How Organizations Develop Activists: The Challenges and Potential of Combining Organizing and Mobilizing

Series Introduction by Lina Stepick (guest editor)

For Mobilizing Ideas’ February essay dialogue, members of the Scholars Strategy Network Civic Engagement Working Group join leaders of prominent movement organizations to comment on the contributions of Hahrie Han’s book How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations & Leadership in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2014) and to discuss contemporary challenges and opportunities for combining mobilizing and organizing.

The contributors address the book’s central question of how organizations can successfully blend transactional mobilizing with transformational organizing to build civic participation in the face of resource constraints and environmental challenges.

The contributors who work as organizing leaders note how directly applicable Han’s analysis and accessible writing is to their work, providing an explicit framework for the implicit theory that often drives movement strategy. They discuss how Han’s analysis should drive funding for organizing training, leadership development, and conscious reflection. Several contributors point out that her work is particularly timely given contemporary tensions inherent in incorporating online organizing and mobilizing tools into field and community organizing strategies.

The essays grapple with the big questions for movement organizations and social movement scholarship including: What are the implications for American democracy and civil society of lower-cost member engagement through solely mobilizing those already most likely to engage? What encourages organizations to engage in transformational organizing? If strategy is path dependent under what circumstances can organizations change their practices, cultures, and structures? How can these strategies transform campaigns into broader, deeper, and longer-lasting movements?

Many thanks to our distinguished contributors for their insightful essays, which reflect a wide range of scholarly and practical expertise:

Vanessa Rule, Mothers Out Front (essay)
Joy Cushman, PICO National Network (essay)
Noah Glusenkamp, Empower Engine (essay)
David Karpf, George Washington University (essay)
Will Conway, NationBuilder (essay)
Laura Meadows, Indiana University Bloomington (essay)
Sarah Hodgdon, Sierra Club (essay)
Tom Baker, Bond (essay)
Jenny Oser, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel (essay)
Melissa Michelson, Menlo College (essay)
Edward Walker, University of California, Los Angeles (essay)
A response to this series of reviews from the author, Hahrie Han, Wellesley College (essay)

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Reflections One Year Later on How Organizations Develop Activists

By Hahrie Han

It is both humbling and exciting to read so many responses to How Organizations Develop Activists, and to develop perspective on the ways it is being understood, interpreted, and put to use in the world. When I was finishing graduate school and deciding whether to stay in academia, one of my mentors encouraged me by describing academia as a good “perch” from which to do work that dialogues with both scholarly thinking and practical politics. Although I have strived throughout my career to stay on this perch, it is rare (and gratifying) to have the opportunity to gain such insight into the ways my work fulfills that promise, and the places where questions remain. Continue reading

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More evidence for spontaneity: Accidental activation in online campaigns

By Gabriela Gonzales, Juhi Tyagi, Idil Akin, Fernanda Page, Michael Schwartz and Arnout van de Rijt

We are delighted by the renewed discussion of the role of spontaneous processes in social movements; especially since we have been working on ways to identify and measure emergent processes for the past two years. As pointed out in the previous by Jaime Kucinskas (Spontaneity: An important and neglected topic in social movements), sociologists have to be careful before attributing spontaneity to invisible or unknown mechanisms, which could well be the result of ‘a priori factors.’ This identification problem occurs in much ex post facto research, which is usually unable to control for these a priori factors in order to empirically isolate a mechanism of spontaneity. Continue reading

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A great social movement assignment – I promise!

I gave this assignment in my Social Movements seminar (30 students) last fall.   The assignment is an adaptation of the norm-breaking assignments that you often see in psychology or intro sociology. The overall goal of the assignment is for students to realize that social changes isn’t just about demonstrating or protesting but also everyday micro-level resistance.

Here is my money-back guarantee:

1)  your students will love this assignment

2)  you will love reading their papers (really)

Some examples of the experiences my students wrote about:

1. Going to a bar with full make-up and then the following weekend going without

2. Not trying to hide one’s weight under baggy clothing at the gym Continue reading


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Spontaneity: An important and neglected topic in social movements

Spontaneity in social movements is likely pervasive, but we do not know how pervasive it is, or about the different forms it make take, as it has received far too little attention in movement scholarship to date. I know that I have seen it on numerous occasions in my own research and participation in social movements but have never paid it much attention.

For these reasons, I am thrilled about David Snow and Dana Moss’ courageous new article, “Protest on the Fly,” recently published in the American Sociological Review, which brings our attention back to spontaneity in social movements. Snow and Moss define spontaneity as “events, happenings, and lines of action, both verbal and nonverbal, which were not planned, intended, prearranged, or organized in advance of their occurrence” (Snow and Moss 2014: 1123).  In their analysis, they provide examples of important spontaneous occurrences which shaped trajectories of action for movements’ and their targets, and which at times tragically led to violence. Some of the spontaneous events they identify include initial protester-police confrontations in Cairo on January 25, 2011, which eventually led to the Egyptian president’s resignation. Continue reading

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The Mundanity of Activism: University of California Graduate Students

For the Classical Theory course that incoming graduate students in our department take, David S. Meyer includes an article by Daniel F. Chambliss called “The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers.

Most of the folks in my cohort were perplexed when we read it.

“Maybe it’s for methodological theory, or something?”

“I don’t know, I was thinking he’s trying to appeal to the Inequality people?”

It turned out Professor Meyer was offering advice on academia, generally. Excellence is about persistence and consistent work, not natural ability. Continue reading

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Making the Implicit Explicit: A Framework for Organizing and Mobilizing

By Vanessa Rule

Anyone who has been an activist for a long time has probably lamented that the level of change they have witnessed is relatively small compared to the vision that propelled them to action in the first place. They might also tell you how hard that work has been and how volunteers tend to cycle in and out of their projects. Most activists do their work without a road map they can follow, or a framework of skills they can learn, apply, and teach others, to effectively build power and strengthen the movement.

In How Organizations Develop Activists, Hahrie Han provides such a framework, with clear examples and best practices, so newcomers and seasoned organizers can see where they are in the process of building power and what the next steps are. Han’s clear and concise writing is accessible and extremely relevant to a range of audiences, from people who are volunteering in a civic association for the first time, to organizations interested in learning what they can do to build, and keep, new volunteer capacity, to seasoned organizers and social movement scholars. Continue reading

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Want Scale? Mobilize AND Organize

By Joy Cushman

If I had a nickel for every time someone in the social change sector pondered how to get to scale I’d probably have enough money to fund the movement myself. In her new book, How Organizations Develop Activists, Hahrie Han argues that the only way to achieve scale is to both mobilize and organize. Most of the theories I’ve read prior to this about getting to scale are really about how to market to scale, or how to control to scale. Hahrie argues that achieving the scale necessary to win transformative social change is not simply about building larger lists or mastering big data, it’s about mastering the craft of transforming nascent activists into community leaders.  Continue reading

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