William Gamson: Pluralism and the Strategy of Social Protest

William Gamson The Strategy of Social ProtestReading William Gamson made me feel like we’ve come a long long way in thinking about social movements — but then I realised I am speaking from a non-academic viewpoint. This book is really a conversation with pluralism (think Robert Dahl) and the modifications made to it to account for elites. It is an indictment of ‘collective behaviour’ theories and part of the fold of ‘resource management’ theories of movement. Exciting stuff? Not so much, but some good summaries of things that continue to shape how people think — I recognized so many of these concepts in things I read today, and had forgotten that they had a label and a fanclub. There is an exciting (and disturbing) finding about unruliness, but I shall save that.

So. Pluralism. I dimly remember some of this from as far back as the Federalist Papers:

an image of of a highly open system with free access for would-be competitors…A democratic political system must be able to handle two great problems if it is to continue successfully: the danger of tyranny or domination by a minority, and responsiveness to unmet or changing needs among its citizens. (5)

This fits well with ‘Collective Behavior’ theories, which see riots and unrest and violent conflict as

abnormalities or pathologies arising from the gap between an always imperfect reality and an ideal, abstract model In other words, the occasional, admitted failures of American democracy to produce orderly change are caused by departures from the ideal conditions of pluralism.’ (5)

To operate properly, pluralist political institutions require an underlying pluralist social structure and values as well. So what are these ideal conditions for an ideal democracy capable of change?

Procedural consensus: There is acceptance of the “culture” of constitutional democracy. One operates within the rules, the rules are considered generally fair, and defeats are accepted because of the strong legitimacy. (6)

Cross-Cutting Solidarities: Individuals have strong identifications and affiliations with solidarity groups at different levels below the total society… [that] overlap and cut across each other… (7)

Open Access to the Political Arena: There are no barriers to a group getting a hearing.

Balance of Power or Countervailing Power Operation: There is a sufficiently large number of groups that no one group can dominate. (7)

Flaws? This was a good short recap of the basis of pluralist thinking, I have dipped in and out of Dahl and don’t feel the need to return to it because my. sweet. jesus. Dahl wrote¬†Pluralist Democracy in the United States and argued all of this in 1967. I know I’ve just been reading about the civil rights movement, but this is written when people are still being assassinated for trying to register to vote. No poor person, no woman, no Black person or Native American or immigrant could ever fully have believed this. This belongs to an establishment that doesn’t really listen to those kinds of people, and this kind of thinking pushes blame for being locked out of such a system on people themselves.

Gamson writes:

“The flaw in the pluralist heaven, is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent” (quoting Schattschneider, 1960 p 35, p 9).

A white male accent as well. It ignores the existence of an elite, which many a critic broadened the theory to include, but William Gamson argues it also is overly sanguine about the issue of ‘permeability and openness to efforts at change. I’m glad he debunked some of these theories.

He looks at two main assumptions of pluralism (the ‘play nice because we are all civilized here’ ones):

  1. Only those groups whose objectives leave intact pluralist social structure and values will be “successful” Participation and success is denied to those who attack and try to change the pluralist order itself.

  2. Only those groups which use institutionally provided means will be successful — in particular, the electoral system and the political pressure or lobbying system. those who resort to the tactics of the streets will be unsuccessful. (12)

Part of me is so frustrated that the huge amount of work going into this study is focused on those ideas, which seem so obviously wrong. But I am glad it is done. William Gamson and teams of undergraduates made a list of all of the ‘challenging organizations’ they could find — came up with between 500 and 600 between 1800 and 1945, of which they did a sample of 53. Their focus:

The central issues concern the permeability of the political arena by new participants and how their success or failure is influenced by their strategy and organization. (22)

I am almost as interested in the groups they excluded — this in itself says so much about narrow ideas of citizenship in a pluralist society and who is excluded from that:

We also exclude groups whose members are neither American citizens nor striving for such citizenship. In particular, we do not include the various Indian nations, which have engaged in numerous wars and conflicts with the federal government, as challenging groups. (18)

How they measured the answer of permeability and success:

— to what extent was there ‘acceptance of a challenging group by its antagonists as a valid spokesman for a legitimate set of interests.’ (28)

…whether the group’s beneficiary gains new advantages during the challenge and its aftermath. (29)

Interesting. What a narrow, if important, measure of success this is! Another thing I don’t like so much about this kind of study which requires such quantifiable measurements. But some of the findings are really interesting.

Particularly Chapter 6, ‘The Success of the Unruly’ (72) Because William Gamson (and that large team of students) unexpectedly found that yes. ‘The violence users, it turns out, have a higher-than-average success rate.’ (79)

So ‘Does Violence Pay’?

