The commandos of civic change The commandos of civic change

Gary Alan Fine offers an ambitious sociology of civic action. In particular, he defends the idea that the (trans)formation of institutions is always carried out by small, united and effectively coordinated groups.

Gary Alan Fine, professor in the sociology department at Northwestern University, is the author of around thirty works, essentially centered on small groups whose interactions he analyzes in detail: communities of role-players (role-playing game players), baseball teams, brigades kitchen, group of mushroom pickers, art students, meteorologists, chess players or even groups of retired activists. Little known in France, this sociologist who follows the line of Erving Goffman and the Chicago School has become in the United States one of the most influential voices on questions of ethnography, microsociology and sociability.

In 2012, in Tiny Publics, GA Fine had already proposed a more general and ambitious proposition by crossing several cases in order to be able to generalize, and defend the idea that the whole of society can be read in a single small group (tiny group). In The Hinge, the sociologist pursues his theoretical ambitions and maintains that it is these small groups and their interactions which are the engine of civic transformation and institutional reform. GA Fine insists that these small publics, these highly coordinated groups of people who come together to pursue a common goal, are located at the hinge (hinge) which articulates the macrosociological level (that of society as a whole) and the microsociological level (that of the individual). This choice of taking the group as the primary unit of analysis thus allows him to think in the same vein about the individual, the main unit of analysis of micro-sociologists, often quick to follow the path of methodological individualism, and the institutions and social frameworks, too often studied with the sole tools of structuralism. The result is a sociology of action placing the focus on small, cohesive groups.

Multiply the cases to vary the scales of analysis

For this new work, no new monographs. GA Fine draws on 21 cases, mostly second-hand work, which he analyzes throughout seven chapters: 1/ coordination, 2/ relationships, 3/ association, 4/ place, 5/ conflict, 6/ control and 7/ extensions. The cases studied cover themes as different as mutual aid between agricultural workers, the collaborative drafting of the Declaration of Independence, jihadist cells on the internet or even the communication by social media of activists of former President Donald Trump.

This variety of cases could disconcert the reader. But the fluidity and rigor of the writing of GA Fine guides him with confidence through the profusion of cases presented without ever disorienting him. Each chapter addresses three cases by analyzing them in the light of numerous and varied bibliographical references which help to plead the cause of analysis at the meso-sociological level. Each case represents a band of people who are strongly linked, coordinated with each other and pursuing a common objective).

Even more, the variety of cases allows him to accurately describe what political commitment is. For him,

Although the role of group sociability is the condition sine qua non civic engagement, much research on political engagement takes one of two forms: either it examines how institutional structures set the conditions for political engagement, thereby erasing the agency of the individual, or it examines how prior individual behaviors and experiences determine the conditions for political engagement. political decisions (p. 5).

To enter the level mso political commitment, it is necessary, according to the sociologist, to decenter and multiply the study cases. According to him, by focusing on a single case, we ignore that each group culture is shaped by a network of myriad groups (loc. cit.), while it is, he specifies, the interactions between these groups which shape political commitment and the (trans)formation of institutions. To better understand the process he describes, it is important to grasp the four key concepts of his theory.

Four key concepts to understand sociological miniaturism

To expose the principles of the meso-sociological approach to civic action, the author draws on four recurring themes of his work: 1/ the order of interaction, 2/ group culture or idioculture, 3/ circuits of action and 4/ small audiences.

The order of interaction is concept borrowed from Goffman (1983). Contrary to what interactionists assume, this concept calls into question the idea that the rules would be continually renewed at each gathering. On the one hand, according to GA Fine, the practices of individuals do not arise immediately from the interaction taking place, but result from routines affiliated with anchored social relationsAnd on the other hand, By participating in an order of interaction, group members recognize their affiliations and practices as strong and important. (p. 10).

Group culture or idioculture consists of a system of knowledge, beliefs, behaviors and customs shared by members of an interacting group to which members can refer and which serve as a foundation for subsequent interactions. Members recognize that they share experiences, and these experiences can be evoked in the hope that they will be understood by other members, thus being used to construct a common reality (Fine 1987: 125) (pp. 10-11).

