By Fabio Rojas
In this post, I draw attention to a central issue in cultural sociology that should be of great concern to social movement scholars. Recently, cultural sociologists have produced a series of studies that examine the “life world” of various political and economic systems. What cultural sociologists are trying to measure and examine with these studies is the tacit rules for how people view their social world. According the life world theory, communities develop shared frameworks that explain what is possible. They have “folk cosmology” that provides an interpretive lens for everything that happens in the community or to the community. Contemporary life world theory combines Durkheim’s fundamental observation that our concepts are connected with group life with European phenomonology’s requirement that we account for how our observations and intuitions of the world are structured.
This is important for social movement research because life world theory might be the “second generation” of social psychology within social movement studies. Currently, most movement scholars adopt a few types of social psychology. Those of a materialist bent adopt the view that protest is essentially a feature of structural shifts in the economy. The followers of Benford and Snow view movements as a sort of discussion where people come to agree that the world needs fixing. Rational choice scholars see grievances as fixed reflections of interests or identities, but action happens when the relative costs shift.
Life world theory offers a different approach. One starts with looking at the folk cosmology of the society. Here, Andreas Glaeser’s book, Political Epistemics:The Secret Police, the Opposition, and the End of East German Socialism (2011, The University of Chicago Press), provides an important example that will be of interest to movement scholars. In post-war socialist societies, Glaeser claims that people were completely immersed in a culture that viewed society as being on a track of socialist development. Socialist political culture also posited that communist nations were in constant conflict with diabolical capitalist nations. Thus, all political and economic life was justified and legitimized in these terms. It’s either “We’re doing this to promote the socialist project” or “We’re doing this to stop our capitalist enemies.” If an argument didn’t reference these two ideas, it wasn’t going to hold sway among political elites or activists.
For movement scholars, the most important sections of Glaeser’s book concern activists. What is important is that dissent is not (originally) framed as a rejection of socialist ideology. Instead, dissent emerges from problematic applications of socialist ideology. It is not the case that the activists who ruptured the socialist system read Western political philosophy and rejected Marxism. Rather, what happened is that activists tried to analyze numerous problems with the socialist state with socialist theory, which was very problematic. For example, one of the key forces for erosion of the socialist life world was slowly diffusing information about the wealthy West. Perhaps in objective terms East Germans had enough to eat, but the knowledge that Western capitalist nations were quickly outpacing socialist nations undermined the idea that the socialist nations were truly on a superior path of development. Even then, many activists tried to reform socialism within the intellectual world of Marxist-Leninist theory. Western theories of political liberty simply weren’t germane to the lives of citizens of socialist societies.
The lesson is that framing is a powerful way to look at the social psychology of movements, but there is much more to be learned. Specifically, life world theory imposes some discipline over framing theory. It is not the case that a movement can just offer any framing and mobilize people. Rather, frames must be rooted in the folk cosmology of a society. It must be something that can be used to interpret individual biographies and mediate how individuals relate to political institutions.
Already, people are using life world perspectives to great effect in areas aside from politics. I found Gabriel Abend’s The Moral Background: An Inquiry into the History of Business Ethics (2014, Princeton University Press) to be a very insightful investigation of how the moral universe of American corporations was created by academics, religious leaders, and executives. It is not hard to imagine how a similar project might be carried out in social movement scholarship.