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23Mar2017

HAVING TO BE WHAT WE CANNOT BE

My research project Other People’s Struggles is concerned with the participation of non-beneficiaries – or ‘adherents’, as I term them – in social movements. One of its central questions is whether it has got harder for adherents to participate, or whether it has always been problematic, in certain kinds of struggle, for non-beneficiaries to participate in the same way as beneficiaries. Part of a possible answer concerns changing attitudes on the part of the beneficiaries. Perhaps there are certain ways in which they no longer wish to be helped in their struggles. But change may also have occurred among the adherents themselves.

My explanation of adherence rests on the part played by conscience and ‘disjoint norms of service’ – i.e. expectations that ‘some people’ ought to help ‘others’ – as a motivation. So the question becomes whether these norms and motivations have changed over time.  Conscience is a very peculiar motive which has not been given the attention it deserves, notably because explanations tend to start and finish with rationally self-interested actors. It has its own history and genealogy. So it is a plausible hypothesis that it has changed.

In this chapter, I make some conjectures, informed by the theory and case studies of Other People’s Struggles, about how the norms and motivations have changed over time.   The main proposal is that  the contemporary dilemma is characterised by three elements in tension: (1) an undiminished expectation that ‘we’ ought to side with ‘others’ in their struggles; (2) diminished ‘privilege’; and (3) new requirements for ‘self-actualisation’.  These produce the dilemma that the contemporary adherent ‘has to be what she cannot be’.

JEAN-BAPTISTE-CAMILLE COROT (1796–1875), LE BOIS DE L’HERMITE, OU LES BORDS DU LAC TRASIMÈNE (THE HERMIT’S WOODS, OR THE BANKS OF LAKE TRASIMÈNE) CLICHÉ-VERRE (SALTED PAPER PRINT) (1858).