Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Sociology of Direct Action

People typically do not channel their behavior through intermediaries, especially political elites. People self-organize themselves all the time to immediately address their collective needs and desires. Direct action is often as seen as more efficient, nuanced (i.e. it can allow for localized variation), and empowering. For example, many large protests today involve collections of “affinity groups”, who are all individually involved in carrying out their own self-determined and self-managed plans. They sometimes coordinate with each other ahead of time through “spokescouncil” meetings, where participants directly solve problems. Activists also act directly within the protest context itself, making decisions within affinity groups and addressing short-term tactical problems themselves—filtering-out undercover police officers, debating the efficacy of property destruction, protecting each other from attacks by external forces (like police or fascists), and of course successfully executing protest plans. In no instance do activists turn to authority figures for “help” in solving these problems. Police are not appealed to for security, city governments are not needed to provide logistical coordination for march routes, and the corporate media need not be relied upon to correctly transmit the ideas and message of protesters. These tasks are all accomplished internally, by participants themselves.

Direct action subject matter is readily found in society by anarchist-sociologists. For example, all types of do-it-yourself activities could fall under this research program. The activities of community organizations, mutual aid and self-help groups, neighborhood watch groups or assemblies, or hobby clubs take care of their own business themselves, without appeals to authority. Or, consider the multitude of friendly societies, traditional unions, work guilds, and mutual aid societies from the not-to-distant past: they provided health care, pensions, educational and cultural activities to their members, long before the social-welfare state had launched its own bureaucratic, partial answer to these needs (e.g. Cordery 2003).

A sociology of direct action would seek out answers to questions directly, without going through bureaucracies, foundations, or governments first. While resources are always an important concern, anarchist-sociologists should not rely upon funding and paternalism from such dominant and hierarchical institutions. Instead, anarchist-sociologists should interview people directly and involve these people immediately in research that benefits them (see Martin 1998). Ordinary people, the disadvantaged, and communities should set the terms of scholarship that affect and involve them. Then, as opposed to filtering empirical findings through traditional channels—the stodgy peer-review process that is more concerned with theory-creation as opposed to problem-solving—a true sociology of direct action would share research with other relevant public(s) first and foremost.


Cordery, Simon. 2003. British Friendly Societies, 1750-1914. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Martin, Brian. 1998. Information Liberation. London: Freedom Press.

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