HomeActivist Tribulations

Activist Tribulations

Le malheur militant

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Published on Friday, March 25, 2016 by João Fernandes


Through integrating a diversity of methods and situations  (parties, associations, unions, NGOs, and religious groups, in democratic or authoritarian contexts), this symposium aims to grasp the logic behind the disappointment or frustration expressed in activist groups—whether or not it leads to defection. Following Bourdieu in La misère du monde, it is a question of proposing an alternative to psychologizing descriptions of these forms of malaise, to understand  and objectify the mechanisms.



An electoral setback after an intensive campaign; a series of issues, of defeats or divisions which alter the public image of a collective, and the pride associated with being involved in it; hopes for an ascension to power blocked by a context of shrinking political opportunities and a reconfiguration of multi-organizational fields; a profound ideological disagreement after the reworking of a partisan strategy; the obsessive fear of losing a fixed salaried position or some material advantage when an organization's finances and institutional positions are reduced; the repression or death of comrades in arms; the dilemmas of union delegates anxious to speak in the name of the workers they represent without betraying their word; the failure of a radical commitment after years of complete dedication to and sacrifice for the cause; the dissolution of a group, hence of the roles and social relations associated with it which were structuring one's existence; the ordeal of maladjustment within an association experiencing a process of  professionalization; the erosion of a "feeling of being at home" in an institution which has been transformed... Cases of activist suffering abound, to the extent that participation, whether in a political party, a union, an association, an NGO, a religious institution or any other type of group, including clandestine ones, may be difficult to analyze without taking into account the price to be paid (both financial and physical) by committed individuals.

Now, it must be noted that, while the sociology of participation abounds in works which have become classics on the “triggers” of activism, whether in terms of incentives (Olson, 1965), gratification (Gaxie 1977; and Gaxie, 2005), faith (Berlivet, and Sawicki, 1994) or happiness (Mer, 1977; and Lagroye, and Siméant, 2003), research on activist tribulations remains piecemeal, reduced as it usually is to one aspect amongst others of research on modalities of collective action. Despite academic debates on Albert Hirschman's propositions (Hirschman 1983; and Hirschman 1995) and, in recent years, the profusion of analyses of participation as a process subject to the variation of gratifications (Fillieule, 2001) and of exit phenomena(Fillieule, 2005, Fillieule, 2010, and Fillieule 2015), study of activist tribulations is still very much in development and deserves to be brought to light.

Through integrating a diversity of methods and situations  (parties, associations, unions, NGOs, and religious groups, in democratic or authoritarian contexts), this symposium aims to grasp the logic behind the disappointment or frustration expressed in activist groups—whether or not it leads to defection. Following Bourdieu in La misère du monde, it is a question of proposing an alternative to psychologizing descriptions of these forms of malaise, to understand  and objectify the mechanisms. What does this suffering owe to the properties of the political field in which the activism is taking place (the type of state, of regime, of competition; and the contexts of crisis or of revolution)?  To the exhaustion and discrediting of a historically rooted repertoire of collective action? To the transformations of the institution under consideration? To the both ideological and morphological evolution of the organization? To the socio-local framework of the involvement? To the social trajectories of the individuals studied? How does this distress affect activist careers?  Under what circumstances and conditions will activists adapt to experiences of doubt or despondency? What resources and techniques allow them to move beyond the loss of activist libido? What exit configurations become the sole response to unhappiness? What means do organizations possess to limit the expression of dissatisfaction and the disintegration of the activist body? What academic tools can researchers seize to examine them? So many questions which reopen the "black box"—and the gloomy side—of activism, in proposing to diversify the empirical data and the disciplinary approaches for the purpose of greater clarification.

Main themes

To address those questions, one is invited to explore four lines of inquiry: 

Understanding detachment. The Social Conditions Behind Activist Malaise

The first line of inquiry concentrates on analysis of the reasons for this maladjustment of individuals to an institution: it is a question of understanding how a feeling of foreignness, a loss of an activist illusio (Bourdieu, 1980; and Bourdieu 1997), a malalignment of dominant cognitive frameworks within the organization and the frameworks adopted by individuals, develops within the "practical reason” of the group. How can we explain that a commitment is no longer or is less and less experienced as a vital necessity or a categorical imperative, as a source of meaning and satisfaction, of dignity and hope? This question leads to a consideration of the variation in the forms of gratifications  of activism, or rather of their perception. Under what conditions are the benefits eroded  or vanishing or changing into costs in the eyes of activists? Here, it is important to ask ourselves about how the modification of the cost/benefit balance is related to the three levels at which activism occurs, that is, the socio-political context (national and eventually international), the activist organization (subject to transformations which reconfigure the modalities of membership and loyalty), and individuals' social trajectories (also affected by changes or bifurcations which may affect the relationship to the issue of mobilization and to the group mobilized). The linking of these three levels of analysis appears to be a heuristic manner of grasping the different relationships to the same institution, and the plurality of commitments it engenders. Coexistence within a collective of various cohorts of activists requires the researcher to objectify the social distribution of specific cultural traits and collective identities, as well as its possible multiple and complex effects, within each generational unit. More generally, it is a matter of questioning the ways in which the activist habitus can be more or less maladjusted under the pressure of changing organizational contexts – activist habitus here being understood as the product of secondary socialization within voluntary groups (Fillieule, 2013). 

