Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

A Critique of Ultimate Referentiality in the New Social Movement Theory of Alberto Melucci

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

A Critique of Ultimate Referentiality in the New Social Movement Theory of Alberto Melucci

Article excerpt

Abstract: A critical examination of Alberto Melucci's new social movement theory shows an operative assumption about the ultimate referentiality of society in his theory. Melucci assumes society as the unique, rational ground that renders society a reservoir of all meanings and conflicts. The actor's pregiven social position is assumed to predispose him or her with the ability to enter into certain conflicts. To show Melucci's operative assumption, three major theses in his theory are examined: (1) transition to the postindustrial society, (2) the new middle class radicalism, (3) identity as "latent" and "visible." It is argued that Melucci's notion of society has its roots in his parochial. institutional conception of politics that disregards the hegemonic formation of society and the political character of every social phenomenon and practice. This critique leads to an invitation to a sociology that treats new social movements as loci of the political re-institution of society.

Resume: Une examination critique de la theorie du nouveau mouvement social de Alberto Melucci suggere l'hypothese que la societe est referentielle d'apres cette theone. Melucci suppose que la societe est unique et rationnelle, et de plus, la source de toutes significations et conflits. La position sociale de l'acteur le donne la capacite d'entrer dans de certains conflits. Pour illustrer l'hypothese de Melucci, trois theses majeures de sa theorie sont examinees: 1) transition a une societe post-industrielle; 2) le nouveau radicalisme de la classe moyenne; 3) identites telle que [much less than] latente [much greater than] et [much less than] visible [much greater than]. L'auteur affirme que l'origine de la notion de Melucci de la societe se trouve dans sa conception paroissiale et institutionelle de la politique, conception qui ne prend pas en compte la formation hegemonique de la societe et le caractere politique de tout phenomene ou pratique social. Cette critique mene a une sociologie qui traite les nouvea ux mouvements sociaux comme les lieux de la reinstitution politique de la societe.

The theoretical literature concerning social movements has clearly gone through major focal and analytical shifts in the past three decades. Such shifts are nowhere more evident than in the coinage and increasing application of the term "new social movements" (especially during the 1980s). The new social movement theory of Italian sociologist Alberto Melucci, one of the originators of the term (Melucci, 1989: 42, 204), deems identity as the cardinal characteristic that distinguishes the "new" from the "older" social movements. As such, Melucci belongs to a generation of prominent European theorists -- namely, Alain Touraine, Klaus Eder, Claus Offe -- who emphasize, each in a different way, the centrality of identity, as emphasis on individual or group particularity, in understanding new social movements. (1)

This paper will examine Melucci's conception of identity in order to show that his social movement theory hinges on an assumption that takes identity to be expressive of some "deeper" social fundament which surfaces in new social movements' practices. I will discuss that this view of identity is symptomatic of an operative assumption about society as a foundation for theoretical moorage. I will also point out that the "ultimate referentiality" (as an assumed reference to a ground) in Melucci's theory takes place in spite of his acknowledgement that theory must critically reflect on certain "older" assumptions in order to be able to account for the emergence and increasing prevalence of the "new" social movements. A comprehensive investigation into Melucci's theory will be done by critically examining three theses around which, to varying degrees, Melucci's entire new social movement theory is or has been organized. In each one of these three theses, Melucci tries to theoretically account for the appeals to i dentity in the new movements in relation to a specific criterion: first, with respect to a shift from the industrial to the postindustrial societies in the West; second, in terms of the class origins of the new movements' actors (a position which he criticizes later); and finally, in relation to individual or group autonomy or particularity. …

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