Umbrella Sociology

Alistair Fraser

In English, the noun umbrella comes from the Latin umbella, meaning flat-topped flower, and from umbra, meaning shade: a flower that protects. In written Chinese, however, the character used for umbrella is not a noun, but a verb, ‘to block’ (遮, ze). While these roots share a common idea – of defence and safety – they also allude to divergent meanings. One is static and organic, the other mobile and proactive. Both represent something important about the protests.

While some – particularly international – reports have depicted the Umbrella Movement as being relatively homogenous and cohesive, the protests have in fact been extremely heterogenous. As the contributions to this issue demonstrate, participants have been focused on action rather than reaction; on individual acts of resistance rather than a unifying narrative. Indeed, Cantonese-speaking friends tell me that few people actually used the terms ‘umbrella’ or ‘movement’ in everyday discussions. Conversations are more grounded in action: ‘Did you occupy Admiralty?’ ‘Did you sit-in?’ This gap between representation and reality shows the value of sociology in making sense of unfolding social and political events.

In 1959, the sociologist C Wright Mills published a now-famous book called The Sociological Imagination. In it, Mills outlines a way of thinking that links the micro-level of everyday life with the macro-level of structural change, between what he calls ‘private troubles’ and ‘public issues‘. By shuttling back and forth between these levels, Mills thought it possible to relate large-scale political and economic shifts to personal decision-making. Cultivating this approach means not only an ability to analyse the emergent aspects of social life – of history ‘in-the-making’ – but also in grasping the significance of individual action in altering its path. In demonstrating the contingent nature of life, Mills thought that sociology could promote social activism.

Fifty-five years later, this way of thinking remains an indispensable tool in understanding current social change and, importantly, one not reserved solely for academics. In many ways the Umbrella Movement involved the rapid development of a kind of mass sociological imagination, in which a direct connection between individual choice and structural change became obvious for a sizable population. The private troubles of individuals, families and communities became fused with the public issue of political representation, and it became clear that action was possible.

The forms of involvement varied tremendously – from steadfast occupiers to online translators, quiet contributors to logistical coordinators – but were nonetheless unified under the banner of collective action. In this sense, the English roots of umbella and umbra feel particularly apt – these actions represent the flowering of an organic form of grassroots politics that is both powerful and protective. This unifying umbrella brought together people from varying backgrounds and political stripes, and created space for a range of minority groups to have a voice.

Indeed, what has often been missed is that this particular social movement has been a particularly social movement. Though most came to the protest sites for the politics, many stayed for the community. In a city so keenly focused on individual success, where living spaces are so incredibly cramped, the occupy sites were a revelation. Collectively, participants redefined the space – from a spaghetti-junction choked with taxis, buses and fumes to a spontaneous space of quiet defiance and interdependent conviction. The expansive spaces of the protests sites also proved to be fertile soil for the growth of creativity, as art and resistance came together in the form of sculpture, banners, and DIY post-its.

Peering beneath this umbrella, however, reveals a complex range of social divisions: the creation of community is both inclusive and exclusive. During the height of the protests, suddenly you were in or out, for or against, yellow or blue. In this sense, the Chinese verb for umbrella, ‘to block’, helps to clarify more than the English. The protests were mobile, active, defiant – in turn, tensions based on gender and social class became exposed, social boundaries were solidified, rumour and conspiracy flourished. What this shows is that, among other things, social movements must be understood not just at a broad level of abstraction, but at the level of the individual; they are social, human struggles above all.

And this, to me, speaks of why we need sociology. Making sense of major world events through their impact on daily life; shuttling between history, biography and culture; seeking out the cracks between representation and reality: this is the stuff of the sociological imagination. C Wright Mills would, I’m sure, have approved of the Umbrella Movement, as a powerful demonstration of both the ‘task’ and the ‘promise’ of sociology that he spoke of so passionately More than asking what sociology can do for the Umbrella Movement, though, we might ask what the Umbrella Movement can do for sociology. We might, for instance, think of a form of ‘umbrella sociology’ that is both protective yet engaged, unifying yet mobile, civic yet creative. Now that’s an umbrella I’d like to get under.

This blog is an edited version of the article ‘Umbrella Sociology’, published in the International Institute for Asian Studies Newsletter, No.70, Spring 2015. Republished with permission. For the original article, which introduced a special feature on the Umbrella Movement, see: http://www.iias.nl/sites/default/files/IIAS_NL70_FULL.pdf

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