Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998

Challenging Codes: Collective Action in the Information Age

Alberto Melucci
Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
0 521 57843 4 (pb); 0 521 57051 4 (hb)
£18.95/US$24.95 (pb); £55.00/US$64.95 (hb)
pages pp.

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Alberto Melucci's objective in Challenging Codes is nothing less than a comprehensive analytical framework for the study of social movements and collective action. This ambitious aim is complicated both by the heterogeneous character of late-twentieth century social movements, and by what he describes as the synchronic social reality of a 'planetary system' created by changes in the geography of information. Melucci introduced the term 'new social movement' into the sociological lexicon in 1980. The intervening period has seen the further development of forms of collective action associated with feminism, ecological radicalism, ethnic separatism and other forms of identity politics. For Melucci these cannot be reduced to simple expressions of structural division; rather collective action itself 'produces orientations and meanings which actors are able to recognise'. His distinctive approach gives analytical priority to the active construction of collective identity, emphasising the importance of the psychology of collective emotional experiences. By giving precedence to culture, meaning and identity, Melucci highlights the significance of communication and information, and argues that their globalization has created new spaces for collective action.

Challenging Codes is divided into four parts. In the first, Melucci provides a detailed analytical theorisation of collective action. This considers in turn the construction of collective action, the nature of conflict, and the relations between social action and meaning. The second part applies this analytical framework to distinctive forms of contemporary collective action. Melucci argues that the increased significance of the cultural in contemporary collective action makes the empirical distinction between protest and marginality much more difficult to draw than in the past. Thus recent forms of collective action, notably those linked to youth culture, to the women's movement and to ecological protest have often ignored the formal political system and generally show disinterest towards any idea of seizing power. Linked to this is a preference for participation and direct action, and a rejection of representation and mediation. Melucci places great stress on the idea that an analytical study of collective action must understand the nature of the social and political systems which are challenged. Thus the third section of the book examines the changing context of collective action. Here Melucci argues that we are living in an age of societies 'without centres', where old 'modernist' ideas of revolutionary seizure of the central instruments of power are simply anachronistic. Contemporary movements must operate in systems which are networks of relations among differentiated and relatively autonomous structures. In such societies where information has become a crucial resource, collective action designed to change the ways in which public discourse is structured has become more powerful than those depending on material force. In contemporary struggles 'the lesser has at its disposal the power to reveal through language, the distortion and the abuse to which that language is constantly subjected.' The final part of the book considers the processes of construction of collective action. Here Melucci moves past the traditional concerns of mobilization, organization and leadership to examine the role of language, discourse and meaning in the making of collective action.

Challenging Codes is an impressively systematic work of analytical sociology. Its style, scope and ambition (if not its insistence on the relative autonomy of the cultural sphere) is reminiscent of the grand theoretical traditions of sociology. While Melucci is critical of Max Weber's specific ideas of charismatic leadership and the bureaucratisation of movements, the work as a whole has something of the feel of a contemporary Weber, ever constructing tight analytical schemata and elaborate typologies. Yet, as Melucci stresses, the movements which are his subject are plural, ambivalent and often contradictory. One wonders about the limits of a rigorously analytical approach to such phenomena; the book seems to be torn between a desire to systematise and generalise, and a strong sense of the slippery diversity between and within social movements. Challenging Codes is an intellectual tour-de-force, but I was left with concerns about the book and its wider project. The first, perhaps reflecting my own disciplinary background in historical geography, was the lack of detailed comparative contextualisation. The single case study examines the context of collective action in contemporary Italy; in the rest of the volume there are tempting references to the nature of collective action in a variety of situations, but no real attempt to explore the differences between these. This is related to a second concern. As the subtitle of the book indicates, Melucci places great emphasis on the role of information in changing the nature of collective action in the late-twentieth century. But his insistence on the emergence of a 'planetary system' seems close to naive accounts of globalization, ignoring the unevenness of time-space compression. Thus in chapter ten on 'information, power and domination', a pivotal part of the overall argument, we find a discussion of the cultural imperialism of American soap opera, which seems to ignore a wealth of work in cultural studies emphasising the complex influence of cultural products in different contexts. I am however sympathetic to the cautious research agenda set by Melucci in his final chapter. Here we find a call for engaged narratives and carefully self-reflexive action research, and a recognition that by providing an account of the plurality and tensions of collective life, the practice of research can make a limited contribution to a 'practice of freedom'. By the end of a long and sometimes densely theoretical work, I was more than ready to move on to more engaged and grounded work on particular movements.

David Gilbert
Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998