What do we mean by ‘circuits of social action’? (A first stab of many, no doubt…)

IMG_4922We were recently invited to develop an extended abstract submitted to a Special Issue of the open-access online Journal of Social and Political Psychology, into a full length paper.

The Special Issue is on rethinking prefigurative politics. For us (that’s Christos, Vinnarasan and myself) it’s a great opportunity to think through what we might mean by ‘circuits of social action’ in the Connectors Study, this wonderfully vague phrase we’ve been kicking around, and to think about its relationship to children and what we might learn about prefigurative politics seen from the vantage point of childhood .

The ‘circuits of social action’ terminology was inspired by Elizabeth Shove’s book on everyday life and how it changes. It’s meant to pay tribute a social practice way of thinking about everyday life and a way of thinking about social action(s) as networked, relational and connected phenomena involving many actors and things, not just isolated individuals, and taking place in specific historical and cultural circumstances.

In our information material for schools, community groups, and families we’ve shortened this to the more widely recognisable ‘activism’. But we have already discussed that while this might appeal to some, it will alienate others.

One head I spoke to last week in London, politely declined to use the term preferring instead to make reference to ‘citizenship’ and ‘social consciousness’.  As Christos set out in his previous post, ‘activism’ is by far a simple field of practice to untangle – indeed the many mapping projects that are currently happening in Greece suggest that others too are trying to make sense and order the complexity.

At the same time, representations of ‘activism’ in the media and popular culture oscillate from the malicious to the naive as a recent episode of the popular US comedy crime series Castle demonstrated. In the space of 45 minutes a fictional member of the Occupy movement was cast as both an agent of terrorism and a ‘patsy’ of a pharma masterplan plotting a for-profit epidemic.

So what might ‘activism’, ‘prefigurative politics’ and ‘social action’ look like on the ground?

The JSPP ‘call for papers’ gives some suggestions including: intentional communities, workers’ cooperatives, direct democracy initiatives, Transition Towns, timebanks, eco-villages, citizens’ municipal budgeting, community gardening, reclamation of urban spaces for social use, health cooperatives, participatory economics, permaculture, restorative justice, food sovereignty, and the open-source movement.

Researchers presenting at the Crisis and Social Change conference that I attended in Cambridge offered a few more suggestions. Sofa Gradin‘s work on DIY political activism and food importing practices was especially fascinating, and Professor Jane Wills, also from Queen Mary, spoke passionately and persuasively about community organising and voluntary associations in East London.

A well-known and widely used questionnaire in the social sciences, the World Values Survey, lists a range of voluntary organisations that people might belong to in order to ‘act’ and contribute to their communities and societies, including church or religious organisations, sports and recreational organisations, arts and educational organisations, Labour Unions, political parties, environmental organisations, professional associations, consumer organisations, and self-help and mutual aid groups.

The various scoping conversations I have had with professionals and parents over the last few months suggests that activism might also come in the more specific form of residents’ associations, parent-teacher associations, mother and baby/toddler/child play-groups, homeschooling, working with families (e.g. family support workers) and an identification with feminism, environmentalism and other value-based movements.

From the glamorous-sounding to the mundane, activism, prefigurative politics and social action are very broad indeed.

These ‘circuits’ can also be both highly visible and quite invisible, as I found out during London’s Open House Weekend when I walked straight past Allens Garden, a community garden in the Stoke Newington/Stamford Hill area that I had set out to visit. Tucked away behind a quiet residential road was this small community garden staffed by volunteers, and my near-miss experience serves to remind me that many efforts to bring about change and to live differently often go unnoticed.

IMG_4918 IMG_4939So what might these activities all have in common that allows us to crudely collapse them in the term ‘circuits of social action’ or the more everyday word ‘activism’?

A dissatisfaction with the status quo (whatever that is in each circumstance) and a good dose of commitment, passion, pragmatism, endurance and perseverance to do things differently comes to mind in the first instance. These activities are focused towards a common issues and concerns creating new publics in the process, spaces between the market and the state in which political participation takes place.

What’s happening with housing in London is a case in point. The lack of affordable social housing in the capital has prompted a number of collective responses to the present situation such as the Radical Housing Network (a group of groups) and the Focus E15 mothers, a local group of homeless young people, some mothers themselves and former residents of the mother and baby unit at a hostel in Newham, East London. The presentation two young people from the group tgave at the recent BPS Community Psychology Festival was an eye opener and the clip the video they showed us of their attempts to engage with local democratic processes is worth a look-in and gives pause for thought.

And what about younger children?

Interestingly, the last time I browsed through the Diggers and Dreamers website for communal living, there didn’t appear to be any co-housing projects listed in London that included child residents under the age of 18 (though there were a few in rural areas). On the other hand, the babies and toddlers of the Focus E15 group are, at a minimum, ‘participants by default’ to borrow Diane Rogers terminology, in their mothers’ collective action. Arguably, though, they are much more than that, potentially having made the difference between the young people being maligned as squatters and ignored by the media, and the hugely supportive coverage that they have received from what are often considered opposites ends of print media.

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