Andreas Glaesers. 2011. Political Epistemics: The Secret Police, the Opposition, and the End of East German Socialism. University of Chicago Press.
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. Continue reading
Clifford Geertz (1973) opened his seminal “The Interpretation of Cultures” with a helpful concept borrowed from British philosopher of language Gilbert Ryle: “thick description.” Ryle (2009) posits one of the thought experiments philosophers of language are so fond of, asking us to imagine two men winking, one due to an involuntary twitch, the other to signal a co-conspirator.
A thin description, in which an observer notes that both men winked, is incomplete at best, and misleading at worst. A thick description, which considers not just the two acts but an examination of the context, significance, motivation and meaning of the acts is much more difficult to construct, but brings us closer to the “actor’s eye view” of a situation, though Geertz hastens to remind us that “what we call our data are really our own constructions of other people’s constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to.” Continue reading