Online meetings as skeuomorphs – the old pathologies imported, affordances not afforded (cyber)space

If you suck at designing and facilitating meatspace meetings, then – everything else being equal – you are probably going to suck big hairy dog’s balls at online meetings.

Is it just me? (1) Am I the only one who has been in several really painfully bad online meetings during this lockdown?  Where the organisers clearly have given NO THOUGHT to what could or should be different. They’ve just shifted their dismal “in real life” formats over to Zoom. And guess what, they’re still dismal! Hoodathunkit?  But as long as the invited guest speakers get to treat everyone as ego-fodder, as long as the punters can feel they were close to Wisdom, or that they’re not losing touch, then everyone seems happy.

It’s as if the opportunities of online spaces (I’ll come back to them) are being very very consciously ignored.  There’s something skeuomorphic – the online meetings consciously replicating/signalling their continuity with the old formats which, well have nostalgia and soothe value (if not use value).

Why?  Again, trying to think systematically rather than continuing the Fundamental Attribution Error of ascribing cowardice/laziness/stupidity.

  • Most organisers are not familiar with what online meetings might offer
  • Most organisers are not willing to take the risk of innovating at the best of times, and right now, it’s not the best of times. (insert rant about fear eating the soul, helmet fires yadda yadda).
  • Most organisers are under no selection pressure to DO BETTER.  Any old crap will do at the minute (insert rant about the smugosphere) because most punters have never had better, and would be reluctant to demand it in these times when everyone is (understandably and rightly) cutting other folks lots of slack.

Okay, now I have got my tokenistic and  entirely abstract compassion tokens sorted: this.

DO BETTER, YOU FUCKERS.

At the least

  • Ask yourself: why gather people together for an hour and spend the first third of that asking them to, in effect, watch a youtube together? Srsly.  Have your speakers pre-record and upload their initial statements. That way they are not speaking off the cuff, they can be kept to time. Tell everyone to watch the damn things before. Most will, some won’t.
  • Be concise and clear in your opening statements. There is no excuse for waffling, and the consequences for it are HIGHER online, imo.
  • Encourage people to use the ‘chat’ function.  That is what it is there for (affordances schmafordances). This is NOT like a meatspace meeting where the chattering will be disruptive.  It’s an online meeting. Only Connect, as that old English dude said.
  • If you are going to go into breakout groups, then have the instructions for this  – what it is you are expecting each group to do – on a slide.
  • For any reporting back, ask the groups to make a slide of their own, rather than verbal feedback. People can read faster than they can listen.
  • Think about having a googledoc to which people can properly add comments in real time, reading suggestions etc.  The “chat with everyone” function is okay, but it is inaccessible once the meeting is over.  You can edit/polish the googledoc, before the rest of the world sees it, to remove anything libellous/confusing etc.
  • DO A POSTMORTEM. Ask people who leave early to tell you why they did.  Have a mechanism for everyone to give anonymous feedback (the only kind worth collecting.)
  • ITERATE> INNOVATE> ALWAYS IN BETA>  THIS IS THE WORLD WIDE WEB, PEOPLE.
  • Oh, and if your organisation is named after someone super super SUPER cool, but unjustly obscure, then explain who they are. The world really does need to know.

 

Yes, I am going to “put up”.  The group I am involved in is going to start to do more regular online meetings.  We will get things wrong, obvs. But at least we will be trying to actually use the technology in less grotesquely inadequate ways than I’ve described above. FFS.

 

Footnotes

(1) That’s a semi-rhetorical question. I know very few people who share my vocal, vehement, vivid disdain for suboptimal (“shitty”) meetings.  There should be more, but most people seem to shrug their shoulders and say ‘this is the way it’s always been’.  While calling for fundamental immediate transformations of our polity and economy. Go figure.

On the tribal barriers to cat-belling

Think in systems, dammit.

When I am frustrated (i.e. always) with the “left” endlessly reheating and repeating the same things (“wasn’t  1970s social democracy great?”, “the main problem is we don’t have enough diverse voices” (1) ) through truly wretched online events that are every bit as stultifying and wrist-slashingly excruciating as their meatspace equivalents, I often – through laziness and stupidity – ascribe the failures of others to laziness or stupidity.

But think in systems, dammit.

If you WERE to say, for example

“part of the problem we need to think about is that our shopping list of the ways the world ‘should’ be won’t get us there, but that people can gain and maintain status simply by repeating this shopping list.  They get brownie points for doing so, because we are so keen to hear their soothing words, and they are our bosses, and we are, ultimately, wanting to be saved by bosses.  We are like the sheep in Animal Farm, hoping for a better kind of pig, while still incanting the all animals are equal thing.”

Well, three things would happen

a) you’d open yourself up to criticism for having done your own shopping-list incanting in the past (and people rarely really like to open themselves up, unless they are particularly neurotic), and the fatal question “well, why should we listen to YOU then?”

b) you’d be implicitly (explicitly) rebuking your chums, including probably the people who organised this event and invited you to be on the panel (so, this might be your last panel for a while or -checks notes – for fucking EVER.)

c) you’d be implicitly (explicitly) rebuking those in the audience for having taken false comfort in shopping lists in the past.  They won’t thank you for that condemnation. Fur monkey may have no milk, but she’s got fur, fur goodness sake.   Life under ecocidal capitalism is already quite uncomfortable enough without some wannabe whistle-blower adding to it.  So, the questions will be hostile, the invites to speak at other events will dry up, your books won’t get read, your tweets won’t get retweeted. Siberia beckons.

