Thursday 3 December 2009

Reflexivity and Value-Added Analysis

In his comment on my PhD Abstract, Steve Cooke asks "if you had to re-write this for the Plain English Campaign, what would it say?" The comrade has a good point. The thesis title, 'A Reflexive and Value-Added Analysis of Contemporary Trotskyist Activists in Britain' doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, so what the hell is it about?

The thesis makes three contributions to the sociology of social movements (or four if you count the case I make for British Trotskyism (principally the SP and SWP) being important mainstays of radical politics).

I've talked about sociological reflexivity on this blog
before in the context of a talk I've given a couple of times. It's worth quoting a relevant passage at length:

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.
Sociological reflexivity therefore does not have to be a whinge about the "guilt" a researcher feels for "exploiting" the life histories of volunteers for careerist purposes. As far as I was concerned reflexivity is about acknowledging the contradictions of being a Trot studying Trots to produce knowledge for a specialised but non-Trotskyist audience. The discussion of how my partisan affiliation shaped the thesis, the setbacks arising from being a SP activist looking to interview SWP comrades, and the problematic character of sociological knowledge of social movements (which I re-named 'open' surveillance on account of it being in the public domain) were necessary to avoid objections relating to bias and ensure the research was as rigorous as qualitative research can be.

What's all this 'value-added' stuff about? These relate two the other two contributions the thesis makes. Firstly, we need a bit of contextualisation. Generally speaking scholarship has variously identified and analysed key aspects of social movements. For example, some have used rational choice cost/benefit analysis to identify the points at which collective behaviour emerges. Others have explained how movements go about gathering the requisite resources to fuel their take off. Some scholarship has looked at how movements "frame" issues and attract people to its banner, and a lot of contemporary work has looked at processes of collective identity formation. The problem is these contributions have found and fallen out of favour because they are
partial explanations of the emergence of social movements. For example, resource mobilisation theory stresses the importance of the availability of resources to emergent social movements and discusses how they are gathered and used, and what role (if any) they play in conditioning the subsequent development of a movement. What it cannot to is explain the processes that spur on the formation of a movement in the first place.

My thesis represents an attempt to overcome this problem. It uses a model first developed by
Neil Smelser in his 1962 book, Theory of Collective Behaviour and then recast 40 years later by Nick Crossley in 2002's Making Sense of Social Movements. Smelser offered what he termed a value-added model as a way into explaining how social movements emerge. The short description of the model from Smelser's Wikipedia page is a fair description of what it's all about:

Structural conduciveness - things that make or allow certain behaviors possible (e.g. spatial proximity)
Structural strain - something (inequality, injustice) must strain society
Generalized belief - explanation; participants have to come to an understanding of what the problem is
Precipitating factors - spark to ignite the flame
Mobilization for action - people need to become organized
Failure of social control - how the authorities react (or don't)
For Smelser processes containing these general characteristics all have to be present for a social movement to emerge. The elements or moments of the model can combine in any order, offering a holistic way of approaching the origins of all kinds of movements. What Crossley did was make the case that social movement theory and research in the intervening 40 years have developed partial perspective that can be slotted together in Smelser's model. For example, resource mobilisation theory explains what's going on at the level of 'Mobilisation for action'. Frames and collective identity approaches describe what's going on in 'Generalised belief', and so on.

What I did is adapt this model to the level of individual Trotskyist activists to make sense of their paths to Marxist politics. Of course, there are as many paths as there are socialists, but nevertheless the modified value-added model was able to make sense of the (sometimes very different) life history data and provide a way for understanding how people become involved in so-called non-conventional forms of political activity.

