Symbols, positions, objects: Toward a new theory of revolutions and collective action

Mustafa Emirbayer, Jeff Goodwin

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Many scholars now agree that the study of revolutions and other types of collective action ought to focus more attention on culture, while not losing sight of the importance of social structures. Recent scholarship, however, suggests that while culture has begun to receive much more sustained attention, no generally accepted theoretical synthesis has yet emerged in this field. The very title of the recent collection of essays on revolution edited by Nikki Keddie reflects this impasse. In this essay, we sketch a synthetic theoretical perspective on revolutions and collective action that encompasses not only culture and social structure, but also social psychology and agency, a concept that we analytically disaggregate. Moreover, we integrate the various elements of this perspective through a consistently relational focus, one that views ties and transactions as the appropriate unit of analysis. We begin by outlining three structural or relational contexts of action: the cultural, social-structural, and social-psychological. Social action is shaped and guided at one and the same time by all three of these transpersonal environments, which intersect and overlap with one another and yet are mutually autonomous. We also suggest, however, that action is never completely determined by the relational contexts in which it is embedded. Our framework also points to the importance of agency, which we define as the engagement by actors of their different contexts of action, an engagement that reproduces but also potentially transforms those contexts in interactive response to the problems posed by changing historical situations. This synthetic theoretical framework helps both to sharpen the causal statements that analysts of revolutions and collective action generate and to broaden the range of causal mechanisms that their research identifies.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)358-373
    Number of pages16
    JournalHistory and Theory
    Issue number3
    StatePublished - 1996

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • History
    • Philosophy


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