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Bringing Institutions In

How do institutions shape the emergence, dynamics, and outcomes of social movements? Political Process theories answer this question with regard to political institutions, and Resource Mobilization theories have answered in terms of making resources available to movements. What they lack is a sophisticated institutional analysis of any institutions other than the polity that take into account either a) the unique institutional contexts of religion, education, science, economy, and family, or b) the general features of institutions (and their relations to each other) as they affect social movements.

Do we have reason to believe that institutional contexts matter? A lot of existing research suggests that the answer is yes. The U.S. movement against the Vietnam War appears to have caused an unintended cultural shift in the sciences (Moore 1999). The Civil Rights Movement emerged with the convergence of religious, educational, and political institutions (Morris 1981; McAdam 1982). Gandhian non-violent tactics were adopted by that movement as a result of its religious institutional foundation, just as teach-ins are said to be adapted by student activists from Southern universities (Morris 1981). The earliest movements of the 18th and 19th centuries adapted organizational models from economic and religious groups for political purposes (Tarrow 1998). Tactics used by student anti-apartheid activists diffused among universities situated in structurally similar institutional positions (Soule 1997). Recruitment strategies have been known to be shaped by religious beliefs (Snow et al. 1980).

Clearly, examples abound. The question of how institutions matter then deserves more systematic attention. Some have already begun this project. Mische's (unpublished) work develops a perspective of movement dynamics using a socialization framework. By observing waves of incoming activists' and their prior institutional commitments, she draws conclusions about the changing character of the movement. Gamson (1992; 1995) examines the role of mass media (economic institutions) in framing processes. Smith (1996) has examined the role of religion in not only providing resources, but also shaping collective identities, tactics, and cultural symbols.

None, however, has drawn on the insights of new institutional theories. Are movements and movement organizations subjected to legitimacy pressures in the ways that schools and museums are (Meyer & Rowan 1977; DiMaggio & Powell 1983)? What are the sources of these pressures? To the extent that movements are confined to political contention, existing research does provide some answers. SMOs are often dependent on external sources for resources (e.g., foundation grants, celebrity endorsements, participants, etc.) and so must respect the constraints of legitimate political behavior (e.g., non-violent tactics, reformist political goals, familiar organizational forms, etc.). These ideas are not controversial, but neither have they been systematically developed within a neo-institutional framework.

Some organizational scholars who draw on this perspective are raising new and interesting questions about the role of social movements in institutional processes. They all seem to agree that movements emerge at the margins of existing institutions and are the source of cultural innovations (e.g., Rao et al. 2000; Clemens 1993; Lounsbury et al. 2003). But we might also ask whether the field of social movements itself serves as a source of legitimacy pressures and models of beliefs and behaviors. When movements emerge in highly disparate institutional contexts and yet adopt similar rhetoric, organizational forms, tactics, and frames, can we say that a relatively independent social movement institution exists?

“Bringing Institutions In”

  1. Blogger Erin Says:

    Jeff - It seems like Elizabeth Armstrong's Forging Gay Identities: Organizing Sexuality in San Francisco, 1950-1994 would be relevant for you, if you haven't already come across her. She asks a lot of questions and offers some good ideas about using institutionalism and social movement literature together.

  2. Blogger Jeff Says:

    Good comment - I'm very interested in Elizabeth Armstrong's work, although I haven't yet read her book. I'm more familiar with a great theoretical piece that she wrote with Mary Bernstein (presented at the ASAs, 2004) that advocates a "multi-institutional politics approach to social movements." They do raise interesting questions: Do tactical repertoires vary by protest targets? Do movements that exploit institutional contradictions find greater success than those that don't? Are social structures embedded in multiple institutions more resistant to challenges from movements? Are movements more successful when they target multiple institutions? Does movement factionalization increase when a movement targets multiple institutions?

    I look forward to reading more of her work.