are due to authors on July 20, 2016

– Papers with revisions due on September 10, 2016

– Publication of the special issue: October 2016

About tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique,

tripleC is a journal for the critical study of communication in capitalism, using approaches such as critical theories, Marxist theory, political economy of communication, etc. It has a special interest in disseminating articles that focus on the role of information in contemporary capitalist societies. For this task, articles should employ critical theories and/or empirical research inspired by critical theories and/or philosophy and ethics guided by critical thinking as well as relate the analysis to power structures and inequalities of capitalism, especially forms of stratification such as class, racist and other ideologies and capitalist patriarchy.

All articles in tripleC connect a specific studied phenomenon to the broader societal context, especially capitalism as economic formation and a form of the organisation of society. Papers should reflect on how the presented findings contribute to the illumination of conditions that foster or hinder the advancement of a global sustainable and participatory information society.
tripleC is edited by Christian Fuchs (University of Westminster) and Marisol Sandoval (City University London).
Registration as reader (to receive content updates) is possible here:

tripleC is indexed in databases such as Communication and Mass Media Complete and Scopus

Supported by:

Via Tom Dark:

Protests in the Information Age: Social Movements, Digital Practices and Surveillance

 Lucas Melgaço (CRiS-VUB) and Jeffrey Monaghan (University of Ottawa) launch the following call for chapters for their book on protests in the information age. 

Editors: Lucas Melgaço (Dept. of Criminology, Vrije Universiteit Brussel) & Jeffrey Monaghan (Dept. of Criminology, University of Ottawa)

In recent years, the role of information and communication technologies has been central to large-scale protests and social movements in different parts of the world. Ukraine, Syria, Iran, Canada, Spain, United States, United Kingdom, China, Brazil and Belgium are only a few of the numerous examples. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter and devices like smartphones have increasingly played an important role in facilitating and mobilizing people to take to the streets. Concurrently, the same technologies have been scrutinized by public authorities (including security agencies and the police) and have served to detect and curtail the activities of certain demonstrators. In addition, public spaces used by demonstrators are being increasingly monitored by surveillance technologies that range from video-surveillance and police body cams to drones. This book intends to explore the complex and contradictory relationships between communication and information technologies and social movements by drawing on different case studies of protests from around the world. The contributions will analyze how new communication and information technologies impact the way protests are carried out and controlled in the current information age. The book will focus on recent events that date from the Arab Spring onwards and will pose questions towards the future of protests and digital landscapes.

Potential authors are invited to submit a paper proposal on topics such as, yet not limited to:

• Surveillance of public demonstrations (including technologies like CCTV, body cams, drones and so on; The increasing monitoring of spaces of protest;

• Social networking sites and protest mobilizations;

• The use of smartphones by demonstrators; Sousveillance (e.g. the use of surveillance technologies to record police brutality in protests); Resistance;

• Mainstream and alternative media coverage of protests (including real time broadcasting of protests through apps like Periscope or Meerkat);

• Police use of information technologies in the control of crowds and riots;

• The reemergence of the Black Bloc tactics and negotiations of (in)visibility in public spaces;

• Political profiling of demonstrators, databanks and security intelligence; Big data;

• Geolocation technologies and demonstrations;

• Transnational flows of security practices and information; Policy transfers related to information and protest control;

• Usage of digital technologies in the regulation of public spaces; The right to protest at risk;

• Theoretical and methodological developments on the relationships between social movements and the digital


Submissions in English and of a maximum of 700 words should be sent before November 30th, 2015 to and In your proposal please provide details of the theoretical framework of your work, methodology, the empirical case(s) studied and how your chapter engages with the main theme of the call. Together with the abstract include a short bio of no more than 300 words. Selected abstracts will be combined in a book proposal to be submitted to Routledge – Taylor and Francis Group, who has already expressed strong interest in the publication (Routledge is also publishing the forthcoming book “Order and Conflict in Public Space” edited by L. Melgaço together with M. De Backer, G. Varna and F. Menichelli). Accepted authors will be notified by December 15, 2015 and they are expected to send the full chapter (7000-9000 words) by March 31, 2016. Proposals must be original and not yet published or under consideration for publication by any other book or journal. All chapters will pass a double blind review process. The expected date of publication is March/April 2017.

