Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Subjects and Scale of Anarchist Movement Research

All movements exist at multiple social scales. This means that there are different-sized configurations of anarchists and their groups. For example, movements consist of individuals, groups of individuals, formal organizations, and large networks or federations of individuals and groups. Consequently, any given movement is best viewed as a network of these various collections of people and their created structures (whether loose or firm).

Thus, when speaking about anarchism and anarchists, it is crucial to distinguish between the type and scale of one's research frame. When the FBI describes “anarchists” as a threat to the internal security of the US or propertied interests of corporate America (FBI 1999), to what and whom is it referring? Is the FBI referring to random anarchist individuals (probably), anarchist scenes (implicated, undoubtedly), formal organizations (yes, such as the Anarchist Black Cross, or less formal with the Earth Liberation Front), or broader networks (perhaps)? Or, when the mass media warns (read: rants hysterically) a community that anarchists are about to descend upon them during a large demonstration, does it mean to implicate all anarchists (perhaps living throughout the city), specific anarchist groups or organizations (maybe a “counter-summit” coordinating organization), or large anarchist networks (a regional anarchist federation)? Of course, it is unclear whether the FBI and mass media are really interested in these important issues of scale and specificity, or if they are more interested in fear-generation, retaliation, and suppression. Yet, if the anarchist movement is to be genuinely and accurately understood, these questions are of prime importance!

Individual anarchists could be any person (young or old, employed or unemployed, short or tall) who has a conscious identification with some sort of anarchist-specific ideology. Although there are problems (as noted above) with accepting any self-identified ideology into the anarchist movement, all could theoretically be counted. Ideologies may range from syndicalist, ecological, or feminist to communist, primivitist, punk, post-left, and so on. These individuals exist at what sociologists call the “micro-level”. Individual interaction and relationships occur between people, first and foremost. The micro-level is where encounters take place, friendships occur, and community begins. Symbolic interactionists are apt to note the importance of the micro-level in constructing reality from the ground-up, interaction-by-interaction, relationship after relationship. Most anarchists likely know more individuals than they know groups or organizations, and probably interact more frequently with individuals on a one-to-one basis than within the context of a larger structure.

Still, society is not merely composed of random individuals casually bumping into each other and living their lives without deliberate order. Groups are some of the most routine configurations created by anarchist individuals yet are one of the most difficult to locate and observe. For example, anarchist “scenes”, collections of anarchist friends, or crowds of anarchists are all casual, informal, but deliberately-created groups in the anarchist movement. Groups represent a great epistemological challenge and raise crucial questions. How does one delineate the boundaries of a city's anarchist scene? How do you locate pockets of anarchist friends or comrades, who might live in the same house together, but probably not? Or is it even possible to predict when and where crowds of anarchist individuals will form (and for how long), and then for a researcher to swoop in quickly to study that crowd?

Anarchist organizations are intentionally-created, formally-designed, and usually named. Organizations exist on the meso-scale (or “between level”); they are not composed of mere individuals, nor are they large superstructures, institutions, or bureaucracies. The possible structures of such organizations are incredibly varied. For example, small affinity groups are made of trusting individuals who intermittently re-form for specific purposes. Collectives aim to accomplish explicit goals like publish an anarchist magazine, run a Food Not Bombs food distribution project, or drive fascists out of their local political scenes. Cooperatives are member-based economic organizations that have strong anarchist characteristics, and may be organized to produce some sort of item or provide a service (a book publisher or bicycle manufacturer), or to consume something (a food cooperative or punk rock record store). Such formal organizations create systems for dealing with decision-making, structures for who can participate and how, and work towards some type of collectively-determined goals. These organizations often, but not always (the exception being many affinity groups), are visible to the wider anarchist scene and mainstream society. To the extent that they are visible, they are more easily studied from the outside; the less visible (and the more covert), the more it may be necessary for direct participants to analyze them.

It is difficult to conceive of the anarchist movement in “macro-level” terms. There are no real large-scale structures to speak of, since a core anarchist principle is decentralization (Ehrlich 1996). But, anarchists have constructed international federations and networks—such as the International Workers' Association, Independent Media Center network, the Anarchist Federation, and others—but none qualify as hegemonic institutions like states, bureaucracies, religious institutions, or capitalist marketplaces.

Consideration of the appropriate geographic scale may not be enough to account for the temporal condition of anarchist groups and organizations. The relative permanence of a grouping will indicate the ease or extent to which it may be studied. An important anarchist group may be difficult to study if it is short-lived, while an organization that has little meaningful impact over decades may have a greater chance of impacting movement history since there is more opportunity to study it. Thus, the variation in organizational longevity will effect those attempting to understand how organizations persist within the movement environment. Often, if movement participants to do not personally document their roles and activities in these groupings, such episodes may be lost from history, as will the decisions and rationale that generated that history.


Ehrlich, Howard J. 1996. Anarchism and Formal Organization”. Pp. 56-68 in Reinventing Anarchy, Again, edited by H.J. Ehrlich. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. 1999. Terrorism in the United States. Washington, DC: Department of Justice.