Protest is a visceral experience. You hear the overwhelming sound of chanting, drumming, and shouting; get swept up in a sea of bodies in motion; and feel the butterflies that flutter in your stomach as you look at the line of riot police, imposing and unmovable, just a few short feet away from you. Despite this, we have a relative lack of first hand, ethnographic accounts in the sociology of social movements when compared to analysis of secondary sources or interview-based projects. Yet we know that part of what builds solidarity in a movement is participating in mass action. In other words: being there matters. This begs the question: could we “be there” more as researchers?
I learned the importance of “being there” first hand as a student. I had already begun to read in the sociology of social movements, but nothing I read could have prepared me for my first mass protest, which I went to while studying the Global Justice Movement. Even the most dramatic of photographs or descriptions cannot adequately capture the rush of emotions dredged up through mass collective action. I have a strong memory of being at the 2001 protests against the FTAA on the U.S./Canada border in Buffalo, New York and listening to a speaker at a rally, when what seemed like thousands of protesters broke apart from the event and ran down the street in an impromptu march. I’m not 100 percent clear on the specific details of this memory, but what I am sure I remember is running after the protesters, almost instinctually, as they peeled off from the main crowd. I followed the mass of people body-first, before my brain had time to kick in and decide whether or not joining a mass of activists running down a street was a good idea. I have various snippets of memories from what happened after that. Seeing a friend of mine dancing in a bandana in the streets while police watched and laughed out loud at how absurd it looked. A man in a tree making peace symbols with his fingers and holding up a sign I couldn’t read. Most of these memories, though, are little flashes compared to the more amorphous remembrance of the strange concoction of emotions I felt standing in a crowd of people in the middle of the street. It was a brew of confusion, fear, joy, and pride, all mixing in my head and gut. I had a ten-hour ride home to slowly try to assemble a narrative out of what happened, but gave up at about the halfway point. I just couldn’t find the right words for what I felt.
After this protest, I began to read more extensively in the sociology of social movements and was quite surprised to find a relative dearth of first hand accounts of collective action. There were, of course, many notable exceptions, such as Barbara Epstein’s Political Protest and Cultural Revolution, which ethnographically documented experiences with direct action protest, or Rick Fantasia’s Cultures of Solidarity, which studied labor movements and contains a nice appendix on studying protest “on the ground.” More common, though, were interview or secondary source-based projects that attempted to recreate that “on the ground” feeling of a movement through remembrances or archival accounts. Ultimately, if you felt, as I did, that some of what it means to sociologically understand a social movement is experiencing it from the inside out, the citations were at least somewhat lacking.
Since then, however, a growing number of works have embraced the inside-out approach, owing, in part, to what we might call the emotional-turn in social movement studies. Recent work such as Erika Summers-Effler’s Laughing Saints and Righteous Heroes or Grace Yukich’s One Family Under God rely extensively on fieldwork and first-hand accounts to present their analysis. Notably, Kathleen Blee’s 2012 book Democracy in the Making, which won the book award for ASA’s collective behavior/social movements section at the 2013 annual meeting, provides an abundance of on the ground data about social movements. While the book does not focus on protest, but rather on the formation and early collective lives of social movement groups, it nonetheless gives detailed first hand accounts about the embedded, lived experiences of people participating in social movements.
In this spirit, I would strongly recommend the recent book Thank You Anarchy: Notes From the Occupy Apocalypse by Nathan Schneider. The book is a first hand account of the author’s experiences in movement as he, along with other protestors, occupy Zuccotti Park in New York. While it is predominantly a journalistic rather than an academic account and, as such, Schneider generally avoids theorizing, his account has much to inform our sociological understandings of movements. He details the visceral and embodied dimensions of protest, the lack of sleep; the rituals; the noise; the transcendent, quasi-religious feelings; the fear and the joy; and through all of this, how his political consciousness followed his embeddedness in the occupation, and not vice versa.
For example, Schneider discusses, at length, the deliberative processes that Occupy developed, and how they represented an education by way of experience for privileged people through the particular time and space created by the movement:
“In Occupy’s movement time and movement space, those with a lot of privilege got a taste of the discomfort others experience regularly, even if just by being told that they’d said something offensive out of ignorance or talked over someone else. They’d often react with anger. For those used to benefiting from the order of things, having this pointed out could seem very, very radical, and frustrating, and like a waste of time. But if this movement was going to be any better than just an outburst of privileged people scared of losing their privilege, nothing could be more important” (65).
Much of our contemporary theorizing in social movements, about collective identity, emotions, collective action frames, etc., assumes a certain level of shared experience, embodiment, and solidarity among activists. Yet a relative dearth of first hand ethnographic accounts, from inside movement protest and decision-making, celebrating and planning, leaves some of our theorizing without a useful connection to the lived experiences of protesters. As Schneider’s book shows, “being there” means you get an entirely different view of the dynamics of protest, a view that I hope we, as sociologists, continue to wish to push further in our analyses.