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Timing isn't everything

At least since the Sixties, social movement scholars have been fascinated by the question why do social movements arise? Case studies (e.g., McAdam 1982) have typically focused on the timing of movement emergence - i.e., why did this movement arise at this time? Others have taken a much broader view and asked why did "the Social Movement" (a particular form of contentious politics) emerge when it did instead of some other form (Tilly 1978, Tarrow 1998)?

An important difference between the two approaches is their definition of social movements. The former usually defines movements something like this:

A social movement is a set of opinions and beliefs in a population which represents preferences for changing some elements of the social structure and/or reward distribution of a society (McCarthy & Zald 1977: 1217-18).

This "set of opinions" could conceivably take any form at all, from violent riots to poetry readings to op-eds in the newspapers. What is important is not the means of changing social structures but the ideas. Contrast that to the following:

[A social movement] consists of a sustained challenge to power holders in the name of a population living under the juridiction of those power holders by means of repeated public displays of that population's worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment. (Tilly, in Giugni et al. 1999)

Here the emphasis shifts from the set of beliefs and opinions to the "public displays" of WUNC (worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment), i.e., the form of contentious politics. Tilly and others examine the emergence of this form from a macro-level of analysis - e.g., the social movement arose as a form of claims-making when state power shifted from king to parliament, work shifted from patron-client to wage labor arrangements, restrictions on association, public assembly, and speech gave way to "sustained challenges to power holders," and so on. The social movement repertoire - which includes demonstrations, petitions, special purpose associations, press releases, and marches - was more congruent with the political and economic structures of the 19th century than were attacks on houses, forced illuminations, rough music, grain seizures, and the like. The importance of this approach has been to challenge the assumption implicit in much case study research that launching social movements was the only option for agrieved populations when it arose, but what is left out is the great variation among organizations in their adherence to the social movement model.

Why do some organizations sometimes employ social movement forms or tactics when other tactics (e.g., lobbying, running political campaigns, guerrilla warfare, etc.) are also available? This is the organizational analog to the question posed above. By framing it in this way I think I may be able to tap some unanswered questions in the organizations literature that might benefit from this ongoing theoretical discussion of social movements. How do cross-institutional ties affect organizational behavior? Can organizations jump from one organizational field to another? What are the sources of legitimacy for social movement organizations? Under what conditions can/do organizations resist institutional pressures of conformity? Now that I've spent some time trying to convince you that this is an interesting question, what do you think? Is it? Is it worthy of sustained attention in the form of, say, a dissertation?

“Timing isn't everything”

  1. Blogger Brayden Says:

    Jeff - I like your question. I've actually thought about that question too and even have a rough outline of a grant proposal that would look at that particular question. Right now we have a data problem. Most of the studies interested in protest sample on the dependent variable and the same could be said of those studies looking at other forms of organizational political action. Knoke and Laumann provide the best example of a study addressing this question, but they weren't really concerned with protest.

  2. Blogger Jeff Says:

    How about this: we draw a sample of all organizations that appear in a newspaper during a given period (say, a year) and which use social movement tactics (e.g., march, rally, demonstration). Then we survey or interview these organizations, gathering information on the kinds of tactics they have used, social movement-type or otherwise. Now we have a sample of organizations that have at one time or another used SM tactics. As long as we have variation in the forms of activity that these organizations engage in (and we know they used SM tactics at least once), then we can avoid the problem of selecting on the D.V.

    With that said, you should definitely share more of your thoughts and maybe even your proposal outline, amigo. This may become a serious pursuit for me.

  3. Blogger Drek Says:

    I think you may be setting the bar pretty high, Jeff. How are you defining organizations? For that matter how are you defining your movement tactics? I mean, a parade has a lot in common with a "march" but somehow I think the two phenomena are still fairly different. I'm not trying to be a jerk here (Although I'm managing it with remarkable skill for all that) but I think you need to pick your population/sample very carefully here.

  4. Blogger Brayden Says:

    The problem with your idea Jeff, I think, is that you're still sampling on the dependent variable. You're only looking at organizations that engage in at least some kind social movement activity, which is going to make it impossible for you to tell the differences between organizations that engage in protest versus those that decide to participate exclusively in more institutional forms of politics. You need to find some way of generating an organizational sample that is independent of their tactical repertoire.

  5. Blogger Jeff Says:

    Brayden: I'm resisting, but not ignoring. Does it make sense to include organizations in an analysis like this like the Chamber of Commerce, a community college, or the ROTC? Most organizations I think we would agree are simply not "at risk" of adopting SM forms. One way to identify the at-risk population (and I'm wide open to other suggestions here) is to begin with those that have demonstrated their ability and wherewithal to use an SM form at least once. Now why do some of those organizations go on to strongly resemble SMOs while others remain more committed to other forms of organizing? Under what conditions do voluntary associations launch boycotts, stage demonstrations, or march. Conversely, under what conditions do advocacy organizations (SMOs) jump into electoral campaigns or lobbying?

    All organizational populations can be said to span organizational "fields," and as such the drawing of analytical boundaries is both imperative and somewhat arbitrary. Because my interests are in the dynamics at these organizational field boundaries, I think it makes perfect sense to sample those organizations that fall in the gray area in between. Some are more gray than others, and yes I realize that the greater the variation the easier the explanation. Do you propose an alternative?

    Drek: Fortunately, the SM literature is rife with definitional precedents and debates - although no definition of movements or SM tactics is water-tight. But the fact that a march can be used by a political campaign and a social movement is exactly what interests me - this is the gray area I mentioned above. There is no hard and fast line between these different forms of politics (or "contentious action"), but rather a dynamic boundary that shifts as the relations change between organizations, their tactics, targets, and systems of meaning.