img_dr_schaefer_1By contributing to this blog, I aim to boost the discussion surrounding the methodological consequences of an unsettled relation of practice and discourse theory. In addition I wish to link these consequences with the ongoing demand to continue the dialogue about appropriate methods of practice sociologies my colleagues and I started two years ago (Schäfer/Daniel/Hillebrandt 2015).

The following outline of practice theory shows why I engage with my object of research – protest – in the context of discourse and practice in the first place. This leads to a synergetic dialogue between practice and discourse theory in the form of post-structural materialism (Hillebrandt 2016) using the concept of serialized events from Foucault (cf. Foucault DeE III, no. 234, 2003). The general methodological consequence of this is a genealogy of the present and a sociology of practice of historical events compared to current ones. I conclude by answering the question of how current protest can be understood by building a bricolage of practices of protest starting from an unprecedented event with the potential for serialization.

Drawing on current research from a sociology of protest between discourse and practice, I propose a sociology of efficacious protest in practice from the early 1960s to the present day. The case I use to illustrate the methodological challenges inherent in practice theory is the 1968 Chicago Festival of Life, in which thousands of young people from all over the country came together in Lincoln Park, Chicago to stage ‘Music-Lights-Free-Theater-Magic’ events in protest against the failings of the American status quo and coinciding with the Democratic Party’s national convention. For empirical data, I use the 2007 animated documentary of the Chicago 10, written and directed by Brett Morgan, which chronicles the events surrounding the convention for which the protest organizers (who dubbed themselves ‘Yippies’) were brought to trial afterwards. Based on transcripts and drawing on rediscovered audio recordings, the film is an animated documentary featuring the voices of celebrities. It also contains archival footage of the protest and the riots, and makes it possible for us to analyze the relation between discourse and practice.

Considering the current state of social movement research in German-speaking sociology, I am surprised to see how conservative sociological research (in terms of being focused on theories of intentional action) about protest still persists. This causes difficulties when it comes to practices of protest like those which occurred during the Festival of Life in Chicago 1968: practices of civil disobedience in general or spontaneous events like those that occur today to confront capitalism, urban politics or the current decrees of the US President. In my research, I am interested in the causes of such events, or the degrees of success and the conditions of mobilization for protest. However, what continues to be identified as protest are demonstrations and organizations within social movements. This could be a reason why social movement research missed key practices of protest like those of the Yippie Festival of Life. They didn’t fit into the established definitions like those by Rucht who wrote: ‘A social movement [is] a permanent and mobilized network of nongovernmental groups, […] united by a collective identity and a sustainable goal of social change, […] a message [to be] carried out to the public’ (Rucht 2005: 902). In contrast to the science of history, the social sciences still ignore variations of protest in everyday life and still concentrate on interviews or surveys about the social structure, motivation or political attitude of the people involved. Participatory observation directs us at least to the internal structure of groups but only works with current protest and is often targeted at decision-making and shared values. Thomas Kern contends that most social movement research is implicitly educational, but I hope we can move beyond this idea, as well as the default research perspective of much sociology of practice which asks ‘what happened?’ instead of ‘why?’ or ‘what for?’. Such an approach would help us to close the gap in research relating to disruptive and expressive protest as well as silent forms of civil disobedience (cf. Kern 2008).

Accordingly, there is less research about the 1968 Chicago Festival of Life because of the methodological consequences of conservative research (in terms of being focused on theory of intentional action) in German-speaking sociology. There is a need for dynamic theoretical tools that can deal with practices such as sitting in the park, getting high, singing songs, meditating or doing theater without looking for intentions, motives and goals. These tools would help to show breaking points of discourses that need to be analyzed as well.

There are two positions in the theoretical discussion about practices and discourse associated with, and useful to, my questions about the practices of Yippie protest. The first is related to the dimension of the social, which happens when bodies are in motion and negotiate time and space – what Schatzki may call ‘doings’ (Schatzki 1996):

Watch the video here (1968 Lincoln Park, Democratic Convention, Abbie Hoffman. Published by yesmar nilud, 27.05.2011)

Next to these moving body-object-associations – using Hillebrandt’s (2016) term –, which we identify as sitting around, walking through the park, doing handicraft, holding up placards, kissing or hugging other people (like the video shows) there is another dimension which is to do with turning up the volume and is related to sayings, visualized in the following images:


These symbolize what Schatzki calls ‘sayings’ (Schatzki 1996) and on a wider horizon Foucault calls ‘discourse’ (Foucault 1971/2014). There are several ways in sociological theory of analyzing these two dimensions. Popular in recent years (Bourdieu 1976; Schatzki 1996; Reckwitz 2003; Hillebrandt 2014; Schäfer, F. et al 2015; Schäfer, H. 2016) the theoretical approach to social practices offers a new perspective on the social dimension in general (Reckwitz 2002) as well as on practices of protest specifically (Schäfer, F. 2017). However, it is important to note that current sociology does not lag behind the paradigm of the discursive construction of the social (Foucault 1971) and the sociology of protest should also consider the importance of discourses for the analysis of protest. The problem Daniel Wrana (2012) discussed in detail, is that discourse-oriented sociology works with a strong sense of discourse but neglects the extraordinary quality of the implementation of practice. The dilemma is between sticking to the theory of human action, or making the distinction between non-discursive routines and discursive regulations.

