Monash University
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Italian radical social movements 1968-78: a critical study of sociological accounts of the politics of radical social movements in Italy

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Version 2 2017-05-18, 02:23
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posted on 2017-05-18, 02:23 authored by Howard, Mark Andrew
This thesis is a critical study of contemporary sociological accounts of the politics of radical social movements (RSMs). The study of this class of movement was revitalised by the general political and cultural upheaval across western democracies at the end of the 1960s, and remains relevant now in what is characterised as a movement society. The classical Anglo-American agenda post 1968 was to repopulate the territory of modern politics with a strategic and reasonable radical subject, specifically, one explicable within a framework of political rationalism; however, I contend that two fundamental properties of RSMs complicate this sociological project. Firstly, the practice and theory of radical communities disturb the existing order of society and politics. They exist in a space that is marginal to the political community. They act outside the established standards of behaviour and transgress the conventional limits of representation. Secondly, in so doing, these radical communities undermine the prevailing discourses on the connection of the radical community to politics. That is, RSMs disturb social order and the discourses that have that order as their object; therefore, I argue that a consequence of deploying a rationalist framework to model collective action is the effacing of the difference and specificity essential to the radical subject. My hypothesis, then, is that the politics of RSMs (the practice and theory of radical communities) are inexplicable through the aspect of instrumental rationality that indelibly marks contemporary sociological studies, in particular Anglo-American social movement theory (SMT). I defend this thesis in two main ways. Firstly, I engage the sociological accounts of RSMs in a case study of the Italian social movements 1968-78. This sector involved a diverse field of radical communities including those of the worker, student, counter-culture, and women. Unlike the trajectory of the events associated with 1968 in other western democracies, the Italian situation lasted for over a decade and involved unprecedented levels of political violence. Through the case study I review two established social movement theories, SMT (particularly the work of della Porta and Tarrow) and New Social Movement Theory (NSMT, Melucci), and engage critically with Italian radical thought (IRT, Bologna, Berardi, Negri, and Tronti). I utilise their respective efforts to repatriate the radical community to politics after the tumult of the 1960s, to diagnose and evaluate the rationalist framework in the sociological study of radicalism. The case study facilitates an inquiry into contemporary sociological thought on the nexus of politics and the radical community in western democracies and its implications for explicating the radical subject of the Italian social movements 1968-78. Secondly, I show that attention to recent movements in European philosophy, against the instrumentalist deficit and identitarian vision of sociological discourse, helps elucidate the logic of politics in the ‘age of social movements.’ To this end, I will discuss a contemporary aesthetic theory of social movements (Rancière). The intent of this engagement is to show how an alternative way of understanding the formation of a radical community can be put forth that retains essential characteristics of the radical subject (particularity and difference) and respects the epistemological work of this community. I will also outline the limits of such an approach for the analysis of political movements.


Principal supervisor

Alison Ross

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

School of English, Communications and Performance Studies


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts