This article offers a history of the wave metaphor in social theory, examining how waves became rhetorical forms through which to think about the shape of social change. The wave analytic—“waves of democratization,” “waves of immigration,” “waves of resistance”—wavers between high theory and popular model, between objectivist sociological explanation and hand-waving sociobabble, between vanguardist predictions of social revolution and conservative prognoses of political inevitability, between accountings of formal change and claims about material transubstantiation. The article examines usages in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, arguing that techniques of inscription—graphical, numerical, diagrammatic—have produced formal claims about rising and falling tendencies in the social body. It argues, too, that in such deployments, waves are either (1) overpowering forces of social structuration or (2) signs of the animating effects of world-transforming collective social agencies. The “wave” thus generates questions—and uncertainties—about the relation of structure to agency.

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