Thursday, 15 November 2007

Some Problems of Partisan Social Movement Research

Nerves, I've had a few, but they were completely absent when I gave the aforementioned paper to Keele Sociology dept's semi-regular dinner time forum.

In summary, I presented a few reflections on the difficulties I've had with my research. Using Pierre Bourdieu's work as an interpretative frame, I explored how the tensions between the organisational/political fields cohered around the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers' Party affected my attempts to get interviews with SWP activists. These efforts were complicated by my membership of the SP, and only knowing one SWP member personally and being vaguely acquainted with a handful. Using extracts from SP interviews, I showed how some comrades participated because I was a member *and* they had either heard of me or seen my face about at various events and actions. About half of SP comrades said they wouldn't have taken part if I was an SWP member, an independent, or in one of the 57 varieties. I have no reason to believe SWP comrades would be any different, though I hasten to add, I'm sure if I had known more SWP'ers or been seen about by them, rates of participation would have been higher.

The second part of my discussion looked at the tension between the larger far left political field the two organisations share, and the academic field. In other words, the contradiction between producing work socialist activists might find interesting and useful, while simultaneously meeting the requirements demanded of a PhD thesis. Here, I sketched how the presentation of my findings as sociological knowledge can harm the interests of the activists who took part, via a brief discussion of my concept of liberal surveillance. This refers to the knowledge effects of social science work on marginal groupings and social movements. I came up with the concept while reading Bourdieu on the scholastic point of view, and after hearing a paper on Hungarian anti-capitalists where the author failed to ask basic questions about why sociologists should study radical social movements, and who benefits from putting the knowledge out there. I quoted from transcripts where I asked comrades what they felt about liberal surveillance, about how public access to sociological knowledge built on their experiences of Trotskyist activists could be used by friend and foe alike; and the possibility they've provided me the scaffolding around which I could build a career in academia. There was a near consensus that enemies such as the state or the far right wouldn't get much from data of this character, and provided I was sensitive toward the life histories they had provided me with, no one saw any real problems with the data being used to play my disciplinary game.

The question and answer session was not unlike a meeting of left spotters anonymous at times as people were interested in the historical differences between the two organisations, their opinions of the USSR, relationships to other lefts, and attitude to Trotsky's legacy. I was also asked about my comparative intentions if volunteers from both organisations had reached parity and what will I be doing now meaningful comparisons cannot be made. One other interesting question touched on the gendered and racial dimensions of comrades' experiences. As my sample was all white, I didn't even bother speculating about the latter, but as for gender, the one thing that immediately sprung to mind were the relationships comrades were in. Female interviewees in relationships were, without exception, partnered up with a comrade. However, this wasn't the case with the men, so what does this say about our activist culture? Is 'being a socialist' more gendered than outward appearances suggest, or, is it a property of bourgeois relations generally? Can even a meaningful analytical separation be made? All this will have to be investigated in more depth when I start really pouring over the transcripts.

Overall, it was really useful to get a good grilling from my peers, and in my gratitude I promised them all a get out of the gulag free card come the glorious day!


Muon said...

Is the paper available online anywhere?

Phil BC said...

I'm afraid not Muon. I'll be working some of my PhD material up into papers over the next year. I'll probably blog about it as and when, so just give me a nudge and I'll forward you a copy.