Tag Archives: social movement theory

Understanding Activists’ Political Theories: A Hermeneutic Methodology for Frame Analysis

Paper presented to 57th Political Studies Association Annual Conference, University of Bath, April 2007.

At the heart of social movements lie structures of beliefs and values that guide critical action and aid activists’ understandings. These are worthy of interrogation, not least because they contain points of articulation with ideational formations found in both mainstream politics and academia. They offer an alternative view of society, economy and polity that is grounded in protagonists’ experience and struggle. However, the ideational content of social movements is often obscured by a focus on particular, immediate goals; by their orientation to certain forms of action; and by the mediated, simplified nature of their communication. Additionally, recent social movements display a tendency to coalitional action, bringing a diverse set of political understandings in concert on highly specific campaigns.

This conceptual paper seeks an approach to identifying the messages within social movements that remains sensitive to their complexity, dynamism and heterogeneity. Through a critique of the concept of ‘interpretative frames’ as developed in social movement studies, I describe the novel concept ‘orientational frame’. In contrast to social movement scholars’ tendency to focus on instrumental claim-making by movement organisations, I emphasise deeply held, relatively stable sets of ideas that allow activists to justify contentious political action. Through an engagement with Michael Freeden’s morphological approach to understanding ideologies I attempt to draw frame analysis away from the positivistic attempt to delineate general processes into a hermeneutic endeavour more suitable to understanding the context dependent, specifically realised ideas of particular social movements.

The full paper may be downloaded here: A Hermeneutic Methodology for Frame Analysis

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.

Download C1: Understanding Social Movements

2. Identifying the Research Subject: The ‘Movement of Movements’ as Cycle of Contention

This chapter does some more theoretical work. This is important, academically speaking, because my work takes a position mid-way between distinct approaches from US and European scholarship on social movements. Within the European strand of work, one of the most important things going on from the mid-1960s was the development of a politics of protest that seemed more concerned with new identities than with the more obviously materialist politics of labour movements. But, recent protests against the economic effects of globalisation pose a problem for that way of thinking – aren’t the recent struggles really about the distribution of goods and money?

With this question in mind this chapter explores the recent history of protest. I describe some of the links between the anti-/alter-globalisation struggles, the attempts to create positive alternatives in the social forums, and the incredible eruption of protest around the war on terror. In this way I introduce the specific subject of study for the remainder of the thesis. That is, as well as trying to understand the way ideas are used and structured within social movements I’m trying to understand the specific story of recent protest against globalisation and war. By looking at the different versions of the history of recent protest found within the movements themselves, I also give an introduction to some of the differences between the three sets of ideas (the three ‘orientational frames’) described later.

Download C2: Movement of Movements

Relational Frame Analysis: Finding People and Politics in Interpretive Frame Theory

A Paper Presented to the Alternative Futures and Popular Protest Conference, at Manchester Metropolitan University, April 2005

The first aim of this paper is to explore the current state of knowledge represented by the framing approach to social movements. The second aim is to describe a particular approach to understanding the political significance of cycles of contention in terms of the way activists come to understand the world and their place in it. What I will term ‘relational frame analysis’ (RFA) is a conceptual structure that aims to develop that side of the framing approach that aims particularly at understanding the ideas and debates represented by movement activity. I hope to explain the merits of this approach in terms of its ability to pull together a number of key concepts for understanding movement culture, and to give a philosophically coherent understanding of the connections between various levels of analysis. Continue reading Relational Frame Analysis: Finding People and Politics in Interpretive Frame Theory