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March 25, 2014 / Jonathan Matthew Smucker

Boring ramble about levels and units of analysis for examining political contention

Note: The word “boring” is the first word in the header; if you read this and are bored, you have only yourself to blame!
For practical shorthand we treat groups as if they had coherent singular wills. A political group navigates a terrain—distinct and external to itself, ostensibly—that it finds itself situated within, in order to achieve its goals. Clear on these goals, the group navigates the terrain like an obstacle course or a map that leads to X. Terrains are not stable things, however, and with shifts in the terrain, we see not only shifts in the group’s goals but shifts in the very composition of the group. The group is problematic as a thing. It is neither neatly bounded nor fully homogenous in composition and will. The group is itself a terrain of contestation, whose ideologies, ideas, goals, priorities, strategies, tactics, and leaderships push and pull, congeal and dissipate, shifting the definitions, parameters, and active participants of the group, as well as the group’s relation to the broader external political terrain.

Shifting our analytic gaze then from the group level to the individual level, we can conceive of a preliminary hegemonic contest of leadership between individuals within the group that is waged and won prior to—or alongside—the group’s contest within the broader political context. Conceptually, this may serve us as a tool for apprehending certain parts or stages of dynamic political reality. For example, rather than just stating that “churches joined the civil rights movement”, we might examine whether politicization of pre-existing religious organizations was internally contentious, and what factors led to successful or unsuccessful activation.

However, our analytical gaze must also always focus on both more micro and more macro levels. More micro than the individual? Yes, because within every individual mind is the internalized map of the full external terrain of the group and beyond — even including internalized versions of the opponents’ ideas. The individual can only be described as having a singular will for practical shorthand purposes, as there is a contest within the contingent terrain of every individual mind. What then is our unit of analysis? Ideas themselves? As if ideas could be free-floating things existing in a cloud prior to their embodiment? Yes, we can use this as a unit of analysis, but again, only for practical shorthand, rife with additional analytical traps. Indeed, there are traps and severe limitations within each level of analysis when we attempt to neatly separate messy interactive units and levels. Thus we can never settle on any particular one—whether society, group, individual, or ideas in individuals’ heads—except on a temporary basis, as one among many lenses through which to assess a context and situation.

Let us momentarily suspend doubt to entertain this picture of disembodied ideas in a cloud, themselves possessing an expansionary or colonizing will. Now we can analyze how ideas as subjective agents might navigate, stoke, channel, or graft onto different faculties and processes of the individual mind and body (in interaction with other minds and bodies in a group). Ideas order and can reorder emotions, memories, primal drives, and relationships, aligning these for the purpose of the ascendency or spread of the idea. We need not believe that an idea can achieve full autonomy from a carrier or host to entertain a notion of symbiosis wherein the idea is no longer seen as fully organic and integral to the organism of the individual (or group), but as a kind of foreign agent, possessing its own “DNA”, finding a home, gaining a foothold, etc.

March 24, 2014 / Jonathan Matthew Smucker

Not all groups have strategies.

Ah social movement theory… I get to read quite a lot of it this year. I’m enjoying it, but of course I will probably end up writing more about the things that I am critical of.

For example, the often loose usage of the word strategy. Scholars often make an implicit assumption that social movements have strategies. Of course many movements do. But all of them? Just because a group engages in activities does not inevitably mean that they possess a strategy that orders those activities. A strategy is essentially a plan to move toward the attainment of a goal; a kind of map to get from Point A to Point B; from where you are now to where you want to be, accounting for obstacles and constraints that must be navigated along the way. Strategies are often confused with tactics, which are the specific actions within the strategy; actions intended to move the strategy forward. Even in less strict usage, however, a strategy typically references a plan to achieve something; it is not a thing unto itself. Eating ice cream, for example, may be delightful, but it is not a strategy. The same principle applies to a group’s self-expressive aspects: maybe delightful for participants; ≠ strategy.

We should not make the assumption that because a social movement group exists, it must automatically have a strategy by virtue of its existence. Why should we assume that any group that is engaged in collective action is necessarily strategically oriented? A group that comes together because it cares about a given issue (or set of issues) does not inevitably possess strategic know-how. Indeed, I have worked in many groups that had highly developed analyses about the issues they were concerned about but had no strategy for how to make headway on those issues. It doesn’t serve anyone for scholars to describe such a group’s activities as strategic simply because the group is carrying out activities.

If the activities strengthen the identity of the group of actors, that could very well be beneficial for both the lives of individual participants and, potentially, for building the capacity of the group to carry out a strategic plan — but that does not mean that strengthening the identity of the group is itself an instrumental strategy, in the political sense. Such activities are often described by social movement scholars as expressive (as opposed to instrumental), which does not inherently mean these activities are unimportant. I would assert, however, that the extent to which a group’s internal culture comes to decrease its interest in interventions in the world beyond itself is the extent to which the group is effectively depoliticized.