The final contribution is a further adaptation I made to the Smelser-Crossley model of mobilisation. In social movement scholarship generally there is a relative paucity of research on commitment. For some reason the hows and whys of mobilisation have attracted most attention, not why activists stay the course. Drawing on some of the comparatively few studies about I formulated my own value-added approach. Many of the concepts in the mobilisation model acted as pointers to how commitment might work, but generally all had to be reworked. For example, as we know Trotskyist organisations spend a lot of time selling papers and raising fighting fund. This is a form of resource mobilisation and offers "basic" form of activism old and new members alike engage in. In the model of mobilisation this always-available activity helps intergrate recruits into the politics and practices of the organisation. But for veteran activists it's different - it can organise them around a regular cycle of activity, provide a means of assessing the efficacy of their politics, offer a way of engaging the general public, and so on.

The value-added model of commitment is used to explain the processes going on that sustain activism in the same way the Smelser-Crossley model does for radicalisation/mobilisation. Each of its elements can combine in any order. There is however one significant difference. Whereas Smelser argued that
all the moments of his model have to be present for collective behaviour to occur, it is not necessarily the case for my commitment model. For example, say a comrade drops out of activity and no longer attends branch meetings - to all intents and purposes they're cut off from regular physical contact with the party. However, supposing they still read party publications, plugs away in their union branch, remains pissed off/angry with current political developments, etc. the activist won't necessarily completely drop out. They may still identify with the party and return to activism in the future. My value- added model suggests that if one of the elements are no longer present, the others to an extent can take up the strain of sustaining commitment. However, the fewer elements are present, the more brittle the commitment becomes. It's also true not all elements are of equal strength. For instance, it's easier for a party identifying but otherwise inactive comrade to retain membership and renew commitment than an active comrade who 'goes through the motions' but, for whatever reason, has views that increasingly diverge from the party's perspectives.

In sum, the thesis makes the case for sociological reflexivity in general (and with regard to social movements in particular); modifies an existing theory of collective mobilisation to model
individual radicalisation, and lastly a value-added model that views (individual) commitment as a many-sided complex process. All of these arguments were formulated in conjunction with the analysis of Trotskyist life histories, but have more general applications for the general sociology of social movements as well as sociological practice itself.


Kaptain Kier said...

I found this a very interesting blogpost

It also confirmed me feeling though, that I'm happy I'm not a student any more, and no longer have to wade through academic literature.

Phil said...

Thanks, I think!

JB said...

I've been following your blog for a little while - as an academic with an interest in ex-trots.
Am unconvinced by your reflection on using your co-members as source material; the notion that you may have been exploiting then to enable you to secure an academic career is sufficiently crass to ensure that you will not and probably ought not ever be appointed as an academic! Good researchers will crawl over broken glass to get the empirical evidence; your personal agonizing indicates that you need to think beyond your own personal involvement and more about the data and what it is telling (or not) you. If I was involved in your supervision, I would be very interested in how you managed the relationship between your informants and your personal knowledge of them and the judgments you made in your data collection and later analysis. The literature on ethnography and autoethnography may help you, on how to manage self reflexivity for academic purposes.

Interesting that you contextualize your work within the conventional sociological literature – social movements, theories of personal radicalization and so on. Yet do not mention the considerable Trot literature on building a revolutionary party and developing members. Interesting use of theoretical framework; look forward to your defence of French post modernists to provide insight on organizations, such as Mlitant/SP that continues to firmly believe in the w/c and the potential revolutionary capacity of their organizations.

Have you considered the difficult relationship between Trots and academics? On one hand, Militant tendency was often very hostile to academia in general and students specifically. yet, their meetings were run as seminars and senior theoretical full-timers were revered as a form of professoriate.

BTW, there was some years ago a fairly extensive research project by Manchester U politics department on the British Left. I am not sure whether in included the UK Trotskyist movement/tradition.

Good luck with you academic ambitions but don’t bank on it as your day job. The sector is facing considerable contraction over the next few years. I suspect Sociology, a subject with a difficult history for many universities; will face a particularly difficult time.

Phil said...

Cheers for the comments, JB.