So far so banal.  If a culture doesn’t have homeo-dynamic mechanisms for keeping within certain parameters, it’s not really a culture is it? Throw in some (rightful) righteous indignation and cognitive limitations (Kahneman Thinking Fast blah blah) and you’ve sort of explained why the key question of ‘what do we need to do DIFFERENTLY so that we have a chance of getting a different result?’ rarely gets answered (though often – as at a recent terrible-content, good-format/facilitation Zoom – gets asked.)

Somehow though, this isn’t satisfying me.  We “ought” to be better at this. We are supposed to be the ones who can challenge power. But do we use up all our courage and cortex in spotting the obvious, and then hunker down?  Do we find new tin gods to worship, and then let them rule us?

Or is it just so damn hard to think of ways that the incredibly embedded/entrenched/tooled-up status quo (that is endlessly capable of adapting/defending itself – T1000, not T800) could be defeated, that we retreat into soothing lullabies and never face any real challenge from the audience to sing a different song?

I will try, for what it is worth, to

a) have more compassion for those with nothing to say who say it at great length and to relatively great acclaim

b) understand the dynamics/incentives that keep them in place, and keep them from actually trying to answer the ‘who will bell the cat?’ question

c) provide clear cat-belling ideas and then implement them as best I can at a local level

d) obey the Cocker Protocol, in these dark, nay, shitty days

 

Footnotes

(1) For the sake of clarity: I am not – of course –  disputing that we need more diverse voices. What I am disputing is that if they are saying the same banal and info-deficit things that the middle class white men are saying, we (collectively) are not actually any further ahead. And I would very much like us to be collectively further ahead.

Of activist self-care and the need to think in systems and #Freud #Darwin etc

I attended portions of a zoom seminar this morning on “activist self-care.” Portions not because I flounced (this, as those who know me will attest, does happen) but because of technological issues and my steam-powered laptop not letting me into the break-out groups.  So my “criticism” of the seminar (which was on the whole good!) is constrained by that – maybe they got to what I want to say, but it didn’t look that way.  Here’s my two cents on what was “wrong” and what “we” (who that?) would need to put it “right” (and that, is, of course, a process not an event).

The structure of the seminar – and therefore the intelligent and compassionate contributions from those attending – was very much coming from an individual ‘coping’ strategy – the world is in a terrible state, and those who want to help unterribilise it are going to experience frustration, excessive demands (from others) and themselves.

The contributions (therefore) centred very much on ‘taking time away’, ‘having a buddy’, ‘delegating’, ‘breaking tasks down’ .  These are ALL EXCELLENT AND ALL NECESSARY.

But also very inadequate. Because many people, for whatever reasons, can’t do those things. If they could, there’d be no need for these seminars.  And in any case, there is an elephant in the room – which I mentioned in the chat function, but nobody responded to it, at least in the time I was on the call. It’s this:

There are pathological cultures and assumptions within “activism”.  Until we recognise these, talk about them, and try to do something about them, then we are stuck with “coping strategies” akin to telling victims of domestic violence – “don’t do anything to set him off.”  We need to think in systems here.

So, let’s take the eminently suggestible suggestion of ‘delegate’ as a way in to what I mean.

You could look at this from a psychoanalytic point of view (and I would recommend that as a starting point). Why DON’T people delegate? Well, when you delegate you lose control.  And in this world, control – or the illusion of control – is something most of us struggle to have.  We want to believe that we are brave, dedicated people who can rise to the challenges of being citizens in the 21st century. We know that there are many many people in far worse situations than ourselves, and we want to believe in our own power to overcome our doubts, our fears (Samuel Johnson wrote brilliantly about this in an essay called “What Have Ye Done?“)

There’s also the status issue – if you are known in your group(s) as The Person Who Does That Thing (be it the website, the lobbying, the coach-booking, the facilitating), well, delegating will lessen your status, if the delegation succeeds. And if the delegation does NOT succeed (and it often does not), your status will take a hit, as will your morale. David Rovics kinda nails it in “I’m a better anarchist than you“.

So we can’t talk about delegation, really, until we talk about the culture within most activist groups that accountability for performance, and respect for expertise, is somehow Hierarchical, Capitalistic, Oppressive, Fascistic etc.  We all know people who are able to scoot along the edges (or even near the middle) of activist groups through charisma, optimism and other forms of social capital, but who either often don’t do what they said they would, or who do it badly (either through laziness/lack of focus or because they’re not actually quite as good at something as they, or others, think they are).  And this can persist  for… (checks notes) … indefinitely because the structures of accountability and performance assessment are essentially absent in activist groups.  Until you “fix” that, only somebody who doesn’t care about their own morale or status, or the achievement of group goals, is going to delegate. Such a person is probably not really an activist, no?

Related to this – the question of breaking down a task into its component parts was suggested. YES. Good idea. But again – who is going to be the person checking in that a sub-task was actually done, in the timescale that matters, to the level required? This is going to require project management, volunteer management, time management and diplomacy skills that most of us lack most of the time, and cannot often deploy when we are tired, frustrated, etc.

Ultimately, there are few if any selection pressures (this is where the Darwin from the blogpost’s comes in).  Individuals are aware that activist groups are so low on numbers, and lack accountability mechanisms that can be activated (I hesitate to type the word ‘enforced’) that a certain amount of free-riding is inevitable.

Now, the term ‘free-riding’ is of course offensive. It suggests that the “real” reason people don’t participate fully is that they have made a deliberate calculation that they will be able to get away with not doing what they are supposed to while still getting the benefits (of being in a group). In the vast majority of cases, I think, the reasons for under/non-performance are to be found in the group culture (lack of mentoring, lack of a specific job description, fear of outshining others etc) rather than in cold calculation.

 

So, unless groups are able to ask the following questions of themselves, and provide real answers, then the individual-coping-mechanisms stuff, while necessary, is ultimately totally insufficient.

