Friday, October 21, 2011

Issues That Complicate Operationalization and Study of Anarchist Movements

Assuming we can grapple with these questions and realize their full-gravity, we are still left with countless practical conundrums that inhibit the study of anarchism. Even if the theoretical conceptualization of “anarchism” were easily accomplished, the crucial issues of operationalization remain. In other words, we must find a way to locate, observe, measure, and evaluate our concepts if they are to be useful in enhancing understanding. How to define terms so as to observe the correct real-world phenomenon that we seek to observe?

One immediate problem is the casual distinction between “anarchism” and “anarchy”. Both are used interchangeably by activists and the broader public. But, are they truly the same? Anarchism is an ideology, idea, and ideal. It refers to aspirations, values, and identity. Anarchists get together in their collectives to discuss anarchism, to create anarchist projects, to fulfill anarchism. Anarchy is a social condition, the real-existing anarchist practices that fulfill the anarchist ideal. Consequently, it could be viewed as the end-goal, the utopian result of anarchist struggle. These distinctions may be minor, but how can researchers study the meaning and intent of actual anarchists without appreciating this? Content analysis or interviews could easily overlook one term and its meaning, or inappropriately associate one with the other. In sum, when studying the anarchist movement, are we interested in anarchism or anarchy? [1]

Does anarchism need to be identified as such in order to be anarchism? Undoubtedly people and groups may behave in an anarchist fashion, but have little or no affiliation to anarchist ideas. For example, researchers could study something (e.g. a group, a protest event, a project) that is explicitly “anarchist” and uses the word openly. Or, researchers could direct their attention to things that are anarchistic: that which acts in accordance to anarchist values and practice, but does not use the word. In this latter case, participants could be unaware that their behaviors involve anarchist tendencies or, they could be—at least on the surface—strong, vocal opponents of what they perceive to be “anarchism” (perhaps relying on the media-fueled stereotypes of chaos). Thus, despite the anarchistic ideas of founder Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker rarely openly identifies with anarchism. Still, anarchism has had—and continues to have—an undeniable influence upon the Catholic Worker, in terms of societal critique, expressed values, and organizing practices.

Related to this, are we interested in anarchists who identify openly as such? To publicly apply the word “anarchist” to oneself or one's actions is bound to distinguish one from those who may do identify as or act the same exact way, but do not use the same language. Consequently, overt or covert anarchists are likely to have many different characteristics. We ought to consider the reasons why people choose overt or covert anarchism. Those who choose to publicly identify with anarchism may be interested in attracting others based on principles they see in practice (e.g. mutual aid, anti-authoritarianism, self-management), to put a real-world face to abstract idea, to reclaim the word “anarchist” in a positive way, or to distinguish one's ideas from other forms of radicalism. Others, relying on equally rational thinking, may choose to not identify publicly with anarchism to avoid the predictable stereotyping and preconceptions that accompany the label, to prevent attack by authorities, or simply not wanting to be pigeon-holed as “only an anarchist” (when one could also adopt other labels, such as “feminist”, “revolutionary”, “socialist”, etc). This legitimate issue of visibility creates practical epistemological problems. How to find both groups? How to count them? How to contrast them? Can covert anarchists be part of a “movement”? Can overt anarchists be considered part of other movements?

If we seek out anarchists only within anarchist organizations, settings, or social spheres we are likely to overlook anarchists and anarchist activity outside the realms of the anarchist movement. Many anarchists, of course, do their anarchist activism within explicitly anarchist organizations, functioning within “scenes” composed only of other anarchists. For example, organizations like the Northeast Federation of Anarcho-Communists, the Anarchist Black Cross, or the International Workers Association are explicitly and wholly anarchist. They practice anarchism directly, by name, and place anarchism at the center of all activities. Many other anarchists (and it is obviously unclear how many) practice their anarchist activism within non-anarchist organizations (but still as anarchists). Witness the anarchists who regularly participate in organizations like the American Friends Service Committee, Greenpeace, United for Peace and Justice, or the AFL-CIO. Being an anarchist within a non-anarchist setting is unlikely to completely diminish one's anarchistic qualities, although one's anarchism will undoubtedly be muted. So, what are the motivations for anarchists acting outside the anarchist movement? Hypothetically, these anarchists may be “missionaries” of a sort, acting to encourage these organizations to be more anarchist. Or, less ambitiously, anarchists may simply desire engagement with non-anarchists, or because they agree with the short-term goals sought by reformist organizations (however much these anarchists may wish to eventually surpass such reformism).

