pay attention to movements, not just activists and events

Let’s say you work in a school or college, a newsroom, a city government, or a firm. You may encounter a social movement when it makes demands on you. Regardless of your opinion of its demands, you probably see it as different in kind from the organization where you work. Your organization has a bank account, a board, and a mission statement. The social movement may appear to you mainly in the guise of individuals who participate in events or episodes—people you call protesters, boycotters, strikers, or voters. Or you may think of the movement as the name for people who share beliefs or goals. For instance, you could notice that many of your students have become environmentalists, or anti-racists, or neo-fascists. To you, they are a movement.

I want to encourage a different view. Any “movement” that is worthy of that name persists over multiple events and episodes (McAdam, Tarrow & Tilly 2001). It recruits active members and supporters and collects resources, which it uses in more or less strategic ways. Its members may not agree about anything in particular, not even about the marquee slogans of the movement. Ziad Munson has found that many anti-abortion protesters do not start with strong opinions about that issue but are recruited into activist networks from which they derive their anti-abortion views while they act (Munson 2010).

“Opponents of abortion” is the name for a segment of the population, who can be identified with a survey that asks opinion questions. The Pro-Life Movement, on the other hand, is a social entity that has resources and membership that persist over time; some of its members are not even against abortion. This is typical of movements in general.

Once you distinguish between individuals (activists, radicals, protesters) and a movement, you will notice that the movement resembles your own organization in some respects. It may encompass several autonomous components, but it still constitutes a larger whole with a real presence. For example, the American Civil Rights Movement encompassed many churches networked together in organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Council, classic membership associations like the NAACP and the Urban League, a political party (the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party) and a union (the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), among their entities, but we can still tell the movement’s history and describe its central tenets and tendencies at each point in the story

You should not only ask: What political opinions do I hold and which categories of citizens do I agree or disagree with? You should also ask: What do I think of the social movements of the day? Are they drawing diverse people together for generative conversations? Are they inventing new forms of political action that are valuable? Are they bringing out the best in their members? Do they create “Free Spaces,” forums in which their members discuss and learn (Evans & Boyte 1986)? Examples from the past include Grange Halls in Populism, Freedom Schools in the Civil Rights Movement, Talk-Ins against the Vietnam War, consciousness-raising circles in Second Wave Feminism, the “human microphones” of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the uses of hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo to organize conversations online.

On the other hand, do the social movements of the day promote norms and habits that damage their members or other people? Do they tend toward extremism, nihilism, cynicism, a cult of personality, group-think, or other pathologies? How good are they at SPUD?

A movement can be worthy of support even if you disagree in part with its current agenda, if it provides a forum for learning, growth, and solidarity. We can’t accomplish much alone, so it can be your civic responsibility to participate in a movement that you don’t endorse 100% if you think it’s better than nothing and has the potential to improve. On the other hand, you may find that you agree with every demand of a social movement but choose to avoid it because of its internal dynamics. The point is to pay attention to the movement, not just the claims that it makes at the moment.

See also: a better approach to coalition politicsHabermas with a Whiff of Tear Gas: Nonviolent Campaigns and Deliberation in an Era of Authoritarianismthe value of diversity and discussion within social movementsa sketch of a theory of social movements; and against methodological individualism

Sources: Evans, Sara M & Boyte, Harry C., 1986. Free Spaces: The Sources of Democratic Change in America. New York : Harper & Row; McAdam, Doug, Tarrow, Sidney and Tilly, Charles, 2001. Dynamics of Contention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press); Munson, Ziad W. 2010; The Making of Pro-Life Activists: How Social Movement Mobilization Works. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.