Ties and Their Turbulence

A funny thing happens on the way to understanding activists’ social bonds; when we interrogate them closely, they flutter away into a whirlwind of micro-sociological turbulence. This essay suggests the importance of theorizing that turbulence.

In recent decades, the most significant advances in conceptualizing social organization have come from network theory. Network theory integrates both the tug-and-pull of social turbulence and the possibility of agency. It offers a general, formal framework for conceptualizing structure, but also allows empirical and theoretical specificity (Emirbayer & Goodwin 1994:1418). The study of social movements has been at the forefront of those advances (Bearman 1993; Gould 1991), and we now know much more about the mechanisms through which networks influence larger patterns of mobilization (McAdam & Paulsen 1993; McAdam, Tarrow, & Tilly 2001; Diani & McAdam 2003). However, the mandate to identify mechanisms in social ties always references the broader explanatory level. It seeks inroads only into how ties “matter” and “work” to produce broader outcomes. Continue reading

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How Organizations (Might) Change Climate Policy

(Climate March Sept. 2014) [CC-BY-4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

(Climate March Sept. 2014) [CC-BY-4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

On September 21, an estimated 400,000 people assembled in New York City for the largest climate change protest march in U.S. history (and one of the largest single protest events since the anti-Iraq-invasion protests of 2003). How did Bill McKibben and his fellow organizers generate that kind of turnout? While the particular opportunity of an international climate summit at the UN, the extensive reach social media technologies, the wide viewing of the movie Disruption, and the presence of celebrities all probably helped, the central reason seems to be good, old-fashioned organizing.

The New York Times, reporting on preparations for the march, noted that the event was “organized by more than a dozen environmental, labor and social justice groups” which cultivated connections to “1,400 ‘partner organizations’… ranging from small groups to international coalitions” along with students who mobilized participants on “more than 300 college campuses.” Continue reading

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Feminism, Culture, and Computational Sociology

Recent social movements research that has excited and motivated me groups around three themes: 1) community-level effects on movements (Reger 2012, McAdam and Boudet 2012), 2) the path-dependent nature of movements (Blee 2012), and 3) the application of computational methods to study social movements (Hanna 2013) and culture (Bail 2013). My research fits loosely at this junction: I use computational methods to study the structure and culture of local social movements over time.

To do so I, like many others, conceive of local movements as fields. I formalize fields in two ways: a social field consists of 1) a structure—a set of actors that are in some way related to one another (DiMaggio and Powell 1983), and 2) a culture—taken-for-granted assumptions that both enable and constrain action (Jepperson 1991). While network analysis is an established way to measure structure, quantifying culture has proven more difficult. Continue reading


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Creating Connections

Research on collective action tends to focus on the formidable structural obstacles that disadvantaged people face when they challenge the status quo. These groups often lack resources, such as money and volunteer labor. They often face a political structure in which elites bar them access or unite against them. They may experience direct coercion; they may be economically dependent on the very thing they wish to challenge; or they may anticipate defeat before even starting (Gaventa 1982).

Yet even when these broader conditions change, expanding the number of committed activists is fraught with difficulty. Groups fighting to create change often struggle to garner sympathy from the community in which they work. Or they may gain sympathy but struggle to recruit others to join them in acting against a threat (Beyerlein and Hipp 2006; Oegema and Klandermans 1994). Favorable organizational and political conditions alone do not by themselves create a resonant connection between committed activists and potential participants.

Before potential participants join efforts for change, groups with resources must create social ties, share understandings, overcome symbolic boundaries, and build trust together. Continue reading


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Dynamics of Factional Politics during the Chinese Cultural Revolution

The Chinese Cultural Revolution presents an internecine mass conflict that boasts the largest political upheavals of the 20th century. Insurgent students and workers formed various revolutionary rebel organizations in the summer of 1966, and took over government offices in virtually every provincial-level unit in January 1967. Immediately afterwards, these insurgents broke into rival factions that violently fought with one another in schools, factories, and neighborhoods, leading to anarchy in large parts of China until late 1968. Even in the periphery rural areas where the reach of the state was limited because of the existence of the “honeycomb polity,” political impulses did not weaken. Village residents also extensively involved themselves in the local mass conflicts and many people were killed or wrongly persecuted in factional warfare. Conservative estimates based on official sources suggest that up to 1.5 million people died in these factional conflicts and related repression, and some 36 million suffered arrest, imprisonment, lengthy interrogation, and often torture.

The enduring explanatory puzzle of this intense factional politics lies in the mechanisms and processes of insurgents’ political choice. Continue reading

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The Meditation Movement’s Unobtrusive Tactical Repertoire

I have always been fascinated by how people collectively mobilize to popularize their deep-seated personal beliefs and values among dissimilar and/or disinterested others.  How do people recruit busy, disinterested others to join their causes and collectives when there is seemingly no extra time and an ever-growing to-do list?  (As we are all well aware of now in early October in the midst of the fall semester.) In pursuit of answers to these questions, I have spent the last five years studying how Buddhist meditation was made popular in secular workplaces in America.

By tracing how meditation emerged in seemingly disparate social spheres, including in Fortune 500 companies such as Google, in the U.S. Armed Forces, in secular public schools, in top scientific research institutions, and in classrooms in higher education, I uncovered an underlying movement of intellectual elites. Continue reading

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Corporate Networks and the Collective Action of Large Corporations Faced with Protest

Do large corporations respond to social movement protest with an individual, firm-centric rationale or do they develop their strategies relationally with other firms? If they do so relationally, do corporate networks help unify the responses these firms take?

Social movement research has developed a prolific body of scholarship on anti-corporate activism, demonstrating the ways in which activists attain leverage over corporate targets and achieve concessions (e.g., Clawson 2003; Soule 2009). However, most research (and quantitative studies in particular) has emphasized the specific dynamic between social movements and individual firms, neglecting the possibility that how firms respond to protest is also constructed socially through their relationships with other firms. Continue reading

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