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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Review of Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism

Worthen, Molly. 2014. Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. Oxford University Press.

Worthen, Molly. 2014. Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. Oxford University Press.

The role of ideas for collective action has long been regarded as central to the study of social movements. However, the focus fluctuates between implicit and explicit discussions. This vacillation is complicated by the fact that, at times, ideology has been perceived as a derogatory component only advanced by religious, social, or political extremists (Oliver and Johnston 2000; Kniss and Burns 2004). Too often, when scholars attempt to distinguish the role ideology plays in movement mobilization and potentially factionalism, it gets reduced to artificially simple and coherent sets of ideas that necessarily unite members. Yet, ideologies center on cognitive, emotional, and morally charged experiences for individuals and groups as they are localized and constructed in response to varied knowledge and conditions; it’s the very stuff that we have stakes in for understanding any social movement (Williams and Platt 2002). In light of this, then, ideological production and negotiation are vital to examine, as they point to how movements choose among alternative courses of action.

Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism by Molly Worthen takes up a history of ideas and institutions that undergird the twentieth century evangelical movement in the United States. Tracing the core act of ideas and thinking—judgment, reasoning, making connections—Worthen elaborates upon the evangelical “imagination” challenging readers to not just view it as a singular mindset. Continue reading

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Summer Heat Wave

Summer has officially hit in Bloomington and across the country.  It is hot and humid. People are wilting and as a result are more likely to be impatient and irritable.  Psychologists have argued for decades that heat waves are associated with violent action and crime due to increased aggressive thoughts and feelings of hostility (Anderson 1989; 2001; Cohn and Rotton 2000). More crimes are reported during the summer than other seasons (Cohn and Rotton 2000).

If heat is related to hostility and aggression, is it related to protest participation? I’d suspect that protests are more likely to occur in summer months when more people are out and about in public spaces.  People may also have more time off in the summer to engage in protests.

Are protests less likely to occur in the winter?  Certainly, some protests have occurred during the winter, such as the Occupy protests. But were these an exception? And thinking more broadly, has there been research on how movements are influenced by environmental conditions such as weather, ecosystems, spatial layouts of communities, etc.?

Winter-Protest

My quick search on movements and weather did not yield any results. Does anyone know if there is any research on how environmental conditions influence movements? If not, maybe someone should start looking into this further…

 

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#HashtagActivism: Wannabe Protest, or Something More?

On June 23rd, an Egyptian court convicted three Al Jazeera English journalists—Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed—of aiding a terrorist organization and damaging national security by producing false news. Their sentences range from 7 to 10 years and have sparked international condemnation from journalists, activists, politicians, and non-governmental organizations. In response, the hashtag #FreeAJStaff has become reinvigorated as the touchstone slogan of protest, appearing not just on Twitter, but in mainstream media and on other social media platforms as well. Photographs of journalists, activists, celebrities, and concerned individuals displaying the hashtag with their mouths taped shut have proliferated, like this example below. (A Tumblr collection of protest selfies can be viewed here.)

FreeAJStaff

This hashtag, which emerged after the initial imprisonment of the journalists last year, has itself been a focus of concern and of reporting. Prior to the conviction, concerned Twitter users noted that the hashtag was lagging and urged their followers to keep up the momentum. As Kamahl Santamaria (@KamahlAJE) of Al Jazeera English tweeted on June 22, “The #FreeAJStaff hashtag/trend is way too quiet. Let’s get moving people…” The conviction on the following day prompted #FreeAJStaff to be tweeted over 50,000 times, according to #BBCTrending.

Another well-known hashtag campaign, #BringBackOurGirls (sometimes #BringOurGirlsBack), emerged in response to the May kidnapping of hundreds of young girls by the now infamous extremist organization Boko Haram in Nigeria. David Cameron and Michelle Obama were just two notable figures who publicized this hashtag along with expressions of concern and calls for action. The same #BBCTrending article cited above noted that #BringBackOurGirls has been tweeted over 4.5 million times to date.

Michelle Obama joins in.

Tweets and retweets, it is commonly acknowledged, are an indicator of global concern and signify critical events that warrant our attention and action. But the question remains: does hashtag activism actually matter? If so, how might it matter?

The question of whether online gestures matter elicits groans from scholars and activists, partly because such activities come off as Protest Lite. After all, it only takes a second (maybe less) to retweet a call to action or a news byline. As journalist and former Labour MP Dan Hodges wrote recently for The Telegraph, it’s fast, transient, and comes off as superficial. Hashtag activism focuses our attention on certain issues to the neglect of others—such as the 60 women and girls and 31 boys kidnapped by Boko Haram this week, and the 16,000 political prisoners currently languishing in prison, tortured, or disappeared in Egypt. In addition, activists’ time and resources may be disproportionately focused on accruing retweets. The hesitation to ascribe any importance to this form of collective activism reflects legitimate concerns over how fleeting and narrowly-focused online activism can be.

