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The Structure of Culture

Friday, September 19, 2003 by Jeff

PETA (Peolple for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) may be the largest animal rights organization in the world with a membership base numbering nearly three-quarters of a million and spanning the U.S., England, and Western Europe. It has an operating budet over $17 million. For a so-called (and relatively) marginal movement, this is a big operation. New World Vision, on the other hand, is a localized project in California that advocates for charter schools as the locus for humane education. While PETA seeks to eradicate animal exploitation, New World Vision teaches "a life-enriching and life-affirming ethic for students" in order to challenge commonly held assumptions about the human-animal relations. Where do these differing ideologies come from? Do these groups share a fundamental concern for non-human animals yet frame their concerns in different ways? Did these activists' ideas come from their parents, their teachers, and other primary socializers? Or, is there a connection between who you know and what you believe? Consider this problem in terms of social network structures and culture. In the field of social movements research, both cultural theories (e.g., Dave Snow and colleagues) and network approaches (e.g., Mario Diani) to movements are growing areas of interest, and together they provide the foundation for an inevitable combination. Beyond this field influential sociologists of culture (e.g., John Mohr) are developing tools that unite structural, and in particular relational, analyses with cultural beliefs, meanings, and symbols. This approach is likely to provide important insights into how our deeply held beliefs are governed by the social structural arrangements in which we find ourselves. In the movements literature culture typically refers to three things: how movements frame their grievances, how activists adopt collective identities, and how individuals and groups develop their ideologies. Carroll and Ratner (1996) find that location in activist networks relates to how activists framed their oppositional ideology. Individuals in their study with many cross-movement organizational memberships tended to adhere to injustice frames that resonated much more broadly than did individuals who remained tied to a single movement. Chris Ansell (1997), following Basil Bernstein, might say that these frames rely on an "elaborated code" that is abstract, flexible, and inclusive. Ansell writes in the Durkheimian tradition where symbols effectively bind groups together and contribute to the development of a collective identity. He argues that the combination of elaborated and restricted codes (the latter are specific, rely on tacit knowledge, and tend to build solidarity within rather than between groups) in a single symbol unifies broad coalitions of oppositional groups. What is not clear in these studies is the direction of causality. Does network position shape ideas or do ideas shape position? Both is the likely answer, but this is quagmire that cross-sectional studies such as these cannot untangle. Some scholars of movement outcomes have recently called for more attention to the role that movements play in contesting and innovating cultural meanings. Consider the ongoing construction and contested meanings associated with the terms nigger, negro, colored, black, and African-American. To what extent have movements affected these cultural referents? What role have movements played in constructing our ideas about non-human animals, the environment, women, gays, lesbians, gender, disabilities, and race? If we extend the findings of Ansell, Carroll and Ratner to include those social relations that bridge social movement and other sectors will we find a relationship between social network structure and culture? That is the question.

Coalition, or Death

Tuesday, September 02, 2003 by Jeff

An immigrant advocacy organization in town recently hired an consultant whom it hoped would cast an impartial eye and help it to improve organizational effectiveness. The consultant's recommendation: forget about coalitions. So what's wrong with coalitions? They're expensive. They're time-consuming, organizationally demanding, resource-intensive, emotionally challenging, and they tend to dampen, divert, or change an organization's goals. That's the damning decision this consultant offered and the organization accepted, and, in my mind, I imagine it did so gleefully. After all, what organizational leader doesn't want to do it her way, to compromise with no one, and avoid the management problems and messy diplomacy of interorganizational networks? But aren't organizational coalitions the only way that a splintered opposition can form a powerful and effective front? This seems to be the assumption of some authors I've been reading lately (Maryjane Osa, Mario Diani). For instance, the late Great Alberto Melucci (1996) argued (with his typical flare for obfuscation) that social movements face a persistent internal tension: "[T]he need to ensure the survival of the [social movement] by means of asymmetry-producing functions is flanked by the impossibility of rendering this asymmetry explicit throguh its formalization , since, should this happen, the solidarity and the interpersonal relations are subjected to the threat of breakdown" (p. 345). In other words, don't let the coalition recognize it's differences lest the cozy maternal bonds of collectivism should shatter into an organization for every opinion and every issue. Coalition, or death. To her credit, Osa (2003) goes beyond assuming and examines the effects on mobilization success of changing network structures among oppositional groups. Comparing two protest waves in authoritarian Poland (1966-70 and 1976-81) she finds evidence that a strong coalition of organizations in the second period led to the the successful formation of the powerful Solidarity trade union. She finds that in the second period key religious organizations "acted to anchor to the opposition domain and provide a foundation for growth and diversification" (p. 101); that civic organizations committed to coalition-building occupied central positions in the organizational field; and the radical flank of the organizational field served to divert the authorities' repressive resources away from more centrist oppositional groups. Anheier (2003) also provides some evidence that dense interorganizational relations characterized the organizational field that eventually coalesced as the Nazi Party in 1930s Germany. Is coalition-building expensive and time-consuming? Yes, of course, but can we afford to abandon it? I intend to cast an eye to the literature that the consultant drew from when he or she decided that a diverse and atomistic social movement is an effective one.

Sociology From the Inside

by Jeff

"The basic contradiction in our discipline is between what students will buy from us and what our colleagues and deans will buy at tenure time. The number of faculty posts in sociology fluctuates with the popularity of undergraduate cosmopolitan indignation at ethnocentrism, for example, and the demand for intellectual foundations for their rejection of ethnocentrism. Graduate education has been about originality and rigor, that lead to promotion in a field whose market size is shaped by indignation at unfair inequality. Now there is no reason that the teaching of originality and rigor in graduate schools and in scholarly journals should balance the fluctuations of indignation among undergraduates. "What Graduate School (Supply) Is About: Universities and colleges they are inclined to over-invest in academic prestige, graduate education, and research. It won't pay the rent, but it is more fun, deeper, and probably more effective in the long run against evil. We are more likely to so over-invest in elite standards for sociology if we are not very good at undergraduate teaching. Then we hope we are at least original and rigorous, even if undergraduates don't care. - Arthur Stinchcombe, Speech for the Illinois Sociological Society Meetings, October 1999


Jeff A. Larson
Sociologist, Arizona.


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