  • Does our group have a clear sense of what its mission is in the next few months?
  • Is this mission realistic? (This can only be known when you know what resources – skills, knowledge, relationships, stability – your group has. Most groups don’t know this, so cannot answer this question!)
  • What are the mechanisms by which our group measures whether any given task is being done effectively and efficiently?
  • What are the support mechanisms in the group to help people who are struggling with the promise-delivery issue?
  • Can these mechanisms be accessed by everyone, or are they really only available to the popular people in the group?
  • What are the accountability mechanisms for dealing with persistent cases of under/non-performance (no, not an accusatory Star Chamber, an exercising in one-upmanship. But at some point, if someone is consistently not delivering and it is hurting the momentum, morale and credibility of the group, failure to take action is actually a decision to fail.)
  • What collective resilience,  collective morale maintenance mechanisms are in place for this group?  (this does NOT mean compulsory singalongs).

 

For what it is worth, the group I am part of – Climate Emergency Manchester – is developing or has developed answers to many of these questions. We’re working on an “Active Citizenship Toolkit” to help ourselves and others with these questions, and others.

 

Economists, the post-coronavirus world and that cat in need of belling.

Let’s start with the joke. No, I don’t mean the last 10 years of non-dealing with climate change at a local authority level. That’s not funny.  Let’s start with this:

A physicist, a chemist and an economist are stranded on a desert island, with a large can of soup.

The physicist says “We could drop it from the top of that tree over there. The kinetic energy involved will make it break open.”

The chemist says “We could build a fire and sit the can in the flames until it bursts open.”

Those two squabble a bit, until the economist says “No, no, no. Come on, guys, you’d lose most of the soup. Let’s just assume a can opener.”

Okaaay.   And?

And this. Without exception, all the articles I have seen about the post-coronavirus world and how it could be a wonderful place (nature is returning, after all) are as deluded and hand-wavy as the economist.

They assume the existence of what is needed to Make the Good Things Happen.

They assume that policymakers are going to put the long-term ahead of the short, the needs of their species (and let’s not even bother to speak of other species) over the people who are in their ears, in their faces, whose pockets they in turn are in, mentally and financially.  They assume that somehow the tragic trajectory of the last 50ish years – of states realising that the problems of the modern world are too tricky for the post-war planning assumptions to hold (academics call this reflexive modernisation. It’s one of the useful bits of conceptual toolkit you might wanna grok) – no longer matter, can be wished away.

Or they assume that there is a vibrant, connected, resilient set of civil society actors – unions, community groups, academics, students, think tanks, church groups etc etc – just champing at the bit, waiting to force through the policies and bolster the institutions (in both senses) that will Make the Good Things Happen.

Uh, no.  This is to make the economist seem wedded to the reality principle.

It Just. Is. Not. So.  There are reasons for this, to do with the hierarchies, secrecies of ‘normal’ states, and with the prolonged, determined and sophisticated attack on democratic structures that flies under the banner “neoliberalism”.  If we do not admit that this is the case, what is the actual point?

We might get some twitter shares for our latest glossy well-meaning and well-written report, that lays out a coherent set of things that SHOULD happen.  But if it is not answering the basic question –

How do we open the can (of whoopass on the status quo actors)?

then we are not any further forward, we are, in fact, further behind.

Who. Is. Going. To. Bell. The. Bloody. Cat?  If you don’t have an answer to that, if you are pretending that question can be assumed away, why don’t you do everyone a favour and shut your cakehole? You’re just taking up bandwidth.

Interview with Rosemary Randall, psychoanalyst and author of brilliant #climate novel “Transgression”

A superb novel about climate activism (and much more) was released earlier this year. It is by Rosemary Randall, a retired psychoanalyst who has written a great deal (of extremely useful) work on the psychodynamics of meetings, and on climate change. You can read a 2013 interview I conducted with her for Manchester Climate Monthly.
A review of Transgression (ordering details at the foot of this interview) will appear soon (I would gush too much about it, so I have asked Dr Sarah Irving to read and review it).

1. “Transgression” is your first novel – can you say a bit about how it came about, what you hope readers will take away?

The genesis of the novel was strange. The plot and characters appeared, pretty much fully formed, in my mind when I came round from a major operation three years ago. It was as if the anaesthetic or perhaps the morphine had released something from thetransgression cover unconscious. More generally however, the novel deals with political events and experiences that had a big impact on me personally. Although these events – the political agitation in the run-up to Copenhagen and the devastating failure of the negotiations – are only ten years ago I’ve been struck by how much of that period has been forgotten in the grim grind of austerity. Most of the people I meet in XR for example are completely unaware of their predecessors, of the size of the climate movement of that time and of its successes (the near-closure of the UK coal industry, the rejection of a third runway at Heathrow for example) as well as the failures. The (in my view misguided) idea of some in XR that everything that went before was useless probably has something to do with this. But many of those involved at that time were angry, clever, inventive and innovative and many of the techniques used by XR were honed and developed by those who were involved in the earlier period. It was also a time when the whole movement was much broader and more connected I think, with more overlap between people engaged in different aspects or approaches. My aim in writing the novel was primarily to tell a story however and I hope that what readers will take away is the satisfaction that comes when you read a novel that speaks to you in some way.

2.  It’s obvious where you got the knowledge for the psychoanalysis scenes, but the activist scenes read pretty well too – for instance you’re particularly strong on the emotions around big actions and meetings, both “positive” and negative” –   how did you do the research for them?

