New Ways to Define Activism

For our dialogue in August and September, entitled “New Ways to Define Activism,” we are considering activities that blur the lines of our definitions of activism. Many organizations and groups of individuals engage in activities that are similar in many respects to those carried out by social movement organizations yet we, as well as those participating, may not perceive it to be activism. For these essays we have asked our contributors to consider what may be gained or lost by stretching definitions of what counts as activism.

Thank you to all of our contributors, their essays are below.

Meghan Kallman, Brown University (essay)
Rebecca Tarlau, Stanford University (essay)
Alex Barnard, University of California-Berkeley (essay)
Jaime Kucinskas, Hamilton College (essay)
Kyle Dodson, University of California-Merced (essay)
Erin Evans, University of California-Irvine (essay)
Paul-Brian McInerney, University of Illinois-Chicago (essay)
Ed Walker, University of California-Los Angeles (essay)

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

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Blurring the State-Social Movement Divide: Activism with, in, and through the State

By Rebecca Tarlau

How should we theorize the relationship between states and social movements? In this post, I try to shed light on that question by offering two short vignettes that challenge how we think about activists’ relationship to the state. These vignettes are based on 18 months of field research with the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST), which is considered the largest social movement in Latin America and one of the largest agrarian reform movements in the world. The MST arose in the early 1980s, not as a united movement, but rather, as a series of dispersed attempts among landless rural laborers to escape poverty by occupying large unproductive land estates. Today, the movement includes over one million people who have gained access to land through these land occupations. Continue reading

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Reviewing the Field: What movements have we studied?

In beginning to write a book chapter on movements and social problems, I’ve realized the connections between these two areas are not nearly as developed as I had assumed. It is clear that movements matter because they raise consciousness about social problems and collectively try to address them.

Yet, I can’t seem to find much research explicitly connecting these two areas.

In particular, I am left wondering several questions about bridges, or the lack there of, between scholarship on movements and social problems.

 What movement cases have we studied over the past hundred years, and how does that compare to the field of social problems over that time period?

This seems like a basic question but is quite difficult to answer.

Several very good overviews of social movement theory (Morris and Herring 1984; Moss and Snow (forthcoming); Weber and King 2014) and scholarship (Snow, Soule and Kriesi 2004) hint at the types of movements scholars have focused on under different theoretical paradigms. Most reviews give excellent overviews of the common dimensions of movements and important contextual factors in mobilization. However, there is less direct attention to the kinds of movements studied and what their targets were.

Very generally, reviews of movement scholarship discuss how there was a shift from examining Marxist labor/poor people’s movements in early movement scholarship to the movements of the 1960s and 1970s (e.g. Civil Rights, women’s movement, anti-war movement, environmental movement, new social movements). In the past decade we have shifted to study more broadly movements targeting multiple institutions (Armstrong and Bernstein 2008; Rojas 2007; Soule 2009; Van Dyke et al. (2004)) and various kinds of structural, cultural, and individual outcomes.*

Is there a comprehensive review or meta-study of the movement targets studied in major publications over the last fifty or seventy-five years?

From there, it would be interesting to compare the field of movement scholarship to scholarship on social problems.

     Are there kinds of social problems that movement scholarship, or movements more generally, have tended to neglect?

In addition,

 Are movements better at initiating change for some kinds of social problems than others?

These are important questions and I’d love to hear your thoughts on them.


*Jennifer Earl’s website and database provide a useful overview and suggested readings on movement outcomes.


After this post, colleagues recommended the following very helpful resources on the field of movements at different points in time, biases and gaps in movement scholarship, and causality in the relationship between movements and social problems:

Bartley, Tim and Curtis Child. 2007. “Shaming the Corporation: Globalization, Reputation, and the Dynamics of Anti-Corporate Movements.” in annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, New York. Available at http://www. allacademic. com/meta/p184737_index. html.(Accessed March 1, 2009.): Citeseer.

Gamson, William A. 1975. The Strategy of Social Protest: Dorsey Press Homewood, IL.

Klandermans, Bert and Nonna Mayer. 2005. Extreme Right Activists in Europe: Through the Magnifying Glass: Routledge.

Linden, Annette and Bert Klandermans. 2007. “Revolutionaries, Wanderers, Converts, and Compliants Life Histories of Extreme Right Activists.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 36(2):184-201.

McAdam, Doug, Robert Sampson, Simon Weffer and Heather MacIndoe. 2005. “” There Will Be Fighting in the Streets”: The Distorting Lens of Social Movement Theory.” Mobilization: an international quarterly 10(1):1-18.

Sampson, Robert J, Doug McAdam, Heather MacIndoe and Simón Weffer‐Elizondo. 2005. “Civil Society Reconsidered: The Durable Nature and Community Structure of Collective Civic Action1.” American Journal of Sociology 111(3):673-714.


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Professional Activism and Social Change

By Meghan Kallman

About forty years ago, as neoliberal economic policies took hold, a change also occurred in the landscape of social movements. Though neoliberalism—initially a set of economic policies intended to jumpstart the US economy—is many things, we have internalized it socially. Translated, that means that we now primarily think about free markets, commodification, formal organizations, and individual people (rather than policy, for instance, or informal or collective organizing) as how social change is made (Brenner, Peck, and Theodore 2010; Harvey 2007; Jepperson and Meyer 1991; McAdam 1986). Somewhere along the line, and in parallel with the ideas that neoliberalism has fostered, we got the idea that formalized, professionalized social movement organizations were the most effective type of organizing. Continue reading

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What’s contentious about free food?

By Alex Barnard

Six days a week in People’s Park, Berkeley, 75-100 people—most of them homeless, disabled, or unemployed—line up for a free vegetarian meal served by the group “Food Not Bombs” (FNB). On most days, there’s little to spark the interest of a social movement scholar: no flyers or banners declaring a message, no attention or repression from the authorities, and no disruption of the normal rhythm of life for the students walking one block away on Telegraph Avenue. At most, FNB looks like what Sampson et al. (2005) might call a “civic group” with a “purpose”—ending hunger—but lacking the “claims” for real transformation that make for a social movement. Continue reading

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Who is an Activist? On the Blurred Boundaries of Activism

By Jaime Kucinskas

In thinking of a typical activist, the first image that comes to mind is someone like this:


We imagine someone loudly trying to bring attention to a cause, in an attempt to address a social problem or injustice. A typical activist, one would assume, is part of a larger movement, or group which is challenging some authoritative voice, structure, or culture.

Yet, I am not convinced this is the way most activists try to change society today. I am even less convinced that this is the way that some of the digitally savvy younger generations (such as my students) will try to change the world and bring attention to causes they care deeply about. Continue reading

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Too Far or Not Far Enough?

By Kyle Dodson

While they can vary (considerably), most scholars’ definitions of activism typically involve the idea of participating in activities that are intended to support or oppose social or political change. As an empirical matter, however, movement scholars rarely observe activism in all of its forms. Instead, movement scholars tend to focus on a smaller subset of activities—such as demonstrations, strikes, and occupations—that are more contentious and more modular. Continue reading

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