Category Archives: feminism

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.

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

Holy Moses or “There’s never an irony policeman when you need one”

We watched the documentary. Excellent if problematic, it was basically a morality play: a bunch of old white powerful men in a self-designed and policed echo chamber are eventually brought low by a scrappy band of diverse (gasp) women. And so immediately after the film there was to be a discussion. And a bunch of old white powerful men sat around and started to talk among themselves about their memories, while (BME) women watched on from the back of the room.

Reader, I. Am. Not. Making. This. Up.

There really never is an irony policeman around when you need one.

The documentary was Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, a skilfully made but partial hagiography of Jane “The Death and Life of American Cities” Jacobs, and the battles she fought – and won – with the infamous Robert ‘The Power Broker’ Moses. Moses was drunk on the sort of power that being part of the winning side in an World War gives you (planes, tanks and atomic weapons). Moses then planned to redesign New York City to his own particular purposes. Not captured in the film (one of its silences) was just how fantastically racist (even “by the standards of his day”) Moses was. This would have complicated the straightforward (largely white) narrative that got told. So be it. Anyway, Jacobs, a journalist and all-round good egg, fought Moses over his plans to drive a road through Washington Park in 1954. Then, a few years later, Moses had a hard-on for a Lower Manhattan Expressway. Jacobs and co beat him again.

The documentary then took a good turn – looking at the Chinese government’s falling-in-love with Moses’ technocratic dreams. It didn’t have time to explore the new resistance (e.g. the Shanghai maglev doesn’t make it from the airport to the city centre). There are other problems of course.

For a film that celebrates “diversity” it didn’t have that many non-white faces (though to be fair, it did have some). It didn’t historicise- would it have killed them to say who Moses’ hero was – Haussmann of Paris (instead we got heaps of Le Corbusier. Interesting, but, meh). It could have further contextualised Moses’ will to power (he was both a regime and a Nietzsche actor) by better referencing the chaos of the Depression and the “successes” of US planning and power during the war, and put it alongside the white heat of 1950s ‘successes’ (DDT, the space programme, blah blah), and also pointed to the collapse of that faith not just with Jacobs, but also the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War. But to be fair, this was a documentary that needed to have a Bad Guy and a Good Guy (well, gal). It wasn’t, after all, an Adam Curtis documentary. My rule of thumb of a documentary – do I feel I know enough, but do I still want to know more? The answer in this case is an emphatic yes.

Meanwhile, Jacobs instantly puts me in mind of Rachel ‘Silent Spring’ Carson (mentioned by one interviewee) and more latterly Elinor Ostrom. Moses harks back to Haussmann but also to a near contemporary, Robert McNamara, an equally ‘modernist’ figure who prosecuted the Vietnam War (3 million dead at the time, more since from land mines and defoliants etc) with the same gusto and the same playbook as Moses did the enemy ghettos of New York.

Back to the ‘discussion’. Would it really have killed any of the initial speakers to look around the room and say ‘hey, if we’re gonna have a discussion about diversity, it would help if we were all in a big circle. You don’t have to say anything if you join the circle, and you don’t have to move to be in the circle if you don’t want, but we can hardly honour Jacobs and the documentary-maker’s capital M Message about inclucivity if we don’t at least try to reshape the space for conviviality in the Illich sense, rather than a Powerful White Men get to Express-their-opinions-Way.’

Didn’t happen, at least while I was there: I then invoked the law of two feet. Also, I have a thesis to finish.

Men critique things of me: of Winterson and Solnit in #Manchester #activism

aka some cishet white guy’s uninvited commentary on two feminist literary icons. But it’s his website and he can say what he likes. Nobody is forcing you to read it, ‘kay?

Rebecca Solnit will be known to the casual reader as the woman who wrote the (fantastic) ‘Men Explain Things To Me’. Last night she was ‘in conversation’ with Jeanette (Oranges are not the only fruit, Sexing the Cherry, Why be happy when you can be normal) Winterson as part of the Manchester Literature Festival.  A capacity crowd (female to male ratio 3:1ish) filled the Martin Harris  auditorium at the University of Manchester.

After a brief welcome, and announcement that Manchester is now a UNESCO city of literature, it was on with the program itself.

Solnit read from the lead essay in her new book The Mother of All Questions which  contains essays about the powerlessness of silences, men in/and feminism, the perniciousness of rape culture.

