Saturday, April 30, 2011

Anarchist Movement Epistemology

A dynamic area within the discipline of Sociology is the study of social movements. This field of research is far more dynamic than in the past—now various theories compete with each other, scholars advance new ideas and twists to old ideas, and scholarship has broken out of the stodgy ghetto of “collective behavior” to grow into its own vital area. The questions of “what is a movement?”, “where do movements come from?”, and “how do movements behave and succeed?” are vital questions that have been addressed for decades now, with many fascinating (although sometimes conflicting) answers (della Porta & Diani 2006). Yet almost none of this scholarly work has focused on the anarchist movement, surely one of the more dynamic and fascinating movements active today.

Anarchism is not, of course, merely a socio-political philosophy, as it has been mainly referenced in earlier chapters. Its proponents constitute a “movement”, a large collection of people who share similar attitudes, identities, and goals, and who are working towards (however awkwardly) some form of radical social change. This is how sociologist Mario Diani (1992) defines movements: networks of individuals and organizations who are linked by their common identification with that movement, who act in deliberate, extra-institutional ways to modify the structure of a society. Thus, even though “anarchism” refers to a set of immaterial culture (beliefs, theories, and traditions), it also refers to a constituency of real people who take that culture seriously enough to act upon it in the present. It is this present-day activity, this movement (as in “motion”, “trajectory”), that makes anarchism a subject worthy of study by sociolgoists.

Although movements are now routine research subjects for sociologists, some movements offer particularly complicated, contradictory, or counter-intuitive characteristics that befuddle scholars and impede scholarship. The objective of this chapter is to explore these problems of epistemology—the means by which we know something—in order to further the quest to better understand the anarchist movement. In doing so, we will tackle sticky issues of definition, the hurdles that stand in the way of studying anarchists, and the factors which make the aforementioned epistemological problems more formidable for anarchism than for most other movements.

The issues discussed in this chapter may be focused in order to serve a number of practical ends. For example, conventional scholars—say, sociologists—may wish to study anarchists or an anarchist movement. The matters to be discussed herein could help such scholars to focus their research questions, properly operationalize their variables, define appropriate sampling frames, design and administer surveys, or even locate and navigate an anarchist scene ethnographically. Equally important, is this chapter's value to journalists, whether mainstream news reporters, college newspaper editors, web-bloggers, or zine writers. Knowing more about these epistemological questions helps to provide the important nuance necessary to understand anarchism in a way that facilitates useful and meaningful communication to desired audiences. Or, anarchists themselves may benefit from this chapter, as it raises issues—and in some instances, controversies—about that movement. Presumably, to grapple with a wide range of epistemological questions serves not to just intellectually challenge anarchists, but to provide them with appropriate analytical ideas that could grow and strengthen their movement.


della Porta, Donatella and Mario Diani. 2006. Social Movements: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Diani, Mario. 1992. “The Concept of Social Movement”. The Sociological Review, 40 (1), February: 1-24.

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