Understanding Culture in Social Movements: A Historical Materialist Approach to the Guy Fawkes Mask

  • Pete Lampard

Student thesis: Phd


Social movement scholarship has been slower to incorporate cultural theory than other domains since the ‘cultural turn’ within social science and the humanities. The leading perspectives in this regard, within studies of social movements, have been frame alignment and those looking to understand ‘new social movements’. While these bring culture into focus through a wealth of literature since the 1970s and 1980s, this thesis argues that they remain inadequate in understanding the full role of culture. While the former rely too heavily on static, overly instrumental, powerless and voluntarist notions of culture, due in part to their early affiliation with the resource mobilization paradigm, the latter create an altogether too ideational notion of culture, overlooking the importance of material distribution and one’s social position in the production and reproduction of culture. It is the contention of the author that social movement scholarship requires a more comprehensive and holistic approach to culture. This thesis therefore offers an original contribution in arguing for a historical materialist approach to social movements and culture that foregrounds the ideas of Antonio Gramsci and Raymond Williams. This perspective, by contrast, provides an approach to culture that is dynamic, historical, and appreciative of the role of power. In order to show the added value and utility of a historical materialist approach to culture, this thesis provides a detailed and concrete application of the theory to a specific social movement and its use of popular cultural artefact that has received growing attention in recent years for its apparent worldwide diffusion: the Guy Fawkes mask. Through a protest event analysis this research first of all establishes the extent of this diffusion and thus the mask’s significance across diverse protest groups. In order to explore the practice of adopting the mask in more detail, this research uses one of the main contexts in which the mask has been employed for further analysis: the Occupy Movement (specifically Occupy London). Through interviews with participants of Occupy London, this research makes the argument that popular cultural forms are made available for use over time through previous human activity, and therefore that their use is both enabled and constrained by wider social and material factors. It also argues that the mask’s availability as a practice is subject to cultural contestation and its capacity, due to these wider contextual factors, to resonate with different groups. The argument in this thesis is that existing approaches (such as framing and new social movement theories) fail to bring about such necessary discussions around culture, and that through a historical materialist framework it is possible to more sufficiently analyse the power-laden, conditioned, and ever-changing basis from which such practices emerge and diffuse.
Date of Award1 Aug 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorGemma Edwards (Supervisor) & Nick Crossley (Supervisor)

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