T-minus 9 Months: Dissertation Organizational Rework and Focusing on ‘Scenes.’

9 months.  That’s how long I’m giving myself to have this baby.  I’ve been officially (i.e. via registration) working on this thing since the Fall of 2012, but it feels much longer.  In an effort to induce delivery, I have been easing into an increasingly rigorous writing schedule; I hope it works.

My return to a more structured writing schedule was initiated by a deep revisit and reworking of my dissertation’s structure/arrangement.  I think this produced a more logical  discussion and I think the new outline puts the focus more squarely on the real heart of the research: micro-level constructions of the political in and around social movements.

The problem all along has been how to incorporate discussions of how people reject or distance themselves from a movement (and/or a movement’s politics) within a discussion of the movement itself.  I think a key problem was that I was trying to hard to ‘stick to the movement.’  I had to bend over backwards in order to tell the story of everything that surrounds the movement because I was trying to do it from a discursive position inside the movement.  I found myself going through hoops of justifying the connection of the scene to the movement rather than simply allowing myself to speak to the scene directly.  I began thinking that by carefully filling in the details of the scene, the movement will arise (in some sense) in relief, a sort of negative space drawing of the movement.

My new organizational scheme, as I said above, strives to keep the focus on practices of Rejection and Difference, vis á vis Occupy, within Philly’s radical DIY ‘scene.’  The scene concept strives to capture a layered combination of spatial/physical and sociocultural networks, linked via a combination of radical-leftist political orientations and practices as well as a set of symbolic/cultural markers and practices drawn from the DIY-Punk subculture.  This object of study will be referred to here as Philadelphia’s ‘radical-DIY scene.’

The use of ‘scene’ here draws on Leach and Haunss’ (2009) initial development of this still very new concept.[1]  Broadly, scenes are meant to describe the social and spatial infrastructure that surrounds culturally-oriented movements or social and political struggles more generally. Following the lead of the concept’s creators, the project conceives of ‘scenes’ representing both networks of people who share “a common identity and a common set of subcultural or countercultural beliefs, values, norms, and convictions” as well as the networks of physical spaces where members of that group “are known to congregate” (Leach and Haunss 2009: 259).

Scenes might be thought of as something like Melucci’s ‘submerged networks’ (1985; 1989).  Since the social movement studies field began to give increased attention to movements’ efforts at “politicizing the institutions of civil society,” (i.e. so-called ‘cultural-minded’ movements), numerous scholars have turned their empirical focus to an intermediate sphere, “between ‘private’ pursuits and concerns, on the one side, and institutional, state-sanctioned modes of politics, on the other” (Offe 1985:820).  These spheres have been given various labels: ‘free spaces’ (Polletta 1999; Johnston 2005), ‘submerged networks’ (Melucci 1989), ‘oppositional subcultures’ (Johnston 1991), and more.  However, despite the fact that these spheres have received scholarly attention, as Leach and Haunss demonstrate, we still don’t know much about “their inner dynamics, the circumstances under which they arise, or their effect on social movement development” (Leach and Haunss 2009: 257).

That said, scenes differ from these sorts of concepts in a number of ways.  Take for example probably the most widely used concept mentioned above, Polletta’s ‘free spaces’ (cf. Polletta 1999); these are usually defined functionally (and tautologically) as ‘generative,’ ‘communicative,’ or ‘nurturing’ settings that are necessarily political and tied to movement mobilization.  Alternatively, scenes, as developed by Leach and Haunss are: (1) not necessarily political; (2) not necessarily attached to movements, and when they are, a scene is not reducible to the movement itself or to the organizations within it; and (3) where scenes are connected to a movement, the relationship between the two is not always beneficial for the movement (Leach and Haunss 2009:259).

My development of the concept makes one important modification to Leach and Haunss’ initial development. The authors suggest that, much like earlier ‘free spaces’ concepts, scenes have an assumed autonomy, that is, they are places “where group members are able to interact beyond the reach of oppressor groups” (Leach and Haunss 2009:258).  This project does not accept this assumed autonomy, if only because ‘oppressor groups’ as conceived of by Leach and Haunss seems to refer to somewhat obvious groups like the police with no further clarification on what these ‘groups’ are.  For example, while Philly’s radical-DIY scene may be beyond the reach of or be closed to ‘oppressor groups’ like the police, this is not the same as being beyond the reach of the very socially or culturally rooted systems of oppression these radicals understand themselves to be struggling against, for example the ‘intrusion’ of internalized racism or the replication of hierarchical (particularly gendered) social relations. Indeed, if this project is to remain open to examining how scenes may not always be beneficial for movements, this assumed or ideally conceived autonomy must be open for critical investigation.

There is also an important difference in this project’s approach to ‘scenes’ that relates to the case that Leach and Haunss use in their initial development of the concept – the German autonomous movement.  The authors approach the scene associated with this movement as having developed around the movement, which makes it difficult to distinguish between the scene and the movement.  The case at hand is quite different.  First, Philly’s radical-DIY scene existed prior to the OP emergence, and though it was of course altered by the OP ‘moment,’ the scene’s preexistence sets up the potential for a very different perspective on scene-movement relationship than that seen in the German case.  Second, and relatedly, while there was certainly a strong strain of the radical-DIY scene’s prefigurative political orientation in OP, and in the OM more generally, what is perhaps most interesting about the Occupy case is that this radical political orientation encountered many other political orientations in OP contexts.

Thus, in the interest of answering Leach and Haunss’ call for more insight into ‘negative effects scenes may have on movements,’ it is hoped that these OP encounters will offer insight into issues the German case makes it difficult to see; for example: when and how does a scene (or subscene) develop a political agenda, or, put differently, how and when does a political agenda develop within a scene; how and when does this agenda produce the sort of ‘active’ politics that lead to the initiation of or participation in collective organizing and mobilizing activity; how does this agenda compare and interact with others in the context of a broad-based movement like OP; and, what are the conditions and dynamics of movement ingress and egress for scene members.  Thus, the dimension of ‘encounter’ in scene members’ OP involvement is expected to allow for a more through consideration of scenes’ ‘negative effects’ on movements than the German case offers.

So, where I am at now, and what you will likely see more of on this blog, is efforts to work out the subtle specifications of the universe of Rejection and Difference within the scene that surrounded Occupy.  A pathological analogy might be that I would be looking at the scene’s antibodies and white blood-cells that formed around the edges of Occupy.  While there was plenty of scene participation within Occupy, there was also plenty of non-participation.  And with a scene so intimate tied to not only radical political ideals but also a movement history that is the very ancestor of Occupy, these forms and mechanisms of non-participation can be approached as important sites for gaining a better understanding of micromobilization processes, internal movement dynamics, and perhaps most importantly, these are important places to attempt to gain some deeper analytic perspective on the radical politics espoused in both scene and movement.


I hope this is a relatively painless birthing experience…


[1] To date, there are only two systematic studies of scenes: Hitzler, Bucher, and Niederbacher 2001; Leach and Haunss 2009.
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