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Grounded Utopian Movements: Subjects of Neglect



This essay argues that grounded utopian movements (GUMs) have generally been overlooked in recent cross-disciplinary theorizations of social movements, and seeks to rectify the neglect. GUMs, unlike other social movements, do not seek recognition either from capitalist institutions or modern nationstates, but are instead grounded in visions of alternative “ideal places” (utopias), and set out to establish alternative ways of living which their members find more just and satisfying than at present. We discuss the Ghost Dance of the Great Plains, the Rastafari movement of the Caribbean, and the longdurée Maya movement as grounded utopian movements of the periphery, to illustrate major aspects of theoretical, epistemological, and methodological approaches to the study of GUMs. We conclude with a brief treatment of the global justice movement as a contemporary GUM. [Keywords: grounded utopian movements, social movements, Ghost Dance, Rastafari, long-durée Maya movement, global justice movement]
Charles Price, Erich Fox Tree, and Donald Nonini
In 1889, coming out of military defeat and loss of tribal lands, subject to the
tyranny of reservation agents, their children sent to government schools and required to
learn the white man’s language, thousands of native Americans belonging to scores of
tribal groups throughout the Great Basin and Great Plains regions enthusiastically took up
the Ghost Dance.
They followed charismatic prophets who showed them the dances
whose performance led to their falling into trances in which they saw a new world where
they were reunited with happy ancestors, the buffalo and their old ways, and foreswore
the work set out for them by whites.
Beginning with the Paiute prophet Wovoka in
Nevada, the movement spread rapidly to the south, north and east for hundreds of miles
in each direction. New prophets arose among the different groups, confirming (but in
some cases repudiating the authenticity of) Wovoka’s visions, and in turn converted new
followers within their groups and those nearby to the Ghost Dance. Among most tribes,
its doctrine “remained one of peace, a simple hope that a change was coming which
would give the Indians back their land, their buffalo and their old life” (Lesser 1978: 59),
but during the Sioux rebellion of the Dakotas the Ghost Dance movement had its violent
moment when braves thought that the Ghost Dance provided invulnerability against the
army’s bullets, a tragedy that ended in the massacre at Wounded Knee in late 1890.
Word of Wovoka’s visions, the dances and songs he had learned, and the new
world his visions revealed, the idea that the whirlwind that was to precede the new world
would also extinguish whites from the earth, traveled quickly in the matter of days or
weeks, carried by visits between tribal groups who spoke different languages mediated by
sign language, by letters written in English by young native Americans educated in
government schools, and by trips of tribal “delegates” via railway to inquire about the
Ghost Dance among faraway groups. Leaving off the white man’s work of farming,
people revived the old customs, dances, songs, the “societies” (sodalities) organized
around hunting and war, the bundles believed to carry ritual power, and games, revealed
to them in their visions of the new world. Within and across tribes, kin passed the word
to kin, and local segments of kin came together with others nearby to celebrate the Ghost
Dance, and to await the coming of the new world. The groups sought to revitalize their
civil society and used indigenous networks and formations to diffuse information,
without reliance on telephone or newspaper.
By the early 1890's, made fearful by the uprising at Wounded Knee, government
agents and law enforcers had had enough. One agent, for example, announced to
Pawnee assembled for the Ghost Dance that “’the dance could not be tolerated and would
not be; that this government would last and assert her power, and that they should be
obedient to the law and be good Indians, return to their homes and cultivate their farms
and raise something to eat’” (Lesser 1978: 65). Within the broader consolidation of
U.S. government power and the expansion and settlement of whites across the Plains and
into the Great Basin from the 1890s onward, agents and police sought to suppress the
dances. However, when extinguished in one locale, dancing would occur elsewhere on
tribal lands; the manifestations were flexible and ephemeral, but grounded. Eventually
performances of the Ghost Dance became more secretive, unannounced, and unnamed.
Still, there is evidence that, despite suppression, it lasted for at least two more decades
into the 1920s. It may even still be discreetly performed in some tribal powwows at
present (Kracht 1992).
The Ghost Dance movement in the United States, the Rastafari of Jamaica and
the Mayan Movement of Guatemala discussed in this article, and other movements like
them have been widely referred to in the anthropological literature as “cultural
revitalization,” “cultural revival” and “nativistic” movements. Although these ascriptions
have been debated in that literature, central to these movements, as illustrated in the
Ghost Dance, have been processes of cultural production and the creation of new cultural
formations. What do dominant approaches and theorizations in the social movement
literature have to say about such movements? To our dismay, not much, as it turns out.
When, for instance, we searched the ten years’ contents of Mobilization, we found no
articles out of the entire number of 365 that referred to any of the following terms used in
the anthropological and historical literatures to refer to what we call grounded utopian
movements: “messianic,” “millenarian,” “chiliastic,” “nativistic,” “revitalization,” and
When we searched these contents for references to the related concept
“moral economy” set out in the well-known works of E.P. Thompson (1971) on the moral
economy of the 18
century crowd, or of James C. Scott (1976) on the moral economy of
the peasantry, we found exactly one article for each of the two authors citing that author
during the entire publishing history of Mobilization. We were somewhat more
heartened by finding forty seven references to “culture,” and “cultural” out of 365
articles, alluding to issues of cultural “framing,” “narrative,” and “biography,” which
provide useful affinities to our own approach of studying movements in terms of lived
experience, but were far less encouraged when we found that the analyses utilizing these
concepts did not appear to extend to movements like the Ghost Dance, Rastafari or Maya
Therefore, we think it safe to conclude that, to start with, such movements – what
we call grounded utopian movementshave been largely neglected and left out of the
dominant approaches to social movements, if our negative searches of this journal’s
contents are a fair indicator. However, our argument in this article is more ambitious. In
the next two sections of the article we argue that not only are analyses of grounded
utopian movements like these largely absent from the literature, but so too are the
theorizations, the ethnographic and historical methods and techniques and orienting
philosophical values and perspectives appropriate to their study. Since we find that the
historical, spatial, and social characteristics of these movements have largely been
ignored in the literature – characteristics that contribute to their being neglected – we
briefly address these characteristics in the third section. Our analysis is informed by
decades of research into grounded utopian movements by anthropologists and others, and
in each section we use an example of one of these movements. In the fourth section of the
paper we propose in a provisional way that the global social justice movement shows
many grounded utopian movement characteristics, and that the theories, methods and
philosophical perspectives we draw on in describing past grounded utopian movements
may apply as well to it. We conclude with a summary of what grounded utopian
movements offer social movements theory.
In this section we define what we mean by grounded utopian movements and
begin to address the methods and approaches appropriate to their study which have been
left out of dominant theorizations in social movement studies. We are in particular
referring to movements of peoples emerging in the interstices within, on the edges of, or
even left out altogether from modern nation-states and capitalist markets – although these
movements have been affected by the expansion of both – during the last three to four
centuries that make up the history of modernity to the present. Grounded utopian
movements of marginalized peoples, that is, are thoroughly modern, and not “archaic” or
“pre-modern” formations. They have emerged, persisted, disappeared, and re-emerged
in new guises, over this same period of modernity.
By writing of “grounded utopian movements” like the Ghost Dance, Rastafari and
the Maya, we mean to elaborate upon the apparent paradox in the notion of “grounded
utopia” that we suspect may be generic to dominant approaches in social movement
studies. These movements are “utopian” in that they point to a “good place” (eu-topos)
– like the new world of the Ghost Dance or Mount Zion for the Rastafari – and by
implication to a better time as well where life is more satisfying than it is at present.
Within conventional categories, however, “utopian” also carries unfavorable associations
of being impractical, quixotic, idealized, romantic, unreasonable, irrational, insubstantial
and flighty. To the extent that these movements are deemed “otherworldly”-focused they
are treated as conservative and not progressive. These associations, we believe, underlie
the derogation or even marginalization of movements like those discussed here within
mainstream social movement studies: they are considered insufficiently real, substantial,
determinate, or even muscular to be considered proper social movements. This is why,
in part, we point to the grounded feature of these utopias – utopias which are grounded in
several different and often overlapping senses, first, grounded in land, an assemblage of
places, in territory, a literal “ground”; second, grounded in the foundation perceived by
members of a past lifeway and practices and values a group deems intrinsic to its identity;
and third, grounded by quotidian interactions and valued practices that connect the
members of a community, even if diasporic. All three social movements discussed here
– the Ghost Dance, Rastafari, the Maya Movement – show these overlapping meanings of
being grounded in the utopian visions and transcendental ideals of those who belong to
It is worth asking why grounded utopian movements have been so neglected
within the dominant approaches within social movement studies. Dominant approaches
within social movement theory, whether the older sociological approach of “resource
mobilization,” or more recent developments such as “political opportunity structure”
approach or even newer approaches such as the “culture and cognition” or “narrative”
approaches, generally make two assumptions which marginalize the study of grounded
utopian movements.
Dominant approaches to social movements give central priority to, and take for
granted, the existence of the modern nation-state and capitalist markets as either the
objects of strategic contention by social movements or as the fields of contention within
which social movements arise and develop. In this sense social movement political
practice, organization, and mobilization are assumed to be oriented toward achieving
change by transforming conditions within capitalist markets or within the formal political
institutions situated within the “container” of the nation-state. On this assumption, “real”
social movements seek to affirm the rights to representation by their members in
decisions related to practices of capitalist market competition (e.g., rights of labor unions
or women for equal employment and pay), or seek recognition by the nation-state of the
rights of their members within political institutions (e.g., the right to vote, allocation of
public monies, or to have partner relationships among gays or lesbians given legal
recognition). More rarely, “revolutionary” movements, seek to gain control of the pre-
existing state apparatus, and to transform or eliminate capitalist markets.
We suggest that the parameters of what are acceptable “social movements” within
the dominant approaches remain set by assumptions about the pervasiveness of the
institutions of capitalist markets and the nation-state as setting the framework for the
operation, goals and strategies of social movements. Charles Tilly (1984: 304) stated
these parameters in his widely cited essay “Social Movements and National Politics”:
“The general phenomenon we are examining is the organized, sustained, self-conscious
challenge to existing authorities. A wide variety of authorities receive such challenges:
not only rulers of states, but also bishops, bosses, landlords, and college presidents. Let
us retain the name social movement for that general sort of challenge to existing
authorities” (emphasis added). Tilly then goes on to cite what has become a canonical
definition of a social movement: “A social movement is a sustained series of interactions
between power holders and persons successfully claiming to speak on behalf of a
constituency lacking formal representation, in the course of which those persons make
publicly visible demands for changes in the distribution or exercise of power, and back
those demands with public demonstrations of support (1984: 306). What, we ask, of
movements whose members are simply seeking to be left alone, attempting to find new
identities or reinvent older ones, or trying to realize the values of community within the
“life world” as Habermas (19xx) called it, unencumbered by the administered life of the
“system world” of capitalism and the modern nation-state? What of movements that do
not aspire to gain political power within the secular modern state – but whose internal
identity-work, not oriented toward visible expansion in members, resources or
representation vis-à-vis capitalist markets or the nation-state, transforms the lives of their
members, and even the world around them, as they seek to bring about a more satisfying
Second, social movements, it is assumed, engage in actions within the container
of a certain kind of nation-state – the Westphalian state which, in Weber’s (1918) classic
typology of the modern European state, has come to be taken as “the state” (see also
Giddens 1985). This assumption finesses major questions about the heterogeneity and
restructuring processes affecting contemporary states. For instance, are they always
easily coupled via a “hyphen” with a nation where the latter is a “political formation”
coextensive with a “racial grouping” (Williams 1976: 168-9)? Do all states have
legitimate monopoly over the means of violence within “their” territories? Do they all
show the features of rational bureaucratic administration which Weber and successors
(e.g., Giddens; Foucault) found extant in European states from the late 17
century to the
present? Do they all have the capacity to raise revenues from among those they rule
over? And, challenging Foucault’s claims, do they always have the resources and
opportunities to successfully transform the people they rule into “disciplined” citizens?
Both these assumptions made by dominant theories about social movements limit
the allowable range of the social movements considered worth studying to those oriented
toward states of a certain kind, and implicitly privilege certain modes of knowing, or
epistemologies, of acquiring knowledge about the movements. The focus in resource
mobilization theory on rational choice which investigates the availability of resources
that allow movements to take actions vis-à-vis the state or capitalist markets – gain
control of a political party or start one, achieve recognition as labor unions, get legislation
passed, etc., is well known. This theory’s focus on “structures” is understood to refer to
a context in which agents of the state are present (sometimes viewed as omnipresent),
recognize these structures, attempt to coopt or eliminate them, etc. Much important work
has been informed by this theory, but it is confined to Westphalian nation-state domain.
The “political opportunity structure” approach sets out its state-based assumptions out
even more explicitly, because it is the precisely the state which is implicated in many of
the “opportunity structures” which social movements must capitalize on, if they can. In
contrast, the current “post-structural” turn in social movement studies challenges this
approach’s assumption that such structures control the course of movement mobilization
(Kurzman 2004).
The questions above that challenge the Westphalian model of the state and the
issues they raise are particularly pertinent to the need to rethink the implications of
grounded utopian movements and how they are now to be studied in a postcolonial world
whose complexity and instability is belied by the impedimenta of the global “nation-state
system” of embassies, flags, anthems and postage stamps. This postcolonial world is not
only dominated by a single financial and military super-power (the United States) and by
“multilateral financial institutions” (e.g., World Trade Organization, International
Monetary Fund and the World Bank), but also manifests novel and restructured emergent
transnational states like the European Union (previously composed of Westphalian
entities) (Shore 2000); ethno-nationalist armed separatist movements that rule over
peripheral zones (Ekholm Friedman 2003); transnational corporations seeking
geostrategic control of oil and natural resources whose proxies are regional mafia/
warlord or other organized criminal networks exercising state-like functions across in
subsaharan Africa, central Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America (Reyna 2003;
Nazpary 2002; Nordstrom 2000, 2005); NGO-ruled mini-states (Hanlon 1991); “white
jeep states” (Sampson 2003) and other forms of “apparent states” (Glick Schiller and
Fouron 2003: 233-4). It is notable that, as we discuss below, the emergence of the three
grounded utopian groups we discuss here is associated with a prior period of turmoil in
state formation – the expansion of European colonial rule. The turbulence, re-formation,
and disorder associated with contemporary state formation processes should raise broader
questions about the appropriateness of assuming the existence of the Westphalian state
model even for the kinds of movements studied by the dominant theoretical approaches
to social movements.
For the purposes of this article, what matters is that the high modern epoch of
European Westphalian states incorporating secular political, labor, etc. movements
within their “civil societies” is passing, that a new period of states’ recomposition now
exists, and that, like a prior period of colonial expansion and imperialism, the times are
propitious for the emergence and resurgence, of grounded utopian movements.
All the
more pity, therefore, that the social movements literature does such a poor job of
analyzing them or even acknowledging their existence. In the latter part of the essay, we
argue that the global social justice might best be thought of as a new grounded utopian
movement that flourishes in disruptive and transformative conditions for states like the
ones present today.
We hold that grounded utopian movements represent modernity’s other side:
these movements, although not unconstrained by the rationalizations associated with the
penetrations and expansion of modern nation-states and capitalism(s) – analyzed closely
in the classic works of Marx, Weber, Giddens and Foucault – show dynamics that are by
no means confined to either the logics of “capital” or of “the state” set out by these
theorists. And some grounded utopian movements, we venture to say, may be on liberal
modernity’s other side in yet another sense: some religious fundamentalist movements
(e.g., the Christian identity movement or transnational Wahabhist Islam) incorporate the
identity-work being performed by their members in pursuit of grounded utopias into
violent strategies aimed at repressive political objectives vis-à-vis states and “heretic”
populations that few outside their movements would approve of. Irrespective of the
normative issues this raises, the broader point is that we see many contemporary social
movements as being hybrids whose members, internal politics and networks, worldviews,
and strategies incorporate features of both being oriented toward gaining power and
representation vis-à-vis the state and capitalist markets, and of seeking to constitute more
satisfying lives by personal transformations in pursuit of grounded utopias. If this
proposition is correct, not only the distinctive grounded utopian movements discussed
here but also the grounded utopian dimensions and elements within what are
conventionally being viewed as secular, state-oriented and market-oriented movements
are being left out of or misrecognized by dominant theorizations in the literature.
Like the Ghost Dance, the Rastafari of Jamaica provide a different example of a
grounded utopian movement. In the following section we address the Rastafari and
disciplinary practice as it relates to social movements.
Jamaica’s Rastafari emerged in the early 1930s out of clusters of small groups led
by charismatic individuals. They were seeking to make sense out of the crowning of Ras
Tafari as Emperor of Ethiopia. Their movement “tendencies” are unmistakable at some
points in time, invisible at others. Thus, they appear fragmented, dispersed, and perhaps
even as weak. Their ideology and discourses exhibit continuities with previous
movements from the late 19
and early 20
century in Jamaica (e.g., the Alexander
Bedward and Marcus Garvey movements) in their focus on race and redemption; hence
identity, morality and the supernatural are central themes. They are deeply influenced by
what has been referred to as a Black moral economy (Price 2001: 87-94), a localized and
racialized conception of what constitutes the good and just in relationships and ways of
The Rastafari imagine a world free of oppression and oppressors, and treat the
past, especially slavery and racial injustice, as central to understanding the present and
creating a more satisfying future. They express no desire to rule any state or to gain
representation in parliament. Their numbership, through the 1970s, has consisted
primarily of the poor, yet they have not sought class-based solutions to what they see as
problems. A moral vision animates them: freedom from oppression and symbolic and
literal pursuit of liberation, dignity, justice. The tools of government are not viewed by
them as the way to change society or their circumstances. Ritual gathering focused on
extinguishing evil, deep introspection and contemplation, spiritual discipline discourses
of communalism, and rejection of status quo trappings are primary tactics, not
membership drives, fund raisers or analysis of political opportunities. Key resources
involved are not buildings, elites, institutions and volunteers, but cultural resources and
ideologies around which movement commitment is built. Direct action is a part of the
Rastafari repertoire, though mobilization is more often than not spontaneous instead of
planned. Power, authority, and control are dispersed; there is no central command, no
“official” position, no single leader. The Rastafari want their own state (their new
society), but none that currently exist, including the Ethiopian nation state that they
cherish. The Rastafari state will be a “theocratic government” guided by a constitution
based on divine principles – a moral state. Though many Rastafari eschew politics, their
practices make them political and reactions to them, are one way in which they are
politicized. Like so many grounded utopian movements, the Rastafari have tremendously
influenced the sociocultural milieu around them. Indeed it is difficult to imagine that any
movement strategy could have as deep and lasting an impact on Jamaica as what the
Rastafari have done in the course of pursuing their own agenda.
A disciplinary division of labor (Edelman 2001) and affiliated paradigmatic and
theoretical lenses explain partially why some movements get more attention than others,
why some movement practices are naturalized and exalted, while others are disparaged
and problematized. This imbalance in assessing movements in their diversity through
time and across space hints at a persistent ethnocentrism in terms of how researchers
conceive of institutions and civil society in Eurocentric terms.
The division of labor within social movements studies deserves attention since it
implies that different research practices and modes of theory construction are at work,
and engagement of these differences and what we draw from them may further enrich
social movement research and theory. Grounded utopian movements have especially
been the focus of anthropologists (e.g., Wallace 1956a, 1970), although sociologists,
historians and others studied these movements through the 1970s (e.g., Brian Wilson
(1973); Norman Cohn (1970); Vittorio Lanternari (1963); and Peter Worsley 1968). By
the 1970s, sociological attention became more focused, at least theoretically, on the
nation state as container of social movement activity, and more rationalist and
structuralist modes of analysis. Contemporary social movements theory does not show
any recognizable influence resulting from the work of scholars of grounded utopian
social movements.
In this section we focus especially on the anthropology of grounded utopian
movements. Anthropologists, by not rejecting the social movement practices in the
peripheries as irrational and illegitimate, by focusing on “exotic” others, by not
privileging “scientific” research methods, by engaging their and others’ subjectivities,
anthropologists may have “othered” themselves in the academy and in social movement
studies. In the process they must take some responsibility for marginalizing the
movements they have studied.
Anthropology’s primary engagement with movements did not begin with efforts
to understand collective behavior, crowds, and fads in urban, industrialized nation states.
Anthropological engagement with movements grew out of efforts to understand
resistance, reaction and rebellion in areas peripheral to or appendages of capitalist
development and industrial nation states (though such areas might be important in terms
of supplying natural resources and human labour). Although the movements may not
have been focused on governmental and market institutions, governments were often
interested in them (as being potentially disruptive) and sometimes sought anthropological
insight into the matters.
Generally speaking, anthropologists were likely to be studying rural and
submerged movements operating within colonies and peripheries, consisting of people
who had been conquered or colonized. Many of the movements studied by
anthropologists can be described as expressing some combination of prophecy and
eschatology (Nicholas 1973). These movements were often focused on resuscitating or
maintaining their lifeways and autonomy. These movements were definitely expressive
and defensive. However, in terms of their own logic, they were also instrumental and
proactive. Social movement theory has privileged the proactive and instrumental
movement focused on changing politico-economic institutions (Foweraker 1995),
consigning others to the bin of neglect. This is ethnocentric to the extent thatI it does not
recognize people seeking to change non-Wesphalian institutions that presumably are
“mired” in culture, and it does not acknowledge indigenous associations organized
around kin, religion, cultural practices, and the supernatural as legitimate versions of
what constitutes civil society.
Some of the kinds of movements anthropologists have in the past studied may be
construed as relics in relation to analytic preoccupations with proactive and instrumental
movements focused on changing governmental institutions. There is the assumption that
somewhere in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, a transition occurred where
movements shifted from “communal and reactive struggles to national and proactive”
struggles (Foweraker 1995:14). The latter are privileged though we know the former
continue to exist in myriad forms. An unsurfaced corollary of this assumption is that
“archaic” movements have disappeared, or are unimportant.
In the academic division of social movements studies anthropologists have spent
much time studying grounded utopian social movements, using research methods and
strategies that characterize their discipline.
Emic Perspective: Methods and Theory
Anthropological research practices involve “being there,” experiencing or
intervening into the phenomena being studied through participant observation and
extended field research projects. The anthropological ideal is to understand how people
organize their social and cognitive world, in their own terms, and to not conflate
anthropological categories with those that the “other” uses to make sense of her world.
This is the emic perspective. Anthropologists have taken seriously protestors’ beliefs,
which is what Kurzman suggests for contemporary social movement theorizing (2004:
115). Anthropologists, by focusing on culture, often imagined comprehensively (“...that
complex whole that includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals....”) and as situated in
places, exerted less effort than other social science disciplines in peeling apart movement
politics, identity, and strategy from other concerns such as kinship and beliefs about the
supernatural. The “irrational” and supernatural were treated as legitimate practices, at
least as recognized from the position of the movements:
There are some...cultural systems that define politics in a seemingly odd way or
do not include a political domain even though we can find forms of action in the
corresponding societies that strongly resemble what we, from our peculiar cultural
perspective, call ‘politics’ (Nicholas 1973:65)
Anthropological research practices involve problem formulation in ways different
from other disciplines (acknowledging that sociology has a longstanding qualitative
research tradition). The emic perspective, ethnography, analytic induction, a focus on
lived experience, and finding the research problem in the field as well as in the literature,
create a situation whereby a research problem cannot not be unalterably defined.
Nicholas noted more than 30 years ago that movements that anthropologists study were a
bundle of contradictions: “unstable”; “evanescent”; and potentially “disruptive”
(1973:64). An anthropologist may enter the field seeking to explore a particular problem,
but find that he or she has to change or elaborate the original conception based on what
people are doing and saying. This need to be flexible and open ended contests the view
that research is a linear process that follows a sequence of well defined research practices
from reviewing the literature to writing up the results at the “end” of the research.
Methodological purists may acknowledge the need to reformulate hypotheses and
research questions behind the scenes, although their canon argues differently (one might
invalidate one’s findings if the sequence is violated). Anthropologists, in contemporary
terms, were often encountering emergent processes, studying movements while they
happen. We are not suggesting that anthropological research and analysis does not have
shortcomings, or that no anthropologists held to rigid conceptions of research practice.
We do suggest that anthropological approaches to studying movements do not easily fit
with perspectives that emphasize rationality, objectivity, control measures, analytic
distinctions between economy, politics and religion, and grand narratives, which has been
the case for much of post 1970s social movements theory. However, the constructionist
turn in social movement studies offers the possibility of rapproachment between
anthropology, grounded utopian movements and social movements studies.
When Secularity, Rationality and the Nation State Do Not Frame Movement Practice
Social movements study has been embedded in a discourse framed by secularity,
rationality, modernity, and the modern nation. Sociology and political science, in
particular, address the secular, modern nation-state. Both disciplines emphasize roles,
structure, institutions and power in ways not always applicable to people whose social
organization predates the nationstate or who are not organized in relation to the nation-
state. Imagine, for instance, an analysis of movements that occur in contexts where they
have no king or state; or, where people have no authority to coerce each other? Grounded
utopian movements are often only tangentially concerned with the nation-state. For
instance, for most of their existence, the Rastafari were concerned with the nation state
and market institutions only to the extent that they could avoid being ensnared in the
tentacles of both. Many Rastafari wanted to leave Jamaica and repatriate to Ethiopia (and
begin building the new order that they believe could not be built in the West). Moreover,
coercion is treated as problematic by the Rastafari since there is a widely held belief that
people really should have no power over each other.
From the perspective of contemporary social movement theory, most of the
movements studied by anthropologists were no threat to capitalism or the state. However,
locally they were often perceived as being very dangerous, especially in disrupting status
quos favorable to elites and exploitative relations. The British were acutely aware of this,
for example, and were clever at disrupting or exterminating such movements as quickly
as possible. Official records show that British agents were “spying” on Rastafari
meetings in Jamaica within three years of their emergence. Though not worried about the
racial “lunatics,” the British kept close tabs on them knowing that if left unchecked, they
could disrupt the order of social inequality, as the Alexander Bedward movement had
taught them a decade earlier. Sociologists and political scientists (and historians), on the
other hand, pay much attention to movements that directly challenge states and markets.
Labor, civil rights, revolutionary, antiwar, welfare, women’s, Black Power and other
movements were focused on the state, government and markets: smashing them,
democratizing them, reforming them, nationalizing them, socializing them, depending on
the movement and the point in time being investigated.
Grounded utopian movements commonly are internally or temporally oriented
(looking to the past and/or future through their particular cultural lenses), rather than
focusing directly on the structure and institutions of government and market, though the
issues addressed by these movements may have been related to them. Thus, it is
unsurprising that these movements are socially, politically, and geographically peripheral
to market and government rationalities. These movements of the periphery rarely play
according to the rules of mainstream western sociological and political theory; they often
are amorphous, decentralized, ephemeral, segmented, and culturally embedded, to list a
few characteristics. Anthony Wallace’s (1956a) analysis of such movements identified
commonalities in the diverse movements which emphasized people’s efforts to create a
more satisfying culture or society, and transformations in personal and group worldviews
attendant to these efforts. Wallace’s approach did not require marking movements as one
kind or another (e.g., religious, political, revolutionary) due to the overriding
commonality. Wallace’s definition can be read as being inclusive of contemporary
movements since all or nearly all movements, even the ones we do not like, are working
in some way that relates to creating a more satisfying lifeworld.
Movements that challenge views from windows framed by secularity, rationality,
modernity, were given labels that disparaged them as movements. They were cultists,
millenarians, messianic, and revitalizers of culture (perhaps neglect may partially be
related to the labels and the theories that inform them). Anthropologists are deeply
implicated in this labeling, and hence marginalization of some movement expressions and
practices. One of the earliest recorded studies of the Rastafari (Simpson 1955), for
example, categorized them as a cult, a label that was hard to shake well into the 1980s.
They were later variously defined as a millenarian, messianic, and even as a visionary
movement (e.g., de Albuquerque 1977 and Yawney 1978). But these discourses allowed
for them to be left out of other movement discourses, discourses that focused on changing
state policies and structures, that sought representation in parliaments, governments, and
occupational sectors. Yet, the Rastafari did end up influencing the Jamaican state, even
though this was not their goal. Such unintended outcomes have many cross-cultural
parallels among the “neglected” movements. They provoke change and transformation in
spheres outside of their own, without consciously intending to do so. As we can imagine,
such results deeply challenge how we think of “opportunity” and political process in
relation to movements (e.g., Kurzman 2004).
Even though the kinds of grounded utopian movements anthropologists have
studied have been neglected by contemporary social movement studies, there is no doubt
much that the post 1970s analytic approaches can offer our understanding of grounded
utopian social movements. New social movements theory for example, failed to
recognize the many long extant identity-focused movements such as the Rastafari, Maya,
or Ghost Dance. To look at these movements anew in terms of identity might offer rich
insights. Similarly, Resource mobilization and political process theory might provide
interesting lessons about mobilization among marginalized and less powerful movements.
Fox-Piven and Cloward (1979) made an observation that we believe has contemporary
Insofar as contemporary movements in industrial societies do not take the forms
predicted by an analysis of nineteenth century capitalism, the left has not tried to
understand these movements, but rather has tended simply to disapprove of them.
The wrong people have mobilized, for they are not truly the industrial proletariat.
Or they have mobilized around the wrong organizational and political strategies.
The movements of the people disappoint the doctrine, and so the movements are
dismissed” (1979:x-xi, italics added).
We could replace Fox Piven and Cloward’s “the left” with dominant social movements
theory insofar as grounded utopian movements are the wrong people mobilizing around
the wrong strategies using the wrong tactics. However, the more recent sociological
turns that draw upon narrative, biography and culture in the study of social movements
show some common ground with established anthropological approaches to studying
movements, and offer exciting possibilities for cross-fertilization, especially in terms of
cross-cultural understandings.
Study of social movements, though embedded in particular places, has been
imagined in cross cultural terms by anthropologists, as widely recognizable expressions
of human behavior that speak to a general class of collective behaviors. Some
anthropologists, like Hallowell, argued that that the study of grounded utopian
movements, especially those focused on attaining a new dynamic equilibrium (e.g,. after
conquest, disasters, disease) and cultural reclamation, could provide insight into the
addressing problems of modern western societies, such as the damage wrought by the
Nazi movement in Germany, and the challenge it posed to democratic societies and their
values (1943: 240).
Although anthropology and the movements it has addressed have played a
marginal role in social movement studies, this may be changing. Since the 1990s there
are emergent anthropological orientation toward speaking directly to the dominant social
movement schools of thought (e.g., Escobar and Alvarez 1992; Alvarez, Dagnino and
Escobar 1998; Nash 2005), though we believe the lessons we enumerate below have yet
to be articulated in what anthropologists bring to social movement studies proper.
The Maya movement provides still another perspective on grounded utopian
movements. After discussing the Maya we address issues of structure and orientation in
terms of grounded utopian movements with the intent of emphasizing how these
movements challenge contemporary social movements theory.
According to popular academic perspectives, Guatemala’s “Maya Movement”
Guatemala emerged in the 1980s, when schooled Mayas stepped outside the left-right
political struggles that had dominated that country during its civil war to form
organizations promoting cultural activism and revitalization. The Maya Movement of the
last few decades has received much attention from sociologists, political scientists, and
anthropologists, who have given special attention to movement organizations and urban
activist-intellectuals (c.f. Bastos and Camus 1995, 1996; Gálvez Borrell 1997; Humberto
Flores 1998; Warren 1998a, 1998b). It has been portrayed as a new social movement, an
identity movement, a civil rights struggle with an ethnic flavor, and (reviving and
modernizing theories of Anthony C. Wallace [1956a, 1959], a “revitalization movement.”
Yet Mayas themselves often have a different opinion. Ask contemporary Maya
activists when the Maya Movement began, and many will answer that it began in 1492.
Ask who is the prototypical Maya activist, and a Maya might describe ancestors who
deliberately kept speaking their languages, weaving their own clothes, planting their
maize-fields, cooking traditional foods, and praying at sacred sites, in the face of cultural
(and biological) shock, colonialism, and continuing political domination. Rhetoric
referring to the year of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas encourages Mayas to not only
value long persistent struggle, but to link Maya activism to myriad resistance struggles by
indigenous groups throughout the Americas. Yet more importantly, 1492 symbolically
marks the start of prolonged internally-oriented Native struggles to adjust, maintain, and
rearticulate Native cultures in response to Europeans and Euramericans.
For many Mayas, cultural activism in Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States
since the 1980s (or the Zapatista uprising since the 1990s) is only the “Maya Movement
of today”: the most recent phase of a centuries-long struggle for autonomy and a
deliberate effort to re-articulate Maya culture and conserve the resilience of Maya
lifeways (Esquit and Borrell 1998; Raxche 1989; Waqi’ Q’anil 1991, 1994, 1997).
Mayas’ emic understanding of the movement does not fit with dominant scholarly
perspectives, not only because of its extremely long-durée, but because of its structure.
Like the “articulatory movement” Nancie Oestereich Lurie (1988) believed encompassed
the contemporary Native “scene” in North America, the Maya movement is essentially
acephalous, even if it has no shortage of activists. While not entirely non-confrontational,
Maya activism is in large part inwardly oriented towards maintaining the resilience of
Maya culture and community vis-à-vis the larger socio-economic system. By necessity,
Maya activism has changed form repeatedly over the years, but it has always featured
grassroots networking and a segmentary mobilization structure, characterized by fission
and fusion of participant groups. Everyday efforts to secure moral/cultural/spiritual
lifeways are punctuated intermittently by charismatic moral leaders, violent rebellions,
and messianism. The long history of how marginalized people adapt to colonial
hegemony is not merely the “background” or “framing” of a modern social movement;
such a “collective enterprise of survival” (Farris 19XX) is a movement in itself.
Identity, security, lifeways, culture survival
As the Ghost Dance, Rastafari and Mayan Movement suggest, some movements
may be neglected in contemporary social movements studies because of their very nature,
given the theories, methods, and paradigms that dominate the field. The structure,
process, and orientation of grounded utopian movements might lead the state, media,
some academics and others, to overlook them. Some social movements --especially those
that are small scale, primarily among marginalized populations, or focused internally,
rather than vis-à-vis the state and dominant society-- may even seek to avoid
classification as movements in order to “pass under the radar” of those who might
interfere with them, such as governments or other bureaucratizing institutions. It is an
error to suppose that the members of all social movements consider themselves to belong
to “social movements,” or that that every social movement even has a name. Scholars
should consider broadening taking into account a number of factors that cause some
movements to be neglected, whether by oversight, strategic neglect, or intentional design.
The following observations highlight interconnected structural, processual, and
orientational factors that explain some of the challenges that grounded utopian
movements pose for post 1970s social movements theory. The observations are related to
the epistemological and state-centric criticisms discussed above.
Some social movements are not oriented around an instrumental
rationality (unless we consider their action from their point of view).
Movements characterized as expressive and defensive emphasize social and
cultural survival. They may give importance to supernatural influences.
Charismatic leaders sometimes succeed in succinctly articulating a movement’s
aims, but these cannot be understood simply in terms of instrumentality; they
require an emic understanding -- a Weberian Verstehen-- that is ideally gained
through close ethnographic study of the lived experience of members of the
movements. Once we take an emic perspective, defensiveness may turn out to be
proactivity, and expressiveness embedded in instrumentality.
Some social movements seek to restore or create alternative realities.
Empire building, colonization, oppression, and segregation can create situations in
which movements emerge around reclaiming past heritage and statuses and
imagining alternative futures. Too often, these movements have been
marginalized and dismissed as archaic cults. Nancie Lurie, in her formulation of
“articulatory movements” among Native Americans in North America, notes that
“They have old tried models of community and culture that have stood the test of
adversity and have proved flexible and adaptable to the technological
complexities that so many people fear will dehumanize us” (1988: XXX,
emphasis added). Anthropologists, to their credit, have had a consistent interest in
such movements, though their work has had relatively little effect in influencing
the orientation of the social movement studies.
Some movements are small. While it may seem absurd to assert that small
movements attract less attention, it is crucial to recognize that the scale of a
movement is not always an indicator of stages in its life-cycle or a measure of its
vitality and success. Small size may not mean recent birth, impending death, or
lack of strength, especially among groups that are small, relatively marginal to the
dominant society, and seeking changes that do not challenge established power
structures. Small size can also have advantages; scaling-up often means getting
violently suppressed by nation-states that cannot tolerate looming alternative
realities within their boundaries. Scholars may only observe many hitherto
neglected movements at the moment that they are large enough to arouse the
attention of the state. Such a “critical mass” approach may not serve to identify
social movements, but rather social movements that run a greater risk of being
challenged by the state and others.
Some social movements are acephalous, dispersed, and (to western eyes) even
anarchistic. Because some movements do not fit models that emphasize scale,
organization and structure, they are left outside of contemporary social movements
discourse. As with small scale, there may be some strategic advantage to being loosely
structured. More generally, a movement’s actual composition, operation, and objectives
may not require a leader --or at least not a permanent one-- especially if a movement
seeks cultural change through personal conversion and re-alignment, rather than
command from leaders. Charismatic leaders, such as those that characterized
“revitalization movements” in Wallace’s classic formulation (1956a, 1970) may emerge,
but movements do not always require them for leadership, or even as examples.
Some movements have unfamiliar structures (from the perspective of dominant
social movements theory). Movements like grounded utopian ones operate in ways that
resemble “segmentary mobilization”(i.e., situational fission and fusion) of participant-
supporters, in accord with the needs of the moment. Rather than exhibiting the
institutional forms familiar to analysts of western politics, segmentary mobilization can
allow movements to be both large and small at the same time. While common throughout
the world and often described by anthropologists studying small scale societies,
segmentary structures are not familiar to analysts of western politics, and perhaps not
amenable to analytic strategies focused on order and Eurocentric conceptions of civil
society. In many societies power cannot be exercised “over” people as we think of it in
the West; thus politics and mobilization take different forms, and may be bundled with
cultural rituals and the supernatural. While the segmentary nature of movements may
appear to be a weakness, it might add to the survivability of a movement because
segments do not require the direction from an overarching leadership and can survive
independent of the larger movement. Moreover, segmentary systems may maintain
social control not through top-down orders, but from the common interests of allied and
structurally proximal segments.
Segmentary structures are not archaic or pre-modern; they antedate and coexist
with modernity and capitalism, even if politically and academically hegemonic groups
have been slow to recognize this fact. What some analysts today call “swarming”
behavior by alter-/anti-globalization and other activists is similar in many ways to the
practice of segmentary mobilization. (Arquilla and Ronfeldt et al. 1996). Modern
technologies that contemporary protestors and activists employ to organize collective
action have finally brought attention to such structure and networking. According to
Nash (2001: 173),
The fissioning and fusing that took place in [the] indigenous movement during
these years of ferment are difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend in the
Aristotelian and Cartesian traditions that dominate Western perspectives. In this
framework, hierarchy and opposition are the framework for thinking about social
mobilization. Continuity and persistence of the same organizations are applauded,
and the shifting processual ‘coming into being only to become something else’ is
often considered a sign of failure. The closest we come to appraising the subtle
maneuvers of oppressed people who are trying to make a bid for change is
through the Marxist dialectical approach that sees contradictions within a
structure as the emergent framework of opposition. Even within that framework,
it is almost impossible to conceptualize the fluid and often acephalous
organization of campesino mobilizations. Self-designated names for the
resistance groups and settlements, such as ‘Abejas’ (Bees), ‘Hormiga’ (Ants), and
‘Kiptik ta Lecubtesal’ (United by Our Strength), give us clues to the collective
base of their organizational practices (Nash 2001: 173).
Long ago Gerlach and Hine (1970: **) recognized virtues in movements that are
“…decentralized, segmented, reticulate….” in how these qualities allowed for security,
innovation and minimization of failure. Twelve years later McAdam decried such
characteristics as a weakness because of a lack of “centralized direction” (1982: 185). We
believe that there are strengths and weaknesses in grounded utopian movement
characteristics, but we do not privilege centralized organization as a virtue.
Some movements make network part of the objective of the movement itself.
Zapatistas, for example, consider the segmentary networking along the traditional model
of “bees” and “ants” as an end in itself, noting that such organization gives power to a
community. By performing countless minute tasks without detection, a community can
accomplish great work --such as the securing their colony/community. However,
movements oriented toward networking may not always even focus on networks
between human beings; they may be focused on supernatural relations with animals,
human beings and other worlds. Anthropologists have been less apt to assume divisions
between the social, material, and supernatural.
Some social movements are ephemeral. Grounded utopian movements can be
short-lived; they may dissipate only to later emerge again, perhaps in a different place.
Their short lives, however, may reflect a structure that defies how officials of a nation-
state grasps these movements’ operation. For example, Linbaugh and Rediker (1990)
have described England’s frustrating inability to prevent rebellion and movements among
the “lower classes” and slaves from emerging anew in different sites, even with repeated,
brutal state repression. English colonial administrators referred to the situation as “the
Many-Headed Hydra,” but English strategy might better be described as a deadly game of
imperial Whack-a-Mole.
Some movements only visibly coalesce intermittently. Related to the preceding
observation, some grounded utopian movements intermittently coalesce, especially
during periods of rapid change, making them appear ephemeral or recent in origin. They
may exhibit a punctuated equilibrium in that it may be the moments of rapid change,
rather than the long periods of stability, that leave the most evidence of their ever having
existed . For example, long struggles for autonomy among dominated groups (such as
indigenous peoples), may normally consist of virtually invisible and indistinguishable
everyday forms of existence: speaking one’s own language, eating one’s traditional diet,
engaging in traditional labor, without afterthought. Such deliberate, but unorganized
cultivation of one’s culture may only become visible during brief moments of outward
confrontation or non-confrontational, internally-directed adaptation that punctuate long
periods of stability. It should not be surprising that scholars interested in structure,
resources, and social change tend to focus on state-based social movements that seem
more tangible, influential, secular, and oriented to the present.
The global social justice movement provides an example of a contemporary
grounded social movement, although this has not been recognized. Like the Ghost
Dance, Rastafari and Maya movements, it is animated by moral and religious values
grounded in overlapping but not identical visions of an emergent transnational and
translocal community – after all its rubric is that “another world is possible.” These
visions are grounded in histories of the past and past struggles; in specific “good places”
that members hold to be central to their identities; and in specific human (and even
biotic) communities to which their members belong. That the grounding takes place in
these three ways provides a common reference point, despite acknowledged and even
celebrated differences among its members: notions of “sustainability,” “livelihood,” and
“dignity” provide elements within a shared discourse. The global social justice
movement shows dispersed, decentralized, and acephalous organization which can shift
and re-form at multiple scales rapidly. It has decentralized and charismatic leaders (who
more often than not, like Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas) refuse to identify
themselves as leaders.
The movement has a heterogeneous cross-class membership of religious lay
people, activists from the peace, labor, women’s and anti-racism movements in the global
North and global South, environmentalists, university students, labor union members and
organizers, and anti-capitalist anarchists. What may confound many observers and
perhaps prevents them from seeing its underlying grounded utopian features are its use of
hypermodern electronic technologies such as the internet and cell phones, and recourse
to jet travel. However, far from implying subscription to an instrumental rationality that
values technology, as does capitalism and modern nation-states, in order to transform the
world, commoditize it and rule over it, members of the global social justice movement
employ these technologies to transform themselves – to order, re-order, assemble, re-
assemble, their own forms of organization in struggle.
Affinity groups allow members to develop close solidarities among a limited
number, typically ten to fifteen people who work together over a long period of time but
shift priorities depending on the tactics at hand (Notes from Nowhere 2003). Cell phones
and the internet merely assist their integration. Networks link affinity groups, and
individuals within and across larger organizations: these networks require cultural work,
and here again, the instantaneous communication allowed by cell phones, email and
internet, and the frequent travel via air make such cultural work feasible and flexibly
carried out. The “swarming” of members into sudden gatherings followed by dispersal
and reassembly elsewhere noted for the Zapatistas above (Arquilla and Ronfeldt 1996)
has become more generalized for the global social justice movement: groups and allied
individuals in the movement form disperse then re-form to organize and create protests,
banners, messages, manifestos, Indymedia films, communiqués, marches, sit-downs, etc.
(Notes from Nowhere 2003). It thus becomes possible for local groups (affinity groups
and local grassroots organizations) to coalesce via networks into larger aggregates to
engage in solidarity building and protests focused rapidly and flexibly on specific local
sites where the rites of neoliberal globalization are performed, e.g., Seattle, Genoa,
Davos, and Cancun, at meetings of the WTO, the World Bank, IMF and World Economic
Forum. However, the hypermodern technologies in question should not be over-
emphasized; they are subordinate to the message, the stories, the narratives that link up
individuals, groups, and networks within the movement. Moreover, activists engage in
the daily work of self-fashioning in working with the messages and narratives of
solidarity with others – whether in “direct action” mode or in the more quotidian work of
organizing while making a living.
Outside observers may also be confounded by the fact that despite its other
similarities to the groups we discuss above, unlike these its shifting tactical objectives
target states and “multilateral institutions” of many states, although both its organization
and objectives seek to transcend individual states. However, members of the
movement do not seek incorporation into the contemporary state system or into
contemporary capitalism, but instead seek to disrupt or interrupt the incursions of both
into the “lifeworld” of the communities to which they belong and with which they
identify. This is paradoxical in that the members of the global justice movement have
intimate experiences of living with –and living within -- the institutions of capitalist
markets and contemporary nation-states, and are quite adept in understanding the modus
operandi of these institutions. Yet, like the Ghost Dance, the Rastafari and Maya, they
are repelled by their contact with (and prior cooptation by) these institutions. They thus
refute theorists such as Hardt and Negri who argue there is “no outside.” This
theoretical view is, in our opinion, a kind of inverted Fukuyama-esque view of the “end
of history” which forgets that values and interests are created in struggle, and are always
contingent and not set in advance as the predetermined outcome of the structures of
American “Empire” and the generation of a stripped-down “multitude.”
