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This is perhaps the best work on the Iranian revolution that I have seen, in one way or another better than those of Misagh Parsa, Said Amir Arjomand, Mansoor Moaddel, Ervand Abrahamian, or Nikki Keddie, the best English-language social scientists and historians who have written book-length studies on the revolution. Of them all, Charles Kurzman's is the richest, most compelling account and interpretation, tapping more primary and hard-to-get sources than any other work on the revolution, and evincing a real gift for interpreting the meanings of people's acts and words. And make no mistake, this revolution presents multiple layers of [End Page 1773] complexity; as one Iranian woman put it, "If you ask a thousand Iranians about the revolution, you will get a thousand different stories and explanations, and each is correct in its own way" (84).
Kurzman's general narrative and organizational strengths shine throughout the book, which is innovatively written and organized around competing theories. The standard explanations stressing the significance of the condition of the economy, the role played by U.S. influence, the internal cultural and organizational work of mobilization, and the limits of military repression are considered in turn. Without discarding any of them entirely, each is subjected to a barrage of awkward data and recalcitrant anomalies to reveal their limitations. Therefore, and further, because all prediction of revolutions is retrospective, he feels he has undermined most of the existing explanations.
The book builds up to a great final chapter stressing the significance of individuals' perceptions in deciding to join mass movements, showing how these change in the face of uncertainty. The argument goes something like this: as the shah wavered in his will to carry out full-on repression of the protests, their size swelled as people felt there would be safety in numbers. The influential free-rider problem is turned on its head by Kurzman and other "critical mass" theorists who argue instead, "What if people want to engage in collective action but only let themselves do so when it looks safe and seems likely to succeed?" (132). The key to this opening up of the moment to hitherto unthinkable alternatives is a feeling of the viability of those alternatives, and the making of "a viable movement" (the title of the chapter): "The point is not for some social scientist to look back, after the fact, and declare a movement to have been viable. The point is that people make such judgments in real time, during moments of confusion, and that these judgments can be self-fulfilling" (136).
Kurzman considers this an anti-explanation because "[i]nstead of seeking recurrent patterns in social life, anti-explanation explores the unforeseen moments when patterns are twisted or broken off. . . . What is left when we part from retroactive prediction? Understanding" (138). The theoretical implications are profound, centering the actors' perceptions and their agency as key principles of social life, and lending support to Giddens's notion of structuration, but going beyond the theorist's abstractions and untested theory by the force of a rich empirical analysis. Foregrounding the confusing anomalies of lived experience in times of change allows Kurzman to speculate even further that "viability offers a window onto the whole of social life" (170), including the reproduction of routine social reality, putting the reader in mind of the ways the current Bush regime preys on the public's desire for a viable way of life in troubled times. In the Iranian context, "So long as revolution remained 'unthinkable,' it remained undoable" (172). When enough people came to think the unthinkable, the revolution triumphed though no one had predicted it.
Kurzman's thesis is a strong one that takes on existing theories of revolution and dominant styles of sociology more generally in a way that will draw discussion