Sociology Of Revolution Research Paper

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The modern concept of Revolution comes out of one particular experience at the end of the eighteenth century, an experience that led some to hope for and others to fear similar occurrences. Reflections on the nature, causes, unfolding, and consequences of Revolution were for a long time dominated by the French Revolution. As other cases came to preoccupy social scientists in the course of the twentieth century, and particularly in the wake of the varied social upheavals after World War Two, scholarly reflection on Revolution flourished as it developed in new directions.

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1. An Old Word Takes On A New Meaning

‘Revolution’ (from Latin revolutio) initially had the sense of a return to a point of origin. In political discussion it might be used to characterize a dynastic restoration. By the seventeenth century it had also taken on the sense of an alteration in fortune and might be employed to describe some significant improvement or deterioration in political affairs. In this latter sense Revolutions were often seen as frequent occurrences in the histories of states. For some eighteenth century writers, the installation of a new monarch in England in 1688 was a great singular Revolution in the older sense of a return to an initial state of order after several tumultuous decades; for others it was but one of many Revolutions that marked all of English history.

A century after this ‘Glorious Revolution’ in England, the geographic range and social diversity of French turbulence in 1789 and beyond (rural and urban insurrections throughout the country; military mutinies; elite challenges to royal authority; priests defying bishops; a tidal wave of legislative enactments) provided many Revolutions (in the plural) for commentators to reflect upon. But as these upheavals continued to multiply and as various contenders sought to channel the dramatic events in one or another direction, participants began to speak of these many separate events as components of something singular, the French Revolution, that had a structure and causes, that was an ongoing process, and that rival contenders sought to understand and control. Some participants who were disappointed by specific events in France could even imagine that this particular process was but an instance of possible Revolutions and look forward, as one radical group declared in 1794, to ‘another, far greater, far more solemn Revolution’ of which ‘the French Revolution is but the forerunner’ (Furet and Ozouf 1988, p. 203). So some sought to make new (and perhaps differently constituted) Revolutions and others to avert them; and theorists of either (or neither) persuasion sought to understand them.

Until 1917 the French instance was the central source of empirical evidence of what a Revolution might be like. Much sociological reflection was profoundly stimulated by spectacular failures of radical causes to seize and hold power despite episodes of impressive popular mobilization such as the widespread European turbulence of 1848 or the Russian upheaval of 1905. But theorists were paying relatively little attention to social conflicts in lesser powers. Even well into the twentieth century, other Revolutions, both imagined and experienced, were apt to be understood with concepts derived from that French experience. Military terminations of popular upheaval were held to be ‘Bonapartist’; Russian Revolutionaries accused each other of being ‘Thermidorians’; it has remained very difficult to think of political conflict without invoking notions of ‘left’ and ‘right’ (initially, spatial locations in Revolutionary France’s legislature).

The Russian Revolution of 1917 added some new possibilities to stimulate imaginations; the post-World War Two era, with its many anticolonial struggles, civil wars in which at least one party has claimed itself to be Revolutionary, and regime transitions of many sorts, has provided even more food for thought about the causes, dynamics, and consequences of Revolution. By the late twentieth century, the French dramas from 1789 on no longer stood as the central model for theoretical contemplation.

2. An Elusive Definition

Despite two centuries of reflection and an extremely vigorous body of comparative scholarship on Revolution in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the very definition remained in dispute. First of all, to the extent that notions of Revolution were abstracted from that singular French experience rather than from some sense of the commonalties of a large number of experiences, observers could readily differ on what they thought were defining features. Some of the elements that, in varying combinations, entered into various definitions might include:

(a) Illegal seizure of national political power.

(b) Extensive property transfers.

(c) Radical alteration in the form of government.

(d) Pervasive change in a wide variety of institutions.

(e) Extensiveness of popular mobilizations.

(f) Substantial violence.

(g) New formulas for the legitimation of authority.

(h) A new elite’s claim to be effecting a radical break in the course of history.

(i) A new elite’s claim to be advancing forward to a new level of human progress.

(j) Widespread sense of profound change.

Although scholars have never achieved consensus, this definitional debate opened up a whole host of fruitful questions about how these phenomena might be connected to one another.

Second, like many other concepts that are used by political actors, the term Revolution has continued to be a term of legitimation and delegitimation rather than simply analysis. All sorts of things have been labeled (or not labeled) as Revolutions in order to honor or dishonor them. This has been terribly confusing. A grammatically simple sentence, ‘Revolutions entail considerable violence’ might be any of at least four very different sorts of statement: part of a definition of Revolution; a proposition about Revolution (when defined without reference to violence); an exhortation to violent tactics (when uttered among committed Revolutionaries); a condemnation of Revolution (when uttered among people who abhor violence).

