Attack of the hipster tomatoes! Or “things to do in Vienna when not talking about social movements”

What happens when you get four and a half thousand academics (sociologists and sociologically-minded fellow travellers, to be precise) in one place (the University of Vienna, to be preciser) at one time (10th to 14th July – perciser still)? You get a lot to talk and think about, is what you get. The third “International Sociological Association” Forum, going by the title “The Futures We Want: Global Sociology and the Struggles for a Better World” is happening here over the next five action-packed days.  Fwiw, imma aim for a blog a day, if only to capture a fraction of the excellent ideas and concepts that are poured over the saturated-by-10.30am-sponge that passes for my brain.

The ISA has a whole bunch of research committees – everything from the Sociology of Leisure to Labor Movements, from the Sociology of Religion to the Sociology of Disasters (I can hear the atheists sniggering about that last conjunction).  The Research Committees hosting today’s pre-conference were numbers 47 “Social Classes and Social Movements and 48  “Social Movements, Collective Actions and Social Change).  Today’s pre-conference – “Social Movements in the 2010s” was ably organised by Priska Daphi, Geoffrey Pleyers and Tova Benski. It was a very action-packed day, and I’ve no chance of explaining all that went on. Apologies in advance to all those whose ideas I’ve mangled or – worse – neglected.

Hipster tomatoes to follow.

After opening comments from the organisers, the first panel, on “social movements, refugees and borders” kicked off. Donatella della Porta (Scuola Normale Superiore Florence) opened by presenting a “pre-project” on the sociology of refugees that she and others are undertaking. It sounded intriguing indeed, and seeks to go beyond the exiting analytic models (citizenship rights, poor people’s movements) and research designs (case studies, rarely comparative, rarely triangulated). It sounds every bit as tricky and challenging as the question of migration itself.  She finished with the important point (she cited Eyerman and Jamison, 1991) of movements as “cognitive praxis,” producers of knowledge.

Next up Jeff Goodwin of New York University gave interesting detail on the way that immigration activists in the US are currently mobilising (with some success) against the Trump phenomenon. Goodwin, while holding absolutely no candle for Hilary Clinton, was very confident that Trump will not get the presidency.  I hope he is right, of course, and we’ll know by November 6th, give or take some hanging chads.  Top laugh – he described the Republican primaries as “carnivals of xenophobia and bigotry.”

Finally, Ulrich Brand, (University of Vienna) asked “what is the transformative potential of refugee struggles?”  In his opinion, “not much.”  He pointed to the total absence of refugees and refugee issues from current debates on climate change.  He referred to a “New Critical Orthodoxy” that sees the main actors as states and corporations, with social movements relegated to the role of spectators, even while crucial questions of exactly what needs to be transformed (e.g. our food systems, transport systems, ‘nature’/society relations) go barely heard.  There was, in this overview of transformative social change and how it does/n’t happen reference to both the MLP and practice theory.

For me the most interesting (because it was new to me as a label) portion was the notion of the “imperial mode of living” – the totally unsustainable modes of living/expectations, based on global production networks and value chains that lead back to  both people and “mother nature on the run”, if you’ll allow the Neil Young reference.  As a questioner pointed out later, the irony is that refugees are coming in search of the imperial mode of living in part because the very operations needed to sustain it have destroyed their chance of a livelihood in their own countries.

After a short break it was on to the second plenary “Social movements and change”. This was described to me by someone (I shall spare their blushes, though they can ‘out’ themselves in the comments section if they wish) as a ‘manel’, which is an excellent neologism, imho (see also

Markus Schulz (New School for Social Research, ISA) opened it with infectious enthusiasm and a plug for a website thefuturetheywant

He gave a quick overview of the (strained) relations between futures research [LINK] and sociology, dating all the way back to the Auguste Comtes and Emile Durkheims of this world, with their notion that enlightened elites could figure out The Rules and guide society to the correct (sic) destination. (Think also Karl Marx’s acolytes and – though Schulz didn’t mention him, the Walt Rostow-types). He lamented that outside of Scandinavia and Taiwan there are hardly ever undergraduate courses on ‘futures’, and speculated that this was a consequence of sociology being in defensive mode and having physics envy (my words, not his).

Next up, Colin Barker (University of Manchester) urged us to look at the way the limits of social movement research limit the ways we think about social movements. He did this by focusing on three “US giants” (he cautioned that because of time limits he was focusing on their flaws rather than their massive contributions)

His first was Charles Tilly. Tilly’s social movements work focuses on social movements as “organic displays of wunc – worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment”. Social movements call on power holders to take action, and are ultimately militant lobbyists. For Barker, this rules out the possibilities of social movements seeking to solve problems themselves, “becoming the change they want to see”. While this captures a reality, it obscures it too. Barker observed that social movements were often silent about the “internal politics of movements.

