movements and counter-culture, part deux – an argument with my guy david s meyer

Last week, I asked if it was true that left social movements were counter-cultural. A lot of the debate seems to revolve over whether there is a mainstream culture or average voter. For example, David S. Meyer wrote in a comment:

The average opinion isn’t the average person’s opinion, and I’m always wary when reading about the American public as a singular noun. On abortion, for example, I’m sure you can choreograph a majority around the safe, legal, rare principle you articulate, but not a huge majority.

A few responses to David and the other folks who wrote other comments. The issue isn’t whether there is or is not a single mainstream culture. Rather, it’s whether movements accept or reject what most people believe is mainstream culture.

For example, if most people believe that “serious people” wear a coat and tie to work, then a movement that shows up to lobby Congress in Birkenstocks and tied-dye shirts will be at a disadvantage, even if the modal person may in fact wear these items. Returning to David’s example, maybe it is the case that there is a more widespread distrust of abortion than one may suspect. But since the average voter (and yes, the modal voter) believes in some form of legal abortion, a movement that thumbs its nose at the majority is at risk. Just ask Richard Mourdock.

I’m agnostic on whether left movements are intrinsically counter cultural, but movements definitely can be counter-cultural (or not) and they suffer, or benefit, from that position.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 21, 2013 at 12:01 am

8 Responses

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  1. Alas, it’s a sloppy definition of what comprises the mainstream. Richard Mourdock’s comments surely offended some voters, but he still got >44% of the vote (1.1 million votes) in Indiana. That’s better than the very fine and disciplined Democratic candidate for Congress did in my district. I’ll reiterate: to assess the claim that movements are counter-cultural, you need some workable definition of mainstream culture.


    David S. Meyer

    January 21, 2013 at 12:15 am

  2. Can an individual act in a counter-cultural way if there is no monolithic culture?


    Larry Irons

    January 21, 2013 at 3:15 am

  3. We can have multiple measures of mainstreamness:

    – average voter
    – things that are institutionalized in some way
    – things that the average voter may consider an “appropriate opinion” or behavior

    It’s not an issue of having one definition, which is impossible with something as broad as “culture.” Rather, the standard thing we do in social science is come up with multiple measurements. What matters is that each measurement have some logic to it and that you can use it in research.

    I am glad you brought up Mourdock. He’s a good example of how we can think of mainstream culture along many dimensions. It also helps us how movements are positioned in relation to this mainstream. As you well know, Indiana is a conservative state – how do we know that? Well, we have voting patterns, consumption patters, behavioral patterns and public opinion. All point to a conservative Republican average voter.

    Until Mourdock’s comment about rape and abortion, he was polling above 50% consistently. The reason is simple – as long as he didn’t break the mold of the typical Midwest republican (abortion is illegal except in certain cases like rape). I think this is the modal view among Republicans.

    GIven that he abruptly lost about 10-15% of the votes over a single comment, I think we can see the boundaries of “mainstream Indiana” culture and it’s not the views of the pro-life movement, which, as Ziad Munson claims, sees all abortion – even in rape cases – as wrong. Anti-abortion? Sure. As strongly anti-abortion as the folks who picket clinics? Probably not.

    Bottom line – the whole “monolithic” culture idea is a red herring. Culture has loose boundaries, but there are boundaries and movements can cross these boundaries or not.



    January 21, 2013 at 3:18 am

  4. fabiorojas Based on your point I assume you don’t think a counter-cultural stance is possible since culture depends on the concepts we use to quantify it. Is that too simplistic a view of your position?


    Larry Irons

    January 21, 2013 at 3:51 am

  5. I think defining counter-culture as having more to do with a style of self-presentation and with a lack of willingness to engage with the conventional political process rather than an adherence to some objective definition of mainstream culture might be more useful. I think Fabio’s example of wearing a coat and tie to lobby congress is a good one. Showing up to lobby in that attire sends a message that you want to be seen as a conventional political actor and to fit in. Showing up in Birkenstocks and tied-dye shirts sends a message that you don’t want to be seen as a conventional political actor. You can adopt either style regardless of how far your views are from those of the median voter.



    January 21, 2013 at 4:40 am

  6. Stupid question time … I’m having difficulty with some aspect of these descriptions of “mainstream.” Aren’t the descriptions here pointing to mainstream as akin to notions of collective neoinstitutional legitimacy? So then, are movements facing competing legitimacy issues: 1) maintain some sense of a legitimate political entity (not an incoherent rabble); 2) maintain aspects of a legitimate “social movement” seeking societal cultural or institutional change. The two are not mutually exclusive, but present competing demands that must be managed by members of the movement in order to persist.



    January 22, 2013 at 11:26 pm

  7. I don’t think style and culture are the same things, not even close. I go into meetings all the time with people whose inclination is to dress in jeans and tee shirts to do business, with maybe a sport coat. It wasn’t how I learned to dress in the business world in the 1980s, but it is certainly not unusual today. The question regarding a “counter-culture” is whether a culture with core values exists that another cultural movement could be “counter” to. To the extent core values exist they are really hard to pin down.


    Larry Irons

    January 23, 2013 at 1:42 am

  8. […] Are you a cultural sociologist who needs a dissertation idea? Here’s one emerging from our discussion of movements and “mainstream culture”: […]


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