Notes on the Poverty of Social Movement Theory

The theoretical apparatus supporting the majority of social scientific research on social movements and other forms of contentious politics is impoverished.

While social movement studies appears by many measures to be thriving as a field, the dominant theoretical frameworks within the field are widely regarded as unsatisfactory by many social movement scholars as well as by activists who look to social movement scholarship to illuminate their own work.

While activists often find value in the historical narratives that social movement scholars assemble, they are much less likely to make use of the theoretical concepts, categories and arguments that scholars develop.

The lack of interest in social movement theory on the part of activists is not primarily an expression of anti-intellectualism on their part, as the same activists often make liberal use of theoretical frameworks appropriated from other fields as well as often robust theoretical traditions associated with their activism. The problem is primarily with social movement theory itself.

Social movement theory in general shares with sociology a distrust of what Merton called “grand theory.” The dominant approach within social movement studies emphasizes the development of “theories of the middle range” and the most influential attempts to develop an overarching theoretical approach to social movements have consisted primarily of assemblages of such theories of the middle range as have been developed.

The result of this approach has been theoretical frameworks that are very fragmentary and seem better at naming and describing isolated “mechanisms” than explaining how they work together, much less presenting a compelling synthesis that explains not just the genesis and development of social movements but more importantly their historically developing role in larger processes of social change.

Contrary to Merton, the preference for theories of the middle range is fundamentally ideological. It does not flow from the needs of a young and developing science of society, but rather from the ideological needs of capitalism which are especially acute with respect to the study of various insurgent challenges to the capitalist order.

Merton’s call for theories of the middle range occurred within the context of a crisis within Parsonian structural functionalism precipitated in large part by the social struggles of the 1950s and 60s. Its objective target, however, was not Parsons, but rather the energetic revival of Marxism. The development of post-structuralism and new social movement theory in Europe answered to similar needs in a context in which Marxism enjoyed considerably greater academic prestige than it ever achieved in the U.S..

The 1960s and even more the 1970s saw a flowering of the study of social movements, revolutions and other forms of contentious politics. This was fueled both by the political commitments of young scholars entering the social sciences who often had either histories with, commitments to, or at least sympathies for the movements that they chose to study and by the needs of the state for serious research on a phenomena that was perceived as a source of serious threats to the stability of the system as a whole.

The value of social movement studies to the development of methods of counter-insurgency was reflected in the experience of Project Camelot, and the cooperation of leading scholars with congressional and other state-sponsored investigations of the sources of both colonial revolts and domestic civil unrest.

Such naked entanglements with the repressive operations of the capitalist state were repugnant not only to the partisan allegiances of young radicals entering the social sciences at the time, but also to troubled liberals who regarded them as a violation of the principles of academic objectivity.

The contradictions between the radical political commitments of many young scholars and the ideological demands of social scientific disciplines embedded in and ultimately subordinate to the capitalist state would be resolved largely in favor of the latter not by the explicit weaponization of the social sciences represented by Operation Camelot, but rather by the normal operation of the disciplinary functions of graduate training, employment, publication, and tenure which, as the heady days of 1968 receded into memory, unsurprisingly favored methodologically empiricist and politically liberal research programs.

The consolidation, first of RMT, then of PPT, and most recently of DOC as the reigning paradigm within social movement studies in the U.S. occurred within the context of a long-term retreat on the part of progressive popular movements in the face of what is now recognized as a global neo-liberal counter-offensive that begin in the 1970s.

While there was some dabbling with Marxism as a theoretical reference point in the early 1970s, by the end of the decade the common assumptions of the field of social movement studies were largely reconciled with the ideological needs of the capitalist state.

This was accomplished in several ways.

First, the subdisciplinary separation of the study of social movements in advanced capitalist countries from the study of revolutionary insurgencies in the global south, which was much less pronounced in the earlier collective behavior literature, served to frame the social movements within a narrative of the continuing perfection of liberal democracy and to thereby analytically marginalize the often considerable role of more radical forces that did not conform with that narrative.

By discouraging, for example, comparative studies of the civil rights/black liberation movement in the United States and anti-colonial and national liberation movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America, this separation reinforced the perception of socialists, communists and revolutionary nationalists as marginal to what was treated as an essentially domestic struggle for political inclusion rather than as important points of contact with what was in fact a global wave of liberation movements that at their high-water mark led millions of Americans to identify as revolutionaries.

Second, the uncritical embrace of prevailing standards of academic objectivity in which normative statements within the bounds of liberal democratic discourse are generally allowed, while those that indicate support for more radical or revolutionary objectives are deemed impermissibly partisan, discouraged the incorporation of the most critical insights coming out of the movements themselves into the theory that informed the study of those movements.

Third, the single-minded emphasis on the development of theories of the middle range and the acceptance of Mertonian pessimism on the possibility of grand theory effectively obstructed the integration of social movement theory into any larger systemic critique of contemporary capitalism.

Taken together, the main effect of all this has been the development of a body of social movement theory that is generally distrusted by social movement actors themselves and rightly so.