Outside the whale: (re) thinking social movements and the voluntary sector.
Seventh international conference on alternative futures and popular protest: a selection of papers from the conference. Colin Baker and Mike Tyldesley (eds)..
Over the last decade or so, an increasing degree of sophistication has been devoted to the projects of theorising ?social movements? and ?the voluntary sector?, two approaches which clearly overlap in subject matter, but rarely in theory. Despite dramatic changes in the organisation of politics from below in recent years, these parallel projects have been primarily a matter of developing and ?synthesising? previously existing approaches, rather than asking after their ultimate value and purpose. The net effect has been the reproduction of prior assumptions which remain within the given boundaries of would-be subdisciplines. Most importantly, these involve a definition of what is relevant in terms of its relationship to the state; a tendency to ahistorical definitions of ?fields?, and methodological individualism.
In this paper, we use the case of community politics - one of the largest forms of voluntary or movement activity in Ireland, as in Latin America - to illustrate the weaknesses of both ?problematics?. We contrast the approaches of these two literatures with the perspective of working-class community activists in Ireland as a starting-point towards identifying other ways of thinking about these issues. These we find particularly within Marxist traditions of thinking about working-class self-activity. In these terms, the intersection with the state, while important, is by no means the central aspect of community politics. The ?fields? defined by the movement and its organisations are subject to large-scale historical changes. Finally, participants? own theorising rejects comprehensively any form of methodological individualism in favour of interactive and developmental understandings of collective needs.
The conclusion discusses some of the methodological problems we?ve encountered in trying to theorise this movement in conventional terms, and asks after their theoretical implications. In particular, what appears as relevant is a conflict between the ?colonisation? of movements by the state on the one hand and the reassertion of human needs in new forms on the other. In this context, the ?hidden discourses? of movement participants become as important as their public engagement in the process of negotiation over language and institutions, and form part of the ?political economy of labour?, which appears as opposed to conventional theory?s implicit identification with the state?s viewpoint, its acceptance of existing institutional organisation as definitive, and its collusion with capitalism?s positing of individuals as originally isolated and self-seeking.
Martin Geoghegan, Dept. of Applied Social Studies, University College Cork
Laurence Cox, Dept. of Sociology, NUI Maynooth
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