As ever with Solnit, the questions are apt, the prose measured, incisive.  She pointed out that the standard importance of happiness, and the standard belief that ‘ducks in a row’ (spouse, security, possessions) doesn’t in fact guarantee this ‘happiness’, and gave the example of a successful friend who despite a seventy-year marriage and all the other accoutrements that should lead to ‘happiness’ is despondent because her compassion makes her think of t’other species, t’other generations

Winterson kicked off the discussion with a question about the longest essay, ‘A short history of silence’.

Solnit says she quoted bell hooks on patriarchy begins with men’s silencing of other men, and that growing up in San Francisco during the 70s meant she could learn from queer men parodying and undermining traditional (heterosexual) masculinity.

At this point, I forget the context, she also uttered one of her axioms – “everyone has the right to be an asshole” (regardless of race, gender, class).
Winterson pressed on – the need of  (#notall) men to control women. Solnit concurred, pointing out that Weinstein could easily have bought sex if that was what he had wanted.

She also pointed to what she called ‘annihilatory acts’ (as in, actresses having their careers destroyed by Weinstein’s behaviour).  She then riffed on a 2007 article of here in which a guy who had directed straight porn returned to the industry and started directing gay porn, realising that there were ‘no humiliation scenes’.

She made the point that there are “a tonne of leftwing men” with deeply problematic behaviour, and that this is a really interesting moment, one of those ‘seismic lurches’ in the same way that Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony about Clarence Thomas was (‘before we had hashtags, we had bumper stickers, like ‘I believe you Anita’).

She made reference to the 2014 Isla Vista killings by a young man whose sense of entitlement crashed up against, well, reality, and pointed out that the woman who created the #yesallwomen hashtag, a young Muslim woman, had been hounded off the internet for six months

Winterson then, oddly imo, asked Solnit what she thought Weinstein would do next. Solnit labelled him a serial rapist, with crimes dating back forty years, and said she thought he’d probably been lying to himself and would continue to do so, that she expected nothing of him but that we should expect of ourselves the important work of liberation.

In the context of the Bechdel Test, Winterson introduced a Star Wars statistic of Solnit’s that clearly enraptured her.  If you take the original trilogy (and let’s pretend the Phantom Menace never happened, okay?) Three hundred and eighty six minutes and if you take out Princess Leia, (who never talks to anyone who isn’t a male), then there are only 63 seconds of females talking across the three films.

Winterson noted that for ages we imbibed this stuff and thought it normal. Solnit mentioned that women have had to be hermaphroditic in their reading, in order to be Odysseus rather than Penelope, and mentioning Hong Kong action films, where women get to kick ass, as liberatory zones.

On the subject of ‘Men explain Lolita to me’ – Winterson recalled that Martin Amis had said to her that she simply “did not understand her (the character Lolita’s power”.  Solnit was scathing about male critics and their ability to not see that this is a book about a young girl trapped and serially abused, trying to get away. She invoked James Baldwin “it is innocence which constitutes the crime” and argued that what was shocking in the Weinstein revelations is that men have been shocked by the breadth of sexual harassment and abuse.

Conversation then turned to the essay “Men explain things to me”.  Solnit pointed out that women being silenced can have potentially fatal consequences (women being ignored when trying to report ‘my (ex)husband is trying to kill me’ etc) and moved on to think of Sylvia Plath being born now rather than fifty years ago being ‘free to sleep under the stars’ (i.e., as they said, Virginia Woolf’s thought experiment of Shakespeare’s Sister).

Nonetheless, things are improving for (some) women, in the West, and Solnit argues that the genie is out of the bottle and won’t be forced back in. Citing marriage equality, she cited the observations of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg that in until 1991 husbands in Louisiana could dispose of joint property as they saw fit under its ‘Head and Master’ law.

Q and A

There was only time for three questions (since we started late). Mercifully none were the sorts of chest-beaty ‘look at me’ stuff that can happen at these events and I am sure this had nothing to do at all with the fact that the questions all came from women).
First question:  Under Trump we may not be able to do just maintenance work but need to do recovery work. How can we be resilient?

The answer wasn’t so hot, imo.  Civil Rights gains rolled back by Republicans [aka the new Jim Crow]. Don’t be dismayed, activism isn’t just boredom and nastiness, can be fun/meet great people [yeah, I used to believe that].  Berlin wall, Apartheid ending.  Solnit also noted that good work is one of the best things you can have, noting that she had the privilege of getting to write for a living.