Over the years I’ve talked a lot with my son and his partner and some of their friends about their involvement in the kind of climate activism that features in the novel, so that was the primary source, along with my own involvement with more community based action where there was a lot of overlap between people taking part in direct action and people doing more conventional stuff. Something which provided additional background was a piece of research I did which explored the quite different emotional experiences of climate activists and climate scientists. The characters however are the products of my imagination. When you write fiction you become a thief – you steal stuff from everyone you know – an incident that your transform, a personality trait that finds its way into a character for instance – but most of this happens unconsciously. Once a character has formed in your mind, that character writes themselves. The actual incidents – climate camp, the ambush of the train, the occupation of the open-cast mine for example – are a mash-up of events that actually happened but transposed in place and time. If you were there you will probably identify what I’ve drawn on and be either pleased or irritated at what I’ve done with it.

3.  There are some characters (no spoilers) who are particularly caught up in their own views of the world, who don’t seem to be able see things from anyone else’s point of view, and thus do quite a lot of damage to those they purport to love and serve.   They are also the most prominent (but by no means only!) male characters – was that a conscious (!) decision?

Thomas (the transgressive psychotherapist) is perhaps an amalgam of all the bad men I’ve ever known, all the male arrogance, all the sense of entitlement, all the blindness to reality. I did want him to seem real however and I hope that the reader gets glimpses of another side to him. Similarly with Jake, I wanted the reader to see how powerful self-deception and self-duplicity can be as well as how destructive. I hoped that some of the other male characters – Felix for instance with his wounded sensitivity, or Stefan with his skilled good sense – would provide another side to the portrayal of masculinity.

4.  We’re ten years on now from the events in the book – either side of the Copenhagen conference and the revelation that the UK environment movement was riddled with police spies.  Any plans to revisit the same characters, or to write another novel in light of the deteriorating situation?

A number of people have asked me what happens to the characters in the novel and how I would write a sequel but at present I don’t have any plans to follow them up. I suspect that their later lives might be much less interesting than the events of ‘Transgression’. Felix and Clara in particular are at a turning point in life, they have all the hope of youth and face all the disappointment of a bitter political reality. I’m not sure I could write the sequel to that at present.

The current deteriorating climate situation is of course so inflected by the Covid-19 crisis that it feels much too early to be able to put anything intelligent into words of any kind, let alone fiction – but who knows. At the moment I’m working on another novel which is set during the cold war and maybe by the time I’ve discovered whether that one will work and whether I can finish it I will find it in myself to write more fiction about the climate crisis.

5. Anything else you’d like to say?

There’s been a lot of fiction written about the kind of future we might face as a result of climate change, most of it understandably dystopian and I’ve often wished that there was more fiction about what this issue feels like now, what it feels like to live it. Although ‘Transgression’ is set a little bit in the past my hope is that it gives imaginative space to what it feels like to be involved politically in this most desperate of issues. So much of what people talk to me about at present is the same as what people felt ten and fifteen years ago – the anger, the distress, the anxiety, the sense of your world being reshaped, the need to throw over your existing life and commit yourself, the fear that we will not succeed in stopping this. There was perhaps a little more hope then but the devastation that came with Copenhagen and the imposition of austerity was immense, greater than anything I’ve seen since. So perhaps my hope is that as well as creating a good story I’ve given space for some of the feelings and experiences of the climate movement to be validated imaginatively.

 

'Transgression' is now available, £2.50 Kindle, £6.99 paperback.
https://www.amazon.co.uk/s?k=Rosemary+Randall+Transgression&i=stripbooks&ref=nb_sb_noss 
Also available direct via www.rorandall.org

Activism, patriarchy and still saying goodbye to all that 50-ish years on…

Dr Manuel Cervera-Marzal, the author of  a book chapter – “Ordinary Resistance to Masculine Domination in a Civil Disobedience Movement” – very kindly sent me a copy of his work.  It’s … really good, and everyone doing activist work should read it. It escapes that most common of academic-studying-activists traps,  the uncritical puff-piece extolling the ‘grassroots/blockadia’.  In fact, it doesn’t just escape this trap, but shows how a critical reading of the rhetoric-reality gaps can be done. It is based on participant observation and interviews he did in a French civil disobedience group “Les Refuseurs.”  It’s pretty painful reading (men will wince, women will seethe).

The article is clearly written, and clearly argued.  While it might be possible to quibble over some interpretations, the big picture is surely indisputable.

“While the comments collected through the interviews present activist work as shared out in an egalitarian fashion, observation in the field reveals the gendered character of this distribution. The Refuseurs continue to assign traditionally female tasks – domestic and affective – and positions – subaltern, devalued and invisibilised – to women…. Buying materials, preparing and serving meals, tidying and washing up are carried out by women in the vast majority of situations…. Some of these domestic tasks are subaltern tasks. This is true of cleaning the premises, which a woman does by herself for an entire day because the leader of the group asked her to. Most tasks involving implementation fall to women while the men monopolise decision-making functions. The latter determine the collective’s agenda themselves (which actions? on what subject? with what demands?) and its political line (management of the Facebook page, supervision of the pamphlets and books edited by the collective).”

There’s also good stuff the resistance of the women – which mostly involves (in the short term) work-to-rules, strategic deafness and in the longer term, voting with their feet…  And the (male) leadership are (wilfully?) blind to this –

“Among the Refuseurs, the disengagement (Fillieule, 2005; Bennani-Chraibi, 2009) of women is always individual, intentional and, almost always, silent. The female activists from the hard core leave without warning, without explanation and without a trace.”

Reading it I was constantly thinking of two things

a) Robin Morgan‘s seminal essay of January 1970, when women took over the New York underground/alternative newspaper ‘Rat’. She wrote ‘Goodbye to All That’, naming names about the sexist Male Left.

b) The essay, from the same year, by Jo Freeman – “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” for its understanding that power is more supple than we give it credit for

c) The importance of this topic within the ‘Climate Citizenship’ programme that Climate Emergency Manchester is embarking on.