I went to this for the first time this year and it was excellent:


From 1995 to 2015, Manchester Metropolitan University hosted a series of very successful annual international conferences on ‘ALTERNATIVE FUTURES and POPULAR PROTEST’.

We’re very happy to announce that the Twenty First AF&PP Conference will be held between Monday 21st and Wednesday 23rd March 2016.

The Conference rubric will remain as in previous years. The aim is to explore the dynamics of popular movements, along with the ideas which animate their activists and supporters and which contribute to shaping their fate.

Reflecting the inherent cross-disciplinary nature of the issues, previous participants (from over 60 countries) have come from such specialisms as sociology, politics, cultural studies, social psychology, economics,  history and geography. The Manchester conferences have been notable for discovering a fruitful and friendly meeting ground between activism and academia.


We invite offers of papers relevant to the conference themes.  Papers should address such matters as:

* contemporary and historical social movements and popular protests

* social movement theory

* utopias and experiments

* ideologies of collective action

* etc.

To offer a paper, please contact either of the conference convenors with a brief abstract:

EITHER Colin Barker,


OR Mike Tyldesley, Politics Section, HPP,

Manchester Metropolitan University

Geoffrey Manton Building, Rosamond Street West

Manchester M15 6LL, England

Tel: M. Tyldesley  0161 247 3460


Fax: 0161 247 6769 (+44 161 247 6769)

(Wherever possible, please use email, especially as Colin Barker is a retired gent. Surface mail and faxes should only be addressed to Mike Tyldesley)  


One way we organise this particular conference is that we ask those giving papers to supply them in advance, for inclusion on a CD of the complete papers which will be available from the conference opening.

* Preferred method: send the paper to Colin Barker as an email attachment in MS Word. Any separate illustrations etc. should be sent separately, in .jpg format.

* if this is impossible, post a copy of the text to Mike Tyldesley on a CD disk in MS Word format

* Final date for receipt of abstracts: Monday 29th February 2016

* Final date for receipt of actual papers: Monday 7th March 2016

These are final dates. The earlier we receive abstracts, and actual papers, the better.


The conference will run from lunch-time Monday 21st March 2016 until after lunch on Wednesday 23rd March 2016.

The conference cost will be inclusive of three lunches, teas/coffees and copies of the papers on CD. The full cost is £140.00, with a cost of £80.00 for students and the unwaged. We will circulate a Booking Form shortly.

To register, please go to and complete and send the form. (If you have problems ‘clicking’ on this URL, cut and paste this address directly into your browser. Please contact Mike Tyldesley if you encounter any difficulties.) You will be given two options; “pay by Credit/Debit Card” or “Pay by Invoice”. If you use the “Pay by Invoice” option, please contact Mike Tyldesley ( ) immediately after you complete the form to let him know that you have done so and discuss your payment method with him.


Notes for the talk I’m doing a couple of times next month. First at the Political Agency in the Digital World conference in Denmark then at the Global Cultures of Contestation workshop in Amsterdam. Given I’m going to these places without funding to get feedback, I can’t stress enough how keen for pointers & ideas I am about this project. I basically know what I’m doing with the distracted people stuff (i.e. I spent 6 years doing a PhD on individual reflexivity & years working on digital sociology in various capacities) but I’m completely out of my intellectual comfort zone with the social movements stuff. I’m also totally intimidated by the size of the social movement studies literature. 

