Category Archives: Social Movements

On the tribal barriers to cat-belling

Think in systems, dammit.

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

But think in systems, dammit.

If you WERE to say, for example

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

Well, three things would happen

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will try, for what it is worth, to

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Anything else you’d like to say?

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


'Transgression' is now available, £2.50 Kindle, £6.99 paperback. 
Also available direct via

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

6 articles in search of an author to write about them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Edwards (2008:299) writes

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

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

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

(Edwards, 2008:303)

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

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

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

(Edwards, 311-312)

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

shite meetings edwards 2008

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

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

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

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

(Horton & Kraftl,2009:14)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fifth, implicit activisms do not often constitute an identity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Jones, 2017: xx)


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

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

(King, 2006: 874)

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

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

(King, 2006:876)

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

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

(King, 2006:880-81)

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

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

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

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

(King, 2006:887)

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

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

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

(McAdam, 1992:1224)

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

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

(McPherson,1983: 519)

But it never gets all sociobiological, thank goodness

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

(McPherson,1983: 520)

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

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

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


Particularly useful stuff for activists (concepts, anecdotes)

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

Books and articles I should get around to reading and digesting

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

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

Andrews, M. (2014). What is narrative interviewing? Retrieved from

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who sticks around, who doesn’t? Maps, member-tracing and validity issues

When it comes to “successful” social movements the questions are usually “how big was the demo?”(1) or “how do we get more people along to our next meeting?”  This is of course, wrong-headed. (Some of) the relevant questions are –   “Who drops out?” “Why?” “Who sticks around?” “Why?” “What does “sticking around” even mean, anyway?”

Good questions, obvs, and there are if not actual answers in these papers below, thhen at least there are some conceptual tools and links to other papers I ought to be reading.

Btw, this is the third post about reading I am doing on activists and their histories (see first one and second one). There are probably more to come, and I really need to synthesise this, don’t I?  Sigh.  Seems a bit futile, given how close the apocalypse is.  Still, one must plod on…

Fillieule, O. (2010). Some elements of an interactionist approach to political disengagement. Social Movement Studies, 9(1), 1–15.

Naomi Maynard (2018).  Activism across the lifecourse: Circumstantial, dormant and embedded activisms. Area.  50:205–212.

Sevasti-Melissa Nolas, Christos Varvantakis & Vinnarasan Aruldoss (2017) Political activism across the life course, Contemporary Social Science, 12:1-2, 1-12, DOI:10.1080/21582041.2017.1336566

Peter Millward and Shaminder Takhar (2019). Social Movements, Collective Action and Activism. Sociology, Vol. 53(3) NP1­–NP12.

Johanna Söderström 2020. Life diagrams: a methodological and analytical tool for accessing life histories. Qualitative Research, Vol. 20(1) 3­–21.

Fillieule, O. (2010)  makes a good case for thinking of “activist careers” (though of course for many this can be quite short, not always through their own fault).  There’s lots of good stuff in here, and this is of particular use to climate activists needing to think about divisions of labour etc –

“Beyond selection mechanisms, organizations also do a lot of work in socializing their members, understood as role taking, which allows individuals to identify the different roles they face and correctly fulfil their customary tasks. This secondary socialization can, at times, assume the form of explicit inculcations, the goal of which is to homogenize activists’ categories of thought and their way of acting within and in the name of the organization. Most of the time, know-how and activist wisdom amounts to a ‘practical sense’, what Bourdieu refers to as ‘the anticipated adjustment to the requirements of a field, what the language of sports calls the “sense of the game” (like “sense of place”, “the art of anticipation”, etc.)’, acquired over the course of a ‘long dialectical process, often described as a “vocation”, by which “we make ourselves” according to what is making us and we “choose” that by which we are “chosen”’(Bourdieu, 1980, pp. 111 –112). This process takes place outside of our conscious awareness.”

(Fillieule, 2010: 7)

The filters are no longer as crude as this quote below, but they are still there…

Here, Doug McAdam cites the gendered dimensions of recruitment by the SNCC of white student volunteers for the ‘Freedom Summer’ of 1964 (McAdam, 1992). McAdam demonstrates that applications from women were strongly discouraged due to both racist and sexist stereotypes. Where women nonetheless persisted in their desire to be involved, recruiters almost systematically excluded those who would not limit themselves to tasks considered feminine.

(Fillieule, 2010: 6)


Also, there’s a preliminary answer to that “how to categorise who votes with their feet?” question-

Introvigne (1999, p. 62) distinguishes between defectors, who leave their organization in a negotiated fashion and by agreement; apostates, who become their organization’s professional enemies; and ordinary leave takers, who disappear quietly, and whose disengagement carries no apparent notable cost, for either themselves or the organization (1999, p. 67). Yet this is a rather cursory typology. It needs to be completed by various types of passive defection – withdrawal without leaving an organization – and different scenarios in which disengagement from an organization is followed, and sometimes provoked, by joining another organization or cause.

(Fillieule, 2010: 30). The reference is Introvigne, M. (1999) Defectors, ordinary leavetakers and apostates: a quantitative study of former members of New Acropolis in France, Nova Religio, The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, 3(1), pp. 83 –99.)

and you know, there is the rhetoric of “openness” but that isn’t the lived experience of “newbies” –

“Many accounts show how, faced with the arrival of new members, long-time activists may, through various voluntary and involuntary means, ‘close ranks’ and make it difficult for newcomers to integrate. In research on internal decision-making procedures in American social movements, Polletta (2002) provides a number of examples of this. She especially shows how the women’s liberation movement, based on an internal structure stressing sisterhood and rejecting explicit internal hierarchy, placed numerous barriers to the entry of women anxious to join the group, to such an extent that generational renewal was rendered almost impossible (Polletta, 2002, pp. 151, 154; see also Whittier (1995) on the feminist movement in Columbus).”

(Fillieule, 2010:11)



Naomi Maynard (2018)   argues “for the importance of conceptualising activism as a dynamic temporal, as well as spatial, process.”  Translation – time matters. She talks to former yoof activists and proposes three states of activism… circumstantial, dormant and embedded. And then there is also “implicit activism”(Horton and Kraftl 2009), about which I am less sure… (but that may well be my privilege showing).

Sevasti-Melissa Nolas, Christos Varvantakis & Vinnarasan Aruldoss (2017)  are with Maynard on the time question –

“How does a life course approach to political activism expand the ways in which political activism might be defined? How might political activism across the life course be studied? We argue that bringing questions of people’s personal and social relationships to time into conversation with political activism challenges commonly held beliefs and practices about political participation.”