Remaining Without Pleasure? Resources and Modalities of Adaptation for the Discontented Activist

The second line of inquiry bears on the analysis of cognitive and practical  forms of adaptation to frustration, anger or disenchantment. Existing research tends to show that not all activists are equally prepared and equipped to make themselves heard and bring their disagreements to the forefront, to reposition themselves within the organization, and to reconcile postures consistent with "working with" and "working against" other members of the group (Lefebvre, and Sawicki, 2007; and Lefebvre, 2013). Perhaps through reinvigorating an illusio which is becoming tarnished, rediscovering the reasons for action, and reviving the belief in the collective project or subject? Up to what point, with what types of capital and techniques—of rationalization, of open dissidence, of discrete disagreement, etc.—is it possible to continue to be involved? To what extent can organizational subcultures (for example, within cliques and factions in parties and unions) contribute to preserving activist commitment? Is it possible and, if so, in what configurations, to “adapt to the roles imposed by changing it from within” (Muel-Dreyfus, 1984) to rediscover a feeling of working together with the institution? Are we observing forms of redefinition of the activist role, of adaptation to the institution (Goffman, 1968), of subversion of ways of “performing it” (Lagroye, and Offerlé, 2010)? At what stage and according to what system of discrepancies or tensions does disengagement become the only outcome imaginable? What are the social conditions of possibility for the "unhappy activists," of a departure which does not exact an exorbitant price (Leclercq, 2011; and Leclercq, 2012)? Here an avenue for research on  "reactions to discontent" is offered which, in contrast to strictly utilitarian approaches, falls within the study of social rationales for activism and its fluctuations. 

How to Remobilize. The Institutional Management of Disarray

The third line of inquiry questions institutional responses to activist tribulations. While we know that centrifugal tendencies are related to failings of efforts at homogenization and securing loyalty, we observe different types of institutional reorganization, designed under cover of "modernization," "democratization,"  "re-establishment" or other apparently legitimate official intentions, to replenish and remobilize the activist body in circumstances where it is more or less threatened by a process of  "dissociation” (Offerlé, 1987). Beyond how individuals subjectively experience the organization's social change, what can be said about measures taken by managers in terms of a strategic reversal, an overhaul of the collective capital, reallocation of positions, revitalization of the social fabric of the group and administration of a new meaning for activism? Research on institutions’ renewal (Pudal, 2009; and Mischi, 2014) shows how transformation of the doctrinal corpus, the rules of operation, practices and the activist figures held up as models, works with uncertain consequences. While these shifts are generally designed to swell the ranks and strengthen internal cohesion, they still remain sources of intense struggle, in as much as they contribute to the disqualification and relegation of those who, due to their very activist socialization, are little disposed to cooperate and, to some degree, are condemned to sink into a feeling of unease What social psychologists calls the niche edge effect). Therefore, we might wonder about the effects of such strategies, and their eventual counterproductive impact on the more vulnerable or marginalized sections of the activist group. We also need to consider the entire range of reforms, modifications of statutes, and procedural inventions, restructuration through separation or mergers, with or without a change of name, and termination of the group (Gottraux, 1997). The triangulation of data is here required as a means of developing the sociology of institutions, while taking into account both the way they evolve under various strategies and their nature as "cultural enterprises" (Sawicki, 2001) caught in social configurations and evolving power relationships. 

Objectifying the Suffering. Scientific Tools and Disciplinary Transfers

The forth line of inquiry raises the question of the conceptual and methodological set of tools which researchers might employ in borrowing from different disciplinary domains: sociology, political science, history and social psychology, in particular. Indeed, the issue of academic work on activist discontent consists of avoiding both the unsolvable conundrums of utilitarian analysis and the impasses of psychologizing descriptions. Unlike these two tendencies, this is a matter of defending a genuine sociology of affects from impressionistic and tautological penchants which are often at work when studying the very experiences of individual distress. Here we have solid references, including foundational studies on the pathologies of the social world (Durkheim, 1897), on the sociogenesis of despair (Elias, 1991), and on the maintenance of self under extreme conditions (Pollak, 1990). This is a matter of extending this research, drawing upon varied materials and seeking to venture beyond metaphorical or analogic uses of psychoanalytical concepts such as repression, the work of grieving, drives, the libido, etc. (Pudal, 2009). Thus, the goal of this symposium is to exchange ideas and discuss interpretative frameworks and ways of studying commitments or, in this particular case, the actual experience of the unhappy relationship of individuals with institutions. 