My route into this topic has been a slightly surprising one to me. Last December I found myeslf working on a book chapter that had balooned to 17,000 words. I realised at that point that my book chapter was in fact a book in embyronic form, one which I’ve recently begun to work on. My interest was in how digital capitalism is changing the conditions of existence for people within it: how phenomena such as the pluralisation of communication channels, constant connectivity and the destructuring of careers were radically intensifying the social production of distraction that has always been a feature of modernity itself. I’m interested in how the escalation of demands, something which is of course not evenly distributed, renders triaging necessary for ever greater segments of lived experience: attending to the urgent rather than the important, thinking about the day and the week, rather than the month and the year.

I want to develop a philosophical anthropology of triaging, concerned with its implications for evaluation and temporality, connected in turn to an empirical and theoretical account of the social and cultural changes which are generating this uneven proclivity towards triaging. I’m particularly interested in the second-order effects of triaging strategies: how phenomena such as information diets, life hacking, the quantified self, extremely early retirement, lifestyle minimalism and others can be seen as regimes for coping with distraction that also in turn intensify the underlying change in the self. Agency is partially recovered but at the cost of a narrowing of horizons.

I’m also concerned with how many of the factors which lead to the necessity of triaging in turn leave us enmeshed within the filter bubble: being tracked, scrutinised and modelled by a mobile army of opaque overseers, leaving us succeptible to manipulation, in some cases in a manner we willfully embrace for the convenience it affords. Again, I’m interested in the second-order effects: we can escape the filter bubble but there are cognitive costs entailed by it. Total escape can prove all consuming, going off the grid could easily come to constitute a life defining obsession. Continuing to live meaningfully under digital capitalism entails compromise, but the nature of that compromise is something which in itself entails cognitive costs, necessitating that we reflect upon our own information ecology, keep ourselves up to date with current developments and spend time conisdering how to best orientate ourselves towards this rapidly changing edifice.

Considering these issues in terms of individual lives has led me rather inevitably to thinking about them in collective terms. If I’m right about distracted people then what are their implications for collective life? The relationship between the individual and the collective is an issue that I’ve always been fascinated by and that I’ve written about in the past: some collectives we enter into involuntary but later leave, others are ones we discover as we make our way through the world and many exist between these two extremes. I’m interested in understanding collectives as relationally constituted, made and remade through the engaging of individual biographies, unfolding in concrete spaces of interaction but with a collective reality that extends beyond them.

In this approach I’m heavily influenced by the relational realism of Margaret Archer and Pierpaolo Donati. On this view, relations are not just patterns of interaction but an emergent reality which is produced and reproduced through interactions. Their analysis hinges on how such relational goods (shared projects and commitments, features of our relationships that we value) constitute collectivities: the co-ordinated actions of individuals become something genuinely collective through their shared orientation towards relation goods & the actions which these generate.

The same factors which I’m arguing constraint individual reflexivity (clarifying what matters to someone and trying to develop projects which enact those concerns) also constrain collective reflexivity. Developing collective projects requires sustained engagement of a sort which personal distraction by no means prohibits but does inhibit: it leads to a multiplication of obstacles at the individual level which, though individually trivial, manifest themselves through their aggregative consequences. In essence, my approach to understanding the politics of digital distraction is through trying to systematically think through the possible consequences they have for how fragmented individuals might attempt, or fail to attempt, to exercise some collective influence over social and political life.

I’m trying to understand how individual distraction manifests itself aggregatively in the characteristics of collectives (or the failure of those collectives to form). But I think the same socio-technical factors contributing to bringing this about at the level of individuals are having autonomous effects at the level of collectives: the ease of assembly using social media, the affordances which make it possible for a small number of people to lead many to congregate, make it unlikely that collectives constituted in this way will develop the organisational capacities to sustain themselves through change. I entirely credit Zeynep Tufekci with this insight, though I think I understand the point somewhat differently to her. The mundane effort of mobilisation, so easily dispensed with if it’s no longer necessary, served a consolidating function which allowed a nascent collective to develop capacities which allowed it to respond to changing terrain, adapt tactically and develop strategically as other conflictual collectives responded to its emergence and actions.