(Nolas et al., 2017: 2)

There’s also a SUPER useful pointer in the direction of work that problematises the “citizen” label, of who gets to be one  (odd how they almost always tend to be educated white prosperous older heterosexual men, and if they’re not, they’re somehow thought of as interlopers/termagants/uppity)

“A useful way to start to answer this question is by looking at a key term for thinking about political participation: ‘the citizen’ (Dalton, 2009; Norris, 2009). There is a long debate in the social sciences about the many exclusions embedded in this term including exclusions on the grounds of age (see below), gender (Lister, 2003; McAfee, 2000; Roseneil, 2013), racial, ethnic (Hall, 1993) and sexual (Plummer, 2003) identities. Such exclusions are closely linked with disciplinary power dynamics and the central role that psychology and psychoanalysis have played in the modern invention of the self (Rose, 1998; Steedman, 1998).”

(Nolas et al., 2017: 4)

There’s also this: “Carolyn Pedwell, drawing on the work of Jane Bennett, calls this ‘the mind-body-environment assemblage’ (quoted in Pedwell, 2017, p. 95).”


Peter Millward and Shaminder Takhar (2019) : this is an overview piece of the last 50 years of appearance of thinking/articles about social movements and collective action in the journal Sociology. So probably a bit niche for your average activist… but nice factoids and stuff to read –


Johanna Söderström (2020).  Oh, this is good stuff, which we can try to use with the rest of the interviews we do.  Basically, get folks to do a ‘map’ that they and you can check against the life history interview, which is gonna wander around in many ways anyways.

She argues for

“the utility of life diagrams as a methodological and analytical tool across various life history projects. Using research on post-war political mobilization among former combatants (in Colombia, Namibia and the United States), the article demonstrates how a life diagram can modify the interview and become a useful analytical tool.”

(Söderström, 2020: 3)

Also, the point that depending when you interview someone is going to influence the answers they give is well explained, with a super-reflexive quote from one of the interviewees:

“If the interview is carried out at a time when the person is very active in politics and sees a future with even more engagement (if they have drawn a line that continues into the future), this position is likely to color how they see earlier spells of life where they chose to withdraw from politics, in contrast with a person who is currently inactive as well. One of the former M-19 guerillas commented on how the timing of the interview matter for how she answers:

So I always ask them to give me the interview afterwards […]… Because sometimes I see questions that were done to me a while ago and how I answered them, and then I say, hey, how did I answer this differently. Not different in terms of content, but the development of how I answered again in another moment after living other things, the same question… How we have changed… a different life… (Alba).

(Söderström, 2020: 8-9)

But wait, there’s more! There’s also a typology of pathways-

“Three typical political life paths were identified in the work with these former combatants: the Resilient, the Remobilizers and the Removed. The Resilient experienced a sustained or increasing political mobilization post-disarmament. In the life courses of these individuals, they were resilient to all of these events (A and B). The Remobilizers or the Remobilized experienced decreased political participation at some point after dis-armament followed by a re-mobilization in politics, sometimes multiple times. The Removed experienced a decrease in political mobilization sometime after disarmament lasting until today.”

(Söderström, 2020:13)

And the nice warning – ‘stories are simulations of participants’ meaning, and not the meaning itself’ (Polkinghorne, 2007: 482)


So, all up, useful articles. Question is now to implement what I have learnt, because otherwise, I’ll just forget it (quickly) and stuff it up/have false sense of knowledge…


Useful methodological tools  (see “interviews methodological page”)

  • Life course diagrams
  • “Member checking” (with provisos)

Useful conceptual tools

  • Types of activism  -intermittent, Jones (2017)
  • ‘resonant sites of activism’ (Rosen, 2017)
  • “Habit of responding” – Andrews (2017) suggests that maintaining political commitment depends on cultivating a ‘habit of responding’.

Papers and, gasp, books,  I clearly need to read

Da Silva, R. (2017). Narrative resources and political violence: The life stories of former clandestine militants in Portugal. Contemporary Social Science, 12(1–2). doi:10.1080/21582041.2017.1335878

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

Grasso, M. T., Farrall, S., Gray, E., Hay, C., & Jennings, W. (2017, January 26). Thatcher’s children, Blair’s babies, political socialization and trickle-down value change: An age, period and cohort analysis. British Journal of Political Science. Advanced online publication. doi:10.1017/S0007123416000375

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

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

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

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

Marwick, A. E., & boyd, d. (2011). I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience. New Media & Society, 13(1), 114–133.

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

Passy F and Giugni M (2000) Life-spheres, networks, and sustained participation in social movements: a phenomenological approach to political commitment. Sociological Forum 15(1): 117–144.

Pedwell, C. (2017). Transforming habit: Revolution, routine and social change. Cultural Studies, 31(1), 93–120.

Polkinghorne DE (2007) Validity issues in narrative research. Qualitative Inquiry 13(4): 471–486.

Popielarz, P. & McPherson, M. (1995) On the edge or in between: niche position, niche overlap and the duration of voluntary association memberships, American Journal of Sociology, 101(3), pp. 698–720.

Rosen, R. (2017). Play as activism? Early childhood and (inter)generational politics. Contemporary Social Science, 12(1–2). doi:10.1080/21582041.2017.1324174

Whittier, N. (1997) Political generations, micro cohorts and the transformation of social movements, American Sociological Review, 62(5), pp. 760 –778.

Activists and “narrative” – of academia, words and deeds. Oh, and Paul Kelly did it better

The TL:DR – Follow my “adventures” as I read a bunch of articles and only narrowly escape rabbitholitis. Conclusion – there ARE useful things to be had in reading about activism, useful for “movements.” But you need to know a lot, have been through a lot, be able to theorise and act before you can make use of it. And that is something you can’t do on your own, or as a one-off. These are, contra all the Hobbesian shit we are taught – collective processes, with all the hassle that entails…

Before we get to it- two songs by Paul Kelly, one of the great song-writers (not just Australian song-writers, but song-writers full stop.  There’s an album track of his – So Blue – that I tried to get him to play at a gig in London in 1995, without success.  It’s about a Cezanne painting.  This one.


There’s a lyric-

Now Pablo’s work was child’s play
Henri did it faster
But the slow old grizzly bear
Was their lord and master.

