In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Anarchism

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

Sociology Anarchism
Ruth Kinna
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • 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 capitalist exploitation, state tyranny, 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 processes associated with state formation, and their interrogation of the complex relationships between these processes and capitalism, society, technology, and culture, are important frames for the discussion of perennial themes, notably, domination, organization, and transformation. 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 relationships, 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 direct action and 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

Since the anarchistic nature of the global protest “movement of movements” in the late 1990s and the overtly anarchist politics of anticapitalist currents within it, recent waves of social movement activism have renewed scholarly interest in anarchism, resulting in the appearance of a number of introductory texts. Shantz and Williams 2013 presents a dedicated sociological analysis that treats anarchism as a philosophy and movement. The other introductions included here are 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. In addition, Shantz and Williams 2013 presents a pioneering analysis of anarchist and sociological traditions. Scholars continue to debate the history of anarchist ideas and probe the boundaries of anarchism as an ideology: Jun and Wahl 2010 and Kinna 2012 survey contemporary anarchism and also address the issues of continuity and discontinuity that the explosion of late-20th-century research in anarchism has provoked. Franks, et al. 2018 develops a novel framing of anarchism as an ideology, using Michael Freeden’s conceptual-morphological approach. Levy and Adams 2018 combines historical and conceptual approaches to explore the distinctiveness of anarchism.

  • 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.

    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.

    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.

  • Franks, Benjamin, Nathan Jun, and Leonard Williams, eds. 2018. Anarchism: A conceptual approach. New York and London: Routledge.

    Divided into three sections, the collection outlines anarchism’s core, adjacent, and peripheral concepts to construct an ideology of anarchism. Chapters are written by leading scholars and are intended as stand-alone contributions to conceptual debates as well as elements of a larger whole. The editors’ intention is to highlight the stability of the six core concepts (anti-hierarchy, prefiguration, freedom, agency, direct action, and revolution) while showing how their interrelationship with adjacent and peripheral concepts, including horizontalism, intersectionality, and ecocentrism, resist doctrinal rigidity.

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

    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.

    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.

  • Levy, Carl, and Matthew S. Adams, eds. 2018. The Palgrave handbook of anarchism. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    A mammoth collection organized in four sections: core problems, core traditions, key events, and applications. The volume includes analysis of concepts including freedom and the state as well as strands within anarchism, notably anarchist feminism and green anarchism; historical snapshots of anarchism in 1890s France and in 1968; and analysis of anarchism and ethics, art, and the wave of occupations in the early 21st century.

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

    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.

    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.

  • Shantz, Jeff, and Dana Williams. 2013. Anarchy and society: Reflections on anarchist sociology. Boston, MA: Brill.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004252998

    Explores the intersection of anarchism and sociology from Weber and Marx; presents the sociological theory of key anarchists including P. -J. Proudhon, Emma Goldman, and Colin Ward; and highlights the transformative dynamic of anarchist social theory.

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

    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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