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July 28, 2012 / Jonathan Matthew Smucker

Catching up on social movement theory

In 2004 my friend and colleague Madeline Gardner and I embarked on an in-depth collaborative study of social movement theory. We had collaborated on a number of grassroots organizing efforts in the five years before (e.g. the Minnehaha / Highway 55 campaign and then A16 and the global justice movement) and we were both looking for an opportunity to reflect more deeply on our experiences. We both enrolled at the University of Minnesota and we found two professors, John Wallace and Patrick McNamara, who were interested in working with us on independent studies that we carried out in Argentina.

In Argentina we spent most of our time studying three movement forms that had emerged in the wake of the nation’s severe economic and political crisis of 2001. These three forms were: Neighborhood Assemblies, Recuperated Factories, and Movements of Unemployed Workers. (A great deal of our time was spent with the latter, volunteering with MTD Solano and MTD la Matanza.) We also studied Argentina’s political history, with an emphasis on the second half of the 20th Century. And we complemented our on-the-ground, Argentina-specific studies with an in-depth study of social movement theory — especially discourses from the 1980s and 1990s, primarily in sociology departments in the United States. This included reading books like Frontiers of Social Movement Theory and Waves of Protest, as well as academic journals like Mobilization. We were also studying popular educators Paulo Freire and Miles Horton.

This time of study and reflection definitely helped to clarify our thinking about social movements and political change. Returning from Argentina, I jumped right back into organizing, this time to direct a local organization that I’d helped co-found, the Lancaster Coalition for Peace & Justice. Still brewing on my studies, and applying lessons practically to local and national antiwar organizing, I then authored Building a Successful Antiwar Movement in collaboration with Madeline.

I continued organizing full-time for the next several years, and finally carved out enough space in my life for formal study. While still organizing, I enrolled at Goddard College and completed an independent BA in political behavior — with a multi-disciplinary approach that included courses in group behavior, social psychology, cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary studies, political theory, political philosophy, linguistics, and a lot of other stuff.

So I haven’t read all that much academic social movement theory literature since 2004. And now I’m catching up on the discourse, as I also research grad programs (applying this fall). I’m going to use this blog to jot down some reflections and thoughts on strategy as I go. Presently I’m digesting Dynamics of Contention, Patterns of Protest, and the past several issues of Mobilization. Posts coming down the pike. Readers, please feel more than invited to use the comment function to recommend further reading and resources. (If you do offer titles or links or whatever, please also say a sentence or two about it — thanks!)

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