Well, Kelly says as much as the accumulated articles below, in 11 words, in a  song called “To Her Door”.  And you’ll get those 11 words at the very very end of this interminable blog post. Or you can scroll down, obvs…

Articles I read:

Annette Linden and Bert Klandermans 2007. Revolutionaries, Wanderers, Converts, and Compliants:Life Histories of Extreme Right Activists. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography Volume 36 Number 2 184-201

Olivia Sagan (2011) Interminable knots: hostages to toxic stories, Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 19:1, 97-118, DOI: 10.1080/14681366.2011.548992

Margaretta Jolly (2011) Consenting Voices? Activist Life Stories and Complex Dissent, Life Writing, 8:4, 363-374, DOI: 10.1080/14484528.2011.619710

Guillaume Marche (2015) Memoirs of Gay Militancy: A Methodological Challenge, Social Movement Studies, 14:3, 270-290, DOI: 10.1080/14742837.2014.963546

Marche, Guillaume,(2017). Political memoirs and intimate confessions: Analysing four US gay liberation/gay rights militants’ memoirs. Sexualities, Vol. 20(8) 959–980

The thing I learnt, again, is that Pascal had it nailed when he wrote about your knowledge being the surface area of the sphere and your ignorance being the volume.  The more you stretch the former, the vastly larger the latter gets. Welcome to existence, mo’fo…

Aside from that, there were a few nuggets.

Annette Linden and Bert Klandermans 2007. Revolutionaries, Wanderers, Converts, and Compliants:Life Histories of Extreme Right Activists. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography Volume 36 Number 2 184-201

This was interesting in as far as it went – it’s rare for rightwing groups to get much study (for various reasons). Linden and Klandermans did interviews with a bunch of people (36) as extreme right-wingness was on the up in Dutch parliament, and then with 24 of them after it had crashed and burned.

“Becoming an activist was a matter of continuity, of conversion, or of compliance. Continuity denotes life histories wherein movement membership and participation are a natural consequence of prior political socialization; conversion to trajectories wherein movement membership and participation are a break with the past; and compliance to when people enter activism, not owing to personal desires but because of circumstances they deemed were beyond their control.”

This below deserves some thought too.  They are not mutually exclusive, of course, and the balance very probably shifts in an individual and a group over time, thanks to external and internal factors (i.e. don’t make the mistake of thinking in terms of concreteness but instead in processes and flows, probabilities and tendencies).

“Klandermans (2004) distinguishes three fundamental motives to participate in social movements: instrumentality— someone wants to change a social or political state of affairs; identity —someone wants to engage with like-minded others; and ideology —someone wants to express a view.”

Olivia Sagan (2011) Interminable knots: hostages to toxic stories, Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 19:1, 97-118, DOI: 10.1080/14681366.2011.548992

This one was not directly relevant – basically it’s a case study of a guy who is trying to keep his shit together, but failing. Nonetheless, there’s interesting stuff from Bion (his name is popping up a lot in various things I am reading – The Claustrum etc).

“Real knowledge, according to Bion, involves emotion at its core, and truth is an emotional experience. ‘Learning about’, in contrast, is exteriorised, and occurs in a way which does not change or challenge the foundations of a person’s being.” (White 2002, 93)

Margaretta Jolly (2011) Consenting Voices? Activist Life Stories and Complex Dissent, Life Writing, 8:4, 363-374, DOI: 10.1080/14484528.2011.619710

Jolly argues that life stories of activists who become leaders help us to understand patterns of dissent and consent, can balance judgements about insiders, outsiders and traitors to the cause.  There are some biogs worth reading, obvs.

Guillaume Marche (2015) Memoirs of Gay Militancy: A Methodological Challenge, Social Movement Studies, 14:3, 270-290, DOI: 10.1080/14742837.2014.963546

Guillaume lays out four ways activists think through their ‘identity’

“In the first essay, I identify each author’s way of inscribing her/his activist identity: confessional (Kantrowitz), historiographical (Duberman), testimonial (Hoffman) and testamentary (Jay). 7”

Footnote 7 is “Obviously, the four modes overlap and no memoir reflects one to the exclusion of all the others.”  Sure, and in an interview situation the way you set out your goal will influence this too – since interviewees will try to give you what you want/what is ‘useful’…  Catch them on a different day, at a different stage, and it might be very different….

Marche then gives us some Ricouer-

Memoir writing necessarily involves a reinvention of the past – i.e. not just a passive remembrance of events, but a more active form of recollection, as Ricœur’s distinction between anamnēsis and the mnemonic dimension of memory suggests (2004, pp. 3 and 4). (Marche 2015: 274)


“In his examination of ‘the relations between knowledge and the practice of history and the experience of lived memory’, Ricœur distinguishes three phases in the transformation of memory into history. The ‘documentary’ phase ‘runs from the declaration of eyewitnesses to the constituting of archives’. The ‘explanation/understanding’ phase answers the question ‘Why did things happen like that and not otherwise?’ Finally the ‘representative’ phase is ‘the putting into literary or written form of discourse offered to the readers of history’ (2004, p. 137). (Marche 2015: 276)

Then we get to one of the key – for me- points – why people ‘walk away’-

“Interestingly, in his study of social movements disaffiliation, political scientist Fillieule relies on the symbolic interactionist notion of careers – as defined by Hughes and Becker – to appreciate why and how disengagement makes sense in social actors’ life cycles:

Applied to political commitment, the notion of career allows us to understand how, at each biographical stage, the attitudes and behaviours of activists are determined by past attitudes and behaviours, which in turn condition the range of future possibilities, thus resituating commitment across the entire life cycle.” (Fillieule, 2010, p. 11)

(Marche, 2015: 281)

The Fillieule reference, which I am gonna track down and defo read is – Fillieule, O. (2010). Some elements of an interactionist approach to political disengagement. Social Movement Studies, 9(1), 1–15.

Marche, Guillaume,(2017). Political memoirs and intimate confessions: Analysing four US gay liberation/gay rights militants’ memoirs. Sexualities, Vol. 20(8) 959–980

Marche is covering the same turf – the same four autobiographies – but with a slightly different angle.  He talks usefully about Bourdieu’s “biographical illusion”-

“In 1986, Pierre Bourdieu famously warned sociologists against the risk of a ‘biographical illusion’, claiming that the misleading immediacy of individual life-stories might conjure away the objective structures in which social agents negotiate their destinies (Bourdieu, 2004). Heeding Bourdieu’s warning, proponents of the biographical method of sociology study how individual life-trajectories construct themselves at the intersection between structural constraints and subjective choices (Bessin, 2009; Fillieule and Mayer, 2001; Passeron, 1990).” (Marche, 2017: 960)

and then there’s this –

Roseneil et al. apply the biographical-narrative interpretive method to their corpus of 67 interviews. They identify five types of narrative of intimate citizenship: ‘narratives of self-realization and authenticity’, ‘narratives of struggle’, ‘narratives of unfulfilment or failure’, ‘conventional narratives’, and ‘narratives of oppression’ (Roseneil et al., 2012: 52). (Marche, 2017: 971)

which might be another way of categorising/typologising. If it is what we are trying to do???