Second question: in wake of #metoo Social media – good or bad?

Solnit also in my opinion flubbed this one. Wondered if any quantitative work comparing snark/death threats and opportunities for co-ordination/mutual support. Facebook and Twitter not going answer.  Attention span is disrupted when everyone is checking phone every five minutes. What would search engines look like if designed by someone other than ruthless white male libertarians chasing advertising dollars?

Richard Flanagan article as crucial here

Also the amazing Zeynep Tufekci and her recent “Fighting Surveillance Authoritarianism, One Pull-up At a Time”

Third question: How can we shift blame to perpetrators? What can men do?

Solnit didn’t mention the French hashtag ‘name your pig’.  She expressed surprise at men pledging ‘I will no longer laugh at misogynist jokes, I will no longer stand by while…’ .  “I can’t believe your admitting that you’ve been doing that until now.”

My friend was seething, judging that Solnit had in fact not answered the first question, and that anyone who thinks feminism has made major advances is living in a (rich and white) bubble and that – in response to the second question you do not ‘give a voice’ but in fact stop silencing or colluding in the silencing of


So what?

Both lovely stylists, if you like that sort of thing.  But (and this is where I stick my big fat mouth and head above the parapet) it all seemed to me a little bit self-regarding and self-satisfied, with serious questions about the viability of ‘blockadia’ (to use Naomi Klien’s term) left not merely unanswered but in fact unasked.

If the radicals are so right (and I think they are) and it is shocking that men are shocked by the scale of sexual harassment (and yes it is shocking) then doesn’t that mean that social movements are doing something wrong/could be doing better?  (And a shout out to Everyday Sexism here – I think it is a great project).   Perhaps all this is answered in the book, but it wasn’t answered on the night, and my experience of a big fat long book of Solnit’s – A Paradise Built in Hell – was that there was some lovely rhetoric and powerful denunciations of patriarchy/bureaucracy etc, but not so much on how to sustain moments of passion and the liberatory moments, how to escape the sclerosis of the “system.”

Verdict –

  • Someone whose opinion on these matters I respect v. much and counts for more than mine decided to stay home under the cat.  Missed little, I think.
  • Glad I got a freebie, 8 quid seems a bit steep for an hour, tbh.  Maybe I am cheap…
  • Will defo read this collection of essays, once I can get a copy from a library or buy a year from now for £1.99 in an Oxfam in Chorlton. Will probably like various essays and even stick post-it notes in here and there, while being irritated by the wordiness and lack of concrete critiques of the good guys.

Men and #feminism – labels and so forth.

So, with a fellow PhD student I’ve set up a blog called ‘feminismandtwoguys‘.
The about is this

We are two guys (Steffen and Marc) who are studying in Manchester.  This site is about us trying to learn from different types of feminism. That involves listening, reflecting, honouring the vast amount of physical and intellectual work that has been done by women.

This site is a chronicle of our learning, and an attempt to engage in fruitful and civil conversations with women and men about questions of social and environmental justice.

It is NOT an attempt;

  • to claim that we have somehow ‘arrived’ at a state of being ‘feminist men’ (we disagree over whether men should use that label)
  • to claim leadership of either ‘feminism’ or ‘pro-feminism’
  • to mansplain
Once a month we will both write something on ‘a topic’ – some examples will be
  • What does practical solidarity look like?  What are the grey areas – i.e. when can it end up as silencing, ‘white knighting’ and mansplaining?
  • What are the personal reasons/journeys that brought you to an understanding of feminism?
  • What do you do in situations with other men when someone is being sexist, but not overtly and blatantly so?
  • Which feminist theorists do you like?  Which don’t you like?
  • What changes would you like to see in the way your subculture (academia/activism) works?
  • What are the big gaps in your feminist *practice* that worry you?
We hope to get a conversation going, and learn some stuff (though obvs women are under no obligation to do work of education that we should be doing ourselves).
The first topic (perhaps ill-chosen, but so it goes) was ‘should men sympathetic to feminism label themselves feminists?
Steffen’s take is here. Mine starts below (teaser).  Please comment on t’other site rather than this one…
Should men sympathetic to feminism call themselves feminists?  I don’t think so, for a few reasons. I think it is presumptuous, a misunderstanding, a hostage to fortune and a political mis-step.  In what comes next, I want first off to acknowledge that my position is shaped by reading some fabulous supple thinkers (though errors remain mine).  I can’t track down the exact publications, but these on the notion of ‘allyship’ were part of the mix, I think.
Continued here….

