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Dog Walks and Dissertations

Friday, January 21, 2005 by Jeff

Dog walks are going to inspire my dissertation. No, I'm not going to study human-animal communication, or even the "streetcorner society" in my medium-sized Southwestern city. Dog walks, for those of you who don't do them, are a brilliant time for thinking. For those interested in the human-animal connection (and please forgive my crudeness), is there a relationship between canine fecal production and intellectual production?

Early this morning, with my dog in tow and a U2 melody in my head (does u2 inspire intellectual production?), I reached my stride between 3rd and 4th Avenues. What do social movements produce in their interactions with Church, State, Capital, Education, and the families from whence they come? The question I've been asking in various forms for a year now crystalized in my head. I felt inspired. What residual, what innovation, what "meme" do movements insert into the institutional frameworks that surround them that outlasts the very movements that inspired them? I'm looking for a "thing" that movements create that constitutes a changed institutional environment.

Historical studies of the social movement (Tarrow 1998; Tilly 2004) show that social movements played a role in creating their own political opportunities. By pushing the envelope of acceptable political activity, movements changed institutions that previously did not recognize them as legitimate and created spaces for popular protest. In Britain, public gatherings and organizations of "ordinary people" - aside from long-recognized guilds, religious groups, community councils, and ritual celebrations and mourning - were illegal. There was no "Society for [this cause]" or "People against [that issue]." When regular people wanted to make claims on the government they had to go through "legitimate institutional channels," or face repression. Legitimate channels at that time meant guilds, religous groups, and community councils which could petition the Crown for redress of their grievances.

So how did "pushing the envelope" finally lead to institutionalization instead of repression? Cross-class coalitions seem to play a big role. Without alliances with the wealthy and powerful social movements were likely to be crushed by the State (particularly the British state, the most powerful in the world at that time). By throwing their numerical weight behind wealthy and powerful political candidates (like John Wilkes) British subjects became "useful" to some portions of the privileged classes. Those same portions of the elite benefited from the very institutional changes that made popular politicals acceptable - representative parliaments that stole power from the Crown. The more opportunities that these elites had to challenge political institutions in this way from the inside, the more outsiders found themselves in positions of influence. "Regular people," it turns out, shape the perceived legitimacy of the wealthy and powerful.

Obviously, the interaction between institutions and social movements is complex. The very mechanisms that make popular movements possible are in turn influenced by movements. Today, many social movements are highly routinized, led by experienced professionals, and accepted as legitimate platforms for popular participation in politics (less so in business, religion, education, and families). Many governments have laws and regulations (as well as norms and taken-for-granted beliefs) that channel movements into acceptable political activity (e.g., sanctioned demonstrations, contained marches and rallies, and tax-exempt organizations). These institutional changes are innovations made possible in part by the movements that benefit from them. The task, as I see it, is to identify concretely what these institutional changes are that contribute to and outlive the movements that create them.

By the time my dog and I got home, I had solidified the question: What "things" do movements create that constitute an opportunity for popular involvement in institutional decision-making? Unfortunately, I realize now that this is the more or less the same question that I've been asking for more than a year in various forms. This morning on my dog walk, my intellectual inspiration was dampened only by that damned U2 song still ringing in my head: "I still haven't found what I'm looking for." Shit.

So your movement wants to change institutions?

Tuesday, January 11, 2005 by Jeff

Let's say you want to change the State (a common target) and you don't want to just pass a law but you want to change the way government works. Or, maybe you want to alter the role of women in the economy, or in Christianity. You might aim to reorient the traditional view of "normal" families as having a father, mother, and children, to include, let's say, same-sex couples or a single-headed households. Sociology suggests many things you can do, and many others that you can only hope for.

Begin by mobilizing resources, recruiting participants, building alliances, and making connections with government elites. As a movement, tell us what's so unjust about the current form of government; convince us that someone - including your social movement - can do something about it; give us a great idea about what should be done about it; give us the sense that "we" belong in this movement; and then get out there and demonstrate it. Keep the public's attention and the authorities on their toes by using disruptive tactics - blockades, boycotts, strikes, sit-ins - particularly tactics that are unfamiliar to authorities and yet easily undertood by your intended audiences. When your tactics no longer create a crisis - i.e., when they become routine for the authorities - move on to a new disruptive tactic. Violence is probably better to avoid, and rather just threaten, unless you think that repression by the State will in your case be a benefit for this movement (this is usually unlikely). Diversify the organization of your movement. Its best to have a mix of centralized, bureaucratic organizations and decentralized, less formalized organizations. Leave the local organizing to the people who know it best - the locals - but nationally coordinate (not necessarily control) and sustain these local centers of organizing. These things are more or less within your control, but there are many important factors that few, if any, control.

Your movement will have more influence on the State if: political elites are divided or realigning their coalitions and alliances; some elites align themselves with your movement to gain political leverage (with the appearance of support from "the people"); repression is at a minimum and/or declining; you can find multiple points of access to the government (multiple decision-making bodies or opportunities to voice your grievances); the government you're targeting has historically treated movements inclusively; and, the government is centralized enough to implement the reforms you seek.

What if it's not the State that you want to change, but religion, or the educational system, the economy, or Science? Most of the above factors still apply, but others may be added. If the institution you're targeting is dependent on "clients," such as, customers, investors, benefactors, or others that consume its services, then it's more vulnerable to your movement. If it is tied to the State (e.g., maybe it receives money from the State, or the State is a major client), then you might find opportunities for alliances with other movements that are targeting the state. Institutions are also more vulnerable when they experience rapid growth in members, money, and/or organizations, and have a decentralized power structure.