Ideas worth tracking down/playing with

  • Klandermans (2004) distinguishes three fundamental motives to participate in social movements: instrumentality— someone wants to change a social or political state of affairs; identity —someone wants to engage with like-minded others; and ideology —someone wants to express a view.
  • Learning vs “learning about” (visceral, transformative vs Gradgrind/fact collection) Bion (though this may not be close enough to what I am supposed to be doing to fit in!
  • Merton’s discussion of `sociological autobiography’, (see Stanley, L. (1993) On auto/biography in sociology. Sociology 27(1): 41–52.)  See also “Merton says that the ‘sociological autobiography‘ uses sociological ideas, procedures and perspectives to form and interpret our own lives – but crucially within a wider history and contemporary society; in this way our own inner lives can be related to more extensive concerns and changes.” – (Roberts, 2002)


Reading list to track down (the volume of the sphere and all that)

Andrews, Molly. 1991. Lifetimes of commitment. Aging, politics, psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

“This book is an exploration of the ways in which political belief is developed and sustained throughout the course of a lifetime. Through extensive interviews, it focuses on the lives of fifteen British men and women, aged between seventy and ninety, who have dedicated half a century or longer to working for social change and justice. From Dorothy Greenald’s commitment to provision of adequate housing for prisoners’ families to Walter Gregory’s active service in the Spanish Civil War and Trevor Huddleston’s vital role in the international Anti-Apartheid Movement, these men and women have been involved in both local and international struggles. Respondents discuss topics ranging from the importance of gender identity for their political activism, to their perceptions of recent events in Eastern Europe. The work is unusual in combining an investigation of individual lifelong political commitment with a wider consideration of the formation of social identity, aging and the interplay between individuals and their environment. Lifetimes of commitment will have a wide appeal amongst social psychologists, sociologists, social and oral historians and political scientists.”

Armstrong E (2006) Movements and memory: The making of the Stonewall myth. American Sociological Review 71(5): 724–751.

Bion, W.R. 1959. Attacks on linking. International Journal of Psychoanalysis 40: 308–15.

Egri, Carolyn P., and David A. Ralston. ‘Generation Cohorts and Personal Values: A Comparison of China and the U.S.’ Organization Science 15.2 (2004): 210 20.

Fosl C (2008) Anne Braden, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Rigoberta Menchu. Using personal narrative to build activist movements. In: Solinger R, Fox M and Irani K (eds) Telling Stories to Change the World. Global Voices on the Power of Narrative to Build Community and Make Social Justice Claims. London: Routledge, pp. 217–226.

Klandermans, Bert. 2004. The demand and supply of participation: Social psychological correlates of participation in a social movement. In Blackwell companion to social movements, edited by David A. Snow, Sarah Soule, and Hanspeter Kriesi, 360-79. Oxford: Blackwell.

Lénárt-Cheng H and Walker D (2011) Using life stories for social and political activism. Biography 34(1): 141–179.

Lewis, David. ‘Using Life Histories in Social Policy Research: The Case of Third Sector/ Public Sector Boundary Crossing.’ Journal of Social Policy 37.4 (2008): 1-20.

Passeron, J.-C. (1990). Biographies, flux, itinéraires, trajectoires. Revue Francaise de Sociologie, 31, 3–22.

Perkins, M. V. (2000). Autobiography as activism: Three black women of the sixties. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.

Polletta, F. (2006). It was like a fever: Storytelling in protest and politics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Roberts, Brian (2002) Sociological Lives and Auto/Biographical Writing. In: Narrative, Memory and Life Transitions. University of Huddersfield, Huddersfield, pp. 163­170.

Roseneil S, Crowhurst I, Hellesund T, et al. (2012) Remaking intimate citizenship in multi-cultural Europe. Experiences outside the conventional family. In: Halsaa B, Roseneil S and Sumer S (eds) Remaking Citizenship in Multicultural Europe. Women’s Movements,Gender and Diversity. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 41–69.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. ‘Stages of Self: Notes on Autobiography and the Life Cycle.’ Autobiography: Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies. Boston University Journal 25 (1977). Ed. Trev Lynn Broughton. Vol. 1. London: Routledge, 2007: 199 212.

Stanley, L. (1993) On auto/biography in sociology. Sociology 27(1): 41–52.

Taylor J (2009) Rich sensitivities: An analysis of conflict among women in feminist memoir. Canadian Review of Sociology/Revue Canadienne de Sociologie 46(2): 123–141.

Truc, G. (2011). Narrative identity against biographical illusion: The shift in sociology from Bourdieu to Ricœur. Études Ricœuriennes/Ricœur Studies, 2, 150–167.

White, J. 2002. On ‘learning and learning about’: W.R. Bion’s theory of thinking and educational praxis. In The ship of thought: Essays on psychoanalysis and learning, Duncan Barford, 84–105. London: Karnac Books.


That lyric?  Paul Kelly on the need/effort to put the ‘facts’ together in a narrative that ‘works’. In writing of a man who has fucked up, and is now on a visit to his wife, and see his kids…

“Could he make a picture

And get them all to fit?”

Fwiw, has haunted me since the late 1980s, when I first heard it. We are things that need (to make) meaning.

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.

Videos abt useful concepts: Biographical Availability

Gonna make videos about “useful” concepts – the ones that I seem to come back to time and again.  Have downloaded Openshot, am gonna fire up my Paint skills (and maybe some Gimping).  This one is as rough as a badger’s arse, but so what?

Biographical availability.

Others to follow – emotacycles, legitimate peripheral participation, sociotechnical transitions, sustainability transitions, “acceleration” thereof, belling the cat etc

The four Cs- Coronavirus, Capitalism, Climate and Cats (“belling of”) 

Another hot take about what may be coming. The USP for this one is that 

  • It tries to use some academic theories but in plain English
  • It admits up front – “who the hell knows?”
  • It actually foregrounds the crucial question other posts (e.g. this otherwise interesting one)  ignore – “who is going to bell the bloody cat?” 

Look, you’re in lock down, and this will kill 15 minutes or so….


In the following essay I try to do four things. Firstly, I want to suggest some intellectual tools which might be of use to you in thinking about what is going on/will go on. There are plenty of such tools knocking about (Marxist-or-other dialectics, policy theories, conspiracy theories, economics and other poking- around-in-the-chicken-entrails). This essay only focuses on two, and some of my favourites (1) don’t make the cut.

