Protestors and their Targets

In anticipation of the CBSM section workshop before this year’s ASA conference in Chicago, we are hosting a dialogue concerning the relationship between protesters and their targets. Considering classic theories concerned with political institutions and companies, as well as the more recent focus on targeting lifestyle, culture, and public behavior, we want to discuss the plethora of actor-target interactions involved in collective action. We also hope to include the ways movements consider multiple targets and their perception by the media and public at large. Considering interactions between these actors and factors is encouraged. More specific considerations might include: How do movements identify targets? How do strategic actions of targets affect movements? How do movements change actions to fit their audience? What effects do media coverage and public perception have on movement success? We asked our contributors to consider these and similar topics in their posts.

Thank you to our contributors for their insightful essays, they are all listed below.

Dana M. Moss, University of California – Irvine (essay)
Marc Dixon, Dartmouth College (essay)
Donatella della Porta, European University Institute (essay)
Charles Seguin, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill (essay)
Heidi Reynolds-Stenson, University of Arizona (essay)
David Everson, University of Notre Dame (essay)
Deana A. Rohlinger, Florida State University (essay)

As always, we invite you to join the dialogue by posting your reactions to these essays in the comments sections.

Editors in Chief,
Grace Yukich, David Ortiz, Rory McVeigh, and Dan Myers

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Long Live the State?

By Marc Dixon

How wedded are social movement activities to politics and the state? What targets offer the most bang for the buck when seeking change? Research shows groups often have strong reasons to seek out a wide range of collective action targets beyond the state. Yet, whether groups like it or not, and whether they seek cultural, economic or any other non-explicitly political form of change, movement demands more often than not get ensnarled in the political process. This poses a series of interesting dilemmas for activists. Continue reading

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Experiential Learning for Democratic Engagement

For the past two years I have been teaching a couple of undergraduate seminars on the subject of social movements and the media at York University in Toronto (where I also recently defended my dissertation on the subject of global justice activism, time, and technology). Earlier this month, at the “Teaching in Focus” conference organized annually by York’s Teaching Commons, I delivered a presentation about the experiental learning-based final assignment I have built into my syllabi for these courses. My presentation was well received, so I thought that for my first blog entry I would share with fellow social movement scholars and educators the essentials of running this assignment.

I will presume that the benefits of engaging students in experiential learning, especially when it comes to social movements as the subject of study, need not be rehearsed here. Instead, I will focus on the logistics. In brief, the students are given three options: a collective organizing exercise (the recommended option); individual “learning by doing” exercise; and a research paper option. I always strongly discourage the last option when first introducing this assignment during the first class: I stress that in the past offerings of the course, the students ultimately really appreciated being encouraged to choose the experiential learning option (which has indeed been the case). I also like to point out that this is probably going to be their sole opportunity to take on a different kind of assignment, compared to most if not all their other courses… I usually manage to convince the vast majority. I then task them with thinking about one or two social justice causes they (might) care about, for the purpose of creating small organizing groups that will seek to create change (raise awareness, mostly) around that issue. I give them a couple of weeks to think about it — it’s also good to wait until the add-drop period ends so I know who is staying in the course and will remain a group member.

The next stage — facilitating the creation of the organizing groups — tends to be a little bit tricky. The groups are ideally composed of no fewer than four and no more than six students, but sometimes many of them want to work on the same issue (last term, it was Black Lives Matter), which raises the need to create more than one group on that issue, and by extension, the need to figure out how to avoid a replication of effort and competition for the attention of their target audience. If there are only three students wanting to work together, I have found that they can pull it off if they are really dedicated…I adjust my expectations of their final activity accordingly.

To determine the causes/issues that students are interested in working on, I simply go around the room and ask them to name one or two, and I write those down as categories on the blackboard (or in a word processor on a computer connected to a projector). As we go around the room, new categories emerge, and students can either add new ones or sign up for an existing one. Next I go over the numbers and establish the size and number of groups — the students inevitably engage in some back and forth at this point, jumping among groups as they figure out what they want to do, and who they want to work with. My goal is to have a solid list by the end of class, which is then posted on the online learning management system.

Students who are already involved in social movements (so far, they have been very few) can do the individual “learning by doing” assignment, involving reflection on their experiences — so long as they are actively engaged in organizing during the course of the term.

Some two weeks later, each organizing group has to submit a (single) proposal, outlining their chosen social justice cause or issue, planned tactics/activity, objectives, media strategy, and organizing timeline (the handful of students who select one of the other options have to submit individual, appropriately adjusted proposals).

In the weeks to follow, I try to give the students a bit of class time to meet as organizing groups, taking the opportunity to do informal “check-ins” and ascertain their need for further guidance. I also incorporate short skill-shares into my lectures: how to organize a media event, how to develop talking points, how to write a press release… I base these on activist manuals as well as my own experiences as a social activist (I radicalized in the early 2000s as part of the global justice movement in Canada).

