Ambiguity, Spontaneity, and Creative Agency in the 2010/11 Tunisian Revolution

By Jann Boeddeling
Submitted to Session P4795 (Protest in the Contemporary Middle East and North Africa: strategic interaction perspectives, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries; Maghreb Studies; Theory;
LCD Projector without Audio;
It has been suggested that revolutions confound accepted standards of causal explanation (Goodwin, 2001; Keddie, 1995). This points towards the necessity for developing a more specific sociology of revolutionary situations. Doing so also constitutes an avenue for answering calls for reinserting the study of contentious politics into larger debates in social theory (Gould 2004). Indeed, it has been argued that revolutionary situations offer rich empirical material for thinking about fundamental sociological questions such as eventfulness and structural transformation (Sewell, 2005).

The paper contributes to this debate through conceptualizations induced from the 2010/11 episode of revolutionary mass mobilization in Tunisia. It argues that, in revolutionary situations, structural conditions, especially those of the political field, become highly ambiguous, giving latitude to agency. Instead of resulting in voluntarism and subjectivism, however, interactional dynamics inside mobilized masses give rise to spontaneous social construction that produces innovative patterns orienting and structuring dispositions and strategic action. This chimes with a recent proposition for re-thinking spontaneity in the context of contentious politics more generally (Snow and Moss, 2014). Building on this, the paper introduces temporal, behavioral, and interpretive anchoring as individual-level cognitive dynamics to account for spontaneity. It then develops keynoting (Turner and Killian, 1987), bravery, and transformative associational bonding (Fantasia, 1989) to conceptualize forms of collectively creative agency.

Empirical data comes from tracing the emergence and spread of three cases of innovations during the 2010/11 2010/11 revolutionary mass mobilization in Tunisia: the slogans “Ben Ali Dégage!” and “Ash-sha?b yur?d isq?? an-ni??m”, as well as the repertoire of permanently occupying the Kasbah. Data has been gathered in a multi-step process, ensuring triangulation of methods and sources. First, event catalogues were created based on selected news media for the period of December 18, 2010, when the protests began occurring in Sidi Bouzid, to January 28, 2011, when the first occupation of the Kasbah was forcefully ended. Second, social media content from the dates and locations identified in step one was analyzed. This included videos of protests posted on YouTube and textual sources like blogs, Facebook pages such as klna-mhmd-albwzyzy, as well as historical data for Twitter-hashtags. Finally, more than thirty in-depth interviews were conducted with actors present at the sites of emergence in Sidi Bouzid, Thala, Kasserine, Sfax, and Tunis which were identified in the previous two stages.