No-degree social movement thinkers

Who do you think of when you think of a social movement theorist? A professor? Two of the authors who have taught me the most about social movement strategy have only high school degrees:  Linda Stout and the late Bill Moyer. I very rarely see either of them cited in the social movement literature. I suspect that their books haven’t reached all their potential audiences in part because of the authors’ lack of college credentials.

Firsthand activist experience is often thought of as fodder only for case studies, not for generating broad theory. But both of these authors could create useful new concepts precisely because of their long, long activist experience.

Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements grew out of Moyer’s five decades of activism, which began with working under Dr. Martin Luther King on the Southern Christian Leadership Council’s northern organizing project. During the no-nukes movement of the 1970s, he started to see patterns of movement stages and activists’ responses to them. He developed the “Movement Action Plan” model then, and continued to refine it until the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s, his last movement involvement before his death in 2003.

Identifying a stage he calls “Perception of Failure” after the exciting take-off stage is one example of a concept that only someone in close touch with core activists could have created. Similarly, his concept of the “negative rebel” role draws a thread from the violent ultra-leftists of the late 1960s to the small subset of anarchists who have advocated random disruption and street fights since the 1990s. Moyer could write about negative rebels with authority because he knew so many of them and had watched their harmful effects in so many movements.

The main weakness of the book, overgeneralization, as if the eight stages were universal and fixed for all movements, is far outweighed by its strengths in concrete advice for activists at each stage, and by the 5 illuminating case studies written by Moyer and co-authors. The MAP model is still taught in strategy workshops by Training for Change.

Bridging the Class Divide connects the classism Stout faced as a child, when she was called “white trash” and “trailer trash,” with the classism she later encountered in the middle-class peace movement. She coins the term “invisible walls” for the barriers to access that keep low-income people out of most social movement groups, barriers of language, logistics, and assumed background knowledge.

The second half of  the book chronicles the group Stout founded, the Piedmont Peace Project, which broke new ground in organizing low-wage mill workers and farmhands in a conservative part of North Carolina around the controversial issue of re-directing federal spending from the military to domestic needs. The strategic dilemmas PPP faced led Stout to lay out a set of principles for success for progressive groups. If they could change their Congress member’s votes and win tangible victories in such a challenging environment, under threat from the KKK, then odds are her strategic principles would be useful to all of us who want to build a bigger and more inclusive movement.

(Full disclosure: I publicized Stout’s newest book, Collective Visioning, as part of my spouse’s book publicity business, gail leondar public relations.)

I’d like to suggest that both these books are so terrific specifically because of their authors’ class backgrounds. Both Moyer and Stout grew up in deep poverty. Both of them kept, for decades, a laser-like focus on social change, drawing connections among many kinds of injustice, I suspect as a result of their early hardships.

A university education bestows many strengths, but too often it also trains us to convolute our writing with jargon and confusing abstractions. Instead, Moyer’s and Stout’s written voices sound like someone is talking at your kitchen table; you can agree or disagree with their generalizations, but you’ll never be confused about what they mean. Stout’s writing voice is so vivid, direct and personal that this book has been a favorite of undergraduates to whom I’ve assigned it. (In fact, in student evaluations of one course, Bridging the Class Divide  was ranked the single most memorable thing about the entire course.)

Most social movement scholars take either the long view – looking at root causes and/or ultimate impacts of movements – or they zoom in for an up-close view of a movement’s internal group dynamics and tactical choices. It’s hard to do both – unless you spend your entire adult life as a hands-on activist and then in middle-age begin to look back to draw conclusions about what worked and what didn’t and why. Some such big-picture thinkers learned to theorize in college – but others are self-taught conceptual innovators.

How many other brilliant theorists do you think we may be overlooking, if we turn only to academics for social movement theory?

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