Those of us who study—or attempt to organize—collective action in the 21st century know the process is fraught with obstacles. We tend to conceptualize these obstacles in terms of the high risks inherent with protest, such as arrest or violent state repression. Social protest continues to be a forceful, exciting means of creating social change. But it’s a relatively rare one. In the United States, humbler forms of collective association—the nonprofit, the social movement group, the civic project—work quietly “behind the scenes” to run the engine of social progress, however progress is defined. And “obstacles” in these settings have different faces. Bureaucracy. Burnout. Limited resources. Like the risks of protest, these obstacles constitute threats to success. And nobody likes threats, because nobody likes to fail, be they an activist occupying Wall Street or the executive director of a struggling nonprofit organization.
I propose that by studying how people respond to obstacles in the course of organizing for social change, we can enrich our theories about strategic action. Continue reading