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Methodological Approaches to Movement Waves and the Making of History

· Social Movements

Soon available as Chapter 3 in The Palgrave Handbook of Social Movements, Revolution and Social Transformation. Edited by Berch Berberoglu. Palgrave MacMillan, New York City, forthcoming in 2018.


Popular uprisings, revolutions and other major movement waves are often explained as mechanistic or even spontaneous responses to new political openings or perceived threats. Yet while such explanations may account for when movements rise up, they are less useful for explaining why and how they rise up, and furthermore, what will occur in the course of a rising wave. To arrive at such explanations, I argue, social movement scholars must attend to those who do the work of movement building. We need research methods that understand activists as conscious producers both of movements and of knowledge about the movements they produce. Building from recent publications that argue for a scholarship of movements that at once assumes social complexity and valorizes agency, I show how bringing familiar approaches to social movement studies into constructive engagement with a longstanding scholarship of revolutions and praxis allows us to better explain where movement waves come from and what they produce. To do this, I specify movement elements, movement waves, periods and terrains of struggle; theorize movement building across dimensions of struggle; and articulate how these concepts may be used to analyze movement building as a process that produces history. As a demonstration of this method, I share findings from a study of the movement building process that produced the Wisconsin Uprising of 2011. I conclude with the observation that different sets of operative assumptions make various aspects of movements more or less visible, and that the advance of activist-centered scholarship is helpful in making movement building and other processes available for empirical research. I propose a series of methods made practicable by the epistemological approach advocated here and argue for a wider engagement by social movement scholars with an ontology of praxis.