From social movements to counter cultures.
Humanities in WIT: Festschrift for Tony Scott.
This paper argues that the literature on contemporary social movements is essentially circular, representing a political reductionism within which the analysis of these movements in terms of (individual, collective, societal) instrumental rationality appears both as a premise and as a conclusion. This in effect treats the theorist's own local form of rationality as universal, rather than taking the question of the modes of rationality operating in these contexts as an open question for research. By restricting the analytic and explanatory value of the social movement concept to the narrow field identified as relevant by this methodology, its common use for more wide-ranging analyses of the nature of contemporary social change is fatally undermined.
This tension is strongest in authors representing an "identity paradigm" such as Alberto Melucci, whose work points towards the need to replace social movement activity within the sociocultural contexts from which it proceeds, but who are unable to theorise these contexts in their own terms, analysing them only from the point of view of their immediate contribution to political activity. Even this "culturalist" approach to contemporary movements, then, remains blocked by an ultimate prioritisation of instrumental political action, and thus considerably less flexible than early cultural studies approaches to class movements.
This paper argues that social movement activity as currently conceived is only one element of broader life-world contexts which need to be theorised on their own terms before contemporary movements can be fully understood, and that the modes of rationality operative in these contexts have to be seen as an open question for research, rather than assumed or imputed. Working with a concept of "counter cultures" as historically developed complexes of alternative practices and meanings, this paper suggests that both the role of skills and intellectual activity and the characteristic modes of organisation of contemporary social movements need to be seen in this context. Material from a series of Dublin interviews is used to illustrate the possibility that autonomy may be a key element of this life-world rationality. The conclusion discusses the political implications of this suggestion.
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