The Performativity of Social Movements

What does it mean to talk about the performativity of social movements? The obvious answer is to look to the aspect of performance inherent in the mobilisation of contemporary social movements. In this sense protests and demonstrations can be seen as drawing upon established repertoires of activity, orientated towards an audience, which depend upon certain meanings and also reproduce these meanings through the performances they facilitate. This cultural dimension to social movements enjoys an objectivity over and above its (re)production in collective activity of participants within it. I’m interested in how cultural forms like this song by the King Blues (oh how I miss them) and the accompanying fan video both draw upon this culture but also contribute to it:

I think this is an important aspect to the culture of social movements. I’m not sure how effectively the concept of performativity can capture this. I accept the importance of “small-scale participants’ performances that occur in networked relations” such as “encounters at meetings, planning sessions, recruitment forays, and socializing” as sites “where movement ideas are discussed, elaborated, and ‘performed'” in a way that ‘grounds’ “rationales and motivations for action” (Johnston 2014: 22-23).

But what concerns me about this is the exhaustive focus upon interaction. In my PhD I’ve developed a critique of symbolic interactionism, accepting the importance of interaction for the constitution of relationships and persons but arguing that we need to look at what goes ‘into’ and ‘out’ of social situations. If we only focus on the situated interactions and performances (T2-T3) we obscure the important questions of how persons have been shaped by past interactions (T1) (conditioning what they bring to the present interaction) and how this will shape how they approach future interactions (T4). Obviously sophisticated symbolic interactionists will recognise this but the conceptual repertoire they’re using will inevitably tend towards compression, shutting down the questions of temporal extension through a presentist vocabulary which struggles to support temporal distinctions.

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This isn’t a repudiation of symbolic interactionism but is rather an attempt to engage constructively with it. I think the relational realism of Margaret Archer and Pierpaolo Donati tends, for a variety of reasons, to underplay interaction. Realists can learn about how to better address the T2-T3 from symbolic interactionists. But in doing so, they bring their insights about the T1 and T4 in a way which fleshes out the sociology of the situation.

So when Johnston (2014: 23) talks about the “dense network of performances, macro and micro, through which both the structural sphere and the ideational-interpretative sphere are acted out in real time” I couldn’t be more in agreement about the general direction of thought. I think the micro-social dimensions to social movements do constitute, as he puts it, “the multitudinous building blocks of a movement’s structure and its ideations”. But I want to bring the person more fully into this picture, understanding their trajectories through social movement participation rather than simply focusing on performances. Social movements are made of people, both aggregatively and emergentlyin a way which renders individual biography an important unit of analysis. Performances are an important part of what people do and it’s a crucial concept for understanding the unfolding relationships between them within situated contexts. But it is the people who are primary rather than the performances.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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3 replies »

  1. Interesting post (and I enjoyed the video!) Just wondered whether there really is a contradiction between ‘performance’ and ‘people’ (individuals)? Surely the answer is that both are primary?

    I’d argue that the performance of social movements is ultimately one of identity and belonging. Indeed, an identity and belonging that provides much sought after authenticity, righteousness and ‘underdog’ legitimacy.

    If we think of it this way, then it also becomes easier to see the contradictions between the particular(s) and the universal(s) in forming a collective, positive, counter-political identity. What’s more, we can also spot the potential problems of a movement attempting to be inclusive (of all identities or particulars) and exclusive (of one universal politics) at the same time.

    Be interested to hear your thoughts.

    • Hi Sam, I agree really, I just think the language of ‘performance’ too easily suppresses the temporality of ‘identity’ and ‘belonging’. How did person X come to identify THIS way in relation to THIS group at THIS point in time – I don’t think anyone would deny we can trace back a history of the individuals, the groups, the performative repertoires that emerge out of the interplay between them in particular contexts (etc) but I’m arguing that certain modes of theorising make it more difficult to ask these questions in a systematic way. Looking purely in terms of biographies is very problematic but I’d argue it can be a useful expansion of ‘performance’ talk.

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