Fortunately, what we merely describe from within this essay from afar are, for
movement members up close, enacted daily practices of identity reformation created
through solidarity with others very different from them, to whom they are allied by
overlapping visions of other, more satisfying ways of life and good places. As Notes
from Nowhere (2003) observes, this “movement of movements” shows the major features
of complex, emergent, self-descriptive systems – what complexity theorists call
“distributed intelligence” leading to “nearest neighbor”-based actions (e.g., with this
affinity group linked to another, or networks within networks) that can come together,
when necessary, in large assemblies of protest.
Are grounded utopian movements like the global social justice movement (and we
could name others, like the environmentalist movement) to be regarded as a recursion
during this period of late capitalism to an earlier period, like that of European colonial
expansion, or are they to be viewed as an Hegelian transcendence of the secular,
expanding, rationalizing social movements oriented to modern capitalism and modern
nation-states favored for study in the social movements literature?
To suggest an answer, we return to our contention above that the contemporary
period is one of active state recomposition and destabilization – but certainly not the
“disappearance” of states. We believe that the processes of “globalization” which the
expansion of neoliberal states like the U.S. and of transnational corporations into the
lifeworld of peoples everywhere have brought in the trail of their operation, necessarily
and ineluctably, new forms of global consciousness, organizations, technologies, learning
practices, narratives, and experiences of transnationality to the heterogeneous members of
the global social justice movement. Most contemporary states in the global South, for
example, have been reconstituted so as to have imposed on them the conditions of “free
trade,” which also requires the implementation of the new electronic technologies that
movement members use for flexible and rapid communication, solidarity creation and
coalition building. Or, to take another example, threats to livelihood created by “free
trade” treaties have thrown large numbers of displaced people, like the native peoples of
Chiapas, Mexico, into situations where allies must be found if people are going to
survive, and with dignity – and they have been found among the disenchanted children of
the downwardly mobile (if still very privileged) middle classes of the global North.
This is not to say that there is some necessary convergence toward a happy global
cosmopolitanism on which the social justice movement can surf to an early and easy
utopia. NAFTA (and the neoliberal conditions previously created by the Salinas
government of Mexico in the 1980s (Collier 19xx) not only served to force the
transnational alliances made by the Zapatistas in the 1990s, but also dispossessed
millions of other rural Mexicans, many of whom have headed to “El Norte” – and to
stigmatized experiences of remittance wage labor, to hyper-exploitative working
conditions, and to hostile greetings by a zenophobic native U.S. labor force itself
undergoing systematic dispossession by corporate capitalism.
The global social justice movement is indeed, a movement “without guarantees,”
in Stuart Hall’s words. But the resilience, endurance, and flexible strength of the global
social justice movement as a grounded utopian movement are, we believe, a source of
great hope in this particular conjuncture.
Drawing on decades of ethnographic and field research into what we call
grounded utopian movements, we made three primary claims in reference to
contemporary social movement theory and studies.
First, we challenged the deeply held view that movements should be defined by
their relation to the nation state or “authority,” whether in opposition or pursuit of
recognition, or both. This view privileges reforming governmental and market institutions
and movements that grow in size and “power” (i.e., gaining power and influence in
relation to mainstream institutions). We point out some problems in assuming a modal
state and suggest how what we call utopian grounded movements challenge state-centric
movement conceptions. Second, we identified an academic division of movement studies
that allocated core, urban and mass movements to sociology (and political science) and
the periphery, rural , grounded utopian movements to anthropology (and history and
some sociologists). Anthropologists pursued an emic perspective and long term field
research, and were less inclined to deem grounded utopian movements of the periphery as
irrational, anachronistic or irrelevant. We suggest that these may be reasons that both
anthropology and grounded utopian movements have been neglected in social
movement studies from the 1970s on. Third, we examined issues of structure and
orientation in grounded utopian social movements in terms of features that make them
distinctive and those that they share in common with other kinds of movements. The
distinctive factors may partially explain why social movements theory has neglected
them, and we draw out what we see as the significance of the distinctions and
We believe that there are many lessons that can be drawn from analyses of
grounded utopian movements that will enrich social movements theory (especially in
cross-cultural perspective) and offer different ways to think about contemporary
movements. Movements that focus on social, cultural and physical survival, identity
formation, cultural and lifeworld regeneration, that are embedded within social forms
different from Eurocentric conceptions of civil society, and that engage the supernatural,
are not as different from the movements of mainstream social movements theory study as
we might imagine. Acephalous pods that segment and recombine, that are here one
moment and there the next, that are ephemeral and culturally embedded in places, could
describe the Ghost Dance movement, Guatemalan Maya, Rastafari, and the global justice
movements. The he power of charismatic prophet-like leaders and the supernatural and
visions of a satisfying collective past which motivate and galvanizegrassroots members
of America’s powerful religious right cannot be denied, just they cannot be for the Ghost
Dance and the Rastafari.
We call for incorporation of cross-cultural lived experience and emic
perspectives, gained through ethnographic and historical accounts, into social movement
theorizing. We recognize that some sociologists, historians and anthropologists are
moving in this direction, and we are inspired by their work and hope they push it further.
Perhaps as a result we can better grasp social movement phenomena across time and
space, and as a result develop analyses of more significant theoretical and tactical value,
and that will help movements themselves more rightly locate their practice and place
within all the venerable movements before them that have searched for a more satisfying
world. After all, grounded utopian movements have been saying for centuries that a
“better world is possible.”
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We are grateful to Michal Osterweil for providing us with valuable insights into the global social justice
movement, and to Erik Reavely for his research assistance in thematic searches of the journal
1. Sources used for this description of the Ghost Dance movement are Mooney (1896),
1965; Lesser (1933), 1978; Kracht 1992; and Wallace 1965.
We searched the titles, keywords or descriptors, abstracts and references cited for all articles in
Mobilization over this period.
This contention is of course quite different from the naïve claim that “states” as such are now powerless,
“globalization” reigns supreme, etc. (Ohmae 1985; Appadurai 1996). Some states are more powerful than
ever (e.g., the U.S.), and others were never as powerful as nationalist theorists imagined (or hoped) they
would be (see Weiss 1998).
... Whereas novelists and literary theorist have wholeheartedly explored dystopian visions as a means to understand our present era, an explicit engagement with dystopia is almost completely absent from the social sciences and from the discipline of anthropology in particular. Inspired by efforts to understand the role of utopian visions in shaping collective forms of action and state-building projects (see Buck-Morss 2000), anthropologists have engaged the concept of utopia in studies of indigenous and peasant rebellions in Latin America (Arguedas 2001;Fernández and Brown 1991;García de León 2001;Rus et al. 2003;Stern 1987) and in debates over the global justice movement and its 'figurations of the future' (Krøijer 2015) or 'grounded utopianism' (Price et al. 2008;cf. Graeber 2009;Maeckelbergh 2009;Razsa 2015). ...
... Among the anarcho-primitivists, wilderness is associated with the untamed place that is devoid of human tracks (ibid.: 112-113); it is a place where people can become moved and transformed through immersion. Austdal interprets activist practices as a form of 'grounded utopianism' (Price et al. 2008), but alongside this, the same dystopian vision of civilized society lurks within his descriptions, telling us how people should act in light of the problems of society. ...
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Unlike the concept of utopia, an explicit concern with dystopia is almost completely absent from anthropology. This article describes the technologies or uses of dystopia among a group of radical environmental activists in Germany. Dystopia means an undesired or frightening society or place, and, according to the activists, describes our current society and civilization-a consumerist lifestyle and overexploitation of nature that will inevitably lead to environmental collapse. This image is used politically to create estrangement and to make distance from undesired others and their practices. The article suggests that an analytical attention to the political technologies of dystopia might be of broad relevance for efforts to understand politics at our present historical conjuncture where utopias seem to have disappeared from mainstream political life.
... Such utopian visions can also be found amongst other social movements as demonstrated by many (e.g. Wallace 1956;Wireman 1984;Lofland 1998;Lowe 2000;Price et al. 2008). However, the missionary vision, with its global reach and its discursive and ethical history, has its own characteristic features. ...