Yes, yes it does.

‘Specifically, the data undermine the following line of thinking: violence is the product of frustration, desperation, and weakness. … Violence should be viewed as an instrumental; act, aimed at furthering the purposes of the group that uses it when they have some reason to think it will help their cause. This is especially likely to be true when the normal condemnation which attends to its use is muted or neutralized in the surrounding community, when it is tacitly condoned by large parts of the audience. In this sense, it grows from an impatience born of confidence and rising efficacy rather than the opposite. it occurs when hostility toward the victim renders it a relatively safe and costless strategy. The users of violence sense that they will be exonerated because they will be seen as more the midwives than the initiators of punishment. (81)

The example he uses here is of the ‘Night Riders’. Klan I was thinking, white council? But no…or at least, their main activity as a secret fraternal order was to ‘force all growers to join the [Planters Protective] Association’ and to force companies to only buy tobacco from members. I bet they engaged in some extracurricular activities, but it is a fascinating terrifying history of violence that succeeds in gaining quite a lot by taking over entire small towns and burning a couple of warehouses to the ground.They fought against a large corporation (the American Tobacco Company) attempting to take their livelihoods (there is more on their history here, and I imagine a number of other places). They are hell of scary and evoke a very different kind of violence, their fame emerged from the ways they turned this against white planters and townspeople.


This is really interesting when turned around to think about how oppression and domination have worked, how white privilege has been secured at the grassroots level.

William Gamson continues:

I am arguing, then, that it is not the weakness of the user but the weakness of the target that accounts for violence. (82)

Chilling, very chilling. And what does it mean for those on the other end?

The groups that receive violence…are threatening and vulnerable, and most fail to survive the physical attack to which they are subjected. (82)

The examples he gives are the First International, abolitionists, National Students League, miners in Cumberland Gap. Threatening because they look like they might succeed in their aims, vulnerable because they consist of, or are fighting for, the groups of people I argue fall outside the pluralist heaven — women, youth, people of colour, working class and poor.

The amount of violence always present in our society, and upon which it is founded, makes such a mockery of pluralism to me.

Gamson looks at other tactics beyond violence, disruptive tactics that he calls ‘constraints’ such as boycotts and marches that he found also improved success rates. In summary in writes:

Unruly groups, those that use violence, strikes, and other constraints, have better than average success. (87)

Chapter 7 he calls ‘Combat Readiness’. Interesting again, as a metaphor. It looks at how success rates matched the level of bureaucracy (‘keeping an organization in a state of readiness to act’) and resolving internal conflicts. (92)

He writes:

Each of these variables — bureaucracy, centralization of power, and factionalism — makes a contribution to success, and there is a substantial interaction between centralization and factionalism. A centralized, bureaucratic group that escapes factional splits is highly likely to be successful; so, in fact, is a decentralized, bureaucratic group that escapes factionalism, but it is less likely to escape than its centralized counterpart. (108)

But again, this kind of work cannot capture larger ideas of social change and how those are embodied in the ways that you work, the possibility you could succeed by his criteria, but fail in a deeper sense. Gamson isn’t unaware of these complexities, they simply lie outside what this kind of study can look at.

Chapter 8 – Historical context? This is the weakest chapter I think. His hypothesis is that ‘challenging groups should enjoy relatively greater success in times of general crisis than in quiet times.’ (112) But they don’t, he finds, not really. Established groups sometimes get further on their agendas. That is somewhat interesting in itself, but approaching it from this angle kind of misses the point I think,¬† by not focusing on the kinds of change attempted and achieved — the quality of changes achieved in certain periods and the level of mass movement that made them possible. Landmark shifts in ability to organize unions and a social safety net were made after the great depression, the civil rights movement achieving political and voting rights through the crisis period of 1960s upheaval… surely that is important, though perhaps many other kinds of challenge groups failed to advance. My old boss use to always bang on about the ‘political moment’, and she was almost always right.

It ends with Limits of Populism, and a very brief look at the new ‘resource management’ paradigm as an alternative to the ‘collective behaviour’ one. I have to read Tilly I know. It all fills me with distaste, the idea that social change is about resource management is quite infuriating. But I do like this final thought:

The pluralist image, then, is a half-truth. It misleads us when applied to the relations between political challengers and members of the polity. The appropriate image for this political interaction is more a fight with few holds barred than it is a contest under well-defined rules. (142)

[Gamson, William A. (1975) The Strategy of Social Protest. Homewood, IL: The Dorsey Press.]

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