His second was Frances Fox Piven, more overtly radical than Tilly, and celebrating the disruptive power of poor people’s movements, which gives them bargaining power by creating turbulence via refusal, non-compliance etc. But for Barker she doesn’t see if and when movements do/can move from “blocking power” to “replacement power”. Might those movements be able to create new rules, practical challenges to the distribution of power? This of course would involve a transformation of popular consciousness. [see recent-ish ecological innovation article on social movement motivations for participating in…]

Third up was Douglas McAdam, author of many books and articles, but in this case most importantly “Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency ” (1982). For McAdam, says Barker, a key factor for this insurgency – a precondition of the movement – was “cognitive liberation”.  But oddly, this is not seen as an outcome… Participation in a movement challenges people’s sense of helplessness (what Klandermans calls “consciousness-raising in periods of collective mobilisation”. So, Barker asks, can we create new mutual roles – can social movements help re-organise wider social relations?  For Barker, collective action could/should be taken more seriously, both for conscious-raising but also of course potentially consciousness-depressing.  How permanent – and to me this is crucial – are the changes in people, or do people “regress” (does participation in, say, Freedom Summer, end up as a “holiday”/moment or is it path-dependently transformative).  How do movements contribute to new institution building (here Barker means, I think, institutions in the sense of rules and regulations, rather than particular organisations/charities/legal bodies)? Is that a precondition for the stabilisation of social ‘gains’ (or, less normatively, ‘changes’)? Do (as Lenin apparently asked in 1905) mass mobilisations speed up learning?  How uneven is the process? (How) do different repertoires of collective action facilitate empowerment? Which are the more promising forms?

Next up, Christopher Rootes (University of Kent) a refreshingly down-beat perspective, wondering if social movements can actually be movements of social change.  Starting with an anecdote about being arrested during his first week at university in Australia as a bystander to a Vietnam War protest, Rootes wondered what changes have actually be wrought by these movements. It was easier, he thought, to say what factors had produced the movements. He listed demographic shifts – the post-war baby boom (1946-1964), changes in occupational patterns (from blue collar to white collar), a relative increase in affluence/full employment, and the massive expansion of higher education.  These were a concatenation of factors producing new actors.  These changes are still affecting current society, and Rootes pondered on the effect of another demographic change – older people dying, as a factor in shifting the centre of gravity  [Two things come to mind here – the aphorism about science proceeding at the pass of old scientists’ funerals, and Marvin Harris’s book (I forget which one) on the relation between the rise of US middle-class women’s economic importance to households and the coming of second-wave feminism].

Rootes characterised the 60s/70s social movements as the demand to be heard and to participate, with a dissatisfaction with liberal democracy and the fundamental principles of representative democracy. However, as Rootes noted, few have chosen to participate, either then or now. He noted that even in social movements there is seldom more than lip service to internal democracy (take a bow, Greenpeace!)

Rootes pointed out that liberal democracies are fragile things, and that while in post-authoritarian countries the role of social movements in forcing democratic changes (at least as far as having elections) were important ‘door openers’, their impact in the West is more questionable. Rootes worried that we pay too little attention to institutional changes, but celebrate the exciting (and in my words gaudy), stuff at the edges. Rootes thinks we ignore the rise of populism that threatens social gains under western liberal democracies, and are neglecting right wing/counter-movements.

Finally, James Jasper (City University New York) decided to deconstruct the very terms of the title of the plenary, pointing out that it had shifted from “social change” to “social movements and change” but perhaps should have gone further [to the word ‘and’, perhaps?!].  For him the notion of social change reveals a stuckness in the 60s/70s notions of systems thinking, be it Parsonian, Marxist, structural-functionalism, which then leads to a ‘puzzle’ of how anything ever changes.  He touched on Charles Tilly’s notion of ‘disabling myths’ (e.g. social change explicable, that the main processes of it take you through distinct and predictable stages).  He pointed out that Habermas and Touraine layered “social movements” as agents of change on top of this systems approach, with a “no social movements will mean no change” assumption.  For Jasper, the plenary’s title should have moved further therefore, on two levels. First we should talk about changes plural – and be aware of reversals, bundles of change etc.

Second, we should think of social movements as “a bit of a fiction” – in the Habermas/Touraine grand theories we know in advance what they’re to do, in a normative if not empirical [I may have misheard this?] sense. We should be cautions about social movement actors’ claims to importance and significance, which are often rhetorical devices to boost size and influence.  Jasper prefers the term ‘players’.

Tomatoes. There will be tomatoes.