A successful social movement to change institutions is likely to be one that can mobilize resources and skillfully employ them in creative and effective ways. However, even those movements that do this may not be successful. The state of the institutions you take on also matters, being more or less vulnerable to your challenge. Some institutional factors mentioned above are unlikely to change at all, but others may rise and fall as economic, political, and social conditions change. It is during these fleeting times of institutional vulnerability that your movement has a window of opportunity to change the institution, if it's already organized to take advantage of it.

So you want to study SMs and institutional change?

by Jeff

I'm flirting with possible dissertation ideas here. Why here?

Possible dialogue. Force myself to write. Distract and entertain. Inspire...

Organizing for Institutional Change

Imagine a comparative analysis of local social movements in roughly half-a-dozen U.S. cities. Data would include a qualitative, historical look at each urban context, emphasizing the organization and dominant logics of the cities' major insitutions - e.g., politics and their party organizations and social movements, religion and its churches, the economy and its major employers. We might also collect organizational-level network data for SMOs, their allies, and their foes. Not only would this network data provide interesting research opportunities in its own right, but coupled with the qualitative institutional field-level analysis we could ask important questions about the ability of community movements to adapt to and shape their local institutions.

The Political-Economy of Social Movement Opportunities

Let's say that its possible to get travel money. And let's just say (for sake of discussion) that I could also hire a translator or two. Now, take two research sites - Guatemala and Nicaragua - and let's learn everything we can about their respective economies (maybe just their agricultural sectors, to keep things simple) over the past 50 years. Then find key informants in politics, major businesses, major lending organizations (including national banks, IMF, the World Bank), and perhaps religion and education. Using interviews with these people, we could piece together a story of the major economic changes throughout the period and the roles that social movements (or guerrilla groups) played in these changes. A seperate historical analysis of the movements and groups will be necessary to establish the major points of contact between the movements and businesses, associations, political parties, and political leaders. Given these two distinctive contexts, what accounts for a social movement's influence on the local economy?

The Economics of Too Much Money

Tuesday, January 04, 2005 by Jeff

A French non-profit disaster relief organization working on the Asian crisis is facing its own tsunami of "more than enough" donations, and consequently is turning away money. This makes for a strange economic story: the supply of donations has exceeded demand and so have lost value to their intended recipients.

If relief organizations can choose between increasing their supply of services (because demand for them has increased) or turn away donations, why would they ever choose the latter?

Institutional economists (e.g., North) have a better story and an answer. They point to the influence of legal contraints, particularly laws and regulations, that shape what is possible for an organization to do. In this particular case, donations are coming with conditions, contractual obligations that direct donations to specific programs. Ironically, relief organizations may find themselves with too much money for one program as another one starves. Some organizations have wisely anticipated these institutional barriers. "[M]ost German charities had been careful to broadly frame their aid requests so that they were not legally tied to providing specific assistance in one country" (Reuters). The result is likely to be a growth in the number and size of relief organizations, even as some fail to adapt to the changing circumstances.

The question of a UN representative aptly reflects the absurdity of the situation: "Could we wake up please to those 20 forgotten emergencies as we have woken up so generously to this enormous tsunami...?"

Now Hiring: Experienced Anti-war Organizer

by Jeff

Imagine for a second how difficult it would be to organize a global protest event, an international strike. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people and organizations must be reached, convinced, and organized. Plans must be clear, simple, and precise. This is a truly immense job that only skilled organizers could accomplish, and the last thing you would want to do is publicize the wrong date.

On January 14th - or is it the 20th? - a Global Walkout for Peace, Freedom, and Justice for All is being planned by a group calling itself A Global Walkout Network (led in part by Food Not Bombs activist Keith McHenry) to oppose the Bush administration and its war on Iraq. For months they have been advertising and coordinating two international strikes, one in January and one in March. Trouble is, less than a month before the first walkout they changed the date.

This wouldn't be so absurd if the organizers had it within their power to stop such a global event, but unfortunately the old information isn't going away easily, and right now in coffee houses, on bulletin boards, and across the internet, the old information mixes with the new. And we are left to wonder. I'd sure hate to be the only guy ditching work that day.

Today you can still find websites with the old dates here, here and here, sites with the new dates here and here, and even some with all three dates, here and here. The group's main website, amusingly enough, is the most confusing of all!

Its headline reads:

Walkout Inauguration Day and the Anniversary of the invasion of Iraq THURSDAY, JANUARY 20 AND MARCH 18, 2005

Seems clear, until you read the first paragraph:

Join the coalition of artists, musicians, students...factory and train workers walk [sic.] the road to freedom and peace and walkout on January 14 and March 18, 2005.

...and then:

Consider walking out of your job or class on January 20 and March 18, 2005.

OK, maybe it was just that one typo. But then:

People all over the world are planning two weekends of actions to stop the illegal war and Bush's agenda. One proposal is a walkout on Friday January 14th, Thursday January 20th and March 18th where workers and students take the day off.

If you're a sincere supporter and want to participate in this well-intentioned event, it looks like you'd better plan on taking three sick days this Spring. (It's times like this that I question whether the opposition to corporate globalization is really in good hands.)

Teaching Tilly

Sunday, January 02, 2005 by Jeff

Tilly, Charles. 2004. Social Movements, 1768-2004. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Anyone read this and care to comment? I'm teaching a Social Movements course with it next week and am just now making my way through it. I should decide things soon like: should we skip some chapters? Is it engaging enough for undergrads? Does it complement the rest of the literature? Etc.

Are there any other SMs people out there?


Jeff A. Larson
Sociologist, Arizona.


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