Office-Sexism-Women-Business-Relationships-Cartoons-Punch-Magazine-Riana-Duncan-1988-01-08-11
h/t to Dr Termagant, who pointed me to this cartoon, all those years ago…

There’s lots of intriguing looking references, mostly to French literature (one exception is Parlee M. 1989, “Conversational Politics. In Feminist Frontiers II, New York: McGraw-Hill)

“Activist organisations do not just welcome people in as they are; they are themselves places of socialisation “(Bargel, 2008) that fashion their members’ habitus through the political training they offer them (Ethan, 2003) or, in a more informal way, through activist sociability (Yon, 2005).

Bargel, J. 2008, Aux Avant-postes. La socialisation au métier politique dans deux organisations de jeunesse de partis. Jeunes populaires (UMP) et Mouvement des jeunes socialistes (PS), PhD in political science, Université Paris-I-Panthéon-Sorbonne

Ethuin N. 2003, “De l’idéologisation de lengagement communiste. Fragments dune enquête sur les écoles du PCF (1970-1990)”. In Politix, 63: 145-168

collective reflexivity and “gender awareness” (Varikas, 1991; Achin & Naudier, 2010)

Achin C., Naudier D. 2010, “Trajectoires de femmes ordinaires dans les années 1970. La fabrique de la puissance d’agir féministe”. In Sociologie, 1: 77-93

Varikas E. 1991, “Subjectivité et identité de genre. Lunivers de l’éducation féminine dans la Grèce au XIXe siècle”. In Genèses, 6: 29-51

“As the author of a research dissertation on the political sociology of activism, Thierry knows Daniel Gaxie’s famous article. He knows that devotion to a cause is generally not enough to maintain activist engagement. Engagement is even better able to strengthen itself to the extent that it provides those who engage with individual rewards, both material and symbolic (Gaxie, 1977).”

Gaxie D. 1977, “Economie des partis et rétributions du militantisme”. In Revue Française de Science Politique, 27/1: 123-154

6 articles in search of an author to write about them

The tl:dr – six more articles, each with something of use for scholars or activists (and sometimes, for both). You should know the drill by now (one, two, three).

Edwards G (2008) ‘The Lifeworld’ as a resource for social movement participation and the consequences of its colonization. Sociology 42(2): 299–316.

Horton, J., & Kraftl, P. (2009). Small acts, kind words and ‘not too much fuss’: Implicit activisms. Emotion Space and Society, 2, 14–23.

Jones, A. (2017). Housing choices in later life as unclaimed forms of housing activism. Contemporary Social Science, 12(1–2). doi:10.1080/21582041.2017.1334127

King DS (2006) Activists and emotional reflexivity: Toward Touraine’s subject as social movement. Sociology 40(5): 873–891.

McAdam, D. (1992) Gender as a mediator of the activist experience: the case of Freedom Summer, American Journal of Sociology, 97(5), pp. 1211–1240.

McPherson, J. M. (1983) An ecology of affiliation, American Sociological Review, 48(4), pp. 519 –532.

 

Edwards (2008:299) writes

“Social networks, collective identities, and cultural formations have been seen as key resources shaping participation in social movements. These three types of resources map on to what Habermas calls ‘the lifeworld’: society, personality, and culture. Combining theoretical and empirical observations, I look at how the lifeworld can be viewed as a resource for social movement participation, and the consequences of its colonization. I … argue that the colonization of schools results in an erosion of ‘lifeworld resources’ necessary for the mobilization of trade unionists in the current UK context.”

This she did via interviews with trades unionists, some of whom get misty-eyed about ‘the good old days’ of mass meetings (without ever seeming to reflect on the ego-foddering).  There’s useful stuff on Habermas/Mead –

“Habermas is arguing that the ‘intersubjective coordination of actions’ relies upon ‘membership in social groups’ and the ‘integration of those same groups’, as well as upon shared stocks of cultural knowledge (p. 137). In turn, participation in interaction, as Mead pointed out, socializes younger members into the values of the group and provides them with ‘capacities for action’ within it (Habermas, 1987: 137).”

(Edwards, 2008:303)

and the importance of having a picture when you can get them all to fit…

“Drawing upon past memories meant that these members could place the current issues of membership non-participation in historical context, seeing them as part of the ‘ebbs and flows’ that, as Tarrow (1998) argues, mark any movement’s trajectory. The memories of the movement do not have to remain solely for those who were involved, however. Through communicative interaction, they can be shared collectively amongst union members in the present context.

“They can provide a collective, as well as personal, pool of cultural resources which can be drawn upon by members in times of abeyance. Habermas himself saw the importance of collective memories for social movements, arguing that without symbolic representation of past struggles, the sacrifices involved are not only lost, but those who come later ‘can have no idea of who they are’ (1986: 139–40).”

(Edwards, 311-312)

There’s good stuff in here on a survey of why people don’t attend meetings (nobody volunteers ‘because they are crap/an opportunity for the elites to treat everyone else like ego-fodder/a rubber-stamp for what is already decided’).

shite meetings edwards 2008

Ultimately though, nobody seems to admit that the “left” is pretty good at colonising its own bleeding lifeworld, without much help from the usual suspects. So it goes.

Horton & Kraftl, (2009) are out to screw with your idea of what an “activist” is. They write

“Social scientists’ accounts of ‘activism’ have too often tended to foreground and romanticise the grandiose, the iconic, and the unquestionably meaningful, to the exclusion of different kinds of ‘activism’. Thus, while there is a rich social-scientific literature chronicling a social history of insurrectionary protests and key figures/thinkers, we suggest that there is more to ‘activism’ (and there are more kinds of ‘activism’) than this. In short, we argue that much can be learnt from what we term implicit activisms which – being small-scale, personal, quotidian and proceeding with little fanfare – have typically gone uncharted in social-scientific understanding of ‘activism’…..

