I approach student activism as an academic sociologist motivated by the question of why students, as a group, seem so often to be involved in political struggles around the world, compared with other social groups, and why, as some of my own work suggests, the process of going to university seems to have a politicising effect upon some. Students are more prone to become involved in political struggles of various kinds than many of their contemporaries.
Much of the academic research on student movements focuses either upon the supposed psychological characteristics /conflicts of young people or the supposed liberal values imparted to young people by way of higher education. Neither of these accounts will suffice, however. The psychology of youth is too general, applying to all young people when it is a specifically students who are prominent in social movement activism. The claim regarding liberal values, by contrast, is too specific: it is not only students in the liberal institutions of liberal societies who become active in social movements. Prominent and high profile student movements sometimes form in and protest against conditions in highly illiberal societies (e.g. in both China and the Arab Spring). And, both historically and more recently, students have sometimes mobilised around or in support of illiberal causes (e.g. fascism and various forms of religious fundamentalism).
Given the very different nature of student movements, if we survey them both historically and cross-nationally, heightened levels of activism are best explained by reference to the greater opportunities for involvement enjoyed by students – whatever their beliefs. In some national and educational contexts this may be a matter of them enjoying greater levels of free time or at least greater flexibility with respect to time compared to other adults. A lecture timetable is generally less demanding than a work timetable. Furthermore, many students are both single and childless, such that their level of domestic responsibilities is often quite low. In addition, many have either moved out of their family home or at least managed to negotiate some slack in the power structure within it, such that they enjoy a freedom to come and go as they please and do not have to account for all of their movements and activities.
Perhaps more important, however, is the role of critical mass and social networks in facilitating mobilisation. Universities generate and concentrate within a relatively small geographical area, huge populations of young people (who enjoy the abovementioned relative freedom with respect to their time). Even if only a tiny proportion within that population have an interest in political activity they are often big enough in numbers to engage in collective (political) actions of various kinds, or at least they are if they can identify with one another, hook up and form a network. The contrast here is with the populations of the colleges that students attend before University, which are much smaller. In the UK, at least, a 6th form college may have around 100 students, such that if 1% of students is interested in becoming involved in politics (or anything else for that matter), that is one person, on their own. 1% of the population of even one of the smallest UK university campuses, by contrast, would be at least 100 – easily enough to mount collective actions and spark a vibrant political world.
I was first put on to this idea when presenting preliminary findings on the politicising effect of universities to a mixed group of academics and activists. At the time I assumed that coming to university made students more aware of politics and imparted or strengthened key political values. To this, however, one indignant audience member replied that he had been very interested in politics prior to going to university but, coming from a small college in a small town, hadn’t been able to act upon this until he got to university, where he hooked up with a sufficient number of others to make activism possible and meaningful. Intrigued, I returned to my data and found that there was actually very little difference in values and political identities between pre-university and university students and that the key differences between the two groups were behavioural. University students act upon their values and identities, and they do so because and to the extent that the shift to university allows them to hook up with a sufficient number of likeminded others to reach the critical mass necessary for activism. Furthermore, in later work with Joseph Ibrahim, which followed this up, we found many students telling the same story: coming to university hadn’t changed their values or identities but rather their capacity to act upon those values and identities.
Of course values and identities are not fixed in this situation. Activism is shaped by values and identities but it also shapes them. Politics might become more important to students when they get the chance to act upon their beliefs, for example, and interaction within politicised networks too may shift values and identities. This affects those who come to university with strong political convictions but it may also apply to those who come into contact with them and who they manage to persuade and recruit. It was widely agreed by activists interviewed for the project I did with Joseph that students who were not interested in politics could not be recruited. However, where there was even a small interest there was, as one activist put it, a ‘hook’ which could be used to draw them in.
Numerous writers, from Marx onwards, have suggested that urbanisation was a major factor in the growth of social movements and of the Labour movement in particular during the early nineteenth century. Urbanisation had this effect because it drew large groups of individuals with similar interests together, allowing them to form networks and thereby to influence one another, organise and mount collective actions. I am suggesting that university campuses have a similar effect. And long may they do so.
Crossley N (2008a) Social networks and student activism. Sociological Review 56(1): 18–38.
Crossley, N. and Ibrahim, J. (forthcoming) Critical Mass, Social Networks and Collective Action, Sociology.