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Towards a New Theory of Social Movement Practice


Having outlined the context and circumstances which gave rise to anti-neoliberal discontent and a new cycle of anti-capitalist contention in Britain, this chapter explains the theoretical framework used to analyse the empirical findings in the forthcoming chapters.

The framework uses Bourdieu's theory of practice: (habitus x capital) + field = practice, and the associated concepts of illusio and doxa. His theory of practice has been used to explain the reproduction of social class inequality, domination, distinction, and wealth and power in society (Bourdieu, 1984, 1996). According to Bourdieu, the habitus is a predisposition organizing mechanism, which structures and formats tastes, preferences and ultimately action. The habitus is not produced nor does it exist in isolation, it is a dynamic mechanism which is a product of previous and successive generations of socialization. Moreover, it adapts, grows and changes through interactions with others within distinct sectors of society or social worlds, what Bourdieu calls fields. Some examples include the cultural field, the educational field and the political field (Bourdieu, 1993b, 2000; Bourdieu and Passeron, 1996). Fields are social spaces which are definite and at times bounded environments with rules, structures and resources, which at once enable and constrain agents. The resources come in a number of forms which Bourdieu terms cultural, economic, social and symbolic capital. The formula suggests that if agents continue to accrue capital they may enhance their position within a particular field. In this respect, fields operate akin to a game, whereby agents are players who sometimes overtly and covertly compete and come into conflict with each other as they attempt to accrue forms of capital so that they may increase their standing within a field. The concept of illusio refers to belief in the game, which is embedded within the theory of practice. Agents as players have to believe in the game, including the rules as well as the resources, they have to recognize what is at stake and they agree, albeit sometimes tacitly, that resources are worth competing or fighting over or the game simply would cease to exist. The associated concept of doxa allows for an understanding of how the social rules of a given social field operate and how a crisis may come into being through an epistemological break akin to a disruption in the general consensus of a particular field (Bourdieu, 1977).

So powerful are Bourdieu's concepts that they have been adapted and applied by others to explain a range of other social dynamic practices. These include the intersection of class and gender inequality (Adkins and Skeggs, 2004; Huppatz, 2009); culture and class distinction in contemporary British society (Bennett et al., 2009); and social movement practice (Crossley, 2002a, 2002b). It is in this latter area that I seek to make a further contribution, where his concepts have become an important resource (Fligstein and McAdam 2011; Husu, 2013; Ibrahim, 2011, 2013; Samuel, 2012, 2013). In particular, I am arguing that the concepts can be used to track political practice within social movements, ideological developments of and tensions within and between social movements. Indeed, I argue that the theory of practice can explain the dynamics of ideological conflict and competition, and how this becomes embedded over time, which in turn creates a durable dynamic.

The next section discusses each concept in its original form as intended by Bourdieu, after which I discuss how the concept has been used in the service of social movement analysis. The final part of the chapter explains how I apply the concepts in the forthcoming data chapters.

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