“We suggest that these interviews extend and unsettle many social-scientific accounts of ‘activism’ in three key senses. First: in evoking the specific kinds of everyday, personal, affective bonds which lead people to care. Second: in evoking the kinds of small acts, words and gestures which can instigate and reciprocate/reproduce such care. And third: in suggesting how such everyday, affective bonds and acts can ultimately constitute political activism and commitment, albeit of a kind which seeks to proceed with ‘not too much fuss’.

(Horton & Kraftl,2009:14)

This is a stonkingly good overview, and has lots of numbered lists (I am a sucker for these) like these two –

Rather than viewing particular emotions (such as anger) as a ‘resource’ for activism, or an outcome of particular activist practices, we demonstrate how constellations of feeling may, sometimes, spill over into activist tendencies that are quite unanticipated and un-planned (as noted by Martin et al., 2007).

i) A tendency to prioritise actions which are dramatic, iconic, totemic, ‘‘glamorous and heroic’’ (Pile and Keith, 1997: xi), even ‘‘salvational’’ (Lyman, 1995: 397).

ii) A tendency to prioritise actions which leave a readily-representable legacy….

iii) A tendency to orient accounts of activism around key events or actions (see also point viii), and/or around the agency of key leaders, thinkers or ideologues. Such an approach has often had the effect of problematically over-simplifying the complex, contingent contexts, temporalities and causal happenings which produce(d) such events (McCarthy and McMillan, 2003)….

iv) A tendency to focus, almost exclusively, upon activism which is explicitly linked to broader social movements and/or ‘-isms’ (see della Porta and Diani, 1999; Scott, 1990)….

v) A tendency to understand activism – and/or being activist – as an unconditional state: an identity, mindset, standpoint or self-aware commitment. Thus, there is a tendency to overlook the complex, ambiguous blurrings and (dis)connections between any individual’s ‘activism’ and everyday life (as critiqued by Brown, 2007; Pickerill and Chatterton, 2006), and indeed to assume and sustain this ‘between’, despite efforts to move beyond this position (Anderson, 2004)….

vi) A tendency to (re)produce a particular understanding of power, a particular version of resistance and, therefore, a particular politics. A tendency to over-simplify assumptions about political power and resistance – most often manifest as an implicit model of ‘‘resistance in implacable opposition to ‘power’’’ (Pile, 1997: 1) – has been widely criticised….. A related habit is a tendency to be cautious, and somewhat exclusionary, in delimiting what counts as resistance or activism. As Pile (1997: 14–15) suggests,

‘‘[p]otentially, the list of acts of resistance is endless – everything from foot-dragging to walking, from sit-ins to outings, from chaining oneself up in tree-tops to dancing the night away, [etc.,]. Here, of course, lies a problem: if resistance can be found in the tiniest act – a single look, a scratch in a desk – then how is resistance to be identified as a distinctive practice?’’ (our parentheses).

Pile (1997) and Thrift (1997, 2000) suggest that many social scientists have tended to reconcile this latter problem by implicitly limiting considerations of ‘resistance’ to those forms of deliberate, agentic activism which (most often as part of a social movement) explicitly address major, unequivocal contemporary societal ills. But surely, they imply, there is more to activism – and there are more kinds of activism – than this? For example, in their discussion of women’s activism, Martin et al. (2007) provide several indications that there are. They discuss how what we term ‘implicit activisms’ in this paper are fostered (sometimes unintentionally) via contingent, everyday practices that often – at first glance – look little like either oppositional kinds of resistance, or deliberate, agentic activism.

 

I am still unconvinced (but then again, may not have read them carefully enough): surely activism can/must be thought of/defined dialectically – if you’re not on the radar as a potential threat, then it might still be activism, but rather than implicit is it not irrelevant? (the Man don’t need your love)

Then again, they are clearly smart cookies, and have done some serious thinking –

In closing, we want to complicate our two-fold theorisation of the relationship between emotion and activism by tentatively sketching a conceptual framework for further forays into implicit activisms. From our empirical analysis and critical reading of activist literatures, we discern seven styles or modes of being which distinguish implicit activisms of the kind witnessed in this paper from those more commonly cited by social scientists. In so doing, we seek to emphasise the differences between ‘implicit activisms’ and ‘other activisms’; but this schema is not to be read as a totalising attempt to foreclose alternative explanations of activism. The following points are one way in to the messiness of implicit activisms, not a way out.

First, implicit activisms are often modest. In distinction to ‘glamorous’ or spectacular forms of activism (Carter, 2005; Pile and Keith, 1997), the moments and movements entailed in reaching out to non-users of the Sure Start Centre are virtually indistinguishable from the types of caring that proceed at the Centre on a daily basis.

Second, implicit activisms often leave little (representational) trace.

Third, implicit activisms are often non-totemic. Many accounts of activism are orientated around ‘key’ figures: events, thinkers or actions (see, for instance, Zeilig and Ansell, 2008). Contrastingly, Sure Start activisms did not (yet) organise themselves around any ‘key’ figures or leader.

Fourth, implicit activisms are often tenuously connected to philosophical positions (or –isms).

Fifth, implicit activisms do not often constitute an identity.

Sixth, implicit activisms often scramble the power relations involved in activism. Whilst many social-scientific accounts of activism focus upon interrogating (or dismantling) the power/ resistance couplet, the absence of any overt, active kinds of resistance at Sure Start demands an exploration of what else might be constituted by activism vis-à-vis ‘power’.

Seventh, implicit activisms are often conditional. Activism is traditionally viewed as a straightforwardly intentional act directed towards a particular end. Understood in this way, emotions either become resources for activism, or conceived as more-or-less significant components of activism-in-practice. Yet,we are not sure that it is always so easy to discern precisely where activism comes from, and ends.

