party in the street: data and theory together
People often think of me as a data driven social scientist. That’s true but it omits an important fact. I don’t collect data in a vacuum. I usually collect data to develop, test, and promote theory.
Example: Michael Heaney and I spent an enormous amount of time and effort collecting data for the book called Party in the Street. Over ten years, we visited dozens of protests, surveyed about 10,000 protesters (!) and interviewed dozens of activists in depth. And what was the point?
In Party in the Street, we try reconceptualize the link between political parties and social movements. Rather than see political parties and movements as separate, as many do in both sociology and political science, we see parties and movements as distinct organizational fields that converge or drift apart. Social scientists should see movements and parties as part of a larger political institution. Thus, we use our data to try knock down a theoretical wall.
On one level, a lot of my work, including Party in the Street, is an implicit criticism of “wordy theory.” We do rely on classics in various fields (Bourdieusian field theory and Key’s tripartite theory of paries) but only as a framing and justification for data analysis, which is then used to develop a new theoretical idea (“party in the street,” the overlap of the party and movement fields). We never revel in an endless parade of citations to the ancient Greeks, Foucault or what have you.
And we’re seeing the fruit of that theoretical labor. This weekend, we saw a sudden and abrupt wave of left-activism, which had been on the wane, and a lot of it was pitched in partisan ways. This is consistent with our partisan mobilization/party in the street hypothesis. And we only know that because someone (Michael and I in this case) took the time and effort to collect the data and reflect on the theoretical implications. And for me, at least, that’s a win.