anarchism week at orgtheory

What the heck, let’s do anarchism week. Let’s start with the following conversation I had at the end of my social theory class a few semesters ago. A student approached me and asked why I didn’t teach anarchism in the course. There’s a few good reasons, but not so strong that you couldn’t include it if you really wanted to.

First, the goal of my social theory class is to have people read original texts written by seminal social thinkers. This doubles as a sort of Western civ (since IU doesn’t require it) and people need to understand the core arguments of sociology. So we hit the “classics,” the interactionists, feminists, French theory,* and a little evolutionary psych. The course also needs to prepare a handful of students who will continue in soc, poli sci, or other fields at the graduate level.

Second, I teach things that really drive discussion in contemporary sociology, which means that that many topics, including those dear to my heart, must get cut. Since there are very few anarchist sociologists, or research that uses an anarchist perspective, it means that it simply isn’t a priority.

But that doesn’t mean that anarchism isn’t a real social theory or that it should be actively excluded. In contrast, there’s now a body of anarchist themed social writings, mainly in fields other than sociology. For example, anthropologist David Graeber’s writings should count. James Scott, the political scientist, has written about statelessness at length. There are the classic anarchists, like Prodhoun, and feminist anarchists like Emma Goldman. You have right wing anarchists like economist Murray Rothbard or philosopher Michael Huemer. Then you have empirical studies of statelessness like Pete Leeson’s pirate book.

In other words, you have more than enough material and it’s high quality material. But it’s definitely not central to sociology (yet?), so you don’t feel guilty cutting it. But the social theory course isn’t set in stone. I am already tiring of French theory and other topics, so it may be time to rotate some new material in.

Fight the Power … with these books!: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

* Remember, I don’t teach postmodernism anymore.

Written by fabiorojas

December 2, 2013 at 12:05 am

Posted in fabio, just theory

11 Responses

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  1. “If you can’t dance or spell my surname right, then I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” — E.G.



    December 2, 2013 at 3:23 am

  2. My working definition of “sociology” is “anything that appeared at an ASA meeting in living memory.” By that criterion, Yochai Benkler of Harvard Law counts, and his contribution to Erik’s “real utopias” theme on practical anarchism was outstanding, and far more relevant to the world your students will live in than, say, Durkheim. Check it out:



    December 2, 2013 at 12:15 pm

  3. This strikes me as a bizarre question. Why should a political ideology be a school within an academic discipline? Especially when it is a fairly marginal political ideology. It wouldn’t occur to anyone to gripe that fusionism or (God help us) objectivism isn’t a school within sociology even though these are probably more popular ideologies than anarchism. It seems like this is premised on a sort of intra-left rivalry where anarchists consider Marxists to be their relevant alters. If anarchists were Jan Brady they’d start all their griping with “Marxists, Marxists, Marxists!” In a sense it’s not fair that Marxists are institutionalized in sociology, but my best guess is that it reflects a sort of German Ideology like “ruling ideas” way through which Marxism as a political force in the form of the CP and the USSR backed the development of Marxist thought, most concretely through infrastructure like International Publishers and the Marx-Lenin Institute in much the same way that in the Middle Ages the power of the Church was pretty important to the intellectual hegemony of scholasticism. (Hmmm, looks like states and verticalist institutions are pretty good at getting shit done).

    The one-sided rivalry parallels how sociologists compare ourselves to economists. We sociologists gripe in the interrogative case like “why is there no Council of Sociological Advisors or Nobel in Sociology” because we envy the CEA & Econ Bank of Sweden prize rather than realizing that there is no CSA or Soc Nobel for the same reasons there is no CAA or Anthro Bank of Sweden Prize.

    Of course you can change the question around and ask does sociology study things of particular interest to anarchists and the answer is yes. I myself have two grad students who are working on informal institutions that parallel functions of the state like adjudication of property rights. Likewise the question of state formation is a classic problem in sociology. If anarchists are motivated by their ideology to bring insights to these kinds of social scientific research questions then that benefits everyone. (Despite some reservations I am a fan of Debt and of course Seeing Like a State is universally respected).