The two in use here are sociotechnical transitions (“Multi-Level Perspective” and deep transitions)  and neo-institutional theory (both the ‘pillars’ image and ‘institutional work’). I will try to keep this first section as pithy and vivid as possible, but, you know, these things come from academia, so there are limits on their digestibility. I’ll end that section with a shout out to some ideas I’ve encountered in the last few days which look tasty but which I haven’t had time to chew on.

Secondly, I want to use these tools to make some suggestions on the sorts of behaviours we will see as the pandemic continues/wanes. This section will draw on what others have been writing of late.

Thirdly, I want to suggest the cat belling question is equivalent to the “Van Halen demand no brown M&Ms backstage”  tactic(2).  That is to say, if an article – academic or popular – isn’t clear about who has to act, and how, then it’s probably a waste of your time.  And so in order not to be a waste of your time, I give my current answer to that question.

Finally, I want to flag just how much we don’t know, and things we should look at. This is the bit where I hope someone with access to ERC funds goes “give that man – who has signally failed to get more than one of the 6 jobs he has been interviewed for in the last year – a postdoc.  Money is no object.”

First, two disclaimers –

  1. Who the hell knows?  The ball we are staring into is less limpid crystal ball and more pitch black bowling ball. And while we are talking balls, the wrecking ball of Coronavirus puts paid to many firm facts that seemed so damn solid four weeks ago. (who knew there was a magic money tree, eh?) But which of these facts have melted into air, and which of them have moved aside/fallen over, only to get up again in the near future? Who the hell knows?
  2. If I seem glib, it’s because I am glib.  I, famously, don’t have skin in this game. If I had gone done the breeding thing, I’d be going out of my gourd about now. But the glibness, well, it’s a transparent (in every sense) defence against the night terrors, innit?



Part 1: “If the only tool you have is a hammer…”

We are all of us struggling to make sense of what is going on these last few weeks.  The most easy thing to do is keep track of death rates, of where we are compared to this country or that country (Italy seems to have become the baseline for Europe at least), and curse that we aren’t living in New Zealand, where they seem to mostly have their shit together (certainly their Prime Minister talks a much better game than her Australian/UK counterparts).  That gives us a temporary sense of control, because, you know, numbers make it scientific(3).

Next along, it becomes a morality play – of who ignored what warnings, who shut down what, who stripped what public sector organisation of which crucial resources.  This is all good grist for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be held in (checks notes) …2022 or so.

The slightly more sophisticated version is to decry neoliberalism, and the casual stripping of the state’s capacity to act, flogging off anything that isn’t nailed down and selling it at firesale prices to rich mates who happen to be donating to your political party and/or providing you with a job once you’ve done your years in the trenches as a party hack or a bureaucrat. That’s a morality play with footnotes, with the added advantage that it takes you closer to the systemic nature of what has been done to collective provision.  And you can bop along to REM’s Ignoreland as you read Harvey, Mirkowski, Brown, or the “much raking” about Dark Money. If you’re nimble, you might even get a couple of publications out of it.

Still, morality plays with footnotes don’t help us orient ourselves. And right now, we could seriously do with some shared situational awareness.

So, what is to be done? What tools (that I am aware of) might help us see this more systemically, but still allow us to think in a granular level about the what is to be done (WITBD) question in ways that go beyond pleasantries, platitudes and shibboleths?

I’ve got two proposals, which are, to be fair, kinda linked. The first is socio-technical transitions (mostly “Multilevel Perspective” –  I am probably overcooking it and under-referencing ‘deep transitions’  ). The second is institutional theory – especially the work of Scott (three pillars) and the whole “institutional work” thing.

First, MLP/Deep Transitions.

The MLP was first propounded in the late 1990s in the context of ‘sociotechnical transitions’. These are long, slow changes from one relatively stable state to a new relatively stable state. Shortest way to explain transitions: if Doctor Who used his/her Tardis and went to 1400 and found a sailor and took them to 1800, the sailor would be impressed but not totally freaked out. They’d see that the basics were the same – trees were cut down, turned into planks into hulls. Then some masts. Sails were made. Ropes were made. People had jobs as sailors, provisioners etc.  Sure, some new kit (astrolabes, chronometers etc) but the basics were unchanged. If the good Doctor were to scoot them forward to 1900 and it’s all metal steamships and it would blow their 1400AD minds: “wtaf?”

So, in the intervening 100 years, “everything changed”.  And there had been a prolonged battle between sail and steam, with all sorts of folks jockeying to maintain the current system or switch to a new one, based on where their money was coming from, what they thought was ‘right’.

So, one durable/popular way to talk about sociotechnical systems and their staying power/inertia has been the multilevel perspective (MLP). What follows is exceptionally crude.

The MLP three levels – landscape, regime and niche. The landscape level – this is where there are long term “big” factors which no individual actor can really shift or control – so for the rise of the steamship it might be associated developments in transport (railways), communications (telegraph), business management (see Alfred Chandler), Western expansionism/colonisation etc.

The “regime” (or “system” – there’s a lot of debate about these terms, because, well,  academics) is where the “big beasts” are trying to keep things on, ah, an even keel (sorry). Big business, trade associations, government departments, regulators.  Anyone who is likely to get quoted in the first eight paragraphs of a Financial Times “state of the sector” special feature. And in the 19th century it would be the big shipbuilders, insurers, the British Navy, the American Navy etc.

Finally, you’ve got the “niches” where lots of experiments take place – people tinkering in their proverbial garden sheds, innovators and entrepreneurs who either want to bring a new product to market to get rich (or die trying), or who want to change the way the “regime” is made up and what it does.  There’s a whole industry around “strategic niche management” and who counts as a niche actor. Obviously regime actors are paying attention and will adopt innovations from the niches in order to gain position within the regime or else kill an innovation that would threaten their position (think of the Japanese state versus Western tech, up until 1853).

What happens is that eventually the technology (and behaviours which enable and are enabled by that technology become more ‘efficient’/obvious and a new regime is formed from the wreckage of the old.  Wars can speed this up (Johnstone and McLeish, 2020). Pandemics? Well, we shall see….

There are many many criticisms of the Multi-Level Perspective, many of them compelling , and all of them outside the scope of this particular article.  Recently, there’s been a repurposing of the MLP, or subsuming of it into the notion of “Deep Transitions (DT).” DT covers the idea that the kind of transition we need to cope with climate change – a massive, rapid decarbonisation of the interlocked systems which mean we can move about, feed ourselves and live in warm-enough houses – can/must be accelerated, and that we can learn some tricks to do that from looking at history.

