What We Gain By Centering Agency in Social Movement Epistemology

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 18:30
Oral Presentation
Ben MANSKI, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA
The field of social movement studies as it exists in the North America remains generally unable to provide good explanations for some of the more significant social movement activity of the past decade. Mass mobilizations such as the Wisconsin Uprising, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and for that matter, the waves of resistance to the Trump administration, are usually described as “spontaneous” reactions to precipitating events. Beyond this, studies of these manifestations generally deal with questions of framing, mobilization, escalation, etc, as if each could be accounted for independently and discretely. Meanwhile, less visible social movement activities ranging from the daily activism of meetings, fundraising, and training to the development of new strategies and politics are at best treated as cases of abeyant or submerged movements, and at worst (and more commonly) ignored. I argue in this paper that such failures to explain both spectacular uprisings as well as the daily works of activists are rooted in the same positivist logic that conflates epistemology with ontology, imperializes the empirical, and in doing, eliminates the makers of history from the history they make. While mid-level theoretical tools commonly used in social movement studies today retain utility, on their own they are insufficient for explaining the role of activists in interpreting long-term structural change and in constructing and implementing social movement strategies. In example, I bring together my findings from 26 interviews, archival research, and participant observation of two related cases: The Wisconsin Uprising of 2011, and the emergence of a new democratic constitutionalism in the United States. Through these cases, I introduce a theoretical framework for explaining the trajectories and outcomes of movements in struggle. Movement building activities are not always readily available to empirical analysis, yet they occur nonetheless, producing forces that enter play in times of heightened conflict.