Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997

The Search for Political Community: American Activists Reinventing Commitment

Paul Lichterman
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
0 521 48343 3 (pb); 0 521 48286 0 (hb)
£15.95/$19.95 (pb); £45.00/$54.95 (hb)
x + 280 pp.

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In this engaging study of a diverse range of grassroots environmental activists, Paul Lichterman forcefully challenges what he terms the 'seesaw model' implicit in communitarian (and popular) views of political engagement. The seesaw model assumes that the 'personalized' style of political activism which many commentators find so widespread in contemporary grassroots movements necessarily detracts from a commitment to the common good: as this 'personalism' increases, commitment to long- term, shared, public goals and social change decreases. Focusing his empirical lens on the neglected topic of 'commitment' as enacted by movement activists, Lichterman demonstrates how public commitment can at times be enabled and sustained by a personalist political culture, particularly when the traditional (and supposedly preferred) communal basis for commitment is unavailable.

Adopting a view of culture as the 'practices' enacted in 'everyday' routine settings, Lichterman sets out to compare the various 'cultures of commitment' operative (but mostly taken for granted) in four grassroots groups active in different types of communities. To identify these cultural practices, he spent more than two years as a participant observer in the groups, analyzing how activists 'practiced their commitments' in diverse settings and interactions, and supplemented this data with interviews and surveys.

While the groups were all dedicated to achieving legitimately public goods 'over the long haul', they practiced very different political styles and had varying degrees and types of community ties. Two chapters of the USA Greens movement enacted a 'pure' personalist politics concerned with fostering participatory self-expression by, and a sense of personal efficacy among, individuals committed more to ideological debate than organizational solidarity or local engagement. Another group, a predominately white, middle-class, suburban environmental organization, practiced a hybrid political style that combined a personalism similar to that of the Greens with a specifically local concern, and focused on the 'empowerment' of community members to 'speak out.' Completing the array of commitment types, a mostly African-American, lower-income group fighting toxic pollution as local 'environmental racism' revealed a traditional 'communitarian style' commitment that built on shared communal bonds, tradition, and institutional authorities, and that emphasized collective outcomes and organizational development rather than individual participation.

In the midst of this comparative detail, Lichterman depicts personalist politics as a shared cultural style which, far from embracing privatism or rejecting any shared group norms, actually makes a sustained public commitment possible for activists (in the Greens and the suburban groups) who share few other affiliations or traditions. He shows how, in more 'anomic' contemporary communities, personalist politics provides activists with the tools to practice a more 'portable' type of public commitment (eg. a dedication to inclusive participation as a necessary means to public goods); personalism simply makes more 'cultural sense' to these activists than the communitarian alternative does. But he is careful to point out that not all activists or groups embrace personalist politics and that it seems to be stratified by class (and perhaps by race). To help explain this finding, Lichterman analyzes survey data he collected which reveals that personalized activism is tied to and made possible by the cultural skills (or 'capital') available primarily to the educated, professional middle-classes.

For further explanation, Lichterman also traces the development of personalist politics through the history of grassroots movements since the 1960s, which sought to legitimize the 'politicized self' as the basis for public action. Rather than disparage this style as degrading commitment, this study suggests we need to recognize the advantages (and limits) of the personalist type of public commitment and to provide activists with the cultural tools to practice a diversity of 'commitment styles.' Lichterman believes this is best done through an improved normative theory of 'radical democracy' of the sort advocated by Chantal Mouffe and others.

This study is to be commended for its subtle weaving of empirical data with nuanced analysis and explanation, and for providing advocates of 'qualitative' or 'cultural' research with an ideal example of how such research can move beyond 'mere' description without compromising its sensitivity to the ambiguities inevitably encountered in a close study of the 'everyday' life of people (even, maybe especially, political people). Also, by focusing on commitment, biography, and everyday practice, Lichterman addresses in an empirically rigorous manner dynamics which social movement and political culture scholars repeatedly claim warrant more attention.

However, the study fails to address the applicability of the findings about personalist commitments beyond the 'grassroots' level, and one wonders if a personalist style would work to sustain commitment among more institutionalized or national political actors. Also, while succeeding in his project of undermining the communitarian perspective, Lichterman fails to engage what to political theorists is its antithesis: the 'liberal' perspective. Might (moderate) liberals find in Lichterman's conclusion support for their argument that individualism and tolerance (or even personal 'rights' to expression) can provide the basis for achieving collective goods through participatory democracy?

In the end, Lichterman's well-supported argument that there is more than one way to build community and sustain commitment to the public good should give supporters of democracy, communitarian or otherwise, a greater measure of hope for the future.

Michael Moody
Department of Sociology
Princeton University

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997