The MLP and DT are useful tools, perhaps (but certainly not on their own).  Where coronavirus fits in is in the sense of “landscape shocks”. This pandemic, long predicted (Garrett, 1994) is, as the person who kindly phoned me the other week (4) put it, the mother of all “landscape shocks”, which destabilise and possibly delegitimise the regime. The regime relies on the consent (cognitive capture, if you want to go full Gramsci) of those participating. This last few weeks beats the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, 911 and so on as the ultimate “wtaf?” moment.  We are in the earliest days, and it already has unfathomable implications for many industries (newspapers, restaurant industry, insurance, you name it). With many “normal” things now stigmatised, what might emerge in its place?

As Johann Schott says

“The key question is whether the new practices, that generate positive impact, can be continued over the longer term when the shock disappears.  After all, ‘cancel everything’ can’t be a motto for the longer term, but perhaps cancelling the commute to work to attend just one face-to-face meeting that could be conducted online instead, may become the norm. ”

And – more importantly which of these new behaviours/norms might stick around and which will be gone like a fist when you open your palm?

Which brings me to the second useful intellectual tool: institutional theory.  There’s a basic confusion in English between organisations and institutions, with the latter term being used to describe the former.  But organisational theory is something else (and quite fun – especially if you get off on understanding just how horrifically unfit for purpose most outfits (in the Richard Stark sense) are: Pournelle’s Law, the Peter Principle, Parkinson’s Law, Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy, the Tyranny of Structurelessness etc etc).

Institutional theory is more about “institutions” in the sense that, in the words of Peter Cook that mawwiage, is an institution. So, the two ways I find particularly useful (again, see (1)) for thinking about “institutions” defined as

“ … social structures that have attained a high degree of resilience. [They] are composed of cultural-cognitive, normative, and regulative elements that, together with associated activities and resources, provide stability and meaning to social life. Institutions are transmitted by various types of carriers, including symbolic systems, relational systems, routines, and artifacts. Institutions operate at different levels of jurisdiction, from the world system to localized interpersonal relationships. Institutions by definition connote stability but are subject to change processes, both incremental and discontinuous.”

are (drumroll please) these.

  1. Scott’s Three Pillars and
  2. Institutional work (creative, maintenance, defensive, disruptive)

Scott (1995) suggests we think of institutions as held up by three pillars.

  • Cultural-Cognitive Pillar – “how the world works, according to my culture, what I should think of as proper and commonsensical
  • Normative Pillar – what seems “right” and proper
    (side-note: Bourdieu kind of went here with his ‘habitus’)
  • Regulatory – what are the rules (both legal and otherwise) of the game (yes, in The Wire sense).

The crucial point is that although these are “pillars” they can (and do) change over time. When I was growing up in Australia in the 1980s it was a ‘fact’ that homosexual men were perverts, and child abusers.  Well, common sense changed…

The pillars/norms around “the market” and “neoliberalism” were contested from their birth, but gained dominance in the early 1980s and endured until 2008.  Zombie-like, they have staggered on. In the coming months and years there will be an intense battle over not the existence of the magic money tree, but who gets to shake it and who gets to gather what falls from that tree…  There will be all sorts of battles…

This brings us to institutional work, first propounded by Lawrence and Suddaby (2006). It is

“the broad category of purposive action aimed at creating, maintaining, and disrupting institutions and businesses .”

So, those pillars are being built, shored up, chipped away at all the time.  One of the most intriguing papers on this is about how DDT went from wonder-chemical to pariah in the space of ten years (Maguire and Hardy, 2009).  We will be seeing a hella lotta defensive and disruptive institutional work over the coming years, and also concerted efforts at creative institutional work – trying to create new norms and common senses around new behaviours.

Before I try to deploy the MLP and institutional work to ‘what next’, I want to shout out to two other tools which don’t make the cut but have the potential to be seriously interesting.

Firstly, within psychoanalysis – the Claustrum (Fife and Hines, 2020)

“When experiencing an environment which is intensely punitive, has little to provide, but upon which one’s survival depends, people develop predictable defenses—fantasies of how their environments work—and in various ways retreat into these fantasies, which filter their perceptions of the world and can provide a sense of safety. Or, if not safety, at least predictability—the truly new being far scarier than repeated contact with the evils one is familiar with. Psychoanalyst Donald Meltzer described the resulting subjective reality as the “claustrum.” These defensive fantasy-lenses are structured around three primary themes: 1) a dreamy apathetic denial of problems, 2) a compulsive need to convert everything into a bacchanalian party, and 3) a preoccupation with exposing and unmasking “falseness.” What draws one into the claustrum is the need to replace the confusion of reality with some kind of predictable, repeating experience that will reduce anxiety or at least provide a familiar cast of characters.”

Secondly, Peter Mair’s “hollow but hard” states.

Part 2: If I had a hammer

There are already a bunch of quite good “what comes next?” posts out there about how the pandemic ends  (Yong, 2020) and what might come next (Mair, 2020 ) and how climate change action ain’t gonna happen (Bordoff, 2020)

Fwiw, I should probably map the Mair one

“From an economic perspective, there are four possible futures: a descent into barbarism, a robust state capitalism, a radical state socialism, and a transformation into a big society built on mutual aid. Versions of all of these futures are perfectly possible, if not equally desirable.”

onto David Holmgren’s peak oil/climate matrix at some point… But not today.

Pretty much everyone is alive to the danger of the status quo getting shored up. See Mazzucato (2020) and also Lombrana 2020-

“There’s a risk that countries and companies will  revert back to what they know works, Mountford says. Shovel-ready coal or fossil fuel projects that were halted in recent years on environmental concerns could easily be reactivated”

Let’s take the two intellectual tools I banged on about in the first part of this essay – MLP and Institutional Theory – and see if there are any rough (5) thoughts we can sketch out.


Well, there has been a landscape shock.  So, the regime actors will be looking to either maintain the status quo OR ELSE push towards a new stable system they think they can dominate.

That is to say, there is not and will not be a single “they”.  Some current incumbents and incumbencies (we need to think of this processually. Get me another time on the whole “T-800 versus T-1000″ thing) will want to return to a recognisable version of the good old days. Others may think that they are more likely to be able to dominate a NEW system, and put their energies into creating that.

Maybe we should start thinking in terms of “status-quo-seeking incumbents” and “change-the-world-to-get-rich-from-the-change incumbents.”  It will depend on what assets they have, what absorptive capacity, what cognitive capacity and appetite for risk the decision makers have, how they can communicate that, how constrained/embedded they are in other relationships (can they get their shareholders/investors to take a punt?)

