1. Understanding Social Movements: Towards a Theory of Interpretative Frames

This chapter begins with a quick tour of social movement theory since the 1950s. In particular I look at the ways that academics have tried to understand the role of ideas within social movements.

The main focus here, though, is to look at a body of research that examines the ‘interpretative frames’ that protesters and activists use to understand the world around them. We are all constantly engaged in processes of learning that reinforce or recreate our own set of beliefs and values. The concept of ‘interpretative frames’ is supposed to capture the way that these beliefs and values are structured. We become emotionally attached to certain ways of looking at the world so that new information is often framed within those beliefs we previously held. So, if you already believe that all government is the self-interested exercise of power in order to further enrich the powerful, you’re more likely to interpret, say, the Iraq war in this way.

The main contribution this thesis tries to make to the theoretical debate is to clarify the nature of these interpretative frames. Scholars have tended to see them as quite superficial, as if you could express different political opinions depending on which way the political wind blows. While may be true of the expression of beliefs, I doubt it is true of the holding of those beliefs. More importantly people’s beliefs and values – and especially activists’ beliefs and values – inform their decisions to act in certain ways. As most activists realise, people with particular politics will have a particular take on how to change the world. Academics have tended to separate ideas and action in their analyses, so that is one thing this thesis tries to put right.

Add in a bunch of fairly esoteric conceptual work and this chapter gets to the point of describing the ‘orientational frame’ as that set of beliefs that offers someone a view of the world, of their place in it, and of the ways in which social change might be achieved. So, it becomes possible to describe and analyse relatively stable structures of ideas that exist (in a particular sense) beyond any individual’s expression of them.

The key point to remember throughout is that it is not possible simply to write down a programmatic set of beliefs and pidgeon-hole people according to whether they fit or not. In the rest of the thesis I do identify three sets of ideas that tend to cling together (and also have relationships with socialism, anarchism and liberalism). However, these ideas are stuck together with the weak glue of shared culture, particular understandings of history, and trends in the sorts of experiences activists are likely to encounter. On exposure to these orientational frames (or structures of ideas) activists will interpret them in ways that depend on the individual journey they have taken through their political (and indeed non-political) lives. As such many people will rightly refuse to be pigeon-holed or categorised. Nevertheless, the ‘orientational frames’ can be discussed independently of individual interpretations. This chapter closes by explaining exactly how that can be achieved.

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