But before we lambaste hashtag activism as useless—or even harmful—let’s consider what it can do. The creation of online publicity by organizations and individuals is a form a collective action that raises awareness about a particular social problem. It is true that some crises get hyped at the expense of others, and that hashtag slogans lack nuance. But these are problems that exists in all forms of media and activism, not just the online variety. We also know that raising awareness in and of itself does not solve social problems. Sympathetic publics alone cannot usually produce meaningful outcomes for the victims of injustice and violence. As Hodges writes, “Boko Haram didn’t #bringbackourgirls.” In the absence of real-world action, hashtag campaigns look weak, and even foolish. But this activism also lets people with at least some capacity to raise a fuss, such as politicians, know that the public (however briefly) cares. And we shouldn’t assume that the tweets stand alone. On the contrary, this form of activism is often partnered with offline actions and diplomatic efforts. Online activism often compliments, rather than substitutes for, mobilization in the form of protests, lobbying, and direct action.

NIGERIA-UNREST-PROTEST

Consider a parallel example from the pre-internet age: television and print media coverage of violence enacted against peaceful Civil Rights Movement protesters did not by itself produce policy changes. But it has been widely credited in sociological literature with turning the tide of public opinion against southern segregationists and justifying federal intervention. Rather than thinking of internet-based awareness as an insufficient condition for action, it may be more accurate to think of it as a necessary condition that prods external actors into taking concrete actions in some cases.

Rarely, if ever, is a Twitter campaign going to produce policy change or direct intervention on behalf of victims across borders. But maybe what it does—if only for a few days or weeks—is to signify that people care. This kind of global solidarity may never produce immediate, tangible results (which is, ironically, what hashtags call for), but it can provide much-needed moral support for grieving family members and for activists who aim to take direct action, especially for those who face risks in doing so. It may also signal to media outlets, whose articles on the subject are being bitly’d and retweeted along with the hashtag, that they should continue to commit resources to the issue at hand.

Perhaps more than anything, hashtag activism suggests the limits of symbolic gestures. But aren’t most protests symbolic gestures? And isn’t online outrage more productive than no outrage? Share your thoughts in the comments, or tweet them with the hashtag #dohashtagsmatter.

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Territorial Disputes and “State-Encouraged” Protests

Anti-China Protest in Vietnam PhotoLast month, a series of protests erupted across Vietnam against the Chinese deployment of an oil rig in the Paracel Islands, a disputed territory of the South China Sea. Three nations—China, Taiwan, and Vietnam—have claimed sovereignty over the archipelago since the 20th century. In a surprise turn, the Vietnamese government, which generally forbids demonstrations, allowed protests at the beginning, enabling them to spread from the capital Hanoi to Ho Chi Minch City and increase in size and intensity. The protests led to violence as protestors targeted Chinese and Taiwanese nationals and their businesses. Looting, arson, vandalism, injuries, and death forced China and Taiwan to order the evacuation of their citizens.[1] Continue reading

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Movement InFighting: Can it serve a purpose?

The Animal Rights National Conference 2014 (ARNC) will be held in Los Angeles on July 10th-13th. An organization called the Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM) organizes the conference. As the organization says on its website, the conference is “the world’s largest & longest-running event dedicated to the liberation of animals from all forms of human exploitation and use.” Even with this clear declaration of “liberation,” and FARM’s history of not participating in politically reformist tactics, FARM’s conference is attacked virtually every year for not being abolitionist, or radical, enough. Prominent figures in the movement, such as Gary L. Francione, accuse the organizers of not adhering to strictly to all-or-nothing vegan advocacy on behalf of animals. Francione is a law professor, author, and a major figurehead in the movement. Most of his current work contains little outside of bashing activists who use anything except educational outreach about veganism. Continue reading

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Harnessing Technology to Advance Movement Research

After spending a semester in Silicon Valley and San Francisco interviewing many techies, computer software engineers, entrepreneurs, and business execs, I left with a lot of questions about the future of sociological research. Several shifts seemed crystal clear to me. First, there is an unprecedented amount of longitudinal data being collected in real time by big business through social media as well as through handheld devices and apps. Second, if as researchers we do not connect with these data sources and find ways to analyze them, we will become irrelevant.  So how do we do this better? And how do we do this in particular to advance scholarship on social movements? Continue reading

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