On Democratic Revolutions

By Elisabeth Clemens

American Insurgents, American Patriots

Breen, T.H. 2010. American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People. Hill and Wang.

In the final years of the eighteenth century, political insurgents on both sides of the Atlantic attempted something radically new:  to institute government by the consent of the governed.    Yet these efforts played out rather differently in France and the United States.  As exemplars, these two cases have long informed the theoretical imaginations of political sociologists and social movement scholars.  Two recent works at the intersection of history and social theory, however, suggest that we may all need to recheck some of our basic assumptions.

With American Insurgents, American Patriots:  The Revolution of the People (Hill & Wang, 2010), T.H. Breen has produced that rare work of scholarship that one actually might want to read in a hammock or a beach chair.  Exploiting the organized obsession with the American Revolution, embodied in so many wonderful local history associations and library collections, Breen reconstructs the close-to-the-ground processes by which some communities remained loyal to the British Empire while in others the social network pressures to join the insurgency became close to irresistible. Continue reading

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Great Books for Summer Reading, 2014

This summer, we are continuing our annual tradition of offering readers a healthy selection of great books for your summer reading lists.  We have invited contributors to choose their favorite social movements/protest-related book of the past couple years, whether scholarly, activist, or fiction, and write a short review. The list of recommended titles is especially diverse this year, so there should be something for everyone.  Enjoy these insightful essays and look for a few more to post later this month!

Phillip Ayoub, European University Institute and Drexel University
Out in Africa: LGBT Organizing in Namibia and South Africa (review)

Elisabeth Clemens, University of Chicago
American Insurgents, American Patriots and Demands of Liberty (review)

Catherine Corrigall-Brown, University of Western Ontario
Welcome to Resisterville: American Dissidents in British Columbia (review)

Paul-Brian McInerney, University of Illinois at Chicago
Contention and Corporate Social Responsibility (review)

Will Moore, Florida State University
Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (review)

Kathleen Oberlin, Indiana University
Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (review)

Jo Reger, Oakland University
Resistance and The Politics of Child Sexual Abuse: Emotions, Social Movements and the State and At The Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape (review)

Deana A. Rohlinger, Florida State University
Silo Saga (review)

Fabio Rojas, Indiana University
Political Epistemics:The Secret Police, the Opposition, and the End of East German Socialism (review)

Rima Wilkes, University of British Columbia
Direct Action, Deliberation, and Diffusion: Collective Action after the WTO Protests in Seattle (review)


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When Bad Coverage is Good Coverage

We know a lot about the ways media coverage shapes mobilization. Supportive coverage can help movements challenge dominant discourses, expand support, and gain leverage (E.g. Gamson et al 1992). Conversely, negative coverage can delegitimize movements in various ways, including by skewing coverage away from substantive issues or disproportionately highlighting violence in the movement (E.g. Gitlin 1980). Although research on movements and media take varying methodological and substantive approaches, it is a generally accepted proposition that, all things being equal, positive media coverage supports movement mobilization. Yet we would expect it likely is not this simple.

Some movements have especially salient frames about media bias that are central to their grievances. Conservative movements in the U.S. in particular have long-held perceptions of liberal bias about the “mainstream” media. This belief appears broadly held and supported by major conservative media (e.g. Brock 2004). Consequently, negative coverage may have a complicating effect on some (especially conservative?) movements. Continue reading

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Too Green, Too Idealistic, and Not Near Cynical Enough

Several months ago I was excited to accept a tenure-track assistant professor position in sociology at a small Midwestern liberal-arts university. Although I am grateful to be employed and am looking forward to becoming a real, grown-up teacher after many years of graduate school, I am a bit anxious about the 4-4 teaching load that begins in several months. Nevertheless, because my dissertation is focused on social movements I am particularly excited about teaching a course this fall entitled: Social Justice and Social Change.

In preparing the syllabus, I found myself drawing from similar courses I had taken, taught, assisted with, and a selection of a dozen other syllabi I found posted on the internet. Besides being fascinated by the various approaches used by other professors, and gleaning some excellent reading and resource suggestions, I sensed something was missing. Only one of the syllabi I encountered included a section on practical training in social movement building. Continue reading


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Reproductive Rights, the Supreme Court, and Institutionalization

The most recent Hobby Lobby decision reminded me of previous cases where the Supreme Court adjudicated whether federal and state funding could be used for abortions (Harris v. McRae and Williams v. Zbaras). In 1980 the Supreme Court heard two cases related to the Hyde Amendment of 1976. The Hyde Amendment is a “rider” type of legislation that prohibits federal funding of abortion when it is medically “unnecessary.” In both cases the Court affirmed the law. Scholars of the abortion debate often view the passage of this law and the Court’s support as a critical historical juncture (Ferree, Gamson, Gerhards, and Rucht 2002; Staggenborg 1989). Both the Hyde legislation and the Court’s affirmation represent the first major anti-abortion successes following the Roe v. Wade case (1973). The Roe v. Wade decision was a landmark success for the abortion-rights movement, and the victory sparked a countermobilization that was strong and effective at challenging abortion rights activists (Meyer and Staggenborg 1996). Given the most recent Hobby Lobby decision, the tangible benefits of Roe v. Wade may come into question.  Continue reading

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Occupy Central, 1 July Pro-democracy Demonstration, and Future of Hong Kong

On July 1, the 17th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China, more than 500,000 people held large-scale pro-democracy demonstration in support of universal suffrage and political development in the city. This was the biggest street demonstration in Hong Kong’s history.

