Sociology’s Nero Syndrome?

By Jackie Smith

Social movement scholarship has failed to help us understand and address the most urgent crisis of our time.

We are currently watching the unfolding of a climate emergency. Despite the high degree of scientific consensus about the causes and consequences of global warming,[1] governments have failed—over more than 20 years of negotiations—to take any meaningful steps to limit global warming or mitigate its impacts. In fact, as the scientific evidence about climate change has become more certain and substantial, governments remain polarized and paralyzed, failing to even curtail the growth of—much less reduce—greenhouse gas emissions. Intergovernmental negotiations resemble a re-arranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic, as governments remain deadlocked in debates over market-based mechanisms to limit emissions and mitigate impacts of warming, refusing to acknowledge that the market system itself drives climate change.

But social movement scholarship has little to add to what we know about why we’ve seen little change in regard to global climate policy. Why is this? I suggest that there are three reasons.

  1. Dispassionate science

Despite many important critiques, the ideal of “objectivity” in Western science remains an obstacle to advancing understandings of complex societies and conflicts. As feminist scholars note, this ideal obscures the positionality of researchers and the networks of power relations in which scholars are embedded. Although objectivity is often assumed in our research, it is never fully achieved. U.S. scholars’ views of the climate crisis are distorted by debates about climate science that are largely irrelevant in other national contexts. And scholars’ relatively comfortable economic circumstances make it easier for us to overlook the horror of climate change’s impacts on vulnerable populations.

Moreover, when we write, objectivity dictates that we distance ourselves emotionally from our ‘subject’ and imagine ourselves independent of the social relations and conflicts we study. But of course, we are not. The selection of daily media headlines we read, our routine conversations with neighbors and colleagues, and the choices we make about daily transportation, food, energy and other needs are all deeply connected to the climate crisis. These structures mute our emotional response to climate change, which should be (if we are truly human) utter outrage. Leading climate scientist James Hansen, Jeffrey Sachs, and their collaborators called our failure to take radical action on climate change “an act of extraordinary witting intergenerational injustice.” For the sake of future generations, we need to acknowledge our humanity and bring emotions back into our work.

  1. Looking in the wrong places

Conventions guiding social research encourage attention to actors and social settings deemed worthy of our attention. But few question how such ‘worthiness’ is determined. For much social movement research, a movement’s visibility (in the public sphere or in the academic literature) or its actual or potential impact on policy are leading determinants of what is worth studying. Thus, those studying climate politics tend to focus on the inter-state arenas in which climate-related negotiations take place. As a result, we have extensive documentation of the monumental failure of states to act in the face of what is clearly an urgent, existential problem for human society. But we know little about emerging alternatives to inter-state politics.

Moreover, the documentation we have about inter-state negotiations remains far more attentive to the formal inter-governmental debates and maneuvers (and the social movements seeking to influence these), neglecting what may be the more consequential work happening in the shadows of governments, where popular groups gather in parallel climate forums. In these obscured and supposedly less relevant spaces, I believe we are seeing the emergence of real solutions to the climate crisis. For instance, the 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, which drew over 35,000 participants to address the failures of the UN climate negotiations, helped advance a counter-hegemonic bloc of movement and government forces around an explicitly anti-capitalist and movement-centered response to climate change. 

  1. Focusing on the wrong actors

Social movement scholarship (in the United States especially) remains overly state-centric in its orientation. By this I mean that states and the inter-state system are seen as setting the boundaries of politics and the criteria by which actors and their actions are evaluated. This state centrism has meant that few respectable sociologists would find it absurd to continue studying the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change process, despite 20+ years of failed negotiations. It has also led to a tendency of many researchers to focus on the more visible protest groups—those with more resources and whose frames and strategies are deemed most relevant to public policy. Groups with predominantly white and middle-class members, whose frames don’t challenge market ideologies, and whose social change strategies fit conventional expectations are thus more likely to be the focus of social movement scholarship than other types of groups.

But in the field of climate justice especially there has been a tremendous growth in organized anti-systemic resistance by low-income people of color and people from the global South. From its origins in the early 1990s, the “environmental justice” movement has failed to gain the attention it deserves from social movement scholars (although this is changing). The movement operates largely in localized settings, but has become increasingly networked both nationally and internationally (see, e.g., the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance). It has been building in spaces like the World Social Forums—another critically important site of social movement engagement that remains under-examined by social movement scholars.

Through a series of popular climate forums held in the framework of multiple World Social Forums, including a thematic World Social Forum in advance of the Rio+20 Conference, grassroots climate justice groups are strengthening an alliance of “new protagonists” for climate justice (Cindy Wiesner 2015). These new protagonists are those who have been most impacted by environmental injustice and who are most vulnerable to the devastating effects of climate change. They are fired up, they are organized, and they are moving from the front lines of climate impacts to the front lines of the movements protesting government inaction—as was seen in the People’s Climate March in New York City in September 2014. But most importantly, they are leading with a systemic analysis of the climate crisis and calling for the kinds of radical transformations of social relations and of relations between humanity and the Earth that are our only hope of survival.

What is to be done?

Improving the relevance of our work to the pressing challenges of our time requires new approaches to our craft. Work to reinvent sociology might begin with Santos’s call for us to expand our political and sociological imaginations and engage with the sociology of absences and the sociology of emergences. But first we must name the system problem. Sociologists can and must help legitimate discussions about alternatives to capitalism and help people understand the social implications of the systemic crises our society faces. Sociologists can also help map out the steps that can move us from this unsustainable, high-carbon system towards alternatives that are more just, inclusive, and in harmony with the Earth.


[1] See, e.g. What We Know: The Reality, Risks, and Response to Climate Change; Climate Change 2014: IPCC Synthesis Report.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Global Climate Movement

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