    December 2, 2013 at 4:59 pm

  4. This post interests me. A few responses:

    1. It seems to be a consensus that anarchism is the only shared feature of the two emergent movements, Tea Party and Occupy. Maybe this consensus is wrong? Or maybe I misrepresent it? But if true, does this alone speak to anarchism’s relevance to empirical matters?

    2. It is another consensus that low respect for traditional institutional authority (e.g. government & media) is a historical feature of the present. People spend time, as a result, constructing new pillars of authority. If this new knowledge is arising mostly in network form — another emerging consensus — this process would seem ripe for developing a theory of anarchy, a la the Yochai Benkler article cited by jerrydavisumich.

    3. On the other hand, if we emphasize ‘statelessness,’ then I can see the point that anarchism offers no empirical guide: NSA data-mining shows the state is literally everywhere.



    December 2, 2013 at 5:17 pm

  5. Gabriel, this question arises all the time. Why isn’t MY favorite theory covered in this course? The two examples you raised could certainly be schools of thought. In philosophy there actually PhD holding faculty who are objectivists. And itbis not hard tom imagine a fusionist school. Older folks will have a better understanding of why schools succeed and fail in their discipline.

    Austin, I agree that. Anti authoritarianism is real in our culture.



    December 2, 2013 at 5:38 pm

  6. Colin Ward might be an alternative to all those economists, political scientists & anthropologists. He’s known for both “Anarchy in Action” (which I’ve heard compared to David Friedman’s “Machinery of Freedom”, though from a very different perspective) and “The Child in the City”, which I’d have to think qualifies as sociology.


    Wonks Anonymous

    December 2, 2013 at 5:44 pm

  7. While I agree with GR’s take on this, it is worth pointing out that there is a distinctive anarchist take on classic sociological questions about society, the state, social order, social movements/revolution/reaction, etc. in the canonical texts (e.g., Proudhoun, Bakhunin). This has proven difficult to domesticate for academic audiences, and downright impossible to shoe-horn into the safe left-liberalism of the professoriate. As such, anarchism in the academy is left to the crackpots, cementing its marginal status.



    December 2, 2013 at 5:54 pm

  8. Sociologist Dana Williams (whom I do not know personally) has written about the relationship between sociology and anarchism. Here is an interview: Here is his dissertation called “Sociology of the Anarchists”: and a nice paper here: and this paper:

    Of the classical anarchist authors I think that Kropotkin is the most theoretically engaging and might have the most to offer sociologists. He tends to be best known for “Mutual Aid” and some of his legal theory (which is cited by crim theorists on rare occasions) but, for me, works like “The Conquest of Bread” and “Fields, factories and workshops” are more sociologically interesting. Still, I can’t imagine this stuff ever becoming mainstream. Its difficult to imagine a situation in which a new figure will emerge from the dusty bin of 19th and early 20th century social thought and be canonized.

    I don’t claim to be an expert on anarchism but I don’t really see the Tea Party following in that tradition. Most research that I’ve seen about the views of self-identified Tea Partiers suggests they don’t deviate greatly from the Republican mainstream or perhaps simply have more hardline variants of mainstream Republican opinion (e.g. “Global warming might be happening but its no big deal” versus “global warming is a liberal hoax”) and I imagine most Tea Partiers were supportive of the wars of the Bush era, which is very difficult to reconcile with an Anarchist orientation. There are undoubtedly some exceptions but I think its a miss-appropriation of the term “anarchism”- momentary intense frustration with portions of the federal government because your favored candidate did not win != anarchism. But that’s just my view and I’m not one to argue conceptual definitions too much.


    Silly Wabbit

    December 2, 2013 at 10:11 pm

  9. Building on Jerry’s suggestion of analogues – my undergrad students, particularly engineering majors, in my NYC course (using an organizational perspective, of course) have enjoyed reading about conditions for common pool resources in Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons. Ostrom’s book examines how collectives operate without resorting to the state or formal organizations. I’ve also used snippets from David Graeber’s Direct Action: An Ethnography to help students understand alternative forms of organizing. In addition, I always devote part of a lecture to Mary Parker Follett’s work on the “law of the situation.”



    December 3, 2013 at 5:03 am

  10. […] week: #1 Social theory; #2 OWS and public […]


  11. […] anarchism week at orgtheory ( […]


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