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The social psychology of anti-road protests

Jan

14

Anti-roads protests have been in the news this month. In this blog post, Dr John Drury, an expert in crowd behaviour, describes his own research findings on these identity-changing events.

Anti-roads direct action – camps, tunnels, tree occupations – has recently been in the newsThe development of anti-roads camp near Hastings has led to speculation that there might emerge an anti-roads movement like that of the 1990s, in response to the government’s revival of the national roads programme.

In the 1990s, my PhD research was focused on the No M11 Link Road Campaign, in Wanstead and Leytonstone (east London), and identified a number of connections between the social issue of road protests and psychological issues.

The starting point of the research was an analysis of the participants’ own understandings – of themselves, their actions and their social worlds. This analysis revealed a number of contrasts with the understandings of those outside the anti-roads movement. First, there was the question of ‘politics’. At that time, many commentators were bemoaning the apparent indifference of young people to politics. Yet this pessimistic view was based on a narrow conception of what counts as ‘politics’; while many of the No M11 participants did not vote for the political parties, they certainly saw their activity as a form of politics; and they were deeply engaged, informed and passionate about it.

What was that ‘political’ activity? Whereas for most extra-parliamentary groups politicalaction consisted of ‘protest’ and demonstration marches, the No M11 participants rejected this model in favour of ‘direct action’. Unlike ‘protest’, ‘direct action’ did not mean simply asking the government to stop road-building, but actively preventing this road-building through their own activities, such as occupying construction sites.

protestThe third contrast was in terms of how this direct action was understood by those inside and outside the campaign. The campaign maintained an ethos of ‘non-violence’, and regarded any of those within the group who transgressed against this principle as the exception. But those policing the campaign understood the campaign as ‘violent’ because of damage caused to property (such as site fences), and they saw those in the campaign who they accused of physically assaulting police officers as representative of the whole group. 

This last contrast had a number of psychological consequences for campaign participants. Instead of being treated by the police as the respectable middle class residents they felt themselves to be, they found themselves being treated as an oppositional group. This led them to see themselves as oppositional. For them, the local anti-roads campaign had initially been essentially about ‘saving Wanstead’; but now it was about opposing the national roads programme, which they saw as being forced through by government, using the police as a ‘political’ battering ram.

The M11 link road was completed, but the government’s subsequent abandonment of the national roads programme was widely attributed to the disruption caused by the campaigns in Wanstead, Newbury, Fairmile and other places. In effect, campaign participants from the No M11 and other groups succeeded in translating their own understanding of road-building into ‘public opinion’. Road-building was now seen not just as a ‘technical’ matter, to be decided by highly controlled public enquiries, but as a deeply political and controversial issue that groups could affect outside the usual ‘political’ channels. Many participants’ newly political understanding of the government’s roads programme became extended to an opposition to ‘car culture’ and indeed to global environmental ‘injustice’. Hence the extension of their participation from the local campaign to the anti-car Reclaim the Streets, and from there to the worldwide anti-capitalist movement, made perfect sense.

As well as these changes in their participation in collective action, for many people there were changes in their personal lives. They made new friends, but fell out with other people that they used to regard as friends. They changed their consumer habits to become more ‘ethical’. They changed their views about the importance of a respectable appearance and lifestyle. And many no longer wanted anything to do with the police, even if their home was burgled.

The aim of my research was to understand these processes of change. The work led to the development of a new model of identity change in collective action. We argued that identity was the hinge between the psychological and the social, and helped explain the links between experiences in the campaign and various profound psychological changes. Specifically, we suggested that, through their identity-based action in the campaign ('defending Wanstead’, for example), many participants inadvertently changed the very context (their relationship with others, such as the police and government) that defined their identity. It was through construing the action by others (i.e. police) as representative of a wider category of ‘injustice’, and also in-group boundaries as much broader (‘all those affected by injustice’), that experiences in the No M11 anti-roads campaign led to wider social movement participation and indeed created the sense many had of being ‘a different (radicalized, empowered) person’.

One of the research projects I am currently supervising is looking more closely at similar psychological changes to those I observed at the No M11 campaign. The campaign we are studying is one in Scandinavia where ‘locals’ are coming to identify as ‘activists’. They are also reporting changes in their personal lives that, on the surface, are not obviously connected to the ‘environmental’ campaign they first got involved in. The research will examine their construals of the actions they are involved in. We will examine the extent to which the categories that participants use to conceptualize and talk about social relations in the campaign are changing and are being applied to other areas of their lives, leading to the observed changes in behaviour. What makes them define a phenomenon in the campaign as ‘the same’ as one in the home, for example? Judging by what we have seen in the anti-roads protests of the 1990s, this research is important not only for what it tells us about the profound phenomenological impact of participation in collective action, but also for the social and political significance of some of these psychological changes.

Reference

Drury, J., Reicher, S., & Stott, C. (2003). Transforming the boundaries of collective identity: From the ‘local’ anti-road campaign to ‘global’ resistance? Social Movement Studies, 2, 191-212.

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