Activism and the Contemporary Corporation

Sarah Soule. 2009. Contention and Corporate Responsibility. Cambridge University Press.

Sarah Soule. 2009. Contention and Corporate Responsibility. Cambridge University Press.

By Paul-Brian McInerney

My suggestion for great summer reading is Contention and Corporate Social Responsibility by Sarah A. Soule (2009, Cambridge University Press). I recommend it to scholars of social movements and collective behavior because of its focus on anticorporate activism. Much of the work in social movement research focuses on activism against the state. Historically, scholars defined social movements by that very feature (Tarrow, 2011). However, social movements are increasingly targeting nonstate actors. Soule’s book helps us understand how and why this happens and to what ends.

Soule begins by providing a broad overview of social movement theories, especially as they relate to actions against corporations. She distinguishes between contentious politics, in which activists target states, and private politics, in which activists do not target or involve the state in their actions. Soule rightly acknowledges that the scene on the ground often involves complex combinations of private and contentious politics, as is the case when the state is drawn into conflicts between activists and corporations. She illustrates the complexity of maintaining this analytical distinction throughout the book.

The first empirical chapter is based on a comprehensive dataset of protest events reported in the New York Times between 1960 and 1990, Soule observes various characteristics of anticorporate protest. For example, she finds African-Americans, women, students, occupational groups, and residents initiated much of that protest. The foci of anticorporate protest have taken several forms: against specific products, corporate policies, and corporate negligence. Soule’s analysis advances social movement theories in interesting directions. For example, she argues that the targeting of businesses may reflect a shift in the political opportunity structure. In other words, activists may target businesses, because businesses are less able to employ repressive sanctions against them.

Next, Soule presents a chapter on the student divestment movements from 1977 to 1989. What is nice about the case is that the movements used a very specific tactic (the shantytown) to achieve a very specific goal: university divestment from South Africa. This allows Soule to effectively connect tactics and outcomes. She skillfully shows how shantytown tactics mainly led to partial divestments, while full divestments are better explained by the presence of other factors on campus, such as having higher proportions of black students and the existence of black studies programs. The divestment case illustrates well the interaction between private and contentious politics. Students targeted their universities to divest from funds with investments in South Africa, an example of private politics toward universities and the corporations that benefited from their investments. However, the ultimate target was the South African government, with its policy of apartheid.

Based on case studies, the final empirical chapter evaluates the success of various movements after 1990. Soule selects case studies that illustrate the intersection of targets (corporations, in the case of private politics and states, in the case of contentious politics) and issues, viz., antiproduct, antipolicy, and negligence.  I will not review the six specific cases here, but I will note that each provides compelling qualitative evidence of her overall model while acknowledging the theoretical and methodological complexity of connecting targets and issues and assessing subsequent movement outcomes.

In sum, Soule’s book offers scholars of social movements a solid theoretical foundation for understanding how activism shapes markets. This is a growing and vibrant area at the intersection of social movement studies and economic sociology (King & Pearