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Culture and Structure in Political Process Theory



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Sociological Forum Vol 14 No 1 1999 Snarls Quacks and Quarrels Culture and Structure in Political Process Theory Francesca Polletta1 Political process theories of social movements have relied on a set of oppositions between culture and structure that has limited their capacity to capture the supraindividual durable and constraining dimensions of culture The solution is not to abandon an emphasis on objective political structures in favor of potential insurgents subjective perceptions of political opportunities but rather to probe the objective resources and constraints generated by the cultural dimensions of political structures Such a perspective would pay closer attention to the cultural traditions ideological principles institutional memories and political taboos that create and limit political opportunities and would link the master frames that animate protest to dominant political structures and processes KEY WORDS social movements culture political opportunity structuralism As Goodwin and Jasper note leading exponents of political process theory have recognized the limitations of strict political opportunity models in which the opening of political opportunities is necessary and sufficient cause of mobilization Doug McAdam for example argues that the dominance within the United States of the resource mobilization and political process perspectives has privileged the political organizational and network structural aspects of social movements while giving the more cultural or ideational dimensions of collective action short shrift 1994 36 McAdam and others have responded by trying to incorporate what we know about the role of organizations material resources and social struc1 Department of Sociology Columbia University New York NY 10027 63 0884 8971 99 0300 0063 16 00 0 1999 Plenum Publishing Corporation Polletta 64 ture with culture as Johnston and Klandermans put it in a recent volume 1995 21 Such efforts have been hampered by a narrow view of political structures as noncultural Like Goodwin and Jasper I believe that we can usefully adopt a less anemic conception of culture than some political process analyses have done without making actors interests strategies and resources simply figments of a culturalist imagination However by characterizing the problem as the structuralist bias of current approaches Goodwin and Jasper suggest that the problem lies in a misrecognition of the nonstructural i e cultural dimensions of political institutions and practices I argue to the contrary that structures are cultural although not only cultural The task is not to abandon an emphasis on objective political structures in favor of potential insurgents subjective perceptions and valuations of political structures but to probe the objective resources and constraints generated by the cultural dimensions of political structures To develop this argument I critique formulations of the culture structure relationship by leading political process theorists Some authors associated with the political process model have avoided the theoretical traps I describe and every author who figures in my criticisms has also contributed to the analytical alternatives I endorse This suggests that the problem lays in the appealing familiarity of certain widespread but limiting understandings of culture an appeal to which sociologists both inside and outside the field of social movements have been vulnerable CULTURE VERSUS STRUCTURE2 In spite of his intention to grant culture its proper due McAdam s formulation of the problem as quoted previously gives away the game Analysts have mistakenly concentrated on the political organizational and network structural aspects of social movements he argues at the expense of the cultural and ideational dimensions By implication then the former are noncultural He goes on It is extremely hard to separate these objective shifts in political opportunities from the subjective processes of social construction and collective attribution that render 2 Political process theorists have used the term structure in two ways to describe a configuration of political opportunities political opportunity structure and to describe those political institutions arrangements and processes that distinguish one political context from another in comparative studies of movement emergence or that change in some crucial fashion in longitudinal studies of movement emergence My objections are to the latter use of the term structure With respect to the former political process theorists now more commonly refer to political processes and opportunities than to a political opportunity structure see for example Tarrow 1998 77 Snarls Quacks and Quarrels Culture and Structure in Political Process Theory 65 Table I Conceptions of Culture and Structure in Recent Political Process Analyses Culture 1 2 3 4 Subjective Malleable Enables protest voluntarist Mobilized by the powerless to challenge structure Political Structure Objective Durable Constrains protest determinist Monopolized by the powerful to maintain power them meaningful Given this linkage the movement analyst has two tasks accounting for the structural factors that have objectively strengthened the challenger s hand and analyzing the processes by which the meaning and attributed significance of shifting political conditions is assessed 1994 39 McAdam insists on distinguishing objective structural opportunities from the subjective cultural framing of those opportunities Culture mediates between objective political opportunities and objective mobilization on this view it does not create those opportunities see also McAdam McCarthy and Zald 1996 8 McAdam Tarrow and Tilly 1997 158 The restriction of culture to insurgents framing efforts reflects a deeper opposition between structure and culture that has characterized sociological analysis more broadly Sewell 1992 Hays 1994 In social movement theory the opposition takes the following form Political opportunities are represented as structural not cultural activists capacity to take advantage of those opportunities is cultural although only in part cultural because it depends also on the prior networks that make people structurally available to participate McAdam 1994 Let me list the set of contrasts underpinning this conception of culture s role in mobilization 3 Cultural processes shape potential challengers perception of objective opportunities 1 see Table I culture is malleable whereas structure by


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