McKehnie, Rosemary and Körner, Barbara (2009) Unruly Narratives: Discovering the Active Self. In: Narrative, Memory and Identities. University of Huddersfield, Huddersfield, pp. 67-75.

In this paper, we will discuss the findings from research which explores the biographical experience of adults who have been involved in activism1 across their lifetime. The age range of those involved extended from early twenties to late seventies. The material is drawn from nineteen in-depth interviews that illuminate how disparate experiences of activism over time acquire continuity and coherence within a reflective narrative which builds and communicates a mature self-identity. Sociological research on social movement activism has followed a trajectory which echoes the wider shifts in the discipline. Early research on social movements tended to focus on the evaluation of the ‘effectiveness’ of particular campaigns (for example, McCarthy and Zald, 1977). More recently, research has followed theoretical interests in the cultural struggle for meaning and the social relations and identities which have emerged from activism (see Melucci, 1989; 1996; Touraine, 1995). While this has instigated research that focuses on social innovation and social networks, research still tends to be based on specific campaigning moments and social constellations. Key aspects of theoretical models of contemporary activism – that activism is about critical reflection and social identity, and that the ‘effects’ of movements are not limited to specific campaigns but create radical actors and ideas that ripple out into society, what Melucci (1996) terms latency – are still relatively under-examined. The aim of this project is to contribute to such critical examination, and to throw light on the shifting subjective significance of being active over time, through periods of activism over the lifecourse and transitions between campaigning issues and styles.

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