A Field Analysis of the Climate Movement
This dissertation examines the climate movement as a social field where actors vie for position and capital. This competition strongly influences framing, tactics, and strategy, while it ultimately bears on the effectiveness of mobilization. I analyzed the climate activist field (CAF) through a case study of resistance against a gas pipeline project. In the first phase of resistance, I found there to be a divergence between local activists with little to no experience in the CAF and climate activists operating within it. In the second phase, after climate activists had taken over, there was a division among climate activists themselves. Here, climate activists carried themselves and made decisions based on what they thought was objectively the correct thing to do. However, activists’ practices (encompassing decisions around tactics and strategy but also their judgments and disposition) were structured through the competition for the rewards of the CAF—Climate Activist Capital (CAC), especially Symbolic CAC—and the associated increased status for activists. I used a mixed method approach involving a survey (N=146), participant observation (200 hours), and interviews (N=51). The survey collected data on activist background and preferences, as well as subjective assessments of their own participation and indicators of economic and cultural capital. Participant observation in a range of groups and social spaces allowed for analysis of activist practices in real, observable ways. Both the survey and participant observation informed a purposive interviewing strategy that collected data from the most heavily involved to more peripheral activists. The analysis sought to locate patterns in activist background, quantity and composition of capital, and practices. Differences in activist practices were hypothesized to be the outcome of the interrelation among: an actor’s background embedded in the habitus; an actor’s volume and composition of capital, as well as their social trajectory; and the competition for capital and position within the CAF (itself structured by actors, their backgrounds and practices, and influence from other fields). The hypothesis received mixed support in the data. Participants in the resistance were not conscious of how their preferences for tactics and strategy were guided by the competition to valorize Symbolic CAC inflected by activist orientation, relatively internal or external. Structured by the field that they help construct, climate activists’ practices and the overall effort to stop the pipeline project became increasingly internally oriented, situated antagonistically with the field of power. This resulted in an increased distance between climate activists and non-climate activists as well as a focus on civil disobedience to the exclusion of other tactics. The dissertation represents a novel approach to understanding dynamics within the climate movement and contributes to three areas of research. First, my research on resistance against fossil fuel infrastructure addresses a deficit of empirical scholarship on climate activism, especially at the local level. Second, I contribute to the social movement scholarship on strategic choices by locating them between individual rational calculation and predetermined agency-less decisions by focusing on the effects of activist field position. Third, the research extends Bourdieusian scholarship by testing his theoretical schema built around social reproduction in a field that is organized around social change. In bringing a Bourdieusian approach to movement scholarship and the climate movement in particular, the research delivers an analysis that weaves together micro-level social processes—activists and their practices objectively positioned in the CAF—with an historically developed CAF at the macro-level. The analysis is pertinent not just to scholars but to climate activists and activists more broadly. Ultimately, I argue that the climate movement will be served best by drawing on the distinct advantages of both internal and external spaces in the CAF. This requires more reflexivity and introspection among climate activists so they may understand how their position informs their practices and how they can more consciously mediate the position-to-practices process and bend them in contextually appropriate ways, which will lead to more effective climate activists and enhanced climate movement efficacy.