On Social Movement Organizations

5649163The “reality” espoused in the mainstream of society is but one reality: a privileged reality that excludes or represses many others. Rejecting their exclusion or repression, the insurgent realities of social movement organizations challenge mainstream reality and seek to establish new and better ways of life.

In this guide I explain (1) how social scientists go about studying social movement organizations — their research procedures — and (2) what investigators have learned about these insurgent realities in the form of generalizations or propositions that answer key questions.

This is a curious book, good I think for teaching, as one way to get students to think through all the different ways they can study an organization working to change the world. It simplifies a lot of the complexities of things in a decent introductory way. It hits all the right areas of work and strategy I think (from a practitioners point of view it seems exhaustive and quite common-sensical, a good sign I suppose), but it pursues a level of abstraction, however, that I found quite difficult, and that in many ways detracted from its usefulness in actually thinking about social movement rather than just dissecting it.

I suppose for me, the point is not to just understand the world, but also to change it through engaged scholarship. At this level of abstraction, that seems almost impossible. For anyone. But when he gets to the nitty gritty, I usually like it. Like this:

…social movements and social change do not merely “happen.” Instead, they are constructed by people in struggle. (xiii)

Anyway. Lofland’s definition of Social Movement Organizations (SMOs):

SMOs are associations of persons making idealistic and moralistic claims about how human personal or group life out to be organized that, at the times of their claims-making, are marginal to or excluded from mainstream society–the then dominant constructions of what is realistic, reasonable, and moral.  (2-3)

On the mainstream they are making claims on:

The most prevalent form of human society possesses or displays a mainstream: a set of institutions and their authoritative decision-makers that can and do maintain public order, dominate economic activity, and provide plausible rationales for exercising power and authority in such matters (4)

This is a process of reality-making, and I like that he notes there is another side of it, which is reality-excluding, and this is where SMOs work. They fall along a scale of resistance from atomised and covert individual acts of resistance to bandits and gangs to individual crusades to the organisation to the social movement.

he has an interesting definition of social Movement:

The continuity and organization that are the marks of a social movement are signaled by the presence of several and perhaps hundred or thousands of named associations that view themselves as part of “the movement” (11)

Lofland gives his own take on the early collective behaviour paradigm — I don’t think I want to read any of that but suppose I should. Still, research on how crowd/mass insurgencies were all irrational is calculated to make me angry. I do like this point though:

Further work looks at it as a group of people working to collective ends, they miss the fundamental point that movements are actually about ‘challenging constructions of reality’ (14)

I like this very simple view as well:

“mainstream” and “marginal/excluded” realities are about these disparities in wealth, power, prestige, and organization.

Therefore, when we speak of citizens collectively challenging mainstream reality, we are talking about less wealthy, powerful, prestigeful, established, and organized entities in contests with wealthier, more powerful, more prestigeful, established and organized entitites. (15)

Another interesting thing? The definition of:

Utopias, in which there is an effort to bring all the basic aspects of living under a single geographically consolidated scheme of working, residing, familial relations, socializing, and understanding existence. (145)

I like that in looking at different structures he notes the existence of  ‘front organization[s]’, groups formed by a radical organization to work on a particular issue of their platform — I never really met anyone in one until I moved to the UK. I also, of course, enjoyed seeing the movement halfway house, that concept I so love from Aldon D. Morris, who gets more than one mention here.

There is a whole list of potential causal variable for the rise of SMOs, which I also found interesting. The external ones are:

  • Social Inequality and Change
  • Political Opportunity
  • State Penetration of Citizen Life

…in penetrating citizen life, the state can be defined as responsible for citizen life. the more responsibility the state assumes, the greater is the likelihood that citizens will demand the state live up to its responsibilities. (184)

  • Prosperity

And internal ones:

  • Geographical Concentration
  • Prior Organization and Collective Identity
  • Cross-cutting Solidarities

A curious one this one — the phrasing copied straight from pluralist theories of what makes pluralism work, but here it is inversed — says that

new SMO potential of a population is increased to the degree its members lack “ties to other groups in society”. (187)

Whereas the ideal state of pluralism demands many such cross-cutting ties.

  • Perceptions and Cultures of Injustice

I found the idea of  “micro mobilization contexts” interesting as well, though I am not at all sure what I think of McCarthy & Zald’s theory. These contexts, they argue, rest on four variables: Leadership Availability, Communication Networks & Similar Resources, Network Integration, Situational Availability. To explore further later, but I do think that key to everything is a group that believes its struggle is necessary and victory is possible.

It is in such settings that at least two fundamentally important kinds of cognitive processes can take place (or fail to take place). These two processes relate, first, to developing a rationale that legitimates the SMO’s formation and action, and second, to developing a belief that the SMO and its actions are necessary and will be in some sense worth the effort or be effective. (195)

There is a lot on framing of struggle as well, Lofland draws on Snow and Oliver who write that it is:

a process of reality construction [that is] active, ongoing and continually evolving…It entails agency in the sense that what evolves is a product of joint action by movement participants in encounters with antagonists and targets; and it is contentious in the sense that it generates alternative interpretive scheme that may challenge existing frames. (266)

This echoes a lot that can be found in Re:Imagining Change, though I am curious (and worried maybe) about the ways that focusing on framing takes away from the development of critical thinking and popular education. Not that it has to of course. There was an equally interesting mention of the ‘Dramturgic Dimensions’ of the work – ‘to focus on how an image of power of an SMO is constructed and displayed.’ It looks at scripting, staging, performing, interpreting. (276)

I almost laughed out loud at this category of things that SMOs do — ‘Staid, Conventional Activities‘ (272). They may be fighting for insurgent reality, but they do some of the boring things mainstream groups do too. On this list?

  • Media-managing
  • Educating
  • Researching
  • Politicking
  • Litigating

Curious again, that educating is on that list. I have a post or three on Freire and Horton coming up, that will be good. But anyway, this is an interesting look at the totality of all you could possibly look at when studying social movement organizations, how you might go about it and sources to look at, and some summarisation of who and how others have done so…definitely a teaching tool, though case studies always seem easier to grapple with to me…

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