Ties and Their Turbulence

A funny thing happens on the way to understanding activists’ social bonds; when we interrogate them closely, they flutter away into a whirlwind of micro-sociological turbulence. This essay suggests the importance of theorizing that turbulence.

In recent decades, the most significant advances in conceptualizing social organization have come from network theory. Network theory integrates both the tug-and-pull of social turbulence and the possibility of agency. It offers a general, formal framework for conceptualizing structure, but also allows empirical and theoretical specificity (Emirbayer & Goodwin 1994:1418). The study of social movements has been at the forefront of those advances (Bearman 1993; Gould 1991), and we now know much more about the mechanisms through which networks influence larger patterns of mobilization (McAdam & Paulsen 1993; McAdam, Tarrow, & Tilly 2001; Diani & McAdam 2003). However, the mandate to identify mechanisms in social ties always references the broader explanatory level. It seeks inroads only into how ties “matter” and “work” to produce broader outcomes.

Meanwhile, as social movement theory relies more and more heavily upon social ties for explanatory leverage, the “anti-categorical imperative” that motivated network theory also unravels the concreteness of a tie. If we study social bonds as social phenomena in their own right, other dynamics emerge at the forefront. The bond itself may disappear from consciousness in lieu of actors’ sense of what has happened, what’s going on now, and what’s ahead in the social occasion (Goffman 1974).

From Actors to Footings

What organizes these encounters? Recent ethnographies have made considerable headway by detailing the “footing” from which activists collectively act, feel, and communicate with one another. Drawn from (Goffman 1981:124), footing describes the basic “frame of events,” which allows interactants to intelligibly engage one another in a strip of action. For example, Eliasoph (1998) illustrates how etiquette, rather than self-interest or political ideology, often shapes whether and how people engage in political conversations. Eliasoph demonstrates that if we want to understand who shares information and when, we also need to understand the local dynamics that lead people to clam up or speak freely. Likewise, in order to anticipate whether networks bolster political identities, we also need to understand why they sometimes use distance themselves from politics altogether.

Ann Mische’s (2009) Partisan Publics provides perhaps the most promising general framework for theorizing social movement ties. Mische advances Goffman’s contribution to contentious politics by illustrating how four different “modes of communication”–roughly, those described by Habermas, Gramsci, Dewey, and Machiavelli—rely upon different footings and skills to accomplish different types of political work.

The Centrality of Errors and Tension

I believe we can make progress by further exploring the full range of skilled and unskilled actions–— especially the miscues, miffs, and talking past one another that inevitably occur as participants adjust to shifting footing (c.f. Goffman 1974). Sociologists and activists both tend to gloss over losses in traction, even as these mishaps alter the very premises of engagement. Simmel’s broad-ranging thinking about networks offers this gem: “opposition is an element in the relation itself; it is intrinsically interwoven with other reasons for the relation’s existence” (1955:19). Pursuing Simmel’s observation invites us to tease out how attraction and opposition both contribute to enduring qualities of a micro-social organization. For example, Summer-Effler’s Laughing Saints and Righteous Heroes illustrates how volunteers were frequently befuddled by the rapidly changing assumptions of a Catholic Worker House. More generally, Summers-Effler’s book provides a compelling case for understanding and theorizing the history of a group’s failures.

As I describe in a previous Mobilizing Ideas essay, Thomas Scheff’s (1990; 2006) emphasis on attunement, or mutual identification, seems like an untapped idea for social movement theory. His framework offers powerful leverage for analyzing the strategic—but rarely perceived—emotional structure of social ties. In pain-staking detail, Scheff describes the strategies through which people both engage and eschew attunement; they accomplish the first through successful “leveling,” but frequently withdraw from one another, talk past one another, and engage one another with false pretense.

Personal Influence Strategy

As Goffman (1967:24) notes, even radically transgressive face-to-face engagements require adherence to, and strategic use of tacit, morally-loaded assumptions. In many public arenas, these constraints provide only the widest of boundaries on how challengers and incumbents can behave toward one another. Previous research on evangelical Christians, however, suggests a widespread conviction that “the only truly effective way to change the world is one-individual-at-a-time through the influence of interpersonal relationships” (Smith 1998:187). Investigating this “personal influence strategy” at conservative Protestant colleges offers an opportunity to build theory from an extreme Goffmanian case: change-oriented encounters under highly stringent ethical expectations from both targets and political audiences.

By exploring Smith’s findings into a different context, the project also advances our understanding of evangelical political strategies. Whereas Christian Smith (1998:189) emphasizes the theological and cultural underpinnings of evangelical’s personalism, a mixed-methods approach allows me to also study whether and how people revise this strategy in response to political changes Moreover, whereas Smith points out the mismatch between personal influence strategy and the structural realities of U.S. politics, the viability of the strategy might be very different on small college campuses, where decision-makers are relatively accessible, and have religious identities similar to their potential challengers.

1 Comment

Filed under Emerging Stars in Social Movement Research, Essay Dialogues

One response to “Ties and Their Turbulence

  1. Pingback: Emerging Stars in Social Movement Research | Mobilizing Ideas

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