Need to chew on this (i.e. re-read and think about more carefully.)  What IS activism?  Who “counts” as an activist? Says who? on what basis? With what consequences (political, empirical etc)

Jones(2017) is raiding broader research, honing in on two particular interviews. Her concerns are similar to those of Horton and Kraftl-

“Analyses of social movements continue to talk of successful strategies and ‘famous activists’ (Goodwin & Jasper, 2014) and banner-waving on the streets is a common image of activism. Certain forms of housing activism, such as campaigns to defend social housing in London, are being rightfully made more visible through academic engagement with community groups and journalistic exposure (Minton, 2012; Watt & Minton, 2016) and new alliances are being made all the time as the housing crisis in London deepens (Humphry, 2016).

However, such visible forms of organised activism contrast with quieter acts of resistance. In Interview 4’s housing pathway, domestic parenting responsibilities were inter-woven with her politics and it was impossible to disentangle these from her agential housing choices. Such domestic responsibilities have been neglected as spheres in which political and housing activism takes place (Brickell, 2012a). Brickell has argued for recognition of activism in the private domain of the home rather than just in the public domain (Brickell, 2012b, 2014).”

(Jones, 2017: xx)

 

King  (2006) is similar to Jones – honing in on a couple of people interviewed as part of a broader project, in this case the whole ‘co-counselling’/re-evaluation counselling thing, popular in some circles. King’s dataset is Australian peaceniks.  She’s using Touraine (one of the grand old men of New Social Movements) and his ‘de-integration’ schtick (punching holes in the walls of reality, and using the bricks for … better purposes…)

For Touraine, the Subject is late modernity’s agent of change. Capable of actively producing society, this Subject constructs itself and exists in the space between social integration and deintegration, what Touraine calls commitment and non-commitment (1995: 282–6). Thus while it is recognized that the Subject exists within a plethora of discourses and structures which influence the ways in which they become integrated into society, the process of de-integration is seen as essential if the subject is to develop a ‘will to act and to be recognized as an actor’ (1995: 207). Without deintegration, individuals would simply be caught in the web of discourses and social structures that merely reproduce society.

(King, 2006: 874)

There’s a nice lit review on emotions in social movements –

“The salience of emotions to social activism is being increasingly recognized (Aminzade and McAdam, 2002; Goodwin et al., 2000, 2001; Melucci, 1996). Within this area, the social constructivist view of emotions (Armon-Jones, 1986; Harre, 1986) has been applied to social movements to examine the relevance of concepts such as emotion culture (Taylor, 2000; Taylor and Rupp, 2002), emotional achievement (Yang, 2000), emotional habitus (Calhoun, 2001), emotional labour (Groves, 1995) and emotion work (Gould, 2002; Perry, 2002). From these studies it is evident that the ways in which emotions are constructed, managed, manipulated and reconstructed are important for understanding patterns of engagement in social movements by activists. In this article, I argue that activists also engage in practices of emotional reflexivity, and that these practices enable them to both sustain their activism and act creatively in producing society.”

(King, 2006:876)

and a critique of dick-swinging (though self-martyrdom in other forms doesn’t get so much of a look in)

There’s a real culture of activism that lines up with the masculine culture of not feeling anything, not needing to feel anything, being strong, being tough and being committed. That you don’t feel anything or at least, if you do, you don’t show it … In fact, in the social change circles that I move in, the idea that soft, fluffy, squishy stuff like talking about feelings has ABSOLUTELY no place in the movement, is very prevalent … You know, if you have that idea that toughness is what makes you a good activist then counselling is something that you wouldn’t do unless dragged there on your deathbed.

(King, 2006:880-81)

Then there is this, which I think is bang on the money and I am clearly gonna have to read Elliott, albeit 25 years late…

Elliott argues that for people to acquire a radical imagination it becomes ‘increasingly necessary to tolerate and reflect upon emotional states of uncertainty generated by the cultural conditions of the late modern age’ (1996: 29) to the extent that uncertainty becomes a positive dynamic:

Some unknown aspect of one’s own reality needs to be discovered, and this implies putting on hold what it is we think we actually know about ourselves, other people and the social world. Working these unknown aspects of our feelings and experiences through can lead to a greater capacity for confronting otherness, at once personal and political … Here, the capacity to tolerate the unknown, to ‘go with’ uncertainty, is vital to thoughtfulness and critical questioning. (Elliott, 1996: 154)

However, working through these unknown aspects of feelings and experiences means recognizing that social norms and expectations are located in the transmission of affect which underlies the process of meaning construction (Elliott, 1996: 25). It is, then, these emotional states of uncertainty that form the core of Elliott’s view of reflexivity. Anxiety, hate, love, anger, fear, guilt, shame and desire are analysed as ways in which the self–other boundary is structured and dislocated. From Elliott’s perspective, reflexivity requires the conceptualization of these affects in terms of a dialectical interplay between depressive and paranoid-schizoid 17 modes of subjectivity and intersubjectivity which, he argues, underlie transformations of social, cultural and political life (1996:75–7). The interplay and shifts between these two modes enable a more creative reflexivity to emerge.