... Second, it resolves anthropology's traditional discomfort working with utopia as an operative category (Shukaitis 2010;Maskens and Blanes 2018) by overcoming our traditional descriptive approach to the concept (e.g. Ribeiro 1991;Price et al. 2008;Goodale 2009;Basu and De Jong 2016). For, despite notable exceptions (Fox 1990;Razsa 2015), it is interesting to note that many anthropological approaches have too easily conflated utopia with religious worldviews (e.g. Brown 1991;Brumann 2000;van der Veer 2016;Blanes 2018), making it difficult to elaborate an anthropology of political utopias. ...
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en In this introductory essay, we introduce the possibility of an anthropology of generative politics, focusing in particular on its utopian unfoldings. We depart from the recognition that the current global political landscape is exposing new forms of collective mobilisation that challenge prevailing understandings of ‘the human’, collective agency and chronotopical experiences. Through a critical review of anthropological and other scholarship on, for instance, (post)humanism, as well as a presentation of contemporary socio‐political configurations, we make the case for generative politics being integral to what we term ‘utopian confluences’. Confluences utopiques : cartographie anthropologique d’une politique générative fr Dans cet essai introductif, nous suggérons qu’une anthropologie de la politique générative est possible, en nous concentrant en particulier sur ses déploiements utopiques. Nous partons du constat que l’actuel paysage politique mondial révèle de nouvelles formes de mobilisation collective qui remettent en question les conceptions dominantes de « l'humain », de la capacité d’action collective et des expériences chronotopiques. À travers l’examen critique des recherches en anthropologie ou relatives à d’autres domaines – le (post)humanisme par exemple – et la présentation des configurations socio‐politiques contemporaines, nous démontrons que la politique générative fait partie intégrante de ce que nous appelons les « confluences utopiques ».
... This article seeks to shed critical light on radical environmental activists (REAs) as grounded ecotopian movements (Price et al, 2008;Davis, 2012) mired in a concrete 1 (Bloch, 1986) and multidimensional refusal of the myriad socio-ecological deficiencies that characterize the 'Now' of the Anthropocene, and as seeking to instantiate a future devoid of the widespread loss of life. REAs may be posited as utopian in the sense that they engage in multidimensional critiques and fervent resistance against the status quo of global capitalism and its ecological dislocations (Sargisson, 2002;Moylan, 1986), and in complex -though less explicitly articulated -ways desire to supplant it with better alternatives. ...
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This article posits that the myriad socio-ecological crises that mark the Anthropocene have generated a novel form of green utopianism or 'ecotopianism' in the form of contemporary radical environmental activists (REAs). Drawing on posthuman and green utopian theoretical tributaries, the article seeks to critically assess how the intrusion of crisis into the present influences REAs' modality of ecotopianism, in particular their relations to central utopian concepts of 'hope' and 'futurity'. REAs are embroiled in a fervent refusal of the 'present' of climate and ecological decline, frequently emphasizing the need to create micro-exemplars within the 'here and now' and evincing scepticism towards closure around particular notions of 'the better'. REAs' singular mode of 'hopeless activism' is not devoid of hope but rather disavows hope in its abstract and future-oriented modality, instead emphasizing a 'critical modality' of hope. The latter, stemming from REAs' post-anthropocentric worldviews and deep kinship bonds with the nonhuman world, is fuelled by grief over the extant widespread loss of cherished Earth kin and moulded by a desire to create a 'not-yet' devoid of the widespread absence of Earth others. The article concludes with reflections on the nature of hope, loss of life and the utopian imaginary amid times pervaded by crisis, and on the potential for co-constructing more liveable worlds with Earth others.
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A synthesis of Ernst Bloch’s utopian process theory with pragmatic and phenomenological theories of action reorients utopianism away from the more traditional linear teleological perspective and towards an emphasis on dynamically fusing dreams and the practicality of action, what I call pragmatic utopianism. This process highlights how utopian dynamism is rooted in synthesizing past, present, and future. Utopia should not be understood as a static place or an expected end, but as an unending process towards a constantly changing vision of a better world. The German Ostalgie movement illustrates how this perspective can be utilized. When East Germans realized that their dreams of a capitalist society did not fully satisfy their imaginings under Communist rule, they critiqued their present experiences by utilizing idealized elements of their pasts and modifying their future imaginings. Ostalgie was thus not an attempt to resurrect the past, but to engage in a pragmatic process of utopian action towards an alternative future.
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En este artículo A. Escobar avanza en nuevos elementos para aclarar su concepto de lugar que fue pensado desde al pacífico colombiano y que tiene reconocimiento amplio entre los que son adeptos de las tesis poscoloniales. En su trabajo intelectual fueron identificados cuatro principios de relaciones interétnicas y de relaciones con el estado: el hecho de que el Pacífico es “un territorio ancestral de grupos étnicos”; que estos grupos son culturalmente diversos y buscan el respeto a sus diferencias y de éstas con la sociedad colombiana; que de esta posición de mutuo respeto y de diferencia, asumen la coordinación de la defensa de sus territorios; y permite que sus conocimientos tradicionales sean fundamentales en su relación con la naturaleza y su identidad, y que deberían ser reconocidos como tales. La idea de red es central en su construcción teórica. En los años noventa, explica el autor, las imágenes de redes circularon ampliamente en el Pacífico sin un patrón estricto de regularidad, y siempre refiriéndose a un conjunto de entidades como las organizaciones de los movimiento sociales, las redes de radios locales, las asociaciones de mujeres, los planes de acción, entre otros.
The following chapter contextualizes utopianism, taking Thomas More’s Utopia and early modern Europe as the starting point of utopianism as we know it today. It furthermore argues that studying utopianism cannot solely rely on content (what the new society would look like) but needs to consider the utopian form (how this new society is described). The idea of closure plays a pivotal role for the utopian imagination. By this ‘utopian formalism,’ literature on utopian practice is here revealed to offer comments on how to think ‘outside’ the contemporary systemic order and in how far this is even considered possible. The second subchapter offers a cursory overview of the European ‘utopian’ history of North America up until the American Revolution, establishing that utopia, as we know it, is heavily entangled with modern nationhood and imperialism.
In this article, I investigate the ways in which Rastafari discourse on repatriation to Africa – articulated through reggae music – engages utopianism to varying degrees based on the artists’ proximity to Ethiopia. I discuss reggae songs composed and recorded in Jamaica by five different artists/bands that engage Ethiopia-focused utopianism and compare these with songs composed and recorded by one of the most famous repatriated Rastafari reggae artists in Ethiopia, Sydney Salmon who engages Ethiopia-grounded utopianism. I show how proximity to Ethiopia shapes artistic motivations for and representations of a Rastafari utopia while highlighting continuities and variations in Rastafari utopianism.
In this chapter, we outline the development of Sharia4Belgium in the context of the tensions between the Belgian activists, media attention, anti-radicalisation policy and police action. We describe what the activists were agitating against and how they tried to create a space for themselves. Their ‘counter-conduct’ involved setting themselves up in opposition to hegemonic ideas of good and evil, and certain norms and values. It was therefore both political and ethical in character. We will see that the activists’ counter-conduct was shaped by creating their own space separate from society, as well as claiming a place within society. We will also see how Sharia4Belgium did this through a specific form of counter-conduct—what we call ‘spectacle activism’, using ‘image events’ and oppositional arguments.
The Kiowa Ghost Dance movement of 1894-1916 is relatively unknown. Kiowa involvement in the 1894 Ghost Dance movement involved different motives than the theories of deprivation and acculturation used to describe participation in the Ghost Dance of 1889-91. An ethnohistorical analysis of the ritual symbols in the Kiowa Ghost Dance illustrates how the Kiowa-and others-perceived themselves as participants in the movement.