Me love you laing time… The work of forgetting and suppression

Somewhere in the pile of things-read-awaiting-bookmarking-on-t’website is a recent article on the what the authors called “memory work” –  (corporate) work of suppressing past mis-behaviour. It does not use R.D. Laing, but it could.  This below is the epigram from Joanna Russ’s amazing book ‘The Female Man’ [my review here]

If Jack succeeds in forgetting something, this is of little use if Jill continues to remind him of it. He must induce her not to do so. The safest way would be not just to make her keep quiet about it, but to induce her to forget it also.

Jack may act upon Jill in many ways. He may make her feel guilty for keeping on “bringing it up”. He may invalidateher experience. This can be done-more or less radically. He can indicate merely that it is unimportant or trivial, whereas it is important and significant to her. Going further, he can shift the modality of her experience from memory to imagination: “It”s all in your imagination.” Further still, he can invalidate the content. “It never happened that way.” Finally, he can invalidate not only the significance, modality and content, but her very capacity to remember at all, and make her feel guilty for doing so into the bargain.

This is not unusual. People are doing such things to each other all the time. In order for such transpersonal invalidation to work, however, it is advisable to overlay it with a thick patina of mystification. For instance, by denying that this is what one is doing, and further invalidating any perception that it is being done, by ascriptions such as “How can you think such a thing 1” “You must be paranoid.” And so on.

Laing, R.D. 1967 The Politics of Experience. London: Penguin. (first chapter online here)

“Finding the Woman Who Didn’t Exist” #afterthethesis

Finding the Woman Who Didn’t Exist

Hawthorne, Melanie C. Finding the Woman Who Didn’t Exist: The Curious Life of Gisèle d’Estoc. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013. Pp. 216. isbn: 978-0-8032-4034-6

Who was the woman hidden behind the name “Gisèle d’Estoc”? The pseudonym suggests a strange hybrid of Romantic ballerina and medieval warrior: “estoc” is the old French word for sword, and “Giselle” the title of the famous ballet. In spite of the scandal she caused in her lifetime, Gisèle d’Estoc has long remained an enigma. When a sensational “Love Diary” attributed to a paramour of Guy de Maupassant was first published in the early 1940s, some scholars assumed it was a hoax. They refused to believe that the author of the diary, later identified as “Gisèle d’Estoc,” had existed. In her new book, Finding the Woman Who Didn’t Exist: The Curious Life of Gisèle d’Estoc, Melanie Hawthorne proves that the woman known as Gisèle d’Estoc was a real person. As she pieces together the story of her larger-than-life subject, Hawthorne also makes a case for the value of archival research in the humanities. Finding the Woman Who Didn’t Exist is not just a biography, but also a witty and engaging first-person account of a scholar’s search for clues. The careful arrangement of the chapters preserves the suspense of d’Estoc’s identity at birth until the very end.

The author’s journey begins with a descent into the underworld of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Bibliothèque François-Mitterrand), with its labyrinthine hallways, endless waiting times and recurrent technological glitches. This austere starting point soon gives way to a lurid world of orgies, cross-dressing lovers, bombs hidden in flowerpots and topless women fighting duels with swords. It is no wonder that the existence of Gisèle d’Estoc should have been called into question: in many ways, she seems to have sprung straight out of Barbey d’Aurevilly’s forehead, sword in hand.

Gisèle d’Estoc’s flamboyantly theatrical love life led to spectacular acts of transgression and revenge. In the course of her affair with Guy de Maupassant, she disguised herself as a schoolboy and procured women for her famous lover. Her liaison [End Page 144] with the actress Emma Rouër ended in a duel alleged to be the inspiration for Émile Bayard’s 1884 painting “Une affaire d’honneur.” D’Estoc’s name also came up in connection with the bomb attack at the Restaurant Foyot in Paris in 1894. The main victim of the explosion was the poet and journalist Laurent Tailhade, who had provoked d’Estoc’s ire after dropping hints in print about her affair with the writer Rachilde. Although the attack was more likely the result of an anarchist plot, d’Estoc was suspected of having planted the bomb to settle her score with Tailhade.