Other areas of research about discourses with a strong awareness of practice are well known, but only work with a non-explicit concept of discourse next to the concepts of field and habitus as, for example, in the tradition of Pierre Bourdieu. Even in current research perspectives of sociologies of practice, people pay attention to a discursive dimension of practice, but do not really care about integrating elements of discourse analysis into their empirical fieldwork, if they do any fieldwork at all (Schäfer/Daniel/Hillebrandt 2015). My aim is to realize the potential of both practice theory and discourse theory by bringing them into a fruitful conversation, precisely because lately they have often operated independently of each other. Therefore, I use empirical data to bring both discourse and practices together, in a similar way to the animated documentary about the Chicago 10.

A practice-sociological analysis of events can provide a solution because of its strength compared to other modes of research. In this light, every sociology of practice has to deliver and enable the assembling of different analytical units without highlighting one in a history of the present of protest. Bringing the discourse-oriented perspective together with practice theory into a discourse-oriented post-structural materialism like the one recommended by Hillebrandt (Hillebrandt 2014), one has to adhere to the methodological consequence of discourse theory and treat discourses as practices which set the topics they speak about (cf. Foucault 1973). This works well if one does not give up the differentiation between discursive and non-discursive materials, but treats the observation of things as a discourse inherent practice. Practice theory in general focuses on how to contain the physical implementation of practice and its own special quality, which is challenging, even for the sociology of protest. Single manifestations of different forms of practice are conceptualized as performances of sayings and physical doings and the association between socialized bodies and material elements enables the affordances of things. Whereas classical theories of action center on subjects, agents in post-structural materialism are different kinds of bodies in association with artefacts which ‘carry’ and ‘carry out’ social practices (cf. Reckwitz 2002, Hillebrandt 2016).

According to this view, the social world is first and foremost populated by diverse social practices that are carried by different human and non-human agents. So-called “modes of practice” are similar to assemblies of different elements: discourses, bodies, artifacts, symbols and so forth which effect practice within their special associations and combinations. This perspective offers an excellent opportunity to explore protest and social movements, constituted by the interplay of moving bodies, recipients, technical equipment, discourses and media. The focus should be on physical conditions and situational performances which create the implementation of practice. Whichever practices of protest one analyzes, such as a live performance, a discussion session in a self-governed center (Yates 2015), the distribution of a specific poster or lifestyle and aesthetic choices of everyday life, the interplay of many different items produces these situational practices. For this reason, in this specific line of research, the main question is: how are the practices of protest generated and where are the elements and associations of protest leading, if we follow them through the process. Working within such an analytical framework, the challenge is to identify the central elements and dimensions of different protest practices and to analyze their complex interactions.

During the analytical process, one has to differentiate between at least seven dimensions of practice: the dimensions of space, time, socialized bodies, technology and artifacts in general, constitutive media elements, sound and noise, and discourses. Analyzing these ways of association enables us to see how practices occur and create formations of practice which retrain the structural building effects of protest. This in turn leads us to another view on the criteria of success and failure of protest. In doing so one must take into account the ceaseless transformation of associations. It is not only reproduction but permanent change of the arrangement of symbols, styles, embodiment and performances of protest practice that keeps it alive. A simple reproduction of the same combination of elements will not be successful in the long run (cf. Daniel/Hillebrandt/Schäfer 2015). Rather, there has to be a permanent renewal of these associations, to keep the enthusiasm for protest alive. The tense relationship between reproducing and renewing these elements and associations evokes the special dynamic of the formation of protest since the 1960s.

The advantage of a more synergetic combination of discourse and practice theory is that no element of practice is privileged. It is not the discourse by itself that opens up the position of subjects and produces materiality. Nor is it the human actor, who produces the discourse or undertakes productive communication. Practices are made of the dimensions of socialized bodies, artifacts, and the association of both, aided by space, time and discourse. The assembly and formation of these generate practice. Therefore the character of sayings or discursive practice has to be extended to bodies, things, and artifacts attached to living bodies and physical materials that become visible during the implementation. This shows that the theoretical choice of my perspective includes not only the methodological necessity to perform empirical fieldwork while doing theory, but a downsizing of hierarchies between analytic items. Discourses are not the starting point of analysis. If practice is to be the starting point of all analysis, human bodies aren’t analytically more important than discourses, objects, olfaction or sound. The synthetic and reciprocal relation of theory and fieldwork as well as the flat hierarchies of analytic items leads to an overcoming of opposite positions and a freezing of concepts; protesters are addressed as mere socialized bodies and as oppositional forces or physical objects, next to discourse and their associations.

