Performance and collective action

In the past decade, the concept of performance has increasingly been used to reinterpret collective action. In this approach the collective action is understood as cultural performance, a performance in which actors, individually or in concert, display for others the meaning of their social situation (e.g. Alexander 2004).

Collective action
Much of the recent relevant work has been done by 'social movement' scholars, principally in sociology and political science. But there is also a longstanding interest in the dynamics of 'collective action' among economists and historians, or historically oriented social scientists. For the purpose of this wiki collective action may be defined as emergent and minimally coordinated action by two or more people that is motivated by a desire to change some aspect of social life or to resist changes proposed by others (Oberschall 2001).

Drawing on the legacy of the late Durkheim, sociologists involved in the cultural turn of the late 20th century put meaning into the centre of social theory. Combining the hermeneutic tradition of 'thick description' by Clifford Geertz and the structuralist heritage of De Saussure, sociologists assert the determinative power of culture and its relative autonomy from social structure.

Following the overly rationalistic explanations of the resource mobilization paradigm of the late 1970s and 1980s, the cultural turn put a renewed emphasis on meaning and interpretation in collective action. There is a general consensus that the cultural turn comprised two relatively distinct approaches: New Social Movement (NSM) theory and the framing perspective.

The first approach refers to social movement ideology, the concerns motivating activists, and the arena in which collective action was focused. Focusing on culture as an arena of action and cultural change as a consequence of movement efforts provided important addenda to the movement-as-political-reform perspective that was characteristic of structural approaches. For example, NSM scholars' theorizing 'collective identity' was an important conceptual step.

The second approach focuses on the ways in which movements have used symbols, language, discourse, identity and other dimensions of culture to recruit, retain, mobilize and motivate members. This perspective, widely called the framing perspective, explicitly theorizes the symbolic and meaning work done by movement activists as they articulate grievances, generate consensus on the importance and forms of collective action to be pursued, and present rationales for their actions and proposed solutions to adherents, bystanders, and antagonists. The framing perspective has been central to collective action studies. Most research has been on how movements and movement organizations frame issues, with the implicit dependent variable being some form of mobilization success. Other cultural foci such as narratives, cultures of resistance, the place of music, art, and theatre, while representing important avenues of research, have received much less attention. It is mainly for this reason that collective action researchers began to introduce a performance-centred approach.

Performance and collective action - Cultural pragmatics
One of the more influential models in the performance-centred approach to collective action is cultural pragmatics theory, which understands symbolic action as performance. Sociologist Jeffrey Alexander building on the legacy of symbolic action and dramaturgy (Kenneth Burke 1941; Erving Goffman 1956), developed the cultural pragmatics approach from Austin's performative speech act theory (Austin 1962). Alexander states that cultural pragmatics arose out of the confluence of ‘hermeneutic, post-structural, and pragmatic theories of meaning's relation to social action’.

In this model, six basic elements contribute to the effects of cultural performance: (a) systems of collective representation including background symbols and foreground scripts, (b) actors, (c) observers/audience, (d) means of symbolic production, (e) mis-en-scene, and (f) social power. These elements compose a model of causality: each of them plays a necessary part in determining whether and how the performance occurs, yet none of them could be sufficient as the cause alone (Alexander 2004, 2006).

A powerful theoretical tool, cultural pragmatics offers a new analytical approach to the study of social dramas in diverse forms.

Cultural pragmatics in action - How social movements actually move
Another sociologist, Ron Eyerman, elaborated on cultural pragmatics in Performing opposition, or how social movements move (2006). He explores what a 'movement' means, and asks what is or can be said to be 'moved' in the performance of opposition or extended protest. In his view, social movement is a form of public action, a political performance which involves representation in dramatic form, as movements engage emotions inside and outside their bounds attempting to communicate their message. Such performance is always public, as it requires an audience which is addressed and must be moved. Following Goffman and others (e.g. Schechner 1988; Hetherington 1998; Alexander 2006), Eyerman calls attention to the place and space of movement, as well as how opposition is performed. Performance theory focuses on corporality, presence, and the pre-discursive while at the same time including it. This allows researchers to better address questions of what happens when people enter a movement, how this affects their actions and the actions of others, and how social movements move.

Partly due to Eyerman's work, cultural pragmatics theory has become one of the more important approaches in the study of collective action.

Sarah Egan, for example, has used the cultural pragmatics approach to demonstrate how social movement actors perform and attempt to effect a desired outcome, by accounting for themselves in terms of the discourse of civil society and performing to a variety of audiences (Egan 2008).

Rui Gao, in his cultural pragmatics analysis of anti-Japanese protests in China, argues that the success of a cultural performance, that is whether it produces what Alexander calls 'psychological identification and cultural extension' (Alexander 2004), is contingent on all six basic elements involved, but its effects differ dramatically for different audiences who may or may not share a collective background representation with the actors (Gao 2008).

A broader perspective - Renewed emphasis on interaction
In a related performance-centred approach, Hank Johnston recently (2009) stated that demonstrations, marches, protests, press conferences, presentations and violent confrontations can all be thought of as performances of collective actors geared to a variety of audiences – the media, authorities, counter-movements, the public. These are movement performances on a broad level of analysis, but the specific workings of movements also have performative aspects, such as internal discussions and debates, planning sessions, conflicts among members, and narrative performances, all of which have their own internal audiences. When the analyst focuses on the actions of these various parties and how they are connected, the theatrical metaphor is not only apt but, more importantly, locates culture where it is actually taking place, in the interaction among participants, firmly grounding culture in its collective enactment.

See also

Social Movement Theory
New Social Movement (NSM) theory
Collective action
Resource mobilization paradigm
Ferdinand De Saussure
Clifford Geertz
Thick description

Collective action


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