Being realist about social movements

This is the first in a series of blog posts on realism and social movements. The purpose of it is to refine the explanatory purchase of realist thought within social movement studies and consider what it means ‘to be realist’ about social movements. This first post is dedicated to fleshing out realist thought and making my own argument(s) a little more accessible to social movement theorists. I hope that these blog posts go someway in encouraging discussion on realist thought within social movement studies.

Realism is an ontological position that implies that the social world has objects which exist and interact independent of our interactions with them. ‘The truth is out there’, so to speak, and as social movement researchers, we can begin to identify the objects of reality that make up the social world.  As I realist, I search for the processes that exist beyond the world of ‘appearances’. I attempt to penetrate beyond the immediate experiences of social actors to look for an understanding of reality. This does not make human agency and social experiences epiphenomenal but, rather, a guide towards those objects that cause such experiences to emerge, develop and relate to other things around them.

Being realist about social movements, then, implies that there is a set of processes that exist beyond the immediate experiences of social movement activists and that these processes can be identified and understood. Indeed, the ontological claims of realism set a precondition for knowledge as social science. It is argued that the development of a systematic theory of ‘real objects’ and their ‘powers’ is a precondition to understanding their effects. Realist ontological reasoning is prior to epistemological inquiry if the social movement researcher wishes to answer key sociological questions like how do social movements emerge or what effects do they have.

It is within this line of thought that I explore the processes beyond how social movements mobilise and effect change in the social world. Now, a clear and concise definition of social movements is hard to find and it is recognised that term itself is subject to the fuzzy logic of everyday life. A watertight definition is problematic when different epistemological standpoints have competing knowledge claims. One persons social movement is another persons cult, so to speak, as the line between what defines either becomes epistemologically relative.

In response, I start with an ontological understanding of social movements as a form of social structure. This position is based on the realist social ontology of Dave Elder-Vass (2010), which suggests that groups of people have the ’power’ to socially condition the behaviours of others. Social groups (or what he calls ‘norm circles’) can effect how people behave by creating the conditions for their conformity towards the groups beliefs and practices. This is known as a normative disposition and it is an environment that sanctions behaviour that transgresses the boundaries of what is considered typical or appropriate.

I map such circles, theoretically and empirically, within social movement studies, and argue that such normative environments may be hegemonic in nature. Specific groups of people have a socio-structural form of power that subordinates others into particular ways of acting based on a predetermined understanding of moral authority. Translated, groups of hegemonic actors subordinate others into particular ways of acting based on a superior belief system. These may be understood as movements from above. I argue that the experiences of such hegemonic groups are a catalyst for activism as a form of collective social action. Indeed, it is in making a problem of the subordinating experiences of hegemonic groups that resistant collectivities coalesce and challenge hegemonic discourse. These may be understood as movements from below.

It is within this oscillation of forces between groups of people that social transformation occurs, as movements from below provoke social change by transforming the normative practices of movements from above. Resistance is conceptualised as groupings of people who register their critique of ideology at the structures of domination and control. Movements from below publically redress the inconsistencies of the normative projects of hegemonic groups, that is, they register the blind-spots within, and open hegemonic discourse to reflexivity and critical appraisal.

Methodologically, this explanatory framework requires a careful elucidation of the histories within which social actors problematise their experiences and organise collective social action. It also means grasping at the histories of hegemonic social groups and the normative environments that emerge from them over time. To understand what is meant by this, it is important to recognise the intersectionality of social groups. No social group exists in isolation but, rather, insects with others in terms of proximity and imagination (cf. Anderson’s ‘imagined communities’). As such, it is in mapping these intersections that it becomes possible to grasp at how activists transform the normative environments that others base their practices on. Theoretically, if activists register a critique of a dominant normative practice as inconsistent with what specific groups of people are endorsing, then the ‘imagined community’ or ‘moral majority’ might be brought into crises. At the least, activists would open up a legitimate space for the critical appraisal of such a practice.

In the next blog post, I hope to further explore these claims as I expand on the relevance of historical research for this project. This will not be about simply finding empirical examples to support theoretical exegeses, though to be realist about social movements requires histories on which to elucidate the ratiocination between hegemonic and resistant groups. Rather, it is about finding another movement of thought that is complimentary to this realist position whilst maintaining the centrality of human and social experience. This position has a number of ethical implications that I will explore in future posts.


Elder-Vass, D. (2010). The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dr Thomas Brock is a postdoctoral research associate at Durham University. His research interests lie in realist social theory, histories of radical thought and movements of political action. This was originally posted on the blog for the BSA Realism and Social Research group. 

Categories: Rethinking The World

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