Despite the repeated resolutions and affirmations about taking empirical research further than interviewing people about ‘their practice’, the discussion surrounding methods that fit into a consequent sociology of practice remains rudimentary when it comes to the analysis of historic events (Daniel/Schäfer 2015).

This is why I experiment with the documentary film mentioned above to point out the relation of discourse and practice to the Chicago Festival of Life and the Yippie Protest of 1968. Why do I do this, one might ask? I started my research trying to understand current protest movements in Germany. I started to look back at related events in the past that caused protest events in which I was interested. This fits in well with the practice-theoretical paradigm that every single practice contains prior practices and is caused in the wake of them. Likewise, Foucault’s concept of history as a discontinuous process of events that are serialized leads to the methodological consequence that one is forced to be a positivist and take unprecedented protest events with attachment potential. This allows one to tell the story of an emergence up to the present day and back and understand current variations of protest in various directions. Showing different ranges of power relations as opposed to relations of meaning in the events, leads to conclusions about the historic and current implementations of practice.

Thus, I followed the objects through time and space and a lot of lines led me to a breakthrough of unpretentious practices of protest called Yippie Protest practiced by socialized bodies just like Abby Hoffmans (the main character in the movie) and others in association with artifacts, symbols and so forth by political and media discourses during the Chicago Festival of Life. To learn more about this special event and the Chicago trial that followed, I will now analyze the documentary, which mixes both fictional with original pictures of the event (for the discussion of documentaries as empirical data in general see Ruby 2000, for popular ethnographic documentaries see Vannini 2014, for documentaries of trials see Fuhs 2014). This conscious mix of fiction and non-fiction shows the active dimension of discourse and allows us to analyze the relation between practices and discourse in shaping our views of historical events. I borrow from a visual sociology (cf. Burri 2008, Prinz 2014) that works a lot with video material and documentaries. The multi-perspective view through the camera enables one to see details other than those from the retrospective memory of actors and adds something new to the event as well, at the point of an intersection between two persistences, in a Foucauldian sense. I interpret the video as a visual notice, as something in addition to the event, but a constitutive part of the present of protest in general. I think that is the point of Foucault’s concept of history, which handles historic events in part as products of the present and vice versa. The documentary gives us a different understanding of what really happens that you can see in parts in the film, if I isolate and analyze the historic material in isolation first, and look at the same pictures embedded in the fictional parts afterwards. The discrepancy gives insight into the diachronic discourse dimension of the event.

The initial findings were that there was a bundle of practices of irony and humor integrated in the formation of protest. There was an innovative integration of media at the forefront of the protest event. The reactions of other objects and socialized bodies next to the protesters are a constitutive part of the emergence of the effective formation of protest practice. The police, for example, are not seen in the context of the protest events, but as a constitutive part of the formation. Discursive elements like the documentary are a part of the present of protest so you can only understand the role of protest, during the cultural transformation of the 1960s, by deconstructing the given status of practices of opposition, as they happened during historical events such as the Chicago Festival of Life. The next step will be to learn more about those dynamics and effects of protest in the near history from the 1960s until today. At the same time it is necessary to compare the associations and interplays of different phases of protest history with the aid of the identified dimensions of protest practices. This allows us to focus on the new elements and associations of a specific formation and to carve out the continuous dynamic of transformation (Daniel/Hillebrandt/Schäfer 2015).

The interim findings are that there is less research about protests like the Festival of Life because of the methodological consequences of conservative research in German-language sociology. The need for dynamic theoretical tools that can handle the heterogeneous practices of Yippie protest, without looking for intentions, motives and goals can be addressed with the discourse oriented sociology of practice I presented: I describe the formation of protest based on the event of the Chicago Festival of Life as an event in the Foucauldian sense, without defining dominant analytic units as a genealogical history of the present while focusing on the conditions of possibilities of the protest performance. Therefore, I analyze the material traces of unprecedented protest events with attachment potential within films, documents or pictures, and identify the elements of practice in the different discursive, artificial and bodily dimensions. In my opinion, the full potential of bringing discourse, event and practice into a fruitful relationship has not been tapped yet. Also under-explored is the potential of using documentary dramas like Chicago 10 for the empirical research on the relationship of discourse and practice in the genealogical history of the present. One can use these to show the communicational double-function of historic materials and present media, building current understandings of protest events. My contention is that within a discourse-oriented sociology of practice, as empirical data next to others as part of an advanced multi-sited ethnography through time and space (Marcus 1995, 1998) the documentary can tell us something about what protest happened in history and what that tells us about the history of present protests.

Franka Schäfer

Post-Doc, Institute of Sociology, General Sociology and Sociological Theory, Open University (FernUniversität) Hagen



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