This is further compounded by what Nick Couldry refers to as the ‘myth of us’: which I understand as the conviction that social media has liberated a natural sociality, allowing individuals to take action as individuals. Here comes everybody! Watch those seemingly intractable problems disappear in their wake. Who needs organisations? In this sense, I think it’s a particular contemporary articulation of a much long-standing myth of self-organisation, with a naive view of social media and liberal individualism jointly engendering a belief in homeostasis. Now people have social media, everything will take care of itself. It is of course a myth which the social media platforms have a commercial interest in promoting, having corralled the ‘us’ and built a business upon monetising it.

Now it follows from a stratified ontology of collectives, in which collectives are constituted by individuals over time (i.e. biographically) but are irreducible to them, that individuals will in turn be changed by their participation in such fragile movements. In this sense, I’m extremely interested in the biographical consequences of social movements. I’d like to better understand these in other eras in order to develop my hunch that the distinctive characteristics of distracted people and fragile movements generate very specific trajectories of engagement with collectives. I’ve been playing with the concept of ‘seeding’ here: do engagements in fragile movements perhaps seed the social world with emancipatory potential by generating a proclivity towards future movements on the part of distinct individuals? But these are ultimately empirical questions and I’m not entirely sure of how to explore them without making this study into something much bigger than it already is. It’s already a bit too big.

In parallel to this, I’m interested in how distracted people constitute an environment to which collectives (fragile or otherwise) find themselves forced to respond. I’d like to analyse professionalisation of communications in these terms, as well as the kind of messaging that can be found more broadly. What kind of strategies thrive? If attention is effectively finite but divided between an ever greater number of claims upon it, what sort of strategies emerge to ensure competitive advantage? More broadly, how do collective engage with their members? In some cases, I think professionalised relationship management approaches could thrive in these circumstances (e.g. how to keep track of distracted people & keep them engaged) but these in turn undercut the collectivity upon which relational goods depend by setting up a hierarchical relationship between professional staff and managed participants.

Any thoughts much appreciated!

This looks excellent. I’m tempted to submit a proposal but I did this recently for the social movements symposium in Denmark and I probably couldn’t afford to travel to both:

Subject: CFP – Global Cultures of Contestation University of Amsterdam, October 15 & 16, 2015

From the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa in
early 2011, via the Spanish indignados, the Occupy movement and the
Gezi Park protests, to the Umbrella movement in Hong Kong and the New
University/Rethink UvA in Amsterdam, over the past years different
parts of the world have seen major forms of popular contestation.

Keynote Speakers:

Paul Gilroy (King’s College London)
Zeynep Tufekci (TBC) (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
Thomas Poell & Robin Celikates (University of Amsterdam)

Abstract Submission Deadline: 1 June 2015

This conference – organised by the Amsterdam Centre for Globalisation
Studies – examines this global wave of protest, characterised by the
occupation of squares, streets and buildings=E2=80=94a diversity of tactics prominently involving online communication and emerging new political imaginaries. Particularly striking is that these protests have not been initiated or directed by traditional social movement
organisations, but appear to be spontaneous political movements ‘from
below.’ Yet, while these instances of popular contestation have been
celebrated for their mobilisations, their creativity and their
innovative use of social media, their long-term efficacy has been
called into question. So far, this debate has primarily focused on the
political and social consequences of the protests. For this
conference, we would like to invite scholars from around the globe to
expand the debate by critically reflecting on the cultural dimensions
of contemporary forms of popular contestation.

We are especially interested in research that examines emerging global
cultures of contestation from one of the following perspectives
(following the four research programs at the ACGS; see here):

– Reflecting on questions of ‘mobility’: how the protests challenge
and transform cultural boundaries, as well as established
understandings of security, belonging and home? And what form of
mobility is implied in the global spread of these protests?

– How are issues of ‘sustainability’ addressed? In what ways are the
precarity of labor, ecological degradation and the preservation of
objects of cultural and historical value put on the agenda? And to
what extent are the protests themselves sustainable as effective forms
of contestation?