As you would expect, it properly kicked off in the Q and A. The first observation, by one Janet Conway (Brock University), was a corker, pointing to the importance of the feminist movement as a crucial bringer of significant social change (or changes), albeit with reversals, internal tensions etc. She pointed out that both women and feminist analysis were absent from the panel itself.

While various panelists felt the use of ‘movement’ was problematic to describe feminism, fwiw, I thought all of Conway’s points were well-made. As someone else (also female) pointed out later on in the Q and A, men are allowed to use feminist analysis too.

There were interesting and fruitful tensions between the panelists (as the descriptions above would suggest), on the role, nature and validity of the “self-descriptions” of social movements. There was an interesting discussion about just how important and what the sequencing of events were for the rise of parts of the regulatory state (e.g. the first Clean Air Act, 1956, was not the result of mass movements, but then again, some regulatory bodies are ‘clearly’ the result of social movement mobilisation – it depends, in other words).  I wish I could tell you more about the tos and fros, but my brain was (almost literally) fried by this point.  The room was full, and if the windows were open we couldn’t hear the panellists, but if the windows were closed it became a sauna.  Two choices, both unhappy; I am sure there is an allegory for capitalism in there somewhere…

So, over a mercifully long lunch break we were invited to clump into groups on what we were interested in (refugees and movements, digital technology/media/social movements, continuities and outcomes of movements, environmentalist movements, movements for democracy, right-wing and conservative movements, women and feminist movements, unions and movements around (precarious) work and social movements and repression).   I plumped for the environmentalist one, and it was fab.  Despite some pessimist’s predictions, a group of ten of us actually listened, took turns, with nobody particularly dominating (props to the eco-villages academic, whose name escapes me at the minute Ana Margarida Esteves– she did a good job of keeping it all together). There were lots of links made between various people, and I personally got some useful reading tips (Francesca Poletta etc).

After lunch there was another session, on “cultural perspectives on social movements”. There seemed to be some very good stuff, I was cooked by now, my proteins busy denaturing.  I went and registered – it took all of two minutes (insert line about Teutonic efficiency here)  and started browsing the  392 page long programme. Which is how I know about the hipster tomatoes.

I came back to the preconference in time to hear an important point – made by Tova Benski – that we mustn’ t imagine social movement studies began after the 1960s. There’s Blumer (social construction of problems), Neil Smelser on collective action (albeit with a bias about ‘irrationality’) and Talcott Parsons etc.

No, seriously, there are tomatoes, with curated beards and bromptons.

In the breaks I had interesting chats, including one that confirmed all my pre-judgements (or “prejudices”, if you prefer) about the latest round of international climate “movement-building” that was supposed to emerge from the COP21 protests, a chat about the politics of art and the art of politics/social spaces and generally just hanging out with some very interesting people. There was also an excellent photo exhibition made up of the words and photos of  Lancashire anti-fracking activists (bravo Anna Szolucha!)

At 6pm, a session on the repression of social movement scholars, with the immediate impetus being the murder in Egypt of a University of Cambridge student. The first speaker, Geoffrey Pleyer, suggested that there were three things we needed to do –

  1. truth and justice for colleagues who had been attacked/murdered
  2. Keep working on these issues
  3. Get organised

The second (Buket Turkmen, Unviesity of Galatasaray) and third (sorry, didn’t catch name) speakers gave powerful accounts of repression of academics and activists in Turkey and India respectively. The point that other institutions (police, judiciary etc) were stacked with regime loyalists, and academia was under attack in a similar process was well-made. The repression can/does have a chilling effect, with fewer and fewer people wanting to study ‘contentious’ issues, and leaving the field wide open for narratives devised by and for repressive regimes. This important stuff, but I just couldn’t cope with the heat; my brain, already full at 11.30 or so, had long since left the building. Protesting (this is a social movement panel, after all), I followed it. If the next five days are as intense as today, I’ll need what passes as my wits about me…

About those tomatoes;   On Monday 11th July, in the Sociology of Agriculture and Food research committee’s schedule there is a session on “Social innovation in Agriculture and Food: Old Wine in New bottles? Part III: Transformative Social Innovation? And the third paper, by Renato Marin of the University of Barcelona has the fantastic title “Are Hipster Tomatoes Socially Innovative? Forms of Urban Agriculture and its potential of social innovation.”

Things I need to look up
The book Mining Capitalism: The Relation between Corporations and their Critics by Stewart Kirsch

Things I want to look up but am going to have to put in the “after the thesis” folder
indigenous organisational strength
Eric Swyngedouw Politics of Scale
Ferhandel Bell (US Sociologist, Yale – futures)
network capacity
Markus Schulz article in World Futures Review
James Moore Capitalism and the Web of Life


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