Portland State University. Department of Sociology
Term of Graduation
Date of Publication
Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Sociology
Climate change, Collective identity, Ontology, Settler colonialism, Social movements, Spirituality
1 online resource (xv, 250 pages)
Climate change, as part of a broader ecological crisis, is becoming an ever more potent event structuring human societies and planetary ecosystems. As the climate crisis deepens, climate change is unsettling core human identities, as well as the ontologies that define and situate concepts of "human" and "nature." And as social movements act to challenge and mitigate the catastrophes arising in the Anthropocene era, the question of how to sustain participation is critical. This dissertation explores these dynamics through a study of spirituality, collective identity, participation, and ontology in a subset of the climate movement. The research questions were: (1a) What spiritual beliefs and identities exist among movement participants?; (1b) What is the relationship between the formation of individual spiritual identities and collective movement identities?; (1c) What is the relationship between spiritual identities, specifically those oriented towards ontological shifts, which I call "earthbound," and collective identities?; and (2) Do spiritual beliefs and associated collective identities shape movement participation outcomes?
I interviewed participants in what I call the "direct action climate movement" in the Pacific Northwest. This movement, itself a subset of a broader climate movement, has been active over most of the last decade and has worked to oppose and obstruct significant drivers of the climate crisis. The direct action climate movement has also attempted to work within a systemic and justice-oriented analysis of the climate crisis and to promote community-based solutions. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 21 current and former activists in this movement from 2019 to 2020 and were supplemented by participant observation of four meetings and six actions.
Respondents in this study reported strong and meaningful spiritual identities that sustained their participation and shaped collective identity. Despite this, I paradoxically found that explicit engagement with spirituality was largely absent from the movement. The absence of spirituality was mostly understood by participants as negatively impacting the movement. Additionally, most respondents articulated what I call an "earthbound" identity, following the work of Bruno Latour. This identity begins to destabilize the dominant societal ontology, which is structured by settler colonialism. These earthbound identities include a strong sense of interconnectivity beyond the self, a kinship with other more-than-human beings, a biocentric worldview, and a belief in more-than-human agency. Participants also described their experience of collective identity in explicitly spiritual terms, as fundamentally sustaining to their engagement, and, for some, as including the more-than-human world ("nature").
This study shows that spirituality is important as well as a critical place of personal and collective identity formation that sustains activists engaging the climate crisis in the Anthropocene. It also indicates that social movements must center ontology to address a climate crisis rooted, in part, in settler colonialism. The findings suggest that ontological shifts are happening within climate movements, but that, at least among white settler and non-Indigenous movement participants, these shifts are not being explicitly developed. I recommend a framework that bypasses obstacles to engaging these dynamics and allows for an accessible engagement of ontological transformation. Additionally, I argue that collective identity necessarily includes ontology, and that the transformation of ontology must be a priority for researchers and social movements.
©2023 David Alan Osborn
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Osborn, David Alan, "Earthbound in the Anthropocene: Spirituality, Collective Identity, and Participation in the Direct Action Climate Movement" (2023). Dissertations and Theses. Paper 6427.