3. Major Research Traditions

Divergent emphases fueled overlapping but distinguishable traditions of research on popular collective mobilization, regime overthrow, political violence, elite dissidence, governmental legitimation and delegitimation, institutional change, and class conflict, and a good deal of reflection on how such processes affected each other. Beginning in the nineteenth century, a well-developed Marxian tradition examined ways in which long-term economic transformations created new group identities and interests while altering political structures. Revolution was seen as a traumatic readjustment of power relations, at bottom driven by the shifting economic interests of rational actors. A theoretically more diffuse body of work looked for strains of various sorts produced by industrialization, urbanization, and secularization and tried to explain collective outbursts as responses to such strains. In such interpretations, Revolutions were apt to be seen as ‘moments of madness,’ as frenzied and doomed responses to the forces of modernity, for example, in Durkheimian notions of ‘breakdown’ or in the ‘collective behavior’ research tradition. Tocqueville’s thesis linked the growing might of a rationalizing state with a broad array of cultural transformations that undermined the legitimation of aristocratic privilege by transferring to the state activities previously carried out by the lords; indeed the lords might themselves become oriented to serving the new state bureaucracy. This attack on the problem lay relatively undeveloped in twentieth century social science until revived by a renewed sociological emphasis on the state from about the 1970s.

Although abstract definitions of Revolution continued to vary widely, the field of comparative studies of Revolution developed despite varying notions of what relevant instances might be. Some scholars attempted to find processual uniformities and constructed models of the ‘natural history’ of Revolutions. Others looked for some robust causal mechanism that could serve as necessary or sufficient conditions (or both). This latter research tradition was dominated by the search for sources of increased grievance, as in a variety of theories that stressed economic downturns. A very different research tradition, impressed by the role of Revolutionary parties in the twentieth century, sought to examine the capacities of relatively small but organized groups, to take action, to catalyze changes in ideas, or to mobilize broad support.

4. The Post-World War Two Era

The social upheavals of the post-World War Two era brought many new instances of collective action, political violence, and regime overthrow into play. Anticolonial movements, some defeating great powers (as in Vietnam); long-term rural warfare with divergent outcomes (as in Guatemala and Nicaragua); and Third World state breakdowns (some leading to radically new regimes, as in Iran) all added new cases.

The vastness of human suffering so evident in the twentieth century increasingly suggested attention to opportunity as well as grievance in the genesis of revolt and the success of Revolution. Since revolt was so much more scarce than misery, it was evident that something other than (or at least in addition to) misery was needed to explain dramatic struggle for change, and social scientists became adept at identifying structures and moments that furnished opportunities. If one peasant community rather than another supported a Revolutionary movement, social scientists now sought an understanding of what resources in the daily lives of these (but not other) peasants might account for why these (but not other) peasants revolted. If one Revolutionary party in a small, poor country (for example, Nicaragua) succeeded in coming to power, while another Revolutionary party in another small, poor country (for example, El Salvador) succeeded only in sustaining a bitter, stalemated war with the government, social scientists began to explore the differential vulnerabilities of different kinds of regimes. Distinguishing long-standing differences in resources available to rebels from temporary opportunities, and distinguishing stable structures of elite domination from specific policies, became very important for this research tradition. A ‘structural’ school of explaining Revolution was emerging.

But accounts of favorable structures soon seemed incomplete as well. The Iranian Revolution of 1979, in which many leading participants spoke a religious language at radical variance with the language of those who had come to power in previous, paradigmatic cases, brought many scholars to reconsider the role of cultural elements in Revolutionary processes. The sudden breakdown of communist regimes in Europe were accompanied by extensive property transfers, but the victors claimed to be undoing Revolution, even to be terminating the dream of Revolution, which again raised important questions of culture as well as structure.

Many of the instances in the second half of the twentieth century were occurring in lesser powers on the world stage, in places obviously subject to military, economic, or ideological domination by more powerful states, and whose upheavals often involved attempts (some partially successful) to throw off some of these forms of domination. One would hardly try to understand anticolonial Revolutions without paying attention to the policies and institutions of colonial rule, social upheavals in countries exporting tropical crops without paying attention to the world economy, and the resources available to governments and rebels in small, poor, and weak countries without paying attention to the capacities of both sides to elicit support from great powers.

Insights garnered in examination of the newer instances began to suggest different emphases in new examination of older cases. The French or Russian Revolutions were looked at as cultural processes; the embeddedness of the ‘great’ Revolutions of the past in transnational connections was noted; and conflicts beyond the few previously paradigmatic instances entered the comparativists’ field of vision. The very variety of participants in the newer cases expanded the intellectual horizons of researchers. As varying combinations of participants in the newer cases became evident, comparative scholars were recognizing how multisided the conflicts were in past Revolutions as well. Revolutions, both past and recent, were increasingly likely to be seen as complex affairs, in which governing authority failed in many different ways, elites divided in many different ways, and rebels mobilized in many different ways. Methodologically this meant that social scientists were likely to be looking at configurations: at complex intersections and interactions of processes that mobilized collective actions of varying kinds, produced elite conflict, and weakened governing institutions. Theoretically it means that the search for generalizable statements about neccessary or sufficient conditions for Revolution needed to be rethought.

