Failure Is Not an Option

By Edwin Amenta

Asking why social movements fail is a little like asking why children do not have backyards full of ponies. Most social movements fail most of the time because they embody a recipe for failure: they combine ambitious goals with severe power deficits. In U.S. history alone, think about the communist, nativist, gun control, anti-alcohol, and prison-reform movements—failure, failure, failure, failure, and failure. With global warming continuing unchecked, a good case could be made, too, for the environmental movement as a failure. Even movements widely considered the most influential of the twentieth century—the labor, African-American civil rights, and feminist movements—have been so only partially or intermittently.

I am going to pose a somewhat different question about the influence of movements. All movement actors are seeking social change—consequences that go beyond mobilizing people—and often sweeping change. And so movements, movement organizations, and campaigns that fail in their goals might also be influential in effecting significant social change. Below I am going to address whether we should study movements that lacked significant influence to explain why they were so uninfluential. (The brief answer is no.) But before I get to that l want to say a few words about success, failure, and influence.

I use the term influence because phrasing our questions in terms of success and failure limits our thinking and analyses and any lessons that may emerge from them. In Gamson’s highly influential book (1975) The Strategy of Social Protest, the more important of his two conceptions of success was gaining new advantages, understood as whether a challenger, or movement organization, mainly realized its goals. Yet a challenger might achieve or have achieved less than half of its demands, and thus be deemed a failure, but might still achieve a great deal, if its goals were extensive. Challengers seeking the Equal Rights Amendment and the nuclear freeze would have to be judged failures under the standard definition, despite their considerable influence on other policies aiding their constituents.

Moreover, a movement or movement organization may achieve its goals, but these goals may not aid any constituency. Sometimes movement organizations have goals that would chiefly aid their leaders—think about corrupt unions. And sometimes they have goals that would not help their constituents, as with various violent organizations and the mass chaos they were shooting for or the bizarre plans of Father Charles Coughlin’s Union for Social Justice. More important, movements can do things that are worse than failing. Its actions may backfire and bring down repression. Think of the Weathermen. It may be worth thinking in terms success and failure for movements that have one main goal, such as gaining suffrage or banning alcohol, that is of obvious and central value to the movement’s constituency. These terms are also valuable to understand short-term campaigns over specific issues, such as preventing school closings or stopping nuclear power plant constructions.

But generally speaking and when examining movements as a whole over long stretches of time, as I advocate below, it is better to examine movements in terms of their influence. By that I mean the degree to which movements provide external collective goods, or group-wise advantages or disadvantages from which non-participants cannot be easily excluded. Using this standard makes it far easier to peg the influence of movements. Those with extensive goals that achieved a lot, but did not get halfway home would be judged as more influential than challenges with trivial goals that were achieved. This conceptualization can address collective bads—or the backfiring of movements— and the achievement of useless goals. It can address unintended consequences, positive or negative. Most movements have had significant positive influence at some points in their careers.

OK—lecture over. What about movements, challengers, and campaigns that are not significantly influential? It is a commonplace that the logistics of social movements produce an overabundance of case studies of the influential. Because of scant paper trails, limited access, and preference, it is difficult for anyone to master more than one movement; homing in on movements that do not or did not matter amounts to a self-induced, career-threatening injury. However, ideological appeal and newness also shape these choices. There is considerable scholarly attention to the marginally influential Occupy. (But there is little attention to which most influential U.S. social movement? Answer below.)

Sometimes scholars engage in hand wringing or finger pointing, or both, over this collective action problem. How can we make sense of influential movements, organizations, and campaigns without an equal attention to those that lacked influence? Any introductory stats and methods class will indicate that you cannot deliver unbiased estimates of the influence of an independent variable with a sample cherry picked on the dependent variable. Why do more established scholars not take one for the team and get on the case?

Because analyzing the uninfluential is in most instances a waste of effort. Although one needs negative cases in statistical analyses, one does not need them very much in more in-depth studies of movement influence. Even the most venerable have no business investigating the North Carolina Manumission League or the Committee for the Outlawry of War (two of the organizations that popped up in Gamson’s sample.) Gaining great influence is difficult and unusual for movements, whereas lacking influence is neither. As scholars have pointed out in the literature on the political consequences of social movements, it often takes the co-occurrence of several conditions for movements to gain influence. I found in When Movements Matter, my study of the old-age movement, that when it was most influential, it was well mobilized, maintained some specific organizational capacities, employed plausible framings, applied appropriate political strategies to the contexts facing it, and acted in political contexts in which influence was possible. For all these things to happen at once is a tall order and it happened at the national level only briefly.

The logical implication is that if any one of these conditions is missing then major influence is unlikely to result. In other words, not gaining influence is usually highly over-determined. In a study by some colleagues and me in the 2009 American Sociological Review (ASR) (“All the Movements Fit to Print”)  about why some movements received extensive national newspaper attention, there were a series of disqualifying conditions, most of them connected to having few organizations and lacking disruptive capacities. Trying to explain why the disability rights movement did not receive significant coverage in national newspapers for the bulk of the twentieth century presents too many suspects and too few clues. The sociological equivalent of Professor Plum is wielding a lead pipe in front of Mr. Green brandishing a candlestick next to Miss Scarlet packing heat.

All that said, it is often worth studying episodes of missing influence, but mainly among movements that had significant influence at some times or places. In such instances, comparing conditions under which influence occurred with similar times or places when it did not would help to identify conditions that were truly necessary. Similarly, it is worth studying movements and campaigns in which theories would expect influence, but it did not occur—in order to modify the argument and perhaps locate other necessary causal conditions. Even in the case of the newspaper attention of the disability movement, some organizations, like the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, achieved significant newspaper coverage at specific times. It would be productive to compare it to similar organizations in the movement at the same time that did not gain attention or to the same organization at other points when it was not so influential.

Two other important questions may be missed by focusing on the insignificant. Outcomes that are unusual and unusually important, such as movements having a major impact, sometimes have multiple causal pathways. For instance, in a 2005 ASR article (“Age for Leisure?”)  analyzing the influence of old-age pension movements in states, colleagues and I found that there was more than one way to achieve generous benefits. Each pathway to influence involved a series of conditions, including high mobilization, but two conditions were functionally equivalent: having a New Deal Democratic regime in office and having the movement engaged in assertive political action, such as placing an initiative on the ballot or strongly engaging congressional elections.

A second important question is obscured by the success and failure terminology, but can be better posed by the collective benefits standard: Why do movements sometimes backfire? That is, under which conditions do their actions lead to collective bads for the constituency of the movement? Like extensive positive influence, negative influence is a circumstance that is similarly rare and consequential for movements, but very much understudied. There is no reason to believe that the explanation for it would be the inverse of explanations for positive influence.

And so we should address movements, organizations, and campaigns that fail to be influential, but in comparison with ones that made significant achievements. In explaining influence, we should go beyond the search for magic bullet causes and think about how different conditions interact. We should also think more about the different causal routes to major influence. We should also identify and seek to explain instances of the negative influence of movements. In these ways we will both improve our explanations and any lessons we can offer to activists.

Quiz answer: The gun rights movement has the political equivalent of a backyard full of ponies.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Social Movement Failure

One response to “Failure Is Not an Option

  1. Pingback: Monday’s Mtg: What Makes Grass Roots Movements Succeed or Fail? | Civilized Conversation

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