Thursday, March 20, 2008

Review: Group Politics and Social Movements in Canada

[Miriam Smith, ed. Group Politics and Social Movements in Canada. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2008.]

An important motivation for taking on my current central project is the relative lack of accessible and engaging material looking at Canadian social movements, either in the present or historically. In the long years that I have been working on it, the ways I think about the work have changed, but how I talk about it hasn't always kept pace with the shifts. There are lots of great and new-to-me facts in Group Politics and Social Movements in Canada, but it was its capacity to stimulate me to better clarify my own approaches to the topic that was the most useful result of reading this book. And I suspect others with more general interests would also find it useful, though I worry a bit that the dubious aspects of how academics talk about social movements might mislead eager activists who are searching for answers.

The best part of this book is, as I said, the information it contains about Canadian social movements. The information is by and large solid and useful, and it talks about a lot of different movements, including some that are rarely get much attention. In some ways, therefore, it is a great read for folks just beginning to learn about this area, and still useful to those who are more experienced.

But not in all ways. I am much more ambivalent about the analyses which were used to organize all of this great information. The fact that I feel comfortable making such a statement about a book that includes a fairly broad range of analytical frameworks may put my credibility at risk -- I admit I may be indulging in the sort of overdone criticism that is only possible of something close to one's own areas of interest and experience. But I do not withdraw the statement. Certainly the essays varied, and certainly a sympathetic reading can extract useful insights from almost all of them. However, my feeling is that, with rare exceptions, academic social movement theory is far from the most interesting and useful way to talk about movements, and at times it can be downright offensive. For me, this book raises some basic questions about how social movements get talked about in academic contexts, and how those of us outside of academia should be relating to that material.

As is common in collections of this sort, a central purpose in the editor's Introduction is to outline an overarching framework to provide some unity to the diverse content and approaches in the individual essays. Judging by those essays, authors were also given some explicit guidance in relating their contributions to this framework of frameworks. Smith approaches this task by briefly describing the history, strengths, and weaknesses of the main schools of thought around which academic approaches to group politics and social movements have been organized. These include pluralism, three derivations of marxism (marxism, neo-marxism, canadian political economy), historical institutionalism, neopluralism, different strands of social movement theory (including new social movement theory, resource mobilization theory, and the political process model), and rational choice theory. I'm not going to bother explaining all of those terms here, but suffice it to say, while there are useful things that can be learned from many of them, I find none of them particularly satisfying as frameworks for talking about social movements. And that includes, by the way, the variants of marxism that are presented, which all sound much like the sort of plodding, structuralist, orthodox, inflexible marxisms that you might learn about in undergraduate sociology courses.

In any case, given that the relative utility of these different approaches is the focus of the Introduction, and that the authors seem to have been instructed to touch on this theme, it serves as one of the unifying elements of the book. I have no problem with paying attention to analytical or theoretical concerns, even in some circumstances to things whose connection to the practical concerns of social change are not universally obvious. But I have to ask, is this really the most important question?

Generally (though not always) it was the essays about topics with which I was least familiar that I enjoyed the most. For instance, Sally Chivers' "Barrier by Barrier: The Canadian Disability Movement and the Fight for Equal Rights" was only the third or fourth piece I've ever read about disability-related social movements in Canada. A major piece of writing work I did in an earlier incarnation of me involved significant attention to disability issues and was done under guidance from a group of activists who identified as having disabilities, so I have a basic sense of some of the ideas involved, but what I was writing had little to do with social movement activity. Beyond my own patterns of attention, the movement in Canada has been less visible than in the U.S., and I think relatively little has been written about it. Chivers' article presents some key theoretical concerns, most importantly the idea of disability as socially constructed, and goes through some of the relevant history in Canada, and it feels from where I stand like a solid introduction.

Along the same lines -- that is, interesting to me at least in part because I came to them with less background -- was "Populist and Conservative Christian Evangelical Movements: A Comparison of Canada and the United States" by Trevor W. Harrison and "Nationalism and Protest: The Sovereignty Movement in Quebec" by Pascale Dufour and Christophe Traisnel. I don't think I've ever read anything on modern, right-wing Christian movements in Canada, and though I am not quite as ignorant about the sovereignty movement, I don't know nearly as much as I should.

There were other essays that felt like they were on to something interesting but something about the academic place from which they were written made them less effective than they should've been. (And by this I mean something specific to these essays, not the more general problems which I will deal with below). For instance, Michael Orsini's "Health Social Movements: The Next Wave in Contentious Politics?" had some interesting things to say about health as a current and future focus of social movement organizing. I would've preferred if he had had the space to talk about his three examples -- AIDS organizing, organizing around multiple chemical sensitivity, and environmental justice organizing connected to asthma -- in more depth, but I understand the limits in a collection like this. What was more of a problem was what I perceive to be the need academics face to frame their work in ways that emphasize, and sometimes overemphasize, its importance, as illustrated by the essay's subtitle and various passages within. Though posed as provocation rather than conclusion, it did not feel like the evidence presented was enough to support even the question as put; when read in the context of my own particular and ever evolving understanding of social struggle, it really felt overdone.

I'd place the first essay of the book in the same general category, though for different reasons. "Business Interests and Civil Society in Canada" by Peter Clancy is an effort to understand in concrete terms the ways in which business exerts influence over Canadian society and politics. Or, to put it in language that I doubt the author would use, it is a start on one corner of the work of removing capital from what Dorothy Smith has described as a "blob ontology" -- an internally amorphous something whose actual workings are left mysterious -- to something that can be more effectively challenged because we know how it works. Sure, this essay does only one very specific level of that kind of critical analysis, but that doesn't mean it's not useful. However, it was very clearly not written with an eye to providing maximum utility to anti-capitalist challenge, and was more oriented towards fitting into academic discourse -- way too much attention to categorizing things and to fairly uninteresting questions like "whether business politics should be considered within or outside civil society proper."

