Stabilizing Collectives in the Study of Transformation: Instead of "key-individuals"

This deserves perhaps an even longer blog post, but I wrote this quickly as an appreciation to the previous blog by Juan Carols Rocha.

The previous blog post puts focus on a quite problematic nexus within social-ecological studies, and management theory more generally: the focus on “key-individuals”, “leaders”, and “institutional or social entrepreneurs” to explain change and ‘transformation’. In my new chapter on "Transformative Collective Action" (Ernstson, 2011a; see blog post here) I review some of that literature and conclude that such constructs can create an analytical trap, or blindness, since these constructs provides the analyst a too easy way out for explaining change; 'key-individuals' tend to step out on the scene like ready-made ‘magic boxes’ to put things right, very much like adeus ex machina in Greek or Brechtian dramas, who suddenly solves intractable problems.

To take research beyond key-individuals on one hand, and external/structural factors (equally ready-made) on the other, seems crucial to me. The references put forward by Duncan Watts in Gary’s post are highly useful here (LeBon, Tolstoy, Berlin), as are the search for mechanisms like those Jon Norberg studies through the clean world of agent-based model experiments.

However, what is also badly needed in the field of resilience and social-ecological studies are more empirical work, and more theoretical constructs, frameworks and registers that allow us to appreciate the often messy but profoundly collective nature of transformative or revolutionary change. (These ways of doing research should also acknowledge that change processes will be quite different from place to place.) To study such change must necessarily be more than just dividing a process into ‘phases’, looking for ‘windows of opportunity’, and plug in certain individuals in the account who can ‘seize’ these windows and usher in a new way of doing things.

To the particular tedious task of doing empirical studies of transformations, there are probably various ways. So far, in my own work, I have especially built on social movement theory, a field that par excellence has studied transformative and revolutionary change. Social movement scholar Mario Diani has for instance showed me how to use social network analysis to understand "network-level mechanisms", which I view as: 
"social actions made possible through, and emerging from, the patterns of relations between mobilizing actors, and thus dependent on the full structure of the social network, and not just the local surrounding of single actors" (Ernstson 2011, p. 258).
Another important Italian is Alberto Melucci, who used a constructionist and cultural approach to collective action, emphasizing that collective action needs to be constructed and that ‘structural’ or external factors are not enough to explain change since a practice of engagement is needed to translate ‘structural/external’ factors into tangible action. He also emphasized that collective action necessarily also produces or constructs new ways of knowing, thus necessarily upsetting and challenging dominating ways of knowing (and one needs to account for how such knowledge is constructed in and through collective action).

Thirdly, I have been drawing on scholars like Jonathan Murdoch, Bruno LatourJohn Law and Annmarie Mol who use post-structuralist geography and actor-network theory (ANT). This body of scholarship decenters the human subject in studying change, and thus “reassembles the social” (Latour, 2005) so as to allow also non-humans to be part in constructing/producing collective action. This makes it possible as an analyst to stabilize accounts of ‘distributed agency’, where the ability for change resides among people and things, which together come to make up quite heterogeneous collectives. For instance, in my case study here in Cape Town(Ernstson 2011), certain plants seem to participate in modes of empowerment, and play an important role in stabilizing collectives that can carry action across space and time. For the Occupy Movement, tents, streets, squares and Internet seems key but exactly how these things are enrolled into a stabilization of collective action needs ethnographic engagement. Importantly however, careful analysis of such heterogeneous collectives can come to also show how alternative ways of knowing and becoming are produced in and through the same collectives that carry or produce action, and thus such analysis lends itself to study how collective action engages the world in epistemological and ontological politics. The latter seems key in any transformation worthy the name.

This was just a short burst in response to Juans’s interesting blog post. If anybody has more ideas on this, tips on empirical studies or theoretical treatise in the area of social-ecological studies that relates to this, please make contact, or post comments, as usual.

Ernstson, Henrik. 2011. "Transformative collective action: a network approach to transformative change in ecosystem-based management." Pp. 255-287 in Social Networks and Natural Resource Management: Uncovering the Social Fabric of Environmental Governance, edited by Ö. Bodin and C. Prell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ernstson, Henrik. 2011. "Re-translating nature in post-apartheid Cape Town: the alliance of people and plants in generating collective action." Presented at London School of Economics workshop on Actor-Network Theory in Development Studies, 3 July 2011 organized by Richard Heeks.

[Also posted on my blog]