Conversing with Theory, Thinking Globally

Can social movement scholarship benefit from conversing with two theories currently prominent in sociology, pragmatism and (the Bourdieusian version of) field theory, approached from a global point of view? I venture to answer in the affirmative and offer a few reasons for proposing this answer.

According to the pragmatist approach, as outlined in Dewey’s The Public and its Problems (1954 [1927]), the public and the state are co-constituted because of practical concerns, namely the need to address an issue that affects or is of concern to a group of people. An issue that has collective consequences can thus give rise to a public (potentially) affected by (or interested in) these consequences as long as the public perceives them or recognizes itself as a public.

This definition implies that the size of the public depends on the impact reach of the issue. A public can be local when, for instance, a group of citizens serving on a school board decides on how to organize the activities of a school (although some would argue such decisions may have broader consequences than the consequences affecting the particular school thus forming a broader public). A public can also be global (or transnational) when the effects of an issue are of concern to people across the globe. For example, the issues of climate change and of global security threats are considered to have a global impact and can thus create global publics. Therefore, the concrete issue at stake, according to the pragmatist logic, should be of interest to social movement scholarship as it affects the “mobilization potential” (Klandermans and Oegema 1987) or the socio-geographic scope of a movement. This hypothesis can for instance explain the curious fact of many citizens of other countries, from all over the world, expressing opinions on who the next U.S. president should be. Presumably, this is because the policies of the United States are perceived to be consequential for peoples from around the world.

The state, in the pragmatist approach as outlined by Dewey, arises out of the need of the public to have potential issue consequences managed through some sort of representation. This theoretical conception of the state is fluid in parallel to continuously changing issues and their associated publics. The pragmatist state may but does not need to correspond to the institution of the nation-state charged with governing a particular territory. (A less confusing term conveying the meaning of the concept would be “self-organization of a public”). The actual “state” or self-governance institutions historically developed to represent particular publics in dealing with various issues may take different forms. For example, religious institutions have historically taken on a variety of representative functions, from providing eternal salvation to a community of believers or dealing with more mundane issues such as education and welfare, to the Islamic State’s recent claim of representing Sunni Muslims generally. To qualify as a state in the Deweyan sense, a governing institution must meet the criterion of being reflexively accepted as such by a public. Pragmatist state or self-organizing institutions are slow to develop and even slower to change in response to the changing nature and size of publics.

Conflict, in the pragmatist framework so outlined, can be inferred to occur because of an imperfect match between issues, publics, and states. First, disagreements may arise over the estimation of the extent or reach of the consequences of an issue, which affects the definition of its corresponding public and state. Movements can thus attempt to frame issues in such ways as to define and engage relevant publics. Global issues may be particularly difficult to address because they require the self-definition of global publics and the establishment of representative global governance institutions. For example, the issue of climate change, which nowadays seems so imminent to many, has not been properly addressed partially because of powerful actors denying the nature, extent, and consequences of the issue. This denial affects the formation of a unified global public and of a representative global governance mechanism tasked with dealing with climate change.

Given such challenges, movements have historically engaged in framing the impact of global issues more narrowly so as to attempt to deal with these issues in more manageable ways. A classic example is the U.S. Civil Rights movement, which downsized the global human rights issue to fit the U.S. national context by defining a narrower national public in terms of civil rights. Nowadays, racial justice activists are engaged in the opposite effort of framing U.S. racial issues in global human-rights terms. The pursuit of the latter type of strategy is likely dependent on the technological feasibility of self-recognition as a global public and on the prospect of a global governance institution taking on the issue, combined with the perceived gravity of the issue.

Second, conflict can arise over the form of representation of a public. A public may lack adequate state representation and may engage in a struggle to establish it. For example, the global public self-defined by a concern over climate change is not adequately represented at the global level, many would argue (e.g. Held and Hervey 2009), which is another reason why the issue has not been properly addressed. Global environmental activists have consequently attempted a variety of strategies to garner global representation for their concerns.

In addition, multiple institutions may claim jurisdiction over managing an issue. Both nation-state institutions and global governance institutions have claimed jurisdiction over the climate change issue as well as over the global security issue. With regard to education, to take another example, all levels of governance, from the United Nations, to nation-state governments, state governments, and local school districts, have attempted at different times and places to regulate the issue. Activists have associated themselves with various approaches and have attempted to have these approaches legitimated at all of these levels.

Aiming at institution-making and problem-solving establishes a foundational complicity between activism and governance as two aspects of the public’s need to be represented through a state/organization, according to the pragmatist approach. This complicity between activism and governance may appear at odds with the contentious politics approach, often interpreted to imply a clash between society and the state, a perception also shared among activists from both the left and the right in many contexts in global core countries. For activists from outside the global core, more inclined to use cooperative strategies (even if by necessity) in their relations with states and other governance institutions (e.g. Straughn 2005), the connection between activism and governance/organization posited by pragmatism is more obvious. The relative stability of state institutions in the global north (both a blessing−because it offers more certainty to citizens−and a curse−because it makes change appear difficult) may explain why the state is perceived as a thing apart from society to battle with in this context.