(King, 2006:887)

McAdam (1992) is writing about something he knows really really well – the Freedom Summer of 1964 and its consequences. Turns out (and I hope you’re sitting down), women had to be twice as good (committed/’pure’) to be half as likely to get selected to volunteer.  And at the time, before second wave feminism kicked in, they didn’t have the language to name what was going on so well.  This is a CRUCIAL article for understanding how filters in activism play out, imo.  There’s lots of good stuff, but for now, this – on the long term consequences-

“For many, Freedom Summer came to be the event around which they reconstructed their biographies in “before” and “after” fashion. This was no less true for the male than the female volunteers. But the development and application of a feminist perspective on Freedom Summer in the years following the project has helped sustain the perceived importance of the project for women in a way that nothing has for the male volunteers. Let me explore this dynamic in a bit more detail. At the close of the summer, the majority of volunteers-female no less than male-viewed themselves as “movement people.” First and foremost this meant the civil rights movement, though many also were clearly attuned and sympathetic to the emerging student and antiwar movements. Indeed, they viewed these as one and the same struggle (McAdam 1988, pp. 162-78). Freedom Summer, then, loomed large in the volunteers’ accounts of how they became “movement people.” But the expulsion of whites from the civil rights movement and the gradual dissolution of the radical left in the early 1970s slowly eroded the salience of the designation “movement person.” As that identity became more tenuous, so too did the importance of Freedom Summer as the pivotal event in the volunteers’ reconstructed biographies.

But this dilemma was much more acute for the male volunteers. The rise of the women’s liberation movement served to provide most of the female volunteers with a highly salient new identity-that of feminist- around which their biographies could once again be recast.

(McAdam, 1992:1224)

McPherson  (1983) is unlike the others here, but also crucial (i.e. it is great back up for something I keep banging on about – thinking of organisations within a (so-called) movement as parts of an eco-system.

“This paper develops an ecological model of the competition of social organizations for members. The concept of the ecological niche is quantified explicitly in a way which ties together geography, time, and the social composition of organizations. A differential equation model analogous to the Lotka-Volterra competition equations in biology captures the dynamics of the system. This dynamic model is related to the niche concept in a novel way, which produces an easily understood and powerful picture of the static and dynamic structure of the community”

(McPherson,1983: 519)

But it never gets all sociobiological, thank goodness

A population of organizations, then, is not a set of discrete creatures who must mate with each other to reproduce, but a froth of bubbles, constantly sharing or exchanging members, growing and dying, and being absorbed and segmented in response to changing conditions. Yet, like animals, organizations must compete with each other for resources. An extremely important resource for which organizations compete is their members.1 This paper will develop a simple but powerful model of the competition of social organizations for members.

(McPherson,1983: 520)

There’s also good stuff on the difference between fundamental and realized niches.

Ecologists distinguish between fundamental and realized niches, which refer to niches formed in non-competitive and competitive situations, respectively (Morse, 1980). The fundamental niche is the niche which could be exploited by the species if there were no competitors. This niche can only be changed through genetic mechanisms. The realized niche can change with the presence or absence of a given competitor.

It’s a very well-cited paper, and you can see why – it’s clear, compelling and important in its implications for how to think about how SMOs/NGOs etc are competing for a (de facto) finite number of supporters/players, while MOST of them are simply not going to get involved (compare the Edwards meetings paper).

 

Particularly useful stuff for activists (concepts, anecdotes)

  • Habermas and the lifeworld (and its colonisiation)
  • The very meaning of “activism”
  • Sexism
  • Competition for scarce resources

Books and articles I should get around to reading and digesting

Aminzade, R. and D. McAdam (2002) ‘Introduction: Emotions and Contentious Politics’, Mobilization: An International Journal 7(2): 1–5.

Anderson, J., 2004. The ties that bind? Self- and place- identity in environmental direction action. Ethics, Place and Environment 7, 45–57.

Andrews, M. (2014). What is narrative interviewing? Retrieved from http://www.ncrm.ac.uk/resources/video/RMF2012/whatis.php?id=b6235e4

Diani, M. (1990) ‘The Network Structure of the Italian Ecology Movement’, Social Science Information 29(1): 5–31.

Diani, M. (2003) ‘Leaders or Brokers? Position and Influence in Social Movement Networks’, in M. Diani and D. McAdam (eds) Social Movements and Social Networks, pp. 105–20. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Elliott, A. (1996) Subject to Ourselves: Social Theory, Psychoanalysis and Postmodernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Freeman, Jo. 1973. “Origins of the Women’s Liberation Movement.” American Journal of Sociology 78:792-811.

Goodwin, J., J.M. Jasper and F. Polletta (2000) ‘The Return of the Repressed: The Fall and Rise of Emotions in Social Movement Theory’, Mobilization: An International Journal 5(1): 65–84.

Griffin, C., 2008. Protest practice and (tree) cultures of conflict: understanding the spaces of ‘tree maiming’ in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 40, 91–108

Kurtz, H., 2005. Reflections on the iconography of environmental justice activism. Area 37, 79–88.

Martin, D., Hanson, S., Fontaine, D., 2007. What counts as activism? The role of individuals in creating change. Women’s Studies Quarterly 25, 78–94.

Martin, W. (2007). Embodying ‘active’ ageing: Bodies, emotions and risk in later life. Sociology.

Maxey, I., 1999. Beyond boundaries? activism, academia, reflexivity and research. Area 31, 195–198.

Oliver, Pamela. 1984. “If You Don’t Do It, Nobody Will. Active and Token Contributors to Local Collective Action.” American Sociological Review 49:601-10.

Oliver, Pamela, Gerald Marwell, and Ruy Teixeira. 1985. “A Theory of the Critical Mass I: Interdependence, Group Heterogeneity, and the Production of Collective Goods.” American Journal of Sociology 91:522-56.

Perry, E.J. (2002) ‘Moving the Masses: Emotion Work in the Chinese Revolution’, Mobilization: An International Journal 7(2): 111–28.

Snow, David A., Louis A. Zurcher, Jr., and Sheldon Ekland-Olson. 1980. “Social Networks and Social Movements: A Microstructural Approach to Differential Recruitment.” American Sociological Review 45 (5): 787-801.

Watt, P. (2016). A nomadic war machine in the metropolis: En/countering London’s 21st-century housing crisis with focus E15. City, 20, 297–320.

Words, ideas, videos