Category Archives: Social Movement Learning

On anxiety, social class and who feels comfortable at “top-down” meetings

On anxiety, social class and who feels comfortable at “top-down” meetings

Published on 15 Dec 2013

Some not quite fully thought through speculations. As well as social class, of course, there’s gender, ethnicity, age, ideology to put into the mix. But as an initial stab at answering the question “why are people content to continue with formats that encourage and enforce passivity, even when they proclaim the importance of activity and participation?”, then it will do. For now.

“Entrench warfare” or “why I don’t bother with one-off trainings” #smugosphere #inertia

A few years ago I organised a one-off training session on research for activists. It went well and had … no discernible impact on how anyone did anything.  So it goes.  I reflected on this – and other training I have been part of as a punter. And I came to the conclusion that unless you are part of a group that values the new skill/knowledge, then whatever shiny new training you have been on will simply not become embedded, and you and your group will stick to what you know.  This is not a particularly startling observation.  But now at least I have a citation I can back it up with when I am whining about the smugosphere

It’s from a bloody brilliant paper –

Perkmann, M. and Spcier, A. 2008. How are management fashions institutionalized? The role of institutional work. Human Relations, Vol. 61 (6), pp.811-844.

This bit

Zeitz et al. (1999) distinguish between the transitory adoption of a practice and its enduring ‘entrenchment’. Entrenchment is defined as the institutionalization of a practice to the extent that it is unlikely to be abandoned. They argue that while the mere adoption of a practice indicates the exposure to a fashion, entrenchment is required to induce a lasting change of practice. They identify five ‘pillars’ by which a fashionable concept can become entrenched: models (spurring imitation), culture (promoting identification), education (again spurring imitation), regulative/coercive influences (exerting power) and technical-rational influences (providing recipes for improving performance). Assuming that such entrenchment can occur at different levels of analysis, from individual, organizational, interorganizational to the societal level, they propose a set of ‘indicators’ that can be used for empirically assessing as to whether a practice has become entrenched: formalization, compatibility (with other practices), depth, systematic coherence (with other concepts and strategies) and the existence of ‘webs of interdependencies’ (Zeitz et al., 1999).
(Perkmann and Spicer, 2008: 814/5)

And that citation is this – Zeitz, G., Mittal, V. & McAulay, B. Distinguishing adoption and entrenchment of management practices: A framework for analysis. Organization Studies, 1999, 20(5), 741–76.

So,  a while back there was talk of me doing a training or two with a group. But since only one person in that group knew me/valued the training, and he wasn’t going to be sticking around, (he and I) decided it was at best a waste of time, energy and morale for all concerned, and at worst actively harmful (destroys the credibility of innovation, turns it into a ritualistic set-up-to-fail thing).

Doomed, I tell you, all doomed.  So what.

Resources – tangible and intangible

“Resources can be tangible (e.g. equipment, machinery, finance, human resources) as well as intangible. Intangible resources include assets such as technological know-how, the status or reputation of an actor, its social contacts and network ties. Moreover, resources are conceptualized to be controlled not only by organizations but also by entire industries or emerging technological fields.”
(Farla et al. 2012: 994-5)

And what resources do social movements organisations have? What is their plan to increase those resources, to maintain them etc etc? If there are no good answers, just walk away. Or rather, if you ask the questions and get hostility, walk away. Or run – as you see fit.

Inscribed capacity described

“As Allen (1997) has shown, power can be conceptualized in a variety of ways – as an ‘inscribed capacity’, a collectively produced resource mobilized by groups to achieve particular ends, or as a mobile and diffuse phenomenon realized as a series of ‘strategies, techniques, and practices’.”
(Lawhon and Murphy, 2011: 367)

Who does the inscribing? On what material? Sand, paper?  (Latour’s immutable mobiles etc etc).

In invisible ink? On paper that crumbles?  It’s like a fountain, isn’t it – constantly needing new inputs to stay even looking the same, let alone get bigger.  Flows and nos…

And who says organise says tyrannise, according to Bob Michels, anyway… though Osterman, P. 2006. Overcoming oligarchy: culture and Agency in Social Movement Organisations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 1 (1), pp. 63-85 looks like it is worth a read…

“A case study of the Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation is used to examine how a mass-movement social organization has been able to avoid the consequences of an oligarchic leadership structure, which previous scholars have claimed leads inevitably to loss of membership commitment, “becalming,” and goal displacement. The case describes this network of community organizations, which has a very strong and self-perpetuating authority structure but has nonetheless maintained the commitment and involvement of its membership for many decades as it addresses issues such as school reform, living wages, training programs, health insurance, and physical community infrastructure. The case shows how the organization maintained its membership commitment and a clear focus on its original objectives by enhancing the membership’s sense of capacity and agency and building a culture of contestation within the organization that encourages the membership to push back against the elite who dominate the organization.”

Here’s an Allen reference that looks mighty fine. Probably #afterthethesis though…

(Wind) Power to the People – Denmark, Tvind and bricolage

So, two years ago I read this

Hendry, C. and Harborne, P. 2011. Changing the view of wind power development: More than “bricolage.” Research Policy 40,, pp. 778-789.

and wrote this about it –

This was mentioned in a reading group/symposium yesterday by one of my supervisors. It’s a response/elaboration to a paper by Garud and Karnoe comparing the Danish and US wind energy industries and how they came about. Hendry and Harbone heartlessly puncture the lovely romantic notions that Tinkerers Matter throughout the process (they did, but once you get to a certain point, there’s no substitute for “science” and deep pockets.) Reminds me a bit of Manuel de Landa in “War in the Age of Intelligent Machines,” where he makes the point that there are tactics, but strategy will overcome them, and there is strategy, but in the end, logistics – being able to feed, clothe, arm and replace members of your army at a more efficient rate than your enemy – is what matters.

Well, the Danish wind industry is the gift that keeps on giving, if you are interested (like me) in niches that become regimes and ‘bottom-up’ pressure that actually, you know, ‘works’.

The latest I have found is this paper, which is brilliant.

Hoffman, J. 2013. Theorizing power in transition studies: the role of creativity and novel practices in structural change. Policy Science, Vol. 46, pp.257-275.

Just brilliant [full disclosure – for two years of my life (minus a year here and there) I lived in the shadow of the Tvind windmill. True story.].

Here are a couple of empirical chunks.  Far more interesting (well, as interesting) is the theoretical contribution, around ‘carrier waves’ and also the shortcomings of a multi-level framework,and the assumptions that innovations just, you know, happen.  –

Because the MLP assumes the presence of a ‘novel practice’, it hides from view how actors draw upon regimes and incorporate exogenous trends in shaping and defining what the [page break] ‘novelty’ is about and how it relates to the regime.
(Hoffman, 2013: 262-3)

But that’s for another time.

I shall distinguish between two key episodes of interaction between wind energy experiments and outside groups, both within and outside the energy sector. Although both very crucial for further development, the two episodes differed in terms of entrepreneurial activities, strategies, and the outcomes. In the first episode (1950s), entrepreneur Johannes Juul put up wind energy experiments in collaboration with power company SEAS. Even though the later popular 200-kW Gedser turbine resulted from these experiments, the energy sector’s support for wind energy waned and wind energy production in the 1960s was literally left to fall into disrepair. Danish wind energy experienced a second coming, however, when parts of the Danish democracy movement in the 1960s and 1970s adopted wind energy as a form of decentralized energy production. In this episode, wind energy became primarily an affair of the democracy movement, with little involvement of traditional energy companies. In contrast to the collaborative relationship between Juul and incumbent actors, wind energy actors in the democracy movement moved into an antagonistic relationship with incumbents; wind energy actors in the democracy movement openly contested incumbent practices and presented themselves as a decentralized and democratic alternative. In its decentralized form, wind energy production grew to substantial proportions resulting in a relatively strong industry that obtained a market share of half the world market for wind turbines.
(Hoffman, 2013: 259)


How do these insights help us make sense of the dynamic interplay between actions at the level of novel practices and power? Let us now draw on the case of Denmark to answer this question. The rising prices of import fuels in the 1950s formed a structural power that discredited incumbent practices and raised expectations about novel practices. Among others, the entrepreneur Juul proposed wind energy as a complement to the use of imported fuels, which regime players appreciated as a way to tackle the increasing costs of imported fuels. In collaboration with the power supplier SEAS and a Wind Energy Committee (Vindkraftudvalget) from the ministry of trade, Juul could draw on sufficient technical and financial resources to start experiments. This relational power resulted in the later widely used 200-kW Gedser wind turbine. At least for a while, rising prices for import fuels formed a carrier wave for novel energy practice. However, just when wind turbines were ready for upscaling, nuclear energy became a serious alternative and regime players’ expectations for wind energy practices were lowered. As a result, all wind energy projects were cut short and resources were withdrawn. Wind energy practices were left to ‘hobbyists’, bereft of relational power.
(Hoffman, 2013: 261)