As anarchist identity is liquid and easily adopted by people, there is also no strong reason for people to have immediate contact with the “formal” anarchist movement. In fact, during modern times when access to information is readily available through mail-order books or the Internet, people can learn about movements and ideologies easily. Non-movement anarchists are people with no formal attachment to anarchist organizations or movements at large, but still identify with anarchist ideologies and politics. Consequently, anarchists may appear and exist in geographical areas where there is no anarchist scene, organization, or other individuals. It is far more difficult to locate these individuals since there are no visible markers (like an anarchist newspaper, anarcho-punk bands, an Industrial Workers of the World chapter, etc.) that would indicate the presence of anarchists. It is also possible that unaffiliated individuals have independently discovered anarchism, even when there is an organized anarchist presence in their area. Whether such individuals are simply unaware or uninfluenced, they may still be worthy research subjects.

Unlike many other movements, anarchism is not a “single-issue” movement. Comparatively, the environmental movement is focused upon matters related to the natural ecosystem, the feminist movement upon things that affect women and gender relations, and the labor movement upon the conditions of paid labor amongst workers. Anarchism sympathizes with and participates in all of these movements to some extent, but does not focus on one to the neglect of others. The anarchist movement overlaps with many social movements, participating in their most radical wings. Thus, instead of an emphasis upon a particular issue of localized struggle, anarchism is more an aesthetic or general approach to such issues. The few identifiable, core “issues” that link anarchist action together are matters related to hierarchy and authority. Consequently, anarchist activism could—theoretically, at least—be located in nearly all areas of society, as well as within many social movements. For example, Earth First!ers and community gardeners may be part of the anarchist movement and the environmental movement. Anarcha-feminist collectives, reading groups, and individuals are just as much part of the feminist movement as the anarchist movement. While the Workers Solidarity Alliance is an anarchist organization and the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review an anarchist magazine, both also represent the radical, anarchist-wing of the labor movement.

Finally, it is worth making a bell hooks'-like distinction (2000) regarding anarchism. To speak of “the anarchist movement” is highly na├»ve. There is no hegemonic character to anarchism throughout the world. Anarchist activity in different geographic locations is undoubtedly different and unique. For example, witness the strains of especifismo in South America, Platformism in the United States, or autonomism in Central and Southern Europe. Perhaps a way to address this overgeneralization would be to note multiple anarchist movements (plural) as opposed to one uniform anarchist movement (singular). Thus, we could consider slight regional flavors or those differences amongst anarchists of varying ideological orientations. hooks, writing about feminism, recommends using “movement” as a verb. Movements move; they are in a constant state of evolution, changing to meet new conditions and challenges. It may be useful to refer to “anarchist movement” as the effect of countless anarchists acting within an abstract “movement”, engaging in struggles against very different forces of domination. Seen this way, movements are not static, nor are they strictly space-specific, but are liquid configurations of people struggling to reach their goals.


[1] But, the term “anarchy” is popularly maligned, often used derogatorily. Mass media uses both terms (but especially the latter) as synonyms for ideas, behaviors, and conditions far-removed from the anarchist tradition. For example, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 spurred such non-theoretically-rooted correlations with anarchy in the news, such as “violence”, “chaos”, and “looting” (Stock 2007). The associations with states in disorder—such as Somalia—are also endlessly propagated in the news.


hooks, bell. 2000. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Stock, Paul. 2007. “Katrina and Anarchy: A Content Analysis of a New Disaster Myth”. Sociological Spectrum, 27: 705-726.