The circuit of actions: GA Fine defines it as a system of civic participation in which interactional choices are filtered by an actor's awareness of what the group with which he or she identifies and participates considers culturally appropriate. Action circuits reflect the rules of the order of interaction and the content of group cultures in light of the need for predictable action. Personal desires, group pressures and institutional control channel the options from which circuits of action are established. This approach emphasizes the negotiations and adjustments on which civic action depends while accepting established practices. (p. 12).

The small public (tiny public) is a group with an order of interaction and a recognizable idioculture that strives to play a role within a civic, democratic or authoritarian structure. This concept takes advantage of the order of interaction and idioculture to emphasize how precisely this is the hinge of the micro and the macro that civic transformation takes place. These communities of action may be small, but they contribute very directly, by embracing values ​​on which a common commitment depends, to shaping political actions with macrosocial consequences. The diversity of small audiences and their wide deployment thus make it possible a mesoanalysis of both the street corner and global financial markets (p.14).

These four key concepts allow GA Fine to link the micro and the macro, according to the model of the sociological miniaturism (Stolte, Fine and Cook 2001). It thus starts from the postulate according to which microsociological concepts constitute an interpretive framework through which an anchored and action-oriented structural analysis is possible (p. 14).

Institutions the magnifying glass of sociological miniaturism

GA Fine emphasizes that institutions have often been analyzed through the prism of macro models, which pushes them to be reified even though, as Max Weber points out: any institution can be reduced to the actions of its agents (Weber 1978, p. 14). Alfred Schutz (1967, p. 199) adds to this approach the importance of collective actions, and GA Fine extends this idea even further, developing the fundamental role of small audiences in the process of (trans)formation of institutions. For GA Fine, the organization of common action within the framework of a continuous circuit of adjustment to established pasts and imagined futures (p. 13) is crucial to grasping the concept of institution.

In doing so, to understand an institution, it is a matter of finely describing all the interactions within small groups and understanding their room for maneuver. Depending on the influence of action of these small groups, they have more or less significant room for maneuver. GA Fine argues in this sense by citing the work of Jasper and Volpi on the big decisions that usually involve a small group of individuals who talk to each other in a small number of meetings (Jasper and Volpi 2018: 30). He adds that Once a decision is made, other groups of people are responsible for implementing it. While every decision is local, some of them generate the reaction of other groups of individuals. This becomes salient when decision-makers have a status of legitimate authority or when their decisions have concrete consequences on those who resist. (p. 154).

From this perspective, we could expect first-hand ethnographic data, especially for the chapters discussing the institution. Unfortunately, the empirical cases on which GA Fine relies on surveys published by others, finished products, and in doing so, can hardly translate these micro-interactions which found institutions and their evolutions. The analysis, even rigorous, of published works, regardless of their very good quality, cannot be a coherent method to meet the requirements of the model of sociological miniaturism.


GA Fine has always defended the idea that the study of small groups already allows an advancement in general by accessing in particular the establishment of sociological knowledge useful for understanding other social situations (Fine 2010, p. 372). This is even the objective he aims for sociology by writing: sociology hopes to explain the world, but sociology also needs to explain the worlds of the world and how these worlds produce processes that extend beyond their boundaries (Fine 2012, p. 220).

In The Hinge However, he seems to be entering a new stage of theorizing. By remaining rigorous in the explanation of its concepts with strong potential for generalization, GA Fine offers a real alternative to micro and macrosociological analyzes and shows the need to adopt the mesosociological approach to understand the societies in which we evolve. In other words, for GA Fine, it is at the heart of small groups that we can observe how an institution is formed, evolves, transforms or collapses. In short, reading this work will be useful for most social science researchers who seek to understand the functioning of any society, system, organization, and understand their issues and impacts.

While the previous works of GA Fine very rarely mentions communication mediated by digital tools, in The Hinge , the author devotes his last chapter to it. The question that intrigues him on this subject is this: how to integrate the power of the local, which ensures permanence and member engagement, with online communication, which extends beyond those who know each other as multidimensional co-present beings (pp. 203-204)? However, even if GA Fine sincerely questions what online communication does to small audiences and their civic engagement, we perceive, on the one hand, a touch of nostalgia of the world before and on the other hand a form of disdain for digital social links. While the other chapters are provided with bibliographical references, this one is impoverished. This lack of knowledge of digital ethnographies undermines this chapter, even though the author develops questions that deserve to be explored in greater depth.