Bloody compassion and the bloody smugosphere

We talk about “carbon capital”, “fossil fuel historical bloc”, ‘technological lock-in’.  Yep, them corporations and states sure are sclerotic, ain’t they? But, aside from talking about foundations and how NGOs take their money and sell a fake rebellion,  we don’t talk about social movement hegemonies and blocks or ‘social lock-in’. This bores me.

Descriptions of how we got into this mess are plentiful, and some of them are excellent. Some might say we have a plethora of these.  Much more rare are critiques of “blockadia” for its manifest (?) and manifold failings.

Where we are

Marches are “acceptable”  agreed format.  A dominant design, whatevs.

  • “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”
  • Keynes “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.”
  • “Better the devil you know..”

And if you criticise marches, then Gaia help you, for you are criticising The Tribe.

What happens when you criticise marches
People don’t/can’t hear and (so) create binaries/strawmen

  • “You want us to quit”
  • “You are like supporters of Apartheid”
  • “You are mentally unwell”

[Digression – in response to an enthusiastic call out for yet another goddam march on climate change – I wrote this

“And all the other marches achieved what exactly? Marches just give an excuse for people to turn up on one day (maybe having spent a couple of hours perfecting a snarky sign) and feel good about themselves. They are emotathons (and before you reply, why not try googling that word). Organisers lack imagination, ability to enhance their groups’ absorptive capacity. So instead they stick to their goddam zombie repertoires. It’s a good thing it is already too late to do anything substantive about climate change, or I’d be quite annoyed by this latest example of failure.”

Here’s what transpired, with the other people’s names blotted out, fwiw.





In the same way the joke ends with the bear saying “this isn’t about hunting, is it?” this isn’t about the marches.  These are proxies, surface responses to deeper anxieties.

All these add up to – ‘Don’t attack my tribe!’  And it’s hardest to take when comes from someone who ‘should be’ in the tribe, who can’t be dismissed as a denier or an official enemy.

Why are people so scared? (thus the ‘bloody compassion of the headline – I would prefer to be able to label people who don’t ‘get it’ as stupid and/or complacent. Reality is more complicated, dammit).
Over and above the standard operating of the smugosphere, there seems to be an extra level of fear that is clouding people’s ability to absorb new information, or even hear suggestions that we have to change our standard operating procedures. I think that is

  • Because the situation is – objectively – fucking terrifying.
  • Because, as Lennie sang, we know that we lost
  • Because (some of us?) know that our previous methods haven’t helped to create the movement we need.
  • Because people look at the last large-scale/publicised ‘innovation’ in social movements – Occupy and the Arab Spring – and they go ‘damn, that didn’t work’ and so we retreat into what makes us feel good, what is easy – the cycle of meetings and marches, marches and meetings.

We have to swallow the fear  and actually innovate, actually listen to critiques of our current failures

Dismissing them (by claiming someone is mentally unwell, advocating quitting, or analogous to an Apartheid supporter) is – at its best-  intellectually bankrupt and morally vacuous.  I would argue strongly – or at least emphatically –  that it is harmful and morally indefensible, but that would be another blog post.


We have to ask some questions

Do marches build social movements?

Well, if they did, wouldn’t we have won by now?

Let’s get beyond the marches/no marches binary, and reframe that question.  “Do marches, on their own, build social movements.”

Okay, I hope we can all agree the answer to that is “no.”

Are there loads of people who care about these issues but don’t get substantively involved in the actions of social movement organisations?

I hope we can all agree the answer to that is “yes.”  (If the answer is no, we’re totally fubarred.)

So, in order to ‘win’ (whatever that means) do we need a proportion of those people to become involved and to stay involved?

If your answer to that is ‘no’, then you may as well stop reading.

So, given that social movement organisations have been holding marches and meetings, meetings and marches, what have we been doing wrong?

What do we need to do less of, what do we need to stop doing altogether?

What do we need to do more of, what do we need to start doing that we haven’t been?

There are lots of things groups do – websites, newsletters, rallies/protests.
But the ‘big one’ is meetings. Let’s divide it into two kinds (there is overlap, of course)

Business meetings and ‘public meetings’.

What is the experience of new people at both?

From personal experience, it’s not good.  (see recruitment/decruitment stuff).  People get treated as ego-fodder.

If you look closely, you will see some people leave either at the end of the speech or during the Q and A, or right after it and before the ‘mingling’. Did you ever wonder why they left, why they came in the first place, why so many of them you never see again?
It’s like a first date.  They were checking you out. And when they realised that you only wanted to talk about yourself, they left, and stopped returning your calls for a second date.

What are the obstacles for us to doing this? Or “Expect resistance”

  • Habit –routines. Our expectations of ourselves and each other, the ‘scripts’ of the ‘right way’ to do things.
  • Our frustration that we have the high moral ground, that it shouldn’t have to be up to us to work smarter, given the moral arguments are on our side and the bloody corporations and states/bureaucracies ought to keep their bloody promises.
  • Our fear of failure. Many of us are middle-class and our schooling taught us that there was One Right Answer and if we memorised it or mastered the procedure for arriving at that One Right Answer, then we would ‘succeed’.  That reflects curricula and the ease of marking exams, not life.
  • Most of us do not reflect on the format of meetings
  • The current set up benefits some people with some skills and some status.
  • Cops? If they see us becoming more effective, they will up their game. Right now, they don’t particularly have to try that hard, I fear.

What could we do right now?

  • Have lower expectations of the power of marches to motivate existing members (people get foot-sore) and to ‘recruit’ new ones.
  • Have higher demands on ourselves for how we will structure meetings not for us and our mates, but for the new people, the hesitant ones, the ones who are not extroverts.
  • Contest the smugosphere, the emotathons, both when OTHER people suggest them and when YOU do.  Accept that social movement organisations need to innovate as well.

If the rest of the movement was healthy, but we were still doing too many marches, I’d grit my teeth and live with it.  But it isn’t and we are.  As a substitute for action.  So it goes.

Crash test dummies and movement building

Do you ever feel you’re strapped into a car that almost deliberately, wilfully, crashes into a wall? Sort of a Groundhog Day/Source Code mash-up, with Camus ruefully driving a Facel Vega and getting hit by a boulder that some clown had let roll down a hill?

I do.

It’s like we in the ‘social movement activism’ game are crash test dummies – and this song, which is all about arbitrary and inescapable pain –

has a hidden (source) code in its title,  that actually stands for  Mitigation mismanaged – mobilisation murders movement-building – Moments mostly muffed –   Misery mounts momentously.

Where did this come from?

Well, partly from hearing Professor Kevin Anderson do the same speech two weeks apart (I don’t mind, it’s a corker of a speech).  It’s about the pending ecological debacle  and it has this line about how “we” have tried everything else – offsetting, emissions trading, promises of carbon capture and storage- instead of, you know mitigation, and might it not be a good idea to actually try mitigation [FWIW, I think that ship has sailed].

Well, for me at least it’s the same with the various hype cycles of social movement/environmental activism over the past 10 years (actually, a lot longer, if you take in the roads protests morphing into GM crop morphing into Anti-Capitalism (man) from 1996 to 2001.) There were camps, marches, legal processes, tensions between the various perspectives (liberal reformist, state socialist, smash the state anarchism) and endlessly repeated (photocopied? Ctrl C + Ved?) proclamations of the urgent need to Movement Build.  And the answer was never to take a close look at why previous efforts had failed, why so few new faces at meetings/events/camps/marches came back for seconds – or if they did, came back for thirds.  Nope, it was always an emotathonic call for Another Big Event.


And wheels on the movement go round and round.  Until they fall off. Again.

Don’t get me wrong – a lot of people have put a lot of brain and muscle power into these things, sincerely believing it was a contribution to a better world.  (I’m talking about offsetting, emissions trading, CCS; the same goes for the Occupies, the camps, the rallies and marches.)

But these are all the appearance of movement-building, they are actually mostly mobilisation. The two can overlap, but they can also be in opposition to each other.

Might it not be a good idea to actually try movement-building [FWIW, I think that ship has sailed].

  • What is there for the person who doesn’t want to/cannot come to the next meeting/march/whatever?
  • Who can’t afford (in any sense) to get arrested?
  • Who is bored by being ego-fodder?
  • Who has some skills and wants others?
  • et. cet. er. a.