Movement Success and Failure: Looking both at “Ones” and “Zeros”

By Marco Giugni

As a number of observers have argued at different points in time, the study of the outcomes and consequences of social movements has long been a neglected area within the social movement literature. This is no longer true. Today we can count on a wide range of valuable works which have improved our knowledge of why and how protest may lead to political, social, or cultural change. This body of works, however, presents a major shortcoming: they have most often focused on movement success, while being silent on movement failure. Yet, one of the most well-known books looking (also) at the political consequences of social movements, written by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward about 35 years ago, was subtitled “Why They Succeed, How They Fail.” But students of social movements and collective action do not seem to have received their message.

A recent book by Doug McAdam and Hilary Shaffer Boudet acknowledges this shortcoming and attempts to correct it. Let me quote the authors at some length, when they identify one of the sources of “narrowness” they see in the social movement literature: “The overwhelming tendency of scholars to ‘select on the dependent variable’; that is to study movements—by which we mean successful instances of mobilization—rather than the much broader population of ‘mobilization attempts’ or ‘communities at risk for mobilization’ that would seem to mirror the underlying phenomenon of interest more closely.” While their analysis goes beyond examining the impact of social movements, I think their call to avoid “selecting on the dependent variable,” if received, would be of great help to works on movement outcomes.

Just as the notion of movement success has been used by social movement scholars basically with two different meanings, so is the notion of movement failure. On the one hand, it refers to the failure to mount a sustained challenge to powerholders, that is, successful instances of mobilization, as McAdam and Shaffer Boudet have it. This is often the notion movement organizers have of success or failure. On the other hand, it refers to the failure of such challenges—and, more broadly, of social movements—to have some impact, be it on politics, society, culture, or on the movements themselves. We need to keep the two aspects separate for analytical purposes, although in reality they obviously are related in some way. Here I focus on the latter aspect.

Success and failure are two sides of the same coin. At first glance, the question of why movements fail simply mirrors the most often asked question of why movements succeed. It is a zero-sum game: movements either succeed or fail. Things, however, are more complex. To begin with, most often—perhaps always—social movements and protest activities succeed and fail at the same time. On the one hand, they obtain some gains on one level (for example, by raising public awareness), but they lose on another level (for example, by influencing policy). On the other hand, they succeed to some extent, but at the same time such a success very seldom goes as far as activist would have wished, so that there is also some degree of failure inherent in each victory.

Secondly, just as what constitute success depends both on the viewpoint from which one assesses it (movement participants will probably have a different evaluation of the impact of a given action than, say, scholars or journalists) and on how one defines success (in more radical or moderate terms, for example), so does failure. That which some of us would define as a failure, for others—especially those who are actively engaged in the challenge—it is a success.

Thirdly, a given movement or action may fail to influence policy, but succeed on other levels. I would argue, in fact, that this is the rule rather than the exception: most often social movements succeed in the social and cultural realms, while failing in the political one. The important point here, however, is that neither success nor failure can be assessed in absolute terms.

Let us take an example, the most recent I can think of. At the time I am writing, thousands of Ukrainians are protesting against the government—including by blocking entrance to the governmental building in Kiev—after the latter has decided to suspend the signature of an agreement with the European Union and to strengthen the relations with Russia instead. We do not know yet what will be the outcome of these protests. What we do know, however, is that there will be some outcomes, in the short term, in the long term, or—most likely—both. But will such outcomes be seen as a success or as a failure? For example, if the government ends up signing the agreement, this could be seen as a success. However, some may say that the real goal of the protest is the fall of the government. Further, even if none of these two objectives are met, one could still argue that this is not a failure, since such a huge mobilization will inevitably change the view people have of the issue, if not lead to a change in consciousness.

The examples could be multiplied. My main point, however, is that, in spite of the problems that the notion of failure—just as that of success—entail, there are good methodological reasons for refocusing research on movement failure in addition to movement success. Methodologically, looking both at “ones” (success) and “zeros” (failure) would bring much added value to the study of social movement outcomes. This should be done explicitly and from the research design stage, not only implicitly, as it was most often done so far. Furthermore, this would bring a stronger comparative dimension to the analysis, as “ones” can be systematically compared to “zeros”.

Finally, important lessons may be learned by looking at failure, especially from an activist point of view. Most often, in our everyday life, we learn more from our mistakes and failures than from our success: knowing what went wrong and what we did wrong helps us do better the next time. The same wise old principle holds for the study of social movement outcomes. Both scholars and activists have a lot to learn from failed movement actions, particularly by comparing them with successful actions.

In brief, and to conclude, all this is to say that looking at why and how movements fail and why and how they succeed is crucial, that both movement success and failure should be part of the study of social movement outcomes, and that both need to be included in the research design, likely leading to a strong comparative perspective. Examining failure helps us define and identify success as well as understand how social movements may bring about political, social, and cultural change.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Social Movement Failure

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