Social movement theory suggests that successful movements are held together by collective identities. This is often summarised as an identity of ‘us’ against ‘them’ over ‘this’. In my research project Other People’s Struggles, I’m examining conscience constituents, who are participants in social movements who do not stand to gain themselves if the movement accomplishes its goal. They are usually contrasted with beneficiary constituents who do stand to gain.
One question I am considering is where the conscience constituents fit into the collective identity. In certain sorts of social movement, they are not quite one of ‘us’, but nor are they one of ‘them’ either. Think, for example, of White sympathisers with the African-American civil rights movement in the 1960s as its collective identity became more defined by Black experiences and consciousness. Or consider men who supported feminist movements in the 1970s. Are they ‘us’ or ‘them’? The answers were complex, and the question divided both movements. The conscience constituent is, I think, a ‘liminal’ figure, positioned between ‘them’ and ‘us’. Perhaps the conscience constituents can share the ‘this’ – that is, the goal of the struggle. But sometimes, they frame the ‘this’ differently to the beneficiary constituents. They understand it differently. It means something different to them. Here, as in many other places, the conscience constituent participates, but differently.
IMAGE CREDIT: SHIRLY ELIRAN, WOOING (EXCERPT) FROM BETWIXT AND BETWEEN (2016), HER ANIMATION BASED ON VICTOR TURNER’S WORK ON LIMINALITY.