Many of us who study social movements were at one point involved in social movements. Those who are, or have been, involved in a social movement have probably experienced the emotional intensity and the accompanying emotional and bodily exhaustion so often connected to social movements. Activists put their bodies on the line for a particular cause, risking permanent damage either by injury during a protest or action—accidental or on purpose—or by devoting long hours to the cause, to the point of emotional and physical exhaustion. Conversely, there is also the daily boredom and repetition that often accompanies movements—copying filers, scheduling and attending endless meetings and events, writing press releases, etc. For me, concepts like Political Opportunity Structure, Resource Mobilization, and Discursive Opportunity Structure, while important, fail to capture the intense, emotional, and at times boring, lived experience of activists.
Matthew Mahler has picked up on the divergence between scholarly analysis and lived experience in the field of professional politics in his article “The day before Election Day” (Ethnography 12(2): 149-173, 2011). Beginning where Weber left off in “Politics as a Vocation,” Mahler attempts to portray, with empirical and theoretical richness, the lived experience and bodily reality of professional politicians, or what he calls politicos. Rather than using statistical models to estimate who gets involved in professional politics, or searching for a key “variable” that determines who gets elected, Mahler is interested in what it “looks like, feels like, and means” to be a politico (151). He employs a form of corporeal sociology in which he worked as an aide in a congressional campaign, fully subjecting himself to the “demands, expectations, and stresses of political life” (150). He lives through months of only a few hours of sleep per night, he experiences the knots in the stomach during particularly stressful moments and the joy and relief when a crucial event is flawlessly pulled off. He shows how the job is held in the very bodies of politicos: the embodiment of skill and knowledge that allow politicos to “skillfully cope” with this intense and stressful world.
It’s an interesting read. His emphasis on the lived daily experience of the people and occupation he studies—and the ensuing embodiment of their work—is insightful. I’m looking forward to his book.
I’m interested if people know if similar methods have been used to study social movements. Are there any studies of social movements employing corporeal sociology? If there are none, I think there definitely should be.