– What are the ‘aesthetics’ of contemporary protest movements? In this
context, we welcome explorations of the global circulation and
proliferation of new imaginaries (including their linguistic, visual
and acoustic manifestations), as well as of how these new imaginaries
challenge and/or reproduce dominant cultural regimes.

– What are the ‘connective’ platforms that facilitate and structure
today’s protest communication and mobilisation? How do these platfo=
rms not only enable contestation, but also shape its focus and dynamics?

Please submit an abstract (200-300 words) and short bio (max. 100
words) by 1 June 2015 to (E: In your abstract,
indicate for which of the four streams – mobility, sustainability,
aesthetics or connectivity – you would like to be considered.

Notice  of acceptance will be given by 1 July 2015.

For any inquiries, please contact Amani Maihoub (E:

In this paper Tom Brock and I argue that relationality is key to understanding the constitution of social movements: how do individuals ‘fuse’ into a collective? Our focus is on the relational bonds that emerge between participants, consolidated through situated action, in relation to which individuals come to value their reciprocal action towards a shared goal. If we ignore this relational dimension then collective agency can only be understood as the subsumption of the individual within the collective – participation is exhausted by hierarchical relations and participants surrender their evaluative capacities in the process:

Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 08.10.44
From Judge Dredd: Volume  5

These are some notes I’ll be adding to as the project on social movements I’m working on with Tom Brock develops. Initially they’re aiming towards the revision of a paper and chapter we’ve written (as well as the conference paper we’re giving in a few days time) but we also have a much bigger project in mind, albeit one that will require an intimidating amount of reading before it can ever see the light of day. Given my growing inability to work out what I think about something I’ve read without blogging about it, I thought that some online notes would be a pretty helpful way of getting started. These notes will be my attempt to build upon the conversations Tom and I are having in order to elaborate upon our project and clarify what I think about the social movements studies literature I’m beginning to work my way through.

One key aspect of what we’re trying to do concerns the reoccurring conceptual dichotomies of individuals and groups. We want to overcome this dichotomy but do so on in a way that resists the temptation to subsume these categorical distinctions into the study of networks. It doesn’t follow from the demonstrably fuzzy character of the boundaries of social movements that they have no status beyond being a construct of the analyst or a collective identity shared by diffuse networks which have undergone a process of mobilisation. We propose to start at the level of social ontology because we think that these underlying ontological questions inevitably inform the methodological ones which guide empirical analysis.

While we agree that, as Gemma Edwards (2014: 142) puts it in her discussion of Melucci’s work, “Constructing a sense of ‘we’ who are against ‘them’ in a conflict over ‘this’, is what social movements have to do in order to be effective at mobilization” (Edwards 2014: 142) we disagree about the understanding of collective identity invoked here. In fact the notion of ‘collective identity’ seems problematic in itself when it is invoked to explain how individuals coalesce into a wider movement. In this sense engaging with Melucci’s work will be crucial to developing our argument. But we think that what seems to be, in work influenced by Melucci and beyond it, a tendency to invoke collective identity can better be explained in terms of a converging evaluative orientation towards relational goods which emerge through situated interaction. As well as Melucci, it will also be important for us to engage with Blumer because, in spite of the problems with collective behaviour theory, we want to argue that events are crucial sites through which social movements are (re)constituted – this may be reproductive (mundane meetings, social events, shared logistical work) and it may be transformative (demonstrations, occupations, encampments).

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 18.16.08

What our approach is orientated towards is registering three distinct dimensions of change (biographies, networks and movements) as well as the role they play in reproducing or changing the internal structure of the social movement. In doing so, we recognise the way in which other social agents can influence the composition of the movement through their effects on individuals, networks or the movement as a whole. The basis of our approach is to look to processes pertaining to networks and individuals, understanding the former to be constituted through the interactions of the latter within a situated milieu (t2-t3), with emergent consequences for individuals and the network of relations obtaining between them (t4). In using this morphogenetic approach, in which the t4 of one cycle is understood to constitute the t1 of another cycle, we attempt to disengage the different features of dynamic processes in a way that respects their dynamism. The exercise is not intended to offer a total theory of a social movement but rather constitute a methodology for the analysis of qualitative data which can help us understand the changes undergone by the informal networks (and the related individuals out of which they are composed) in a way that can be incorporated productively into realist sociology. We’re trying to retrieve the ‘on the ground’ situation, not as an ethnographic addendum, but rather because we think that the ‘grouping and regrouping’ of agency which defines what Archer calls the double morphogenesis needs to be understood in terms of processes arising from its internal constitution as well as those processes arising from the action of the social agent as a collective acting in relation to other collectives and subject to the consequences of those actions as well as the unintended consequences of the broader struggle.