The chapter on reflexivity is quite hefty, weighing in at about 15,000 words if memory serves. It talks extensively about the conflicts between academia and politics and draws on the debates about public sociology concerning interest and partisanship. As for "exploiting" fellow comrades, everything was explained during the interview process and after. They were given vetoes over stuff they didn't want appearing and issues around the use of their life histories and its transformation into publicly available sociological knowledge were talked about at length - indeed, part of the chapter is based around these conversations. Basically, the reflexivity here is as rigorous as it can be - my supervisor thought so, as did the ethics committee that green lighted my research. And more importantly, so did the participants themselves.

As for academia, I have no illusions at all about how tough things are going to be. I am a sociologist, yes, but have a lot of teaching experience across several social science disciplines. I'll also be putting a research bid together in the new year with a couple of others, so no need to think about crying into my beer yet!

Simon_Hardy said...


I came across this doing research for my social movement theory exam tomorrow morning. Was interested about the part on value added concepts in peoples decisions to join a Trotskyist group. Resource Mobilisation argues that people join when the benefit outweighs the cost, which I suppose has some logic as far as it goes in terms of people getting involved in a strike and so on - but I do not think RMT can explain people joining a Revolutionary organisation. Quite simply the cost of being in a Trotskyist group, in terms of money, success, loss of social life, chance of arrest, etc, actually far far outweighs the benefits in the short or medium term (some would argue in the long term!)

Indeed I remember one comrade telling me that the secret to staying in a Trotskyist group long term is to never think about it in terms of cost/benefit, since that way lies madness!

Of course we can reply that the benefit is knowing you are fighting for an end to capitalism, liberation, human freedom and so on, but these are very abstract principles removed from the day to day grind of trade union work, paper sales, etc.

I would be interested to know more about social movement theory explaining how movement/party cadre join, as opposed to just people who join off the back of a particular issue, do their 2-5 years and then drop out.


Phil said...

Hi Simon

You might want to look at collective identity theories, political opportunity theory, and stuff around precipitating factors. None by themselves offer an adequate explanation of how people become radicalised, which is why I adapted the value-added theory of collective behaviour from Neil Smelser (and subsequent modification by Nick Crossley in his Making Sense of Social Movements (2002)) and used it to interpret the life history data from my Trotskyist volunteers. I thoroughly recommend Nick's book for getting to grip with radicalisation processes.

Happy revising!

Simon_Hardy said...

Hi Phil,

yes I did not think RMT was much good, I am interested by POS (or political process theory as the kids like to call it these days) but have been reading some of the critiques of it (for instance "Caught in a Winding, Snarling Vine: The Structural Bias of Political Process
Theory" by Godwin, Jasper and Jaswin) and it does strike me as being problematic. However an approach like that is much closer to the "men make history but not in a manner of their choosing" approach of Marx. I had not come across Smelser/Crossley before, I will try and give it a read over and sneak it into the exam! In fact I have found very few "Marxist" approaches to Social Movement Theory which seems a shame since it is certainly an academic field where Marxists, who participate in social movements all the time, should be able to operationalise and "academise" some ideas around it. What do you think of "framing"/meaning work?

Phil said...

Sorry, I meant to respond much earlier about this.

There are Marxists who have contributed to social movement theory, but at times their contributions seem 'unmarxist'. Doug McAdam for example is (or at least is considered to be) a Marxist, but there's nothing particularly Marxisant about his work.

What my PhD tries to do is take the "men make their own history" dictum as its starting point by fusing together existing contributions on social movement theory that can make sense of individual radicalisation and commitment. I hope to get some of this stuff published soon but have been advised to keep it under my hat until then. Alternatively if you ever find yourself at Keele Uni, my PhD will shortly be lodged in its library.

Re: framing I think it is an extremely fruitful way of thinking about activism - you just have to see the arguments we've been having on here about the SWP's invasion of ACAS to show how important framing issues are. But, like RMT and PP, one should avoid the temptation of trying to explain too much with reference to framing. I think taken together with RMT, Political Opportunity Structures, Precipitating Factors, Strain, Operation of Social Control, etc. its comes into its own as an analysis of *one* aspect of the radicalisation/mobilisation and commitment process.