For almost every essay in the collection I could talk about the things I found genuinely useful and then contrast that with particular disagreements with details, with analysis, with framework. I could go on outlining my specific criticisms of each -- the essay on the labour movement that claimed "an anti-racist feminist Marxism that sees capitalist societies as organized by gender, race, sexuality, and other relations as well as by class" which proceeded to demonstrate a marxism only very modestly changed by its encounters with each of those things; the essay on anti-racism organizing that failed to engage with either radical anti-racist critiques of multiculturalism from people of colour or radical indigenous anti-colonial politics; the essay on feminism that didn't seem to have much new to say -- but that would probably come across as excessively grumpy on my part, and it would risk distracting from the genuine value of the book. However, I do wish more of the essays had followed the lead of Kiera L. Ladner in "Aysaka 'paykinit: Contesting the Rope Around the Nations' Neck", which flatly refused to engage with social movement theory. Instead, Ladner drew on indigenous epistemologies based on narratives to talk about struggles against colonization in a way that seemed much more openly concerned with advancing those struggles than many of the other essays.

The more important thing to think about, though, is not specific problems with specific pieces of writing, but what the collection as a whole demonstrates about more general problems in academic approaches to social movements. I'm not the first person to point out that there are very basic problems with taking social movements as the central object of study, and that much more useful-to-movements knowledge can be produced by starting from standpoints within those movements, making relations of ruling the object of study, and orienting knowledge production to what would be useful in their struggles. Attempts to thoroughly apply this insight take you to very different places than this book goes.

However, I don't think we need to completely abandon knowledge production that takes movements as its focus. We just have to understand that there are significantly better and worse ways of doing that. Even focusing on movements themselves, a lot of what can make that kind of knowledge production more useful is related to the standpoint from which it starts, which is in turn expressed through how your questions are oriented. The key criterion is, of course, whether the questions are useful for movements themselves. In a lot of cases, in the essays in this book and in academic studies of social movements more generally, it is not at all clear to me that the questions asked are more than marginally useful to movements. For instance, as an activist and as someone who writes about social movements, I really have trouble understanding why I am supposed to care about the vicious discursive combat that has occurred between those who think resource mobilization is the key and those who see political opportunity as more important.

Another way to think about the same thing is in terms of audience -- what does your writing say about who you are writing for? I think there are lots of ways you can usefully answer questions of audience. Writing about movements for activists is great. Writing about movements for ordinary people whose daily struggles have not yet found much collective expression can also be important. Writing about movements for students can also be quite useful, and I think that is why this book was produced. But though I suspect students are the main market for this book in terms of whose pockets the dollars will come from to buy them, the question "What would it be useful for students to know?" does not directly organize what is presented but is filtered first through the gatekeeping of academics whose answers about what matters about social movements come from much different places.

Another core objection I have to the ways that social movements often get talked about in academic contexts (amply illustrated in this book) is the refusal to talk about them in ways that emphasize connection and intersection. In some ways, this is inherent to starting your writing by focusing on a movement -- even if you intend to be open to interconnection, the mere act of taking that focus in the context of a document of limited length and in terms of a movement that itself is socially organized to have a centre and a periphery determines what falls more easily to the centre of your writing and what is less likely to be given voice. I've felt this in my own writing and I don't expect that I'm going to be able to overcome it in any easy, straightforward way. Academic norms, however, take this from ongoing political problem and shift it into an unnoticed fact. An example: There is no easy answer to how to write about, say, queer movements in Canada in the '70s, '80s, and '90s in a way that is thoroughly anti-colonial and anti-racist and anti-capitalist but that doesn't lose focus on those movements as they actually happened. You can't avoid that problem. But a focus on movements as discrete entities and the tendency of the academy to put everything into discrete silos means that something that I would see as a political question that inevitably has to be dealt with in some way can be dismissed as being "not really appropriate" for this type of document with this type of focus.

The essence of how my understanding of my own work has changed over the years is implicit in what I've already written: I started out with a very clear focus on movements themselves as objects of study, objects to be dissected and understood. My goal in doing this was not academic abstraction, but to help those of us organizing in the present to make better decisions. But I didn't necessarily understand what that meant when I started out on this journey. As I have travelled and learned, it has become clear to me that I don't want to abandon talking about movements -- their histories are important and often erased -- but I need to do it in a very different way, a way that resists oversimplifying silos, a way that is open to seeing connections, a way that is as much about the societies in which movements occur as it is about the movements themselves. Figuring out how to do that is a long-term project, even longer than the writing of the particular book that is my focus at the moment, and I'm not sure I'm going to be able to hold my book up when it is done and say, "This is it! I've done it!" in any final and decisive way. But I know I'll be able to say that I've started doing it.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


Angelo said...

Hi there, Scott,

Longtime lurker/appreciator here. Just wanted to offer a quick "thanks" for your notice on the piece by Sally Chivers, of which I wasn't aware.

I've only read her application of disability studies to specific analyses of the "problem body" on film so far, but I find her an excellent and informative read. So thanks.

Incidentally, and though it's only tangentially related to disability-focused social movements, I find Marcia H. Rioux and Fraser Velentine's chapter "Does Theory Matter?" in Pothier and Devlin's Critical Disability Theory to offer one of the best (i.e. most succinct) intros for anyone who would find it useful to chart various leading formulations of disablement, and what is at stake in each. That is, if you haven't come across it already.

Take care,


Scott said...

Hey Angelo! Glad you found the review useful...nope, I haven't seen the Rioux and Velentine piece. Thanks for the tip!