When it comes to mobility and energy, Elon Musk, presumably, will be in the latter category, as will electric scooter makers.  Car manufacturers with enormous sunk costs and interests in something that looks and sounds like an internal combustion engine maybe less able to be nimble, for a host of reasons (6).  This battle, clearly one that was coming, just got accelerated by a very small bug. So it goes.

In terms of consumer goods, new “zero infection risk” products will be promoted.  There will be an emphasis on ‘cleanliness’ and ‘ease of disinfecting.’ These will be advertised with a seal of approval from this or that official sounding body (some legit and desperate for cash or needing to burnish their own cred, others little more than front groups).

What will incumbents do in defence of their incumbent position? The glib answer – “whatever they think they can get away with”. The more interesting question is how they will go about doing it.

We are of course already seeing massive bailouts being garnered already (Tienhaara, 2020;  Dayen, 2020). Simultaneously, we are seeing a bonfire of ‘red’ and ‘green’ tape (environmental regulations.


Matt Lubchansky

Niche actors

All sorts of niche actors will either believe in their own ‘technology’ as the rightful one (and there is, as you would expect, a tendency to moralism among the niche actors, many of whom are motivated by disgust and despair at the behaviour of the regime actors).  Others will be hoping for a quick buck, to form a marriage of convenience with existing incumbents. To the dismay of many, the Sustainability Transitions Research Network, on the morning of Wednesday 1st April, announced some kind of sleazy sponsorship deal with the Bilderberg Group.

However, before we get too bogged down in incumbents and niche actors, I would argue that the best way to think of this is through MLP and Deep Transitions PLUS institutional theory.    It’s a bit clunky, because this is a first pass. See section 4 for more about this…

Work which  incumbents/incumbency might do. Work which ‘niche’ actors, and “change the world to get rich from the change” incumbents  will do
Cultural cognitive pillar Maintain and defend by finding new partners to burnish selves (as per STRN). More tie-ins/sponsorships of charities/worthy causes

Highlighting the the work it did during the crisis (donations of stock/expertise)

Defend by delegitimising niche actors as unproven, dangerous, ‘dirty’.

Create new common sense by showing  customers that new products and behaviours are easy, clean, pro-social.
Disrupt existing incumbents by emphasising their bad behaviour, their need for taxpayer bailouts, labelling them dirty old dinosaurs.
Normative pillar Create and maintenance work by states and security apparatus attempting to (further) habituate consumers and citizens into a) handing over their data automatically as an act of civic-mindedness and b) delegitimise citizen questioning of states as ‘carping’ or ‘a resource drain during an emergency’ (already we’re seeing in the UK various public bodies delaying answering Freedom of Information Act requests) (7) and Agamben, (2020). Disrupt by delegitimising previously ‘normal’ technologies and behaviours (the improvements in air quality in cities will be latched onto by EV makers, as soon as it doesn’t look opportunistic. They will try to kill off the legitimacy of the Internal Combustion Engine.  Someone will go too early, others will learn, hold back. Then there will be a flood)

Legitimise “sharing,” but in ways that allow capital accumulation (they’ll try, but personally I don’t see AirBnB making a big comeback anytime soon).

Regulatory pillar Using the state to maintain the status quo, via using “safety” and “cleanliness” rhetoric to raise bar for new entrants  (especially likely in food production/retail) Try to disrupt by getting new rules attached to bailouts for “status quo seeking incumbents”

Try to get wiggle room in regulations and laws for ‘experiments’ (ideally with the tax payer picking up the tab/acting as insurer or last resort).

What will happen when the emergency “ends”?

If you asked me to bet, I’d say  we will see “corporate liberalism as Gabriel Kolko called it or The Thing as Cobbett called it ever further entrenched. Obviously I could be wrong, and I hope I am. (But hope is not a strategy – as we shall come back to.)

Some new practices will last only for the period of emergency, only to be undermined by wily incumbents, exploiting and amplifying the enormous and understandable desire to return to something like “normality”.  Presumably some new infrastructures (such as they are) and new social and moral norms will persist. Who knows which ones?

Part 3: Give me a long enough damn hammer and I will move the world, aka “who is gonna bell the bloody cat?”

In which I argue that if the worthy “our post-coronavirus world needs to look like this” article by the worthy person/people you are reading is not explicit and specific about WHO IS  GONNA MAKE IT HAPPEN, then it is not worth your time (8).

For those who don’t know the story

Conseil_Tenu_par_les_RatsA group of mice get together to discuss ‘what is to be done?’  A new cat has been gobbling them up at will. They debate various plans to nullify the threat of the marauding cat. Various stupid ideas are put forward (e.g. “ask the cat to be socially responsible”). Finally one of the mice proposes placing a bell around its neck, so that they are all warned of its approach.

The plan is applauded by the other mice, and the meeting is about to break up, ‘job done’.

Then one of the elderly mice raises his little mouse paw and asks who will volunteer to place the bell on the cat.


All of the applauders make excuses about why it can’t be them…


Look, we bring our baggage with us, to new towns, new places. I may as well put my baggage on the table: I have (terminal?) ennui, a dread of (and inability not to go on?) making the same mistakes.  And I go to meetings – be they activist or academic where smart and/or brave people reel off shopping lists of Good Things that Should Happen.

But it isn’t real.  We’re deserting the real, most of the time, for understandable (and sometimes forgivable) reasons.  For me, the question is not “what needs to happen?” but – and sorry for shouting-  Who. Is Going. To. Make. It. Happen? What constellation of actors are we talking about – Activists locking themselves to things? Academics whispering in policymakers ears? CEOs driving change from above?

So, I agree with David Osland

“Coronavirus will likely see a transformation in popular political consciousness on a par with 9/11 and the financial crisis. If the left cannot harness that shift behind an egalitarian agenda, the right will use it to ram home its nationalist and authoritarian vision.”

I also agree with the skepticism of  Chris Shaw

“I wish I could believe that the millions of impoverished and the bourgeois will together use this crisis to waken to a new consciousness of the oneness of all existence and the suffering caused by grasping.”

With regards to “last chance to save the earth”, we have been here before.  I know I am a stuck record on this, but there have been three previous waves of concern about ‘the fate of the planet’ in relation to (gradual) environmental degradation – in the late 1960s to early 1970s (Blueprint for Survival, Limits to Growth, Earth Day), the late 1980s to early 1990s (Amazon, Ozone, Greenhouse, Rio), and then the late 2006s (Inconvenient Truth, IPCC 4AR, Copenhagen) one.

Now we are (or were?) in another, thanks to the obvious failure of Paris, Greta, XR, 1.5 degrees report, COP26.