The assignment grade is independent of the ultimate success of their social movement activity (as measured by turnout or mainstream media coverage); instead it is based on the reflection papers they are asked to write as individuals, the best of which demonstrate mastery of course concepts by applying them to make sense of their experiences. There is also a smaller, private, peer evaluation component to compensate for the unequal distribution of labour that often occurs in small group work.

Moreover, during the final class, all the groups and all those who completed the individual assignments, are expected to present their work to the rest of the class. Everyone has to speak for three minutes, regardless of which option they had selected. The group members present as a unit, covering what they did, what went well, what they would have done differently — I encourage them to share photos and/or videos from their “actions.” It is one of the funnest classes of the term, as everyone gets to see what the rest had been working on and how it worked out. Inevitably, the students are super enthused and inspired as a result of their collective organizing experience. My evaluations from these courses are a testament to this, and the reason why I wanted to share this assignment here — it gets rave reviews from the students. Although their faces are full of skepticism and apprehension when I first inform them about what’s involved, they always end up loving it, and seem to particularly enjoy the sense of collective identity and solidarity that develops within the groups.  A few mentioned they were happy I had talked them into it and that it made them more engaged citizens. So while additional challenges can arise that I did not cover here, these are decidedly outweighed by the tremendous benefits of this final assignment and I think you should consider using it (feel free to contact me for details). Chances are you and your students will love it as much as I and mine have!

PS. I want to acknowledge Dr. Marcos Ancelovici and Dr. Lesley Wood for providing the foundation of this assignment.

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Target(ing) Practice(s): Social Movements’ Relations, Repertories, and Consequences

By Dana M. Moss

Who activists target and how is an important topic for scholars of mobilization, and one that the Collective Behavior and Social Movements section of the American Sociological Association will discuss at the annual pre-conference workshop in Chicago this summer. My thoughts on the study of movements’ targeting practices and tactics are outlined below.

First, we should think about how movements create relationships with their targets, or why they fail to do so.

Whether movements are seeking to change the public’s consumption of water in drought-stricken California or their position on a particular ballot measure, it is worth considering how movements create—or foreclose—the kinds of relationships needed to enact social change with their intended targets. Movements engage in all types of outreach to change hearts and minds, but some strategies are far more likely than others to garner sympathy. I was thinking about this recently when I witnessed two activists wordlessly handing UC Irvine students pamphlets on veganism during the rush between classes. The students cringed and stuffed the papers in their pockets. It seemed as though the activists were checking off a box: distributed pamphlets to a bunch of random and potentially-impressionable young people? Check! Without having gathered data on this incident, I would wager my JSTOR subscription that zero minds were changed that day. Public education efforts require labor, time, and money—things that movements rarely have in ample supply. And yet, actions such as distributing pamphlets often seem to be all cost and no reward. Continue reading

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Target Choices in Intense Times

By Donatella della Porta

There are diverse explanations for how social movements made decisions about their targets and interact with them. Rather than considering the mas rival theories, it could be more useful to see them as illuminating dilemmas and tradeoffs that social movements have to address, and trying to specify under which conditions and through which mechanisms each applies. In these notes, I will present what I see as main explanations before focusing on targeting in the specific conditions of what I call intense times. Continue reading

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Bullseye? The Consequences of Mobilizing Unintended Targets

By David Everson

Amidst the calls for a more relational and dynamic approach to the study of social movements, the protester-target nexus would seem an area of inquiry ripe for further development. Social movement scholars have already begun to fruitfully expand our horizon of targets beyond the state, reflecting not only the multitude of arenas in which contention occurs, but also an enveloping political landscape confronting activists characterized by the ever-increasing blurredness of the boundaries between governments and the institutional agents of global capitalism. Though we surely have much to learn about the strategically-chosen targets of activists, future work should also not lose sight of the unintended targets of social protest, and the manner and means by which the spectator audience can alter the course of contentious trajectories. I will suggest below that a renewed focus on “bystander publics” (Turner 1970) promises to yield potentially novel theoretical insights for our models of movement-countermovement dynamics and social movement outcomes. I support this claim by drawing from my dissertation work on Euro-American memory of and attitudes toward the American Indian Movement (AIM), which suggests that our understanding of the unintended consequences of movements needs to account for the processes through which dominant group bystanders alter the “discursive fields” through which social movements, and even racial groups, are culturally constructed. Continue reading

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When Targets Police

By Heidi Reynolds-Stenson

At many protests, law enforcement or security officers act as a buffer between protesters and their targets. As a result, protesters often do not come face-to-face with their targets at street demonstrations (unless they are targeting everyday people; Einwohner 2001). And, as protest-policing protocols increasingly emphasize the pre-emptive control of space, protesters are often kept further and further away from the targets they seek to influence or disrupt (Gillham and Noakes 2007). Because their primary target may not be accessible, movements often engage in indirect proxy targeting, like the students who targeted their universities for complicity in the Vietnam War (Walker, Martin, and McCarthy 2008). So, while protesters and targets react to one another and try to anticipate the reactions of the other side, this interplay is, in many cases, delayed and mediated though law enforcement (Earl and Soule 2006), the media (Koopmans 2004) or proxy targets. Continue reading

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