Dog walks are going to inspire my dissertation. No, I'm not going to study human-animal communication, or even the "streetcorner society" in my medium-sized Southwestern city. Dog walks, for those of you who don't do them, are a brilliant time for thinking. For those interested in the human-animal connection (and please forgive my crudeness), is there a relationship between canine fecal production and intellectual production?
Early this morning, with my dog in tow and a U2 melody in my head (does u2 inspire intellectual production?), I reached my stride between 3rd and 4th Avenues. What do social movements produce in their interactions with Church, State, Capital, Education, and the families from whence they come? The question I've been asking in various forms for a year now crystalized in my head. I felt inspired. What residual, what innovation, what "meme" do movements insert into the institutional frameworks that surround them that outlasts the very movements that inspired them? I'm looking for a "thing" that movements create that constitutes a changed institutional environment.
Historical studies of the social movement (Tarrow 1998; Tilly 2004) show that social movements played a role in creating their own political opportunities. By pushing the envelope of acceptable political activity, movements changed institutions that previously did not recognize them as legitimate and created spaces for popular protest. In Britain, public gatherings and organizations of "ordinary people" - aside from long-recognized guilds, religious groups, community councils, and ritual celebrations and mourning - were illegal. There was no "Society for [this cause]" or "People against [that issue]." When regular people wanted to make claims on the government they had to go through "legitimate institutional channels," or face repression. Legitimate channels at that time meant guilds, religous groups, and community councils which could petition the Crown for redress of their grievances.
So how did "pushing the envelope" finally lead to institutionalization instead of repression? Cross-class coalitions seem to play a big role. Without alliances with the wealthy and powerful social movements were likely to be crushed by the State (particularly the British state, the most powerful in the world at that time). By throwing their numerical weight behind wealthy and powerful political candidates (like John Wilkes) British subjects became "useful" to some portions of the privileged classes. Those same portions of the elite benefited from the very institutional changes that made popular politicals acceptable - representative parliaments that stole power from the Crown. The more opportunities that these elites had to challenge political institutions in this way from the inside, the more outsiders found themselves in positions of influence. "Regular people," it turns out, shape the perceived legitimacy of the wealthy and powerful.
Obviously, the interaction between institutions and social movements is complex. The very mechanisms that make popular movements possible are in turn influenced by movements. Today, many social movements are highly routinized, led by experienced professionals, and accepted as legitimate platforms for popular participation in politics (less so in business, religion, education, and families). Many governments have laws and regulations (as well as norms and taken-for-granted beliefs) that channel movements into acceptable political activity (e.g., sanctioned demonstrations, contained marches and rallies, and tax-exempt organizations). These institutional changes are innovations made possible in part by the movements that benefit from them. The task, as I see it, is to identify concretely what these institutional changes are that contribute to and outlive the movements that create them.
By the time my dog and I got home, I had solidified the question: What "things" do movements create that constitute an opportunity for popular involvement in institutional decision-making? Unfortunately, I realize now that this is the more or less the same question that I've been asking for more than a year in various forms. This morning on my dog walk, my intellectual inspiration was dampened only by that damned U2 song still ringing in my head: "I still haven't found what I'm looking for." Shit.