5. Emerging Directions In The Sociology Of Revolution

The issues engaging comparative scholars in the late twentieth century meshed with some of the large issues engaging macrosociology generally, indeed, were suggesting Revolutions as a fertile terrain for engaging those issues. Among the issues generating much discussion:

(a) How to integrate cultural accounts with structural ones. Cultural issues were an emerging agenda in various ways. Social historians were making enormous advances in understanding popular culture in varied times and places. A new generation of scholars was examining the overt cultural politics of Revolutionary elites. The direction of regime change in such places as post-Shah Iran and post-communist Eastern Europe seemed altogether impossible to discuss without considering legitimating ideas.

(b) How to integrate accounts of individual action with macrostructural processes. As elsewhere in sociological theory this constituted a major challenge. Proceeding from assumptions of individual rational actors, how could one account for the forms assumed by collective action, especially in light of the often evident individual risk assumed in participation in Revolutions in combination with their uncertain and often undesired outcomes?

(c) Adequate attention to the visions of Revolutionary elites, the wellsprings of popular mobilizations, and the interaction of the two. Some structural accounts seemed to make the visions and intentions of Revolutionary leadership inconsequential; some other accounts seemed to make them everything and by implication ignored the motivations, intentions, and wishes of ordinary participants. Some urged us to consider how it was that some Revolutionary parties managed to win the adherence of large numbers of followers; others urged us to see popular participation in Revolution as rooted in the structures and culture of the popular classes and therefore quite separate from the concerns expressed by Revolutionary elites. The empirical difficulty in getting these connections right remained a challenge in studies of particular Revolutions, let alone efforts at comparative statement. Poorer, anonymous participants not only often lack the means to make their own wishes widely known (peasants seizing land are less likely to hold press conferences or write memoirs than Revolutionary agriculture ministers), but are, also as usual, often highly motivated to conceal their intentions (especially in highly charged situations like Revolutions). It is a major methodological problem that Revolutionaries who claim to speak on behalf of, say, Central American peasants, are rarely peasants themselves.

(d) Attention to the outcomes of Revolutions. The consequences of Revolution for economic well-being, state power in the international arena, the rationalization of administration, national identities, citizenship rights, and democratization remain intensely controversial matters about which relatively little systematic investigation has been done by comparativists.

(e) How to integrate accounts of Revolution with other kinds of political conflict. Scholars of Revolution were increasingly making use of tools that resembled those used by other students of politics: attending to the play of threat and opportunity, the variety of resources, the forging of identities in struggle, the irony of unintended consequence, the gaps between elites and ordinary participants (and the interaction between the two). Increasing interchange with scholars of other modes of conflictual action (urged by Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly) seemed a probable future direction (McAdam et al. 1997).

(f) How to make superior use of Comparative methodologies. With increasing recognition of the complexity and diversity of Revolutionary processes, the very logic of comparison was coming under heightened scrutiny. If Revolutions are complex amalgams of multiple conflicts, some comparativists suggest that rather than searching for some single general cause, or some single general process, or some set of causes whose separate contributions to Revolution may be simply added together, there may be multiple configurations of causal processes which produce Revolutions, which themselves unfold in a variety of ways. Some scholars sought to distinguish varieties of Revolution about which valid generalization might be made. Others suggested that the way forward, theoretically, was to seek generalizations about much smaller processes, which were components of Revolutions, but which combined together in so many distinct ways as to defy generalization on that concatenated level. That is to say, in this view ‘Revolution’ is a complex made up of many components, and one Revolution is made up differently from another; looking for uniformities in the class ‘Revolution’ is hopeless, but there may be regularities in the causation or action of some of the components.

6. Conclusion

More than two centuries of reflection since 1789 have hardly exhausted the stimulation provided by Revolution to the thinking of social scientists; if anything, the last quarter of the twentieth century saw a tremendous intellectual reinvigoration. This is likely to continue, for Revolutions seem a particularly privileged terrain for many significant issues in macrosociology, among which I indicate four:

(a) the intermingling of change and persistence

(b) the interplay of long-and short-run processes

(c) the relationship of local, national, and trans- national processes

(d) finally, the collision of hopes for change and recalcitrant realities.

Revolution brings to the fore all the many issues that have swirled around the interplay of ‘structure’ and ‘agency.’ There are no other social processes which so strikingly juxtapose the capacity of human beings to construct for themselves previously unrealized and unexpected patterns alongside the incapacity of human beings to construct their world as they please.


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