Whatever happens to the people who give a damn? Abeyance, activism, academia

First, listen to this very cool song by Gil Scott Heron

With one exception (1), what goes up, must come down. The big (2) wave of climate concern was, I thought, gonna crest and break in November-December 2020. But COVID-19 has pushed the Glasgow climate meeting into the long-ish grass of next year, and XR’s “let’s all get together, and block roads” repertoire is probably a busted one (3). Can they pivot? Seems a long shot – so, my money is on the wave of climate activism from 2018 having come to a premature end. I could, of course, be wrong.

Meanwhile, there’s work to be done. Bless, I have a job where I am SUPPOSED to be reading academic work about activism and how it comes about, what happens to it.

As Mr Scott Heron sang –

Whatever happened to the protests and the rage?
Whatever happened to the voices of the sane?
Whatever happened to the people who gave a damn?
Did that just apply to not dying in the jungles of Vietnam?

So, I’ve read two good academic papers today –

Mary Searle-Chatterjee, (1999). Occupation, biography and new social movements. The Sociological Review, Volume 47 2,258-279


Nick Crossley, 2003. From Reproduction to Transformation Social Movement Fields and the Radical Habitus. Theory, Culture & Society Vol. 20, 6,  43–68

Searle-Chatterjee’s work is based on interviews with 20 activists in a “northern industrial city” (poss. Manchester?) and highlights the importance of experiences BEFORE university/white collar-ish job in the formation of activist identity.    Crossley  deploys some of Bourdieu’s work (habitus, illusio) to look at how activists think of what they do, how they situate themselves, hinting too at ‘abeyance’ – what happens when ‘the moment passes’ and the previously full meetings dwindle in size, the media stops paying attention and a legislative ‘victory’ means it’s harder to mobilise folks, and some of the best and the brightest are now on the other side of the table, if not the riot shield.

For me, as someone who has been to way too many shitty activist meetings (and perpetrated my share), and see groups go up like a rocket and tumble down like a stick, I think there’s a couple of extra questions that help us think about what I used to call “decruitment” –

firstly, what was the actual emotional experience of the person within the “movement” – did the protests and events that some thought were invigorating actually de-motivate? Were people bored, patronised, ignored, over-worked, underworked?

secondly, what did “the movement” do to make the long-term involvement of the new member more likely rather than less likely? Was there any investment in that individual’s skills, knowledge, relationships, or were they just treated as ego-fodder, to come on marches, to buy newspapers?

Whatever happened to the Revolution, indeed…

Crossley refers to some work that looks at this, and not just the justly-canonical McAdam citations – see also Fendrich, J. and K. Lovoy (1988) ‘Back to the Future: Adult Political Behavior of Former Student Activists.’, American Sociological Review 53(5): 780–84.

Those questions though – they are ones that are, methodologically, extremely challenging. Also, perhaps, conceptually, since the dominant assumptions are that people join movements to Change The World.  But might also there be a second, largely unspoken and unstudied motivation – to cope with the yawning, gnawing sense of loneliness, confusion and despair that so many of us feel?

I will keep blogging about the other articles I have on my list, and other stuff that comes to mind on this topic. If you know any more songs that deal with the “where did everyone go?” question, do let us know!

(1) Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide
(2) Though I was beginning to have my doubts – outwith the Yoof Strikes and XR, there didn’t seem THAT much going on, compared to, say, 2007-8.
(3) A footnote per sentence is Too Much, I think we can all agree.

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