But (and it is a big but)

Social movement organisations and “left populism” (I cannot speak highly enough of Fife and Hines, 2020, btw) are generally unable to sustain their anger, their energy. It’s too easily captured, corralled (see Barlow 2010 on this) and commodified. And on climate – well, we’re staring into the abyss here, folks, and the Nietzsche had some advice for niche actors who do that.

We sociotechnical transitions scholars know this.  We know how hard it is to create a sustained and sustainable market for ideas, technologies, how easy it is for incumbents to disrupt or purchase them.

And look, the COVID19 thing MIGHT be an enormous opportunity but

  1. If green groups go too early, they will look opportunistic and suffer a backlash.
  2. There will be an enormous amount of money spent on PR to burnish the status quo or funnel it to a new accumulation-friendly regime.
  3. Captured states (and all of them are) will pass all sorts of hellacious laws against dissent.
  4. There will be a desperation among grieving impoverished populations (so many businesses shut down, so much domestic violence – mostly by men, so much education interrupted, so much PTSD,  many hopes and dreams shattered) to ‘return to normal’.  Yes, even when that normal was in every available sense ‘unsustainable.’

So, what is needed is the following.

Citizens’ groups which are capable of

  • sustaining themselves, emotionally, financially, cognitively – avoiding the temptations of being co-opted, the dangers of being repressed, the lure of the smugosphere/and enacting or being enacted by emotacycles
  • Linking with other groups for mutual aid
  • Forcing the state (local, national) to be less horrifically a captive of the incumbents
  • Figuring out how to have sustained alliances with people who don’t look like, talk like, think like them
  • Figuring out how the incumbents will try to crack them (see above) and devising effective countermeasures

Here is something – CEM says – What’s going on, what’s going wrong (and why), and what is to be done? – I mostly wrote, with input from my colleagues in Climate Emergency Manchester. It’s seven weeks old and feels like it is from another century. But it kinda stands up as a program. Kinda…

Oh, and there’s that climate change thing from a few years ago. (ONION)

I am not saying this is doable. I am not saying it isn’t doable. I am saying that if we allow the intellectuals who enjoy our attention, in meatspace and cyberspace to

  1. Keep it all in the realm of Shopping List Politics,
  2. Decline to answer the basic question “what have we been doing wrong in the past?”

then we are wasting the last of the last chances our species has for some sort of comfortable non-barbarism life on this planet. (8)

Section 4: Gizza postdoc

Here’s what – imho – needs studying, using MLP/Deep Transitions, Institutional Pillars/Work and whatever other intellectual tools I find down the side of the sofa…

  1. How will the incumbents in [insert sector here – transport, mobility, food, politics] use the COVID19 pandemic to reinforce their position?  What coalitions and constellations will they mobilise (industry bodies, relations with political parties). What discourses (around cleanliness, safety, reliability, care) will be mobilised. Under what circumstances are challengers (be they niche actors or incumbents from competing/overlapping systems) able to force system change?  In what ways will the state be a primary arena for struggle? How will civil society actors be tactically incorporated? What are the fracture and fissure points? (How) will the need to decarbonise economies and institutions be imbricated into these battles? Methods – Interviews with participants, keeping tabs on the industry associations and the revolting door – sorry, revolving door – with the state, and intra-state battles.
  2. How will existing NGOs and SMOs seeking to force a transition/transformation at the socio-technical/socio-material level actually stuff it up, (because they will).  What strategic alliances will they be unable, unwilling to create and maintain? What lacks – of operational capacity, of credibility and legitimacy- will doom them to ongoing irrelevance?  Methods – Participant observation, attending sage-on-the-stage meetings (aka “the meatspace equivalent of clicktivism”), going on marches, interviewing “strategic” leads of NGOs/SMOs.
  3. What scope is there for new actors (entrepreneurs morally, politically, economically) to repurpose existing discourses (safety, responsibility, justice) and forge (in every sense) alliances and constellations of actors which can accelerate (ah, that bloody word again) the delegitimisation of fossil fuel-centric incumbencies and give birth to some new rough beast, as we all slouch towards Armageddon?  Methods –  Participant observation, interviews, getting nicked, that sort of thing.

Have PhD, will travel. Not great at quantitative, but I do a mean interview. Reasonable general knowledge.

References (may not be complete, and may include some stuff that I didn’t reference. So it goes).

Agamben, G. 2020. Clarifications. Itself, 17 March.

Applebaum, A. 2020. The Coronavirus Called America’s Bluff. The Atlantic.

Baker, P. 2020. ‘We can’t go back to normal’: how will coronavirus change the world?The Guardian, 31 March

Bordoff, J. 2020. Coronavirus pandemic shows why no global progress on climate change. Foreign Policy

Dayen, D. 2020. Unsanitized: Bailouts, A Tradition Unlike Any Other. The American Prospect,

Fife, B.  and Hines, T. 2020. I can’t relate. Damage, 9 March

Garrett, L. 1994. The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance.

Ghosh, B. Bloomfield, G. and Schot, J. 2020. Conversations on COVID-19: Consequences for the Second Deep Transition and the Sustainability Revolution.  TIP Consortium, 27 March

Johnstone, P. and McLeish, C. 2020 The Role of War in Deep Transitions: Exploring Mechanisms, Imprints and Rules in Sociotechnical Systems. SPRU working paper.

Joshi, K. 2020. Watch out for this symptom of Coronavirus: lazy ecofascism. Ketan Joshi. Co. 20th March.

Lawrence, T. B.; Suddaby, R. (2006). “Institutions and Institutional work”. In Clegg, S; Hardy, C; Lawrence, T (eds.). Handbook of Organization Studies (2nd ed.). London: Sage. pp. 215–254.

Lombrana, L. 2020. The Post-Virus Economic Recovery Could Be a Green One. Bloomberg

Maguire, S. and Hardy, C. 2009. Discourse and Deinstitutionalization: The Decline of DDT. The Academy of Management Journal Vol. 52, No. 1 (Feb., 2009), pp. 148-178

Mair, 2013. Ruling the Void: The Hollowing out of Western Democracy. Verso

Mair, S. 2020. What will the world be like after coronavirus. Four possible futures. The Conversation

Mazzucato, M. 2020. Covid 19 Crisis is a chance to do capitalism differently. The Guardian, 18th March.

Meadway, J.  The Anti-wartime economy. Tribune

Tienhaara, K. 2020. Coronavirus and the economy: we need green stimulus, not fossil fuel bailouts. The Conversation

Yong, E. 2020. How the Pandemic Will End. The Atlantic, March 25