Means of Submitting Proposals

Proposals, of a maximum length of  5,000 characters, may be written in English or French, and must be based on empirical data. They will include the presentation of the field of inquiry and will specify the principal line of inquiry adopted. They should be sent to the three following addresses:

  • Olivier.Fillieule@unil.ch
  • catherine.leclercq@univ-poitiers.fr
  • remi.lefebvre@univ-lille2.fr 


  •   Sending proposals for papers (5,000 characters maximum): by May 20th,  2016 at the latest

  •   Selection of  proposals and responses to the authors: July 11th, 2016
  •   Sending of papers (30,000 to 40,000 characters): November 15th, 2016
  •   Symposium in Lille: December 12th-13th, 2016 

Organization comittee

  • Olivier Fillieule (CRAPUL, Université de Lausanne),
  • Catherine Leclercq (GRESCO, Université de Poitiers),
  • Rémi Lefebvre (CERAPS, Université Lille 2).

Scientific comittee 

  • Philip Balsiger (Institut de sociologie, Université de Neuchâtel),
  • Stéphane Beaud (ISP, Université Paris Ouest- Nanterre-La Défense),
  • Olivier Fillieule (CRAPUL, Université de Lausanne),
  • Catherine Leclercq (GRESCO, Université de Poitiers),
  • Rémi Lefebvre (CERAPS, Université Lille 2),
  • Nicolas Mariot (CESSP-CNRS),
  • Julian Mischi (CESAER-INRA),
  • Julie Pagis (CERAPS-CNRS),
  • Bernard Pudal (CSU, Université Paris Ouest-Nanterre-La Défense),
  • Frédéric Sawicki (CESSP, Université Paris 1).


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  • Luc Berlivet, Frédéric Sawicki, « La foi dans l’engagement. Les militants syndicalistes CFTC de Bretagne dans l’après-guerre », Politix, n°27, 1994, p. 111-142.
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  • Pierre Bourdieu, Méditations pascaliennes, Paris, Seuil, 1997.
  • Annie Collovald, « Pour une sociologie des carrières morales des dévouements militants », L’humanitaire ou le management des dévouements. Enquête sur un militantisme de “solidarité internationale”, Rennes, PUR, 2002.
  • Christian Corouge, Julian Mischi, Michel Pialoux, « Engagement et désengagement militant aux usines Peugeot de Sochaux dans les années 1980 et 1990 », Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, n°196-197, 2013, p. 20-33.
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  • Emile Durkheim, Le suicide, Paris, PUF, 2007 (1897). 
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  • Olivier Fillieule, Nonna Mayer (coord.), « Devenirs militants », Revue Française de Science Politique, vol. 51, n°1-2, février-avril 2001.
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  • Rémi Lefebvre, « Le militantisme socialiste n’est plus ce qu’il n’a jamais été. Modèle de “l’engagement distancié“ et transformations du militantisme au Parti socialiste », Politix, n°102, 2013, p. 7-33.
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  • Claude Pennetier, Bernard Pudal (dir.), Le sujet communiste. Identités militantes et laboratoires du « moi », Rennes, PUR, 2014.
  • Michel Pialoux, Christian Corouge, Résister à la chaîne. Dialogue entre un ouvrier de Peugeot et un sociologue, Paris, Agone, 2011.
  • Politix, « Militantisme et hiérarchies de genre », vol. 20, n°78, 2007.
  • Michael Pollak, L’expérience concentrationnaire. Essai sur le maintien de l’identité sociale, Paris, Métailié, 1990.
  • Bernard Pudal, Un monde défait. Les communistes français de 1956 à nos jours, Paris, Editions du Croquant, 2009.
  • Bernard Pudal, « Psychanalyse », in Olivier Fillieule, Lilian Mathieu, Cécile Péchu (dir.), Dictionnaire des mouvements sociaux, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2009.
  • Yann Raison du Cleuziou, « Des fidélités paradoxales. Recomposition des appartenances et militantisme institutionnel dans une institution en crise », in Jacques Lagroye et Michel Offerlé (dir.), Sociologie de l’institution, Paris, Belin, 2010, p. 267-290.
  • Frédéric Sawicki, « Les partis politiques comme entreprises culturelles », in Daniel Cefaï, Cultures politiques, Paris, PUF, 2001, p. 191-211.
  • Isabelle Sommier, La violence politique et son deuil. L’après 68 en France et en Italie, PUR, 1992.
  • Isabelle Sommier, « Engagement radical, désengagement et déradicalisation. Continuum et lignes de fractures », Lien social et politiques, n°68, 2012, p. 15-35.
  • Christophe Traïni (dir.), Emotions, mobilisation !, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2009.
  • Michaël Voegtli, « Du jeu dans le je : ruptures biographiques et travail de mise en cohérence », Lien social et politiques, n° 51, 2004, p. 145-158.
  • Laurent Willemez, « Perseverare diabolicum. L’engagement militant à l’épreuve du vieillissement social », Lien social et Politiques, n°1, 2004, p. 71-82.


  • Lille, France (59)


  • Friday, May 20, 2016


  • militantisme, carrière militante, mouvement social, engagement, désengagement


  • Olivier Fillieule
    courriel : olivier [dot] fillieule [at] unil [dot] ch

Reference Urls

Information source

  • Olivier Fillieule
    courriel : olivier [dot] fillieule [at] unil [dot] ch

To cite this announcement

« Activist Tribulations », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Friday, March 25, 2016, https://calenda.org/360476

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