March 21, 2014 / Jonathan Matthew Smucker

Political action’s psychological layer


The “classical model” of social movement theory explains the emergence of social movements in terms of collective psychological reactions to structural changes in society. In short, people are alienated and therefore join protest movements. Hating on this approach is something of a cornerstone of the sociological canon of contemporary social movement theory. Central among the numerous problems with the classical model is how it pathologizes individual social movement participants, treating them as alienated, anomic, maladjusted, and deviant specimen. Reasons for rejecting the theory are plentiful. The framework had to die; good riddance!

So then, is it too soon to ask whether there might be a few useful gems buried along with the rotting corpse of the classical model? How bad of an idea is it to exhume the casket in order to pan for gold?

“For the mass society theorist,” Doug McAdam explains (in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency), “the movement offers the atomized individual the sense of community he lacks in his everyday life.” Such a framework does not seem to fit with “the development of black insurgency” described by McAdam. He details how individual participation in the civil rights movement was hardly an individual matter; it tended to stem from community membership—especially membership in black churches, black colleges, and chapters of the NAACP—rather than from a lack of community. Read more…

December 13, 2013 / Jonathan Matthew Smucker

Mandela round-up

Thanks to Tej for this roundup of analyses re: Mandela.

Articles by:nelson-mandela2

Ariel Dorfman

Barbara Ransby

Bill Fletcher Jr.

Bill Keller

Bob Herbert

Breyten Breytenbach

Dara Kell

Desmond Tutu

Francis Njubi Nesbitt

Gary Younge

Jelani Cobb

Jonathan Matthew Smucker

Kate Doyle Griffiths-Dingani

Leonard Peltier

Melissa Harris-Perry

Nicholas Kristof

Patrick Bond

Peter Beinart

Robin D.G. Kelley & Erica Lorraine Williams

Sean Jacobs & Jessica Blatt

Slavoj Zizek

Teju Cole

Tony Karon

Vijay Prashad

Will Bunch

Zachary Levenson

Zakes Mda

December 11, 2013 / Jonathan Matthew Smucker

I’m posting at Waging Nonviolence

Hello regular readers. I’ll be posting some articles at Waging Nonviolence. I’ll still be posting my more sub-par and off-topic memos here, so don’t remove it from your bookmarks. My first post is up today: Let the culture have Mandela

Check it out!

November 28, 2013 / Jonathan Matthew Smucker

somewhere you can never take me (part 2)

Several weeks ago I posted some of my favorite pop critiques of social technologies (here). Today I discovered a video from Shimi Cohen that wins the prize:

My writing on social media—especially in relation to social movements—can be found here and here.

November 26, 2013 / Jonathan Matthew Smucker

Norbert Elias on Shame

From Norbert Elias’ The Civilizing Process. Useful re: group functioning and individual psychological processes of shame. Apologies for the gender exclusive pronouns.

The feeling of shame is a specific excitation, a kind of anxiety which is automatically reproduced in the individual on certain occasions by force of habit. Considered superficially, it is fear of social degradation or, more generally, of other people’s gestures of superiority. But it is a form of displeasure or fear which arises characteristically on those occasions when a person who fears lapsing into inferiority can avert this danger neither by direct physical means nor by any other form of attack. This defencelessness against the superiority of others, this total exposure to them does not arise directly from a threat from the physical superiority of others actually present, although it doubtless has its origins in physical compulsion, in the bodily inferiority of the child in face of its parents or teachers. In adults, however, this defencelessness results from the fact that the people whose superiority one fears are in accord with one’s own super-ego, with the agency of self-constraint implanted in the individual by others on whom he was dependent, who possessed power and superiority over him. In keeping with this, the anxiety that we call “shame” is heavily veiled to the sight of others; however strong it may be, it is never directly expressed in noisy gestures. Shame takes on its particular coloration from the fact that the person feeling it has done or is about to do something through which he comes into contradiction with people to whom he is bound in one form or another, and with himself, with the sector of his consciousness by which he controls himself. The conflict expressed in shame-fear is not merely a conflict of the individual with prevalent social opinion; the individual’s behavior has brought him into conflict with the part of himself that represents this social opinion. It is a conflict within his own personality; he himself recognizes himself as inferior. He fears the loss of the love or respect of others, to which he attaches or has attached value. Their attitude has precipitated an attitude within him that he automatically adopts towards himself. This is what makes him so defenceless against gestures of superiority by others which somehow trigger off this automatism within him.


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