The scale of the protests reflects local residents’ anger and frustration at Beijing’s intervention in Hong Kong’s democratic development. As a Special Administrative Region of China, Hong Kong retains “a high degree of autonomy” with its own executive, legislature, and judiciary system under a “one country, two systems” framework. However, in early June, the Chinese government issued a strongly-worded “white paper,” asserting that Hong Kong does not have “full autonomy” and the ultimate power over the city lay with the Beijing authority. A few months earlier, the central government also stressed that the election of the next chief executive in 2017 only allows candidates who “love China,” although it promised Hong Kong could vote for their own leader by universal suffrage in 2017. Continue reading

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Direct and Indirect Challenges to the Pipeline

pipeline_protest1Over the course of the last two years, two pipeline projects – Northern Gateway and Keystone – have generated opposition from environmental groups in both the U.S. and Canada. As Rennie of the Canadian Press (June 17) notes, the pipelines have become highly political in both countries. In an article I wrote for Critical Mass, I mentioned that in the U.S., the Keystone pipeline project has posed a problem for President Obama and the Democrats given that environmentalists are against its construction while many others see it as creating jobs. There has been a tremendous push in Congress to get Obama to sign legislation that would allow for Keystone’s construction on the one hand, and Democrats hoping that Obama would veto such a bill on the other. Nonetheless, policy experts seem to believe that the Keystone project would inevitably move forward – if Canada is building a pipeline anyway, why shouldn’t Americans benefit from it? In fact, earlier polls did show that the American public thought energy security was a more important issue than greenhouse gases and a majority favored the pipeline’s construction (although the saliency of the issue among the public has likely varied greatly over the last year). Continue reading

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Corporate Social Media and Activism

The recent kerfuffle surrounding Facebook’s emotional contagion experiment has produced a lot of discussion in tech social media and academic circles about ethics, the IRB, and the ability of a company to engage in this kind of experimental manipulation.

As several people have pointed out, companies are engaged in this kind of manipulation all the time. The practice of A/B testing websites and various news content is common and pervasive. Facebook is (and probably has been for quite some time) constantly changing which parts of the site you see to maximize clicks for their advertisers. Their goal is ultimately profit.

Bringing this back to movements, I see a parallel discussion occurring within movement circles, especially ones which are tech-oriented. Many movements, especially ones with more radical aims, often discuss whether to engage in social media mobilizing or whether to avoid it altogether. These activists generally recognize that mobilizing efforts via popular social media can be effective. The tension is that these social media sites are not in the business of supporting movements — they’re companies. They’re oriented towards profit. Moreover, many of these social media companies aid in state surveillance, either by being complicit in a PRISM-style program like we’ve had in the United States, or simply by making mobilizing plans available to everyone (it’s not that activists are unaware of this fact either — in my interviews with activists in Egypt, they talked about how social media channels were actually used in misdirection of police while alternative channels were used for publicizing meeting points during the first days of the 2011 revolution).

Radical tech activists have tried to set up a number of alternative sites for mobilization. Groups like the May 1st Collective and riseup.net have made it a point to build alternative networks for their organizations, and projects like Diaspora* have sought to break the centralization of social media sites altogether. But social media sites don’t work when there’s no people on them, and the people who use these alternative sites are probably already involved in these movements. Use of these alternatives sometimes requires a high level of technical competence and have a steep learning curve, so if you’re not already committed, then why bother? There’s no use preaching to the choir unless the explicit purpose is coordination of disciplined cadres. But in general, if the purpose is mobilizing people against particular targets, movements need to widen their bases and to get as much press as possible.

How do activists negotiate and reconcile these two positions? From what I can tell, not much social movement literature on movements and technology explores this. Social media is a tool, for sure. But tools have limitations, especially tools which are, in the end, at odds with activists’ moral worldviews. Activists have to wrangle with the morality of using them. There’s plenty of research to be done here.

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Review of Direct Action, Deliberation, and Diffusion: Collective Action after the WTO Protests in Seattle


Wood, Leslie. 2012. Direct Action, Deliberation, and Diffusion: Collective Action after the WTO Protests in Seattle. Cambridge University Press.

The 1999 World Trade Organization Meetings in Seattle was a pivotal turning point for activists around the globe. It was a turning point, not only because outsiders brought the meetings themselves to a grind, but also because activists made innovative use of dramatic new tactics of resistance. These new and highly visible tactics included the Black Bloc, the use of Giant Puppets, the creating of Lockbox blockades, and practicing jail solidarity.

The Black Bloc is not an organization. Nor is it a group. It is a tactic that “involves dressing in black and masking one’s fact (often with a black bandanna), moving in tightly packed groups, and protecting members of the group from police encroachment through evasive maneuvers” (Wood, 34). Lockbox blockades are blockades in which activists lock themselves to each other and objects and jail solidarity entails a refusal to “cooperate with authorities during arrest and processing” (Wood, 37).

Why, Wood asks in the question that forms the heart of this Direct Action, Deliberation, and Diffusion, were activists in New York City more likely to adopt the use of the Seattle tactics than activists in Toronto? Both are the largest cities in their respective nations. Activists in each city had equal access to information about the tactics used in Seattle. Thus, that the tactical diffusion was so unequal, as Wood, shows, is by no means a given. Continue reading

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