It is a fascinating question and one that intrigues both social movement scholars and activists: why do people participate in contentious politics and protest? And also, why do they remain active or decide to withdraw? It is exactly those questions that Catherine Corrigall-Brown tries to answer in her book Patterns of Protest. Trajectories of Participation in Social Movements. She rightfully argues that most of us carry a misconception of “the” activist as someone who is fully and life-long devoted to one single cause and largely acts within one organization. This type of person, however, is very rare. People get involved in a social movement organization, stay active for a while, but are likely—for one reason or the other—to stop after a certain time completely, or move on to a different organization and/or cause.
Corrigall-Brown distinguishes four types of trajectories for activists. First, persistence: a person stays active in the initial SMO and/or continues participating over time. Second, transfer, in which case the individual changes from one organization to the other. Third, individual abeyance, where people disengage from the SMO and protest, but return to participation in a later stage in life. Finally, disengagement resembles a situation where someone stops participation in an SMO after a while and does not become active in protest after that.
In her book, Corrigall-Brown shows how various factors, both at the individual level and the organizational level, change the likelihood for an activist to follow one trajectory or the other. What makes her argument so compelling is the combination of panel survey data and a considerable number of interviews, but especially the rigid way she analyses the data and presents the results. The panel data are analysed in a state of the art manner and the interviews are used in a very rigid way, partly triangulating and confirming the findings of the quantitative analysis, but also providing new insights, mainly relating to the organizational context. The careful selection of activists from four organizations—the United Farm Workers, a Catholic Worker group, the Concerned Women for America, and a local homeowners organization—that show variation in organization scope as well as levels of interaction between members, makes the study even more convincing.
Among the most outspoken results is the fact that those factors that determine initial participation—such as political leaning, religiousness and levels of political efficacy—do not determine continuity or trajectory of engagement. On the individual level, higher levels of education do result in higher levels of sustained engagement and a higher probability that someone who stops participating at one point in life will become re-involved at later stages. Furthermore, it is especially life-changing events, such as marriage and the birth of children, which alter levels of participation—often in negative ways. The organization in which the individual participates matters a lot as well: hierarchical organizations, for example, are less likely to keep individuals involved, unless regular interaction between the leader of the group and the activists exists.
This book might not be your first choice for a book to take on your holidays, but it is a good (yet maybe more serious) read for the summer. One would actually wish that Corrigall-Brown would make a non-academic version of the monograph as well, that includes more bibliographical life stories of the activists she interviewed. Judging by some of the quotes included in the book there are some highly interesting people among the participants in her research. In any case, Patterns of Protest is a very accessible book and a good read.
My one concern with the book is the fact that the analyses are based on people who already got active in protest activities in the 60s or 70s. This of course makes sense, because the study is about life trajectories and people thus need to be followed over the course of a longer period of time. It does, however, limit the generalizability of the results. In the past decades, society has changed considerably and the question is to what extent this impacts the results of the study. Corrigall-Brown reflects on this in the concluding chapter and mentions the decline of social capital and civic engagement as identified by Robert Putnam as a key concern: she hypothesizes that in later cohorts, one would find lower levels of group membership, but higher levels of protest participation. This is likely to be true, but she leaves two important points unmentioned here. First, what does it mean for the trajectories she identifies? Would one expect higher levels of abeyance and transfer? Or maybe also an increase in disengagement by those people that are disappointed in (civil) society? And second, she does not discuss the rise of the Internet. This new medium has resulted in a wide variety of new options of (online) protest participation, and offers opportunities for quick non-organization based mobilization. This might make the SMO a less relevant object to study—or at least not the only thing one should look at: also loosely organized forms of participation that could be as simple as signing an online petition, should be taken into consideration. In that case, my hypothesis would be that one might actually find a lot more continuity in the engagement of people over their life course.