In This Article Anarchism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Anthologies

Sociology Anarchism
Ruth Kinna
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0059


Anarchism developed as a distinctive strain within radical and revolutionary thought in the mid-19th century. The political theory, often associated with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (b. 1809–d. 1865), Michael Bakunin (b. 1814–d. 1876), and Peter Kropotkin (b. 1842–d. 1921), appeared in parallel with a worldwide, international movement that shaped anarchist practices and that gave expression to a critique of capitalism, the state, and an idea of rebelliousness that has been influential in sociopolitical, economic, and cultural realms. Contemporary anarchists argue about both the continuities and the discontinuities between the historical and modern movements and the antecedents of European anarchism, but there is a strong consensus that anarchism cannot be reduced to a single set of principles, conceptual arrangements, or theoretical positions that might be applied in practice, analysis, or critique. Because canonical approaches to the history of anarchist ideas are typically resisted, and because the ideological boundaries of anarchism remain contested, anarchist approaches to sociological issues are distinguished by their diversity and are difficult to pin down. However, the anarchists’ traditional opposition to the state, and their interrogation of the complex relationships between the state and capitalism, society, technology, and culture, are important frames for the discussion of perennial themes, notably, domination, organization, and exploitation. Reflections on the rise of the modern European state and the possibility of nonstate organization have long encouraged an interest in anthropology, supporting strongly normative accounts of mutuality, cooperation, and reciprocity. In the anticapitalist mainstream, anarchism supports a rich tradition of thinking about self-regulation, self-management, and decentralized federation. The anarchists’ principled rejection of authority has fostered an interest in systems of education, law, punishment, concepts of crime, and the institutionalization of love in heterosexual marriage, generating cultural practices and literatures that are at once subversive and utopian. Anarchist utopianism is in turn an important strain in urban design, art, and ecology. The anarchist eschewal of institutional politics and advocacy of direct action have focused attention on issues of struggle, protest, and violence as well as the theorization of prefigurative change. Notwithstanding anarchist suspicions of the elitism and complicity of academic institutions, anarchism has had an influence on mainstream sociology and is equally influenced by critical strains within it. The relationship with Marxism, though often unhappy, has provided one route into sociology. Max Weber’s engagements with anarchism have provided another; and, in late-20th- and early-21st-century history, anarchists have begun to develop approaches to sociology that resonate with both traditions.

General Overviews

The anarchistic nature of the global protest “movement of movements” in the late 1990s and the overtly anarchist politics of anticapitalist currents within it have renewed scholarly interest in anarchism, resulting in the appearance of a number of introductory texts. The introductions included here are all edited collections that usefully map the ground of anarchist activism and also apply anarchist social theory to an ever-expanding range of research areas. In the thirty years between the student protest movement and emergence of the global social justice campaigns, little work of this kind was available: introductions tended instead to be historical and designed to explain or defend the ideas of a movement considered to be moribund. Ehrlich 1996 (originally published in 1979) was an exception, and the revised edition remains an important statement of anarchist practices and philosophy that brings together articles by a number of leading writers, from Bob Black to Colin Ward. One of the themes probed in Ehrlich’s collection is the relationship of historical to contemporary anarchism and the degree to which the protest movements of the 1960s renewed anarchist traditions or even encouraged a metamorphosis. These themes were revived in the 1990s. Purkis and Bowen 1997 argues that anarchist practices had altered radically in the late 20th century and that this change demanded a revision in anarchist thinking. This work’s approach brought postmodernism and poststructuralist theory to bear on anarchist analysis in order to challenge what the authors saw as the class bias of anarchist theory. The trend in anarchist theory that Purkis and Bowen encouraged is now well established in a body of work referred to as postanarchism, and it is difficult to make sense of modern anarchism without engaging with postanarchist ideas about history, philosophy, and method (see Postanarchism). Rousselle and Evren 2011 provides an excellent critical guide. Although postanarchism is one of the main currents within anarchist theory, it is not the only marker of the increasing scholarly interest that has been shown in anarchism since the early 1990s. Two others are the application of anarchist critique in political and sociological analysis and as a contribution to social transformation. The collections Amster, et al. 2009, on the one hand, and Shukaitis and Graeber 2007, on the other, are exemplars. Arguments about the history of anarchist ideas have not quite disappeared: Jun and Wahl 2010 and Kinna 2012 not only survey contemporary anarchism, but also address the issues of continuity and discontinuity that the explosion of late-20th-century research in anarchism has provoked.

  • Amster, Randall, Abraham DeLeon, Luis A. Fernandez, Anthony J. Nocella II, and Deric Shannon, eds. 2009. Contemporary anarchist studies: An introductory anthology of anarchy in the academy. London and New York: Routledge.

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    An important collection of contemporary writing, bringing together articles on theory, methodology, pedagogy, praxis, and thinking about the future.

  • Ehrlich, Howard J., ed. 1996. Reinventing anarchy, again. Rev. ed. Edinburgh and San Francisco: AK.

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    Originally published in 1979, as Reinventing Anarchy: What Are Anarchists Thinking These Days? (London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul). The revised and updated collection, by leading writers from a variety of traditions, is organized into eight sections that consider approaches to anarchism, the state and organization, movements toward anarchy, anarchafeminism, work, culture, self-liberation, and tactics.

  • Jun, Nathan J., and Shane Wahl, eds. 2010. New perspectives on anarchism. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

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    A collection of issue- and practice-based essays in philosophy, social and political science, history, culture, religion, and ecology, written by an international group of activists and scholars, from a range of methodological and political perspectives.

  • Kinna, Ruth, ed. 2012. The Continuum companion to anarchism. New York: Continuum.

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    A research guide intended to survey debates in particular fields of anarchist research. Includes a collection of essays that examine contemporary methods of analysis in anarchist studies and the relationship of anarchism to art, sociology, geography, gender, history, literature, ecology, social movements, social transformation, and ethnicity.

  • Purkis, Jon, and James Bowen, eds. 1997. Twenty-first century anarchism: Unorthodox ideas for a new millennium. London and New York: Cassell.

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    This groundbreaking collection highlights a shift in theory and practice from historical anarchist traditions, aligning anarchism with a range of horizontal movements. The authors followed this collection, in 2004, with Changing Anarchism: Anarchist Theory and Practice in a Global Age (Manchester, UK, and New York: Manchester Univ. Press).

  • Rousselle, Duane, and Süreyyya Evren, eds. 2011. Post-anarchism: A reader. London and New York: Pluto.

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    A guide to one of the most influential theoretical currents within anarchist scholarship, which examines work by postanarchists and their critics. The introduction is a masterful survey of the arguments and debates.

  • Shukaitis, Stevphen, and David Graeber, eds. 2007. Constituent imagination: Militant investigations, collective theorization. Oakland, CA: AK.

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    An exercise in militant research, this book consciously challenges conventional scholarship by sharing experiences, ideas, and understandings in order to contribute to social transformation.

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