For all her notoriety, however, d’Estoc remains strangely hidden. A photograph (described but not reproduced in the book) exposes her naked body while shielding her face from view. In Bayard’s painting, the duelist presumed to be Gisèle d’Estoc has her back to us. Frustratingly for her biographer, d’Estoc seems to pop up everywhere without ever being fully visible. It would be tempting to fill in the gaps with hypotheses, to romanticize d’Estoc or to speak in her place. Instead, Hawthorne remains scrupulously exact as she sifts fact from rumor. Finding the Woman Who Didn’t Exist reminds us that a scholar’s journey is not solely made up of “Eureka!” moments. After combing through the archives at the Musée d’Orsay, Hawthorne discovers that d’Estoc exhibited at the Salon as a sculptor under her married name, Madame Parent Desbarres. Yet no concrete trace of her work survives beside the photograph of a sculpture representing a peasant woman. As a consequence, it is impossible to assess d’Estoc’s contribution to the Parisian art world. Hawthorne’s investigation into the life of Gisèle d’Estoc is an important addition to the growing field of women’s biographies. It addresses some of the core theoretical issues identified by Janet Beizer in Thinking Through the Mothers while providing an engrossing account of a colorful figure from the demi-monde of late nineteenth-century Paris.

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

Awesome tips for “female-friendly” meetings #toptips

Guest post by Kari McGregor:

when trying to make orgs, groups and meetings female-friendly, I think it’s important to look at it all holistically, and accept that it’ll take time for the changes to happen – i.e. everything you can do to bring the change won’t actually result in change until later….


source: Punch

Key factors to consider:

– Dates & times – not all of us womenfolk have kids, but those who do generally (still) find themselves doing the larger share of the parenting and housekeeping (can’t dismantle this overnight, so gotta work around it), so weekday evenings when mums are trying to get food into fussy kids’ bellies is just too hard. Try and have at least some meetings during family-friendly hours on weekends.

– Venues – generally folks are more up for a social type of venue if it’s their first time, as this is less daunting. Choose cafe over pub for the ladies, because it’s non-threatening, and they’re not gonna have to speak up so much to get heard over the background racket (bear in mind this really is a major issue for folks who aren’t used to clamouring for attention). This goes for the after-meeting social thingo as well…. Just not always the pub.

– Facilitation style – you really need someone who’s a pro at facilitating… but, in the almost inevitable absence of someone who’s really good at it, bear these things in mind: you need to engage everyone in the first meeting they go to, so provide low-stakes opportunities for people to speak out in smaller groups and feed back to the larger group (as an example). Getting everyone used to getting a say boosts confidence in speaking out to the group as a whole. It’s good if the facilitator circulates around smaller groups and tries to speak to everyone while doing so – have eye contact, and encourage those to whom it doesn’t obviously come naturally.

– Tone – um, at risk of sounding stereotyped, and speaking on behalf of my whole gender… um, let the tone get a bit more emotional. Not everything has to be businesslike. It’s good to have a bit of time for “how do folks *feel* about this”, and provide time and space for venting (small groups, then feed back to larger group – none of this round-the-room bollocks that takes forever and hears next to nothing from most people while awarding some people a stupidly large soapbox) in a way that contains it – i.e. provide limited time and space so it’s allowed to happen, but doesn’t spill over.

– DON’T invite “comments from women first” or tag on as an afterthought “we’d especially like to hear from women”, or overemphasise that in any way… Making a show out of it, or acting out of guilt, just makes it worse, not better.

Of course, most of the above doesn’t just apply to women, but to minorities in general, and to anyone who’s a bit shy.

I have a fuckton of advice on how to facilitate groups properly, and most of it comes from teaching, training and group counselling, not the tidbits folks tend to learn at activist bootcamp… the pro advice is well worth taking, and will ensure you don’t stagnate in the same-old-same-old trap…

Anyhoo, if I think of anything else, I’ll shout out. I’m aware that most of the above might already be obvious, but saying it to cover all bases wink emoticon


Where this came from – I was having dinner with a good friend, and he asked me what advice I had about a situation where most of the people in a group were men, despite the stated desire to make it more gender balanced.  I had a few (cough, cough) things to say, but then thought that, in order to rack up some good-guy tokens, we might consult a woman.  I chose Kari McGregor, a whip-smart friend whom … I have never actually met.  Above is some of her advice, which was met with very sincere thanks.  Other advice on this subject very welcome.

There’s some great comments/suggestions (also by women – it’s weird how they seem to have thought more about The Patriarchy and what to do than men. Go figure) on a couple of other posts. These are the ones that come to mind

Meetings are institutionally sexist

De-fragmentation grenades



Digital porn debate – neither heat nor light

I don’t quite know what I think about porn. I don’t think about it much, don’t watch it (What never? No, hardly ever). So what? What I do and don’t do, what I like and don’t like has no moral weighting when we are talking about societal harm.

This is a basic point that I wish the six speakers at tonight’s “debate” on the prevalence of digital porn had absorbed. (‘THIS HOUSE BELIEVES THAT WE SHOULD ACCEPT DIGITAL PORNOGRAPHY AS AN INEVITABLE PART OF OUR CONTEMPORARY EXPERIENCE’) Anecdotes and confessionality might win titters or applause from the audience, but they doesn’t advance the debate, it doesn’t expose people to (m)any ideas and perspectives that they’d not heard before.

A debate might shed more light than heat, or more heat than light. Or, occasionally, as in tonight’s curiously bloodless affair, not much of either.  I walked at the half-way stage, before people started pitching in from the audience, and had a drink with a good and v. smart friend.

I am not sure what I’d have done to sharpen it. I get the impression that the participants had not been in or to many actual debates, with cut and thrust, argument and counter-argument. They barely acknowledged each other’s points (such as they were), and mostly talked past each other.

Nobody laid out, at least that I heard (my attention drifted intermittently via the 6 five minute spiels) about the teleological (greatest benefit for the greatest number sort of thing) versus deontological (thou shalt/not) ways of slicing philosophical and ethical questions.

Nobody (and this is a point my good friend made in the pub afterwards) asked “why is sex any different to whatever else we sell – our time, our creativity, our physical labour”. And if you don’t tackle that one, if you dance around it, you end up with a debate invisibly shaped by Victorian values.

I don’t mind that it was mostly by and about young people (I just about vaguely remember being one of those) and the Effects On Teenagers. But what was quite odd was just how INCREDIBLY heteronormative it was. Not one person talked about porn that didn’t involve both men and women. Very odd.

BTW, am interested in any books that anyone  can recommend about “sex and the internet and ethics”, especially from an intelligent ‘sex-positive’ feminist position (i.e. and one that takes the strongest of the radical abolitionist arguments and deals with them fairly, without ad femininem or straw-womaning).

Update:  Here’s one that goes on the post-Thesis reading list

Virtual Intimacies: Media, Affect and Queer Sociality

Reflections on feminism and women’s liberation

Sue Crockford is a London-based feminist.  Here’s a brief interview with her in which she reflects on how she got involved in the Women’s Liberation movement (via involvement in anti-Vietnam War activity),  what her memories of that time she cherishes, and what feminism means to her. Below, another feminist, Sarah Irving, writes about her reactions to the interview and what we can learn.

Sarah Irving: There are lots of reasons why I think that younger feminists ought to listen to women like Sue Crockford, with her decades of involvement in the movement. Some of them a serious reasons, like tactics and strategies and not reinventing the wheel. At forty (or very close to), I’ve realised in recent years that I’m already old enough to have seen several cycles of activism go round – similar issues and dynamics recurring, people getting enthused and burnt out in depressingly similar and repetitive ways.

Of course, we all need to learn from our own mistakes, and that’s as true of younger activists in their political lives as of anything else. But do we need to keep making the same mistakes, over and over? There’s a difference, I think, that can be drawn between the kinds of personal, emotional screw-ups that everyone probably needs to go through to understand how to function sustainably as an activist in the world, and the movement-level mistakes that can be learnt about, if only we can put aside our pride, and our prejudices against older people, for long enough to do so.

As well as all that serious, important movement-building stuff, I also think that this interview with Sue should be watched by younger activists far and wide because it’s a great reminder that being involved in politics doesn’t all have to be deadly serious. As well as being a long-term, committed feminist and struggler for social justice in other forms, Sue is also a beautiful, flirtatious, sexy, fun, funny person, and that very much comes through in this video. She’s a glorious reminder of the fact that activism is part of life, and that while a lot of life might seem pretty grey and depressing, it should also be shot through with colours and glitter. If we don’t allow for that in our activism, we risk both our own health and sustainability, and being so bloody miserable-looking to other people that we put them off getting involved too.

Watching this video, I get the overwhelming sense that although Sue Crockford might have been hard-working, high-expectations kind of comrade in the 70s and 80s, she’d also have been a hell of a lot of fun to work with. And that’s a great set of lessons to learn, for all activists.