However unless there’s a practical pay off to this abstraction then it’s of questionable value. That’s why the third aspect of our project is likely to be the most time consuming. We want to engage in a series of case studies, likely to be dependent on secondary data unless we can get funding – though we engaged in a digital ethnography (albeit of a rather informal and truncated sort) for our student movements paper – in which we analyse contemporary social movements and make a case for the explanatory gain that ensues from applying this realist theory of social movements.

So this is what I think the project will entail in practice. Note that I’ve switched from ‘we’ to ‘I’ here because I’m newly aware of quite how time consuming what I’m proposing will be:

  1. Critical engagement with existing traditions within social movement theory relating to individuals, networks and collective agents.
  2. Developing an account of the morphogenesis of social movements which builds on Archer’s morphogenetic approach, Archer and Donati’s relational realism and my PhD work on personal morphogenesis.
  3. Elaborating upon the approach through a series of detailed case studies of contemporary social movements.

These notes will likely only extend to the first part of the project. However I’m hoping they’ll be a useful resource for me to consult in later stages of the project, as well as an opportunity for anyone interested in social movement theory to argue with me about my interpretation of the author’s I’m engaging with. In a way social movements are what I always wanted to study most, though didn’t for rather convoluted reasons, so it’s exciting to get started. Much of my interest stems from the way I realise that I’ve been changed by my participation in social movements (particularly the anti-war movement in my late teens and my two stints in anarchist organisations of very different sorts) and it’s this aspect of social movements that I hope we can incorporate into this developing theoretical approach.

What does it mean to talk about the performativity of social movements? The obvious answer is to look to the aspect of performance inherent in the mobilisation of contemporary social movements. In this sense protests and demonstrations can be seen as drawing upon established repertoires of activity, orientated towards an audience, which depend upon certain meanings and also reproduce these meanings through the performances they facilitate. This cultural dimension to social movements enjoys an objectivity over and above its (re)production in collective activity of participants within it. I’m interested in how cultural forms like this song by the King Blues (oh how I miss them) and the accompanying fan video both draw upon this culture but also contribute to it:

I think this is an important aspect to the culture of social movements. I’m not sure how effectively the concept of performativity can capture this. I accept the importance of “small-scale participants’ performances that occur in networked relations” such as “encounters at meetings, planning sessions, recruitment forays, and socializing” as sites “where movement ideas are discussed, elaborated, and ‘performed'” in a way that ‘grounds’ “rationales and motivations for action” (Johnston 2014: 22-23).

But what concerns me about this is the exhaustive focus upon interaction. In my PhD I’ve developed a critique of symbolic interactionism, accepting the importance of interaction for the constitution of relationships and persons but arguing that we need to look at what goes ‘into’ and ‘out’ of social situations. If we only focus on the situated interactions and performances (T2-T3) we obscure the important questions of how persons have been shaped by past interactions (T1) (conditioning what they bring to the present interaction) and how this will shape how they approach future interactions (T4). Obviously sophisticated symbolic interactionists will recognise this but the conceptual repertoire they’re using will inevitably tend towards compression, shutting down the questions of temporal extension through a presentist vocabulary which struggles to support temporal distinctions.