There appears to be a significant overlap between Dewey’s conception of the co-constitution of the public−as represented by the state−and the state−as representing the public−and Bourdieu’s notion of the “mystery of ministry” (1991), referring to the creation of collective entities through the figure(s) that serve(s) as their representative. Dewey and Bourdieu, however, disagree about the implications of this co-constitution. Dewey remains hopeful about the possibility of democratic representation even if it is just an ideal we strive for. In that, as in his insistence on the role of public reflexivity as a necessary precondition of democracy, he is the precursor of Habermasian idealism, which has inspired many an enthusiast of deliberative and participatory democracy. Critics, however, have charged that such an approach is unrealistic, particularly with regard to larger national, transnational, and global publics.

By contrast, Bourdieu is less optimistic because for him the mystery of ministry is effected through symbolic violence. Representation in this view is always partial and therefore is an imposition on some members of the group. Quiescence and acceptance of representation as legitimate in these instances are produced through symbolic violence. Symbolic violence does not operate through consciousness or constraint but relies on inculcation of the very forms of knowledge or the “practical schemes of perception, appreciation and action” (Bourdieu 1991, 2000: 175) adopted by the dominated and legitimating their own oppression. Social order in the Bourdieusian view relies on cultivated biased (in the sense of benefiting some but not others) common knowledge. World-system theory and global institutionalism have identified a number of organizational forms (nation-states, transnational corporations, global governance institutions, non-governmental organizations, etc.) and institutional fields (an unequal economic exchange system, science, education, etc.) as the basis of a global social order, a “world system” or a “world society” (e.g. Boli and Thomas 1997; Meyer et al. 1997; Wallerstein 2004). Even the most benign and perceived as socially beneficial among these institutions necessarily rely on symbolic violence, according to the Bourdieusian approach.

The implication is that any representative organizational form, because of its reliance on symbolic violence, contains a potential for disruption. This would apply to even the most taken-for-granted and legitimate organizational forms, such as the nation-state, the nation-state system, and education. Precisely because of this taken-for-grantedness and assumed universal legitimacy of education, the nation-state, and the nation-state system, phenomena like Boko Haram and the Islamic State appear incomprehensible and terrifying. Such phenomena, however, can be understood as symptoms of the representation problem that plagues the organizational forms of world society, as per the Bourdieusian formulation.

In the Bourdieusian framework, the notion of the public is replaced by the notion of the field of action. One key difference between Bourdieu’s fields and Dewey’s publics is the requirement of awareness or reflexivity. Participation in a public, according to Dewey, is necessarily reflexive; whereas, participation in a field, according to Bourdieu, is not. One can be part of a field as a matter of habit or inculcation of dispositions. Another key difference between the two theories is the within-field and between-field dynamics that field theory specifies. Two broad types of conflict can arise because of field dynamics: within-field conflicts and between-field conflicts. Members of publics, because of their expected reflexivity, are presumed to be equal; and the relations between publics are not specified (at least not by Dewey).

Fields are organized around a material/economic or cultural resource that is considered valuable by field participants. For example, the global economic field is organized around economic capital and the desire to acquire it drives the actions of participants in this field. The global scientific field, in turn, is organized around scientific knowledge and the desire to acquire it drives the actions of participants in the scientific field. Within-field dynamics are produced by the rules of distributing the valued resource of a particular field. Bourdieu compares fields to games. Field participants find themselves in more or less desired positions based on their acquired skills in playing the specific field game in pursuit of the resource valued in that field.

A field would remain internally cohesive to the extent to which field participants (including those in disadvantaged positions, because of symbolic violence and/or lack of capacities to do anything about it [cf. Jenkins 1983]) agree on the rules of distributing the valued resource and associated benefits within the field. For example, the economic field remains stable if the disadvantaged within this field take its rules as given or if they have little capacity to challenge these rules. Similarly, within the global system of nation-states, inter-state peace is secured to the degree to which participants (a.k.a. nation-state citizens) agree on the rules of distributing territory and associated benefits or lack capacities to challenge them, effectively maintaining the system as is.

