Sites of Dissent. Space-making practices of Autonomous Social Movements in Europe as socio-political conflict: a comparative participatory action research

Alissa Starodub

Social movements articulate dissent and push towards socio-political transformation. They are thereby subjected to transformation - just like their articulations and the social order that produces them. To describe this transformation Social Movement Studies referred first to "New Social Movements" and later, especially within the English-speaking literature, the term "Autonomous Social Movements" has been coined for focusing on social movements emphasising autonomy and the construction of alternative and self-organised social structures. Cohesion and collectivity are relational and affinity-based rather than formally organised within Autonomous Social Movements. They are opposed to representative parliamentary politics and their decision-making structures are horizontal. This results in a tactical choice of a politics of the act, understood as post-representative direct action upon the socio-political context projecting the fulfillment of political desire into the present. Conditioned by these characteristics Autonomous Social Movements are placed in an antagonistic relationship to social order.
In my PhD project I seek to understand how Autonomous Social Movements in Europe articulate this antagonism through their spatial practices. The necessity for a contextualisation of these practices leads to the choice of a comparative approach: actions take place in and through space. Actions also (re)-produce space. The spatialities created through the articulation of socio-political dissent by Autonomous Social Movements are perceivable as protest camps, squats, square occupations or occupations of entire (rural) areas (such as Zone A Défendre near Nantes). My methodological design divides these sites along three axes of comparison (urban/rural, permanent/temporary and concentrated/large scale) resulting in eight aggregated sets of case studies. For instance, the autonomous social centres Banc Expropriat in Barcelona, Haus Mainusch in Mainz and the Sumac Social Centre in Nottingham would be grouped together in the set of urban/permanent/concentrated spatialities. Being placed within the same set they will be compared with a Most Similar System design to work out where differences occur while the comparative analysis with a different set will be conducted with a Most Different System Design to find similarities. This allows for an exhaustive exploration of differences between spatialities occurring despite manifest similarities, as well as for exploring reasons for similarities despite differing spatial manifestations of the studied spatialities. In doing so a conceptional openness and flexibility can be maintained throughout the comparative analysis and a large set of case studies is analysed exhaustively.
I am working with a methodological approach termed Participatory Action Research which challenges the traditionally hierarchical relationship between the researcher and the researched. The process of Participatory Action Research is cyclical: it includes different stages altering Action with Reflection and thus requires involvement and participation in the practices of the researched. Knowledge created through this research process cannot be attributed to an individualised knowing subject making objective truth claims about reality. Instead, the knowledge created through this post-representational approach is derived from everyday practices within the spatialities of Autonomous Social Movements and is conceived as a collaborative process of knowledge creation about collective spatial practices.