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This isn’t a repudiation of symbolic interactionism but is rather an attempt to engage constructively with it. I think the relational realism of Margaret Archer and Pierpaolo Donati tends, for a variety of reasons, to underplay interaction. Realists can learn about how to better address the T2-T3 from symbolic interactionists. But in doing so, they bring their insights about the T1 and T4 in a way which fleshes out the sociology of the situation.

So when Johnston (2014: 23) talks about the “dense network of performances, macro and micro, through which both the structural sphere and the ideational-interpretative sphere are acted out in real time” I couldn’t be more in agreement about the general direction of thought. I think the micro-social dimensions to social movements do constitute, as he puts it, “the multitudinous building blocks of a movement’s structure and its ideations”. But I want to bring the person more fully into this picture, understanding their trajectories through social movement participation rather than simply focusing on performances. Social movements are made of people, both aggregatively and emergently, in a way which renders individual biography an important unit of analysis. Performances are an important part of what people do and it’s a crucial concept for understanding the unfolding relationships between them within situated contexts. But it is the people who are primary rather than the performances.

Please find below the call for papers for the panel “Social Movements and Memories”, proposed to the ECPR general conference 2014.

Please feel free to distribute this call to interested colleagues.

Please send paper abstracts (max. 250 words) by 26 January 2014

Social Movements and Memorie

Chair: Priska Daphi (Humboldt University Berlin)

Discussant: Lorenzo Zamponi (European University Institute)

Though large protests often surprise observers, they hardly start from scratch. Mostly, they are rooted in previous mobilisations with respect to their diagnostic framing, forms of organisation, and repertoires. Memories of previous mobilisations crucially influence which activities are considered helpful or successful and which are not. Hence, analysing memories allows crucial insights into social movement dynamics and continuity. Memories are, at the same time, outcomes of mobilisation and significant factors in shaping further mobilisation.

In the last few years, the interest in collective memory has been constantly growing among scholars of contentious politics. In this context, memory studies and in particular the sociology of memory based on the seminal work of Maurice Halbwachs, have become fundamental tools in advancing our understanding of social movements. These approaches provide useful insights into the symbolic construction of the reality in which collective action takes place. On the other hand, contentious politics approaches inform the growing number of studies on the conflictual dynamics of memory.

This panel aims to discuss the role of memories in social movements. How does the past and its public representation influence mobilisation? How do social movements participate in the construction of public memory? How and why do some specific events from the past become fundamental symbols for social and political contention, while others do not? How does diffusion of practices, symbols, and repertoires of mobilisation work over time?

We welcome submissions coming from different disciplinary fields, in the attempt to bring together the scholarships on social movements and memory studies. Each abstract will be evaluated for: quality and clarity of the research question; methodological precision of the comparative approach; theoretical originality of the contribution and discussion of available knowledge; relevance and pertinence to the panel’s theme.

We would all agree that social movements are ‘collective’ ventures, for example, but what makes a venture count as collective? Is it a matter of numbers? If so, how many? Is it a matter of a type of interconnection between people, an organization or network? If so, how is that interconnection itself defined? Does ‘wearing the badge’ and ‘buying the T-shirt’ make one part of a movement or must one attend monthly meetings and engage in protest? And if the latter, what counts as protest? Would wearing the aforementioned badge count as a protest or must one stand in a group of three or more people waving a placard? There can be no decisive answers to these questions.

– Nick Crossley, Making Sense of Social Movements, Pg 2

While Crossley is undoubtedly correct about there being ‘no decisive answers’ to these questions, I like this quote because it delineates the contours of the issue: the social movement (macro), the interconnected networks within it (meso) and the varying forms of individual participation (micro) without which there would be no ‘social movement’ but to which the emergent agent cannot be adequately reduced. This is because the activity dependence of the social movement can best be understood in the past tense i.e. the present characteristics of the social movement are emergent from the past (inter)actions of those participating in it. It’s this introduction of temporality, as well as seeing collective agents as ontologically stratified, which precludes the collapse into a structurationist affirmation of social movements being constituted and reconstituted through the activity of the individuals within it.

What really interests me is the possibility of understanding social movements in a way which can incorporate the macro, meso and micro within the same frame of reference: so its nature as a ‘collective venture’ is explained in terms of the ‘interconnections between people’ and the activities which the people so interconnected engage in over time and the variable meanings they attach to this activity. So I guess my broader point is to try and advocate an approach to the ontology of collectives which builds from the ‘bottom up’, understanding the biographical patterns which lead people into patterned interaction towards shared ends but also how past cycles of such interaction led to the emergence of  constraints and enablements on the present interaction of participating individuals.

I confess to not having read more than the initial few pages of Crossley’s book (the first chapter is available for free online here) and, given the themes he addresses in his later work on relational sociology, I suspect there’s a lot which I’ll find useful in developing this line of thought. This is a literature I’m still largely unfamiliar with so I found Crossley’s overview of  two key strands very useful. Though it’s important to note that Crossley observes that the literature is more complex and differentiated than I’m making it sound by quoting these two paragraphs in isolation:

Contemporary retrospective accounts of what the collective behaviour approach entailed tend towards a gruesome caricature, reducing the model to little more than a foil for the newer theories . I do not subscribe to this straw model but it has uses so I will briefly outline it. According to many contemporary accounts (e.g. Oberschall 1973; Tilly
1978; McAdam 1982; Jenkins 1983; McAdam et al. 1988), the collective behaviour approach:

• portrays movement emergence as a reflex response to ‘grievances’, deprivations’, ‘anomie’, ‘structural strains’ or other such forms of hardship. The stereotypical collective behaviour theorist believes that objective hardships are both a necessary and a sufficient cause of protest and movement formation;

• portrays the protests and movements triggered by these hardships as irrational psychological responses; manifestations of ‘mob psychology’ or collective hysteria;

• portrays those who become involved in these ‘mobs’ as (previously) isolated individuals who are often not very well integrated into society;

• lumps social movements together with other assorted forms of ‘collective behaviour’, such as fashions, crazes and panics, without any due consideration for their distinctness and properly ‘political’ nature.


The emergence of the new replacement paradigm has come in a number of stages. Early developments tended to centre upon two key elements. First, a rational actor model of the social agent was appropriated, along with an economistic focus upon exchange relations in social life and the effects of the movement of resources between agents. Second, a structural ‘network’ model of social relations and social life was adopted. With these elements movement theorists from within the ‘resource mobilization’ approach were able to examine the balance of costs, rewards and incentives that provided agents with the motivation to become involved in struggle, and they were able to focus upon the block mobilization of whole communities. Many features of this resource mobilization approach have persisted in American movement analysis but by the 1980s they had been added to by a consideration of the ways in which political systems and processes variously open up and close down opportunities for protest, thereby affecting the flow of activism itself. Rational actors, it was argued, will tend to act when the opportunities for doing so effectively are greatest.

Each seems to be a prime example of what Margaret Archer (2007) calls the ‘two-stage model’ where subjective properties are imputed to agents as a ‘dummy for real and efficacious human subjectivity’. I’m reading Castells at the moment and his recent work could be construed as a much sophisticated instance of the same generic mistake: bringing subjective concerns (‘outrage’ and ‘hope’) into the account but doing so in an excessively psychologistic fashion.

Two-stage model:

  1. Structural and/or cultural properties objectively shape the situations that agents confront involuntarily and exercise powers of constraint and enablement in relation to –
  2. Subjective properties imputed to agents and assumed to govern their actions:
  • promotion of vested interests (critical realism)
  • instrumental rationality (rational choice theory)
  • habitus/induced repertoires (Bourdieu / discourse theory)

Three-stage model:

  1. Structural and cultural properties objectively shape the situations that agents confront involuntarily, and inter alia, possess generative powers of constraint and enablement in relation to –

  2. Subjects’ own constellations of concerns, as subjectively defined in relation to the three orders of natural reality: nature, practice and the social.

  3. Courses of action are produced through the reflexive deliberations of subjects who subjectively determine their practical projects in relation to their objective circumstances.