By contrast, disagreement with the rules of distributing the valued resource in a field, combined with capacity deployment, can disrupt the field. Movements, broadly conceived, can thus engage in challenging the mechanisms for distributing the resource valued in a particular field. For example, for the past several years, Chilean students have partaken in a mass movement to challenge the unequal access to quality education within the country’s educational field. These efforts have resulted in a new government program proposing an overhaul of the educational system promising improved access to education in the country. Historically, the labor movement has similarly struggled to affect the distribution of the surplus value of workers’ labor within the economic fields of many countries. Internationally, citizens, under the banner of nation-states, have engaged in wars, in economic, cultural, and other efforts to change their country’s relative position within the politico-economic-and-cultural mega-field of nation-states. In this framework, the origins of World War II can be traced to German citizens’ disagreement with the international rules imposed on their country following World War I and their ability to garner resources to oppose these rules.

More recently, the rise of the Islamic State can be attributed to widespread disagreement over the internationally sanctioned political arrangements in the Middle East channeled through significant economic and organizational capacities. In the context of the international field of nation-states, the Islamic State can be understood as an effort to unite citizens under the religious banner in order to both challenge the position in which these citizens find themselves and partially change the definition of value in the field (upholding the value of brute force but proposing the religious logic instead of the liberal-democratic logic of governance). Within-field conflict dynamics thus involve not only competition for valued positions within a field but also efforts to change the material or cultural resource(s) valued in the field.

Another strategy groups of people have pursued is to form new fields whose valuation systems are more beneficial to them and are therefore perceived as more just. The proliferation of logics of valuation is in fact the solution to inequality and injustice proposed by Lamont (2012) for the U.S. context. This argument posits that the more such logics there are, the more opportunities persons would have to experience the benefits of being considered valuable. The Esperanto movement pursued such an alternative valuation strategy in relation to the nation-state system at the global level throughout the twentieth century. Esperantists constructed a fairly autonomous field in which what is valued is the knowledge of the Esperanto language in pursuit of equal international communication, the awareness and appreciation of cultural diversity, and the accumulation of strong personal ties. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a number of movements through the World Social Forum process have begun an analogous effort to imagine another world. What is uniting participants in the World Social Forum process is the opposition to the global economic logic of capitalist accumulation.

Practice shows that fields do not function in isolation from other fields. Field autonomy is only relative. Also, the values assigned to resources vary. Cross-field dynamics thus involves competition between fields influencing the relative value assigned to the defining resource(s) of a field. For instance, many scholars have discussed the increasing importance of the economic logic, which in terms of field theory translates into the penetration of the economic field into the workings of other fields. The levels of relative value and autonomy of the educational and of the economic fields in Chile and in the United States, for example, can shed some light on why the Chilean students’ movement was relatively more successful compared to the U.S. students’ efforts (or lack thereof) to challenge a similarly unequal system of access to quality educational opportunities. At the global level, the inability of the Esperanto movement to establish itself as a viable alternative to the nation-state system illustrates the relative weakness of its defining logics (equal communication and valuation of social ties) compared to the defining logics of the nation-state system (military, political, economic, and cultural power).

This essay offers an attempt to apply two prominent sociological theories, pragmatism and Bourdieusian field theory, to the study of social movements and conflict, from a global point of view. As such, it is necessarily over-generalizing, insufficiently historical, and tentative, overlooking many specifics of the theories. The theories need to be further examined in the context of concrete and detailed empirical cases. At first sight, however, these theories appear promising in providing new analytical tools for understanding the rise of and challenges facing movements associated with pressing and troubling global phenomena like climate change, global (in)security, and global inequalities.


Boli, John and George M. Thomas. 1997. “World Culture in the World Polity: A Century of International Non-Governmental Organization.” American Sociological Review 62:171-190.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1991. Language and Symbolic Power. Translated by G. Raymond and M. Adamson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

–. 2000. Pascalian Meditations. Translated by R. Nice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Dewey, John. 1954 [1927]. The Public and Its Problems. Athens, OH: Swallow Press/Ohio University Press.

Held, David and Angus Fane Hervey. 2009. “Democracy, Climate Change and Global Governance.” Policy Network, London, UK.

Jenkins, J. Craig. 1983. “Resource Mobilization Theory and the Study of Social Movements.” Annual Review of Sociology 9:527-553.

Klandermans, Bert and Dirk Oegema. 1987. “Potentials, Networks, Motivations, and Barriers: Steps Towards Participation in Social Movements.” American Sociological Review 52:519-531.

Lamont, Michèle. 2012. “Toward a Comparative Sociology of Valuation and Evaluation.” Annual Review of Sociology 38:201-221.

Meyer, John W., John Boli, George M. Thomas, and Francisco O. Ramirez. 1997. “World Society and the Nation-State.” The American Journal of Sociology 103:144-181.

Straughn, Jeremy B. 2005. “‘Taking the State at Its Word’: The Arts of Consentful Contention in the German Democratic Republic.” American Journal of Sociology 110:1598-1650.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2004. World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction: Duke University Press.



Filed under Emerging Stars in Social Movement Research, Essay Dialogues

4 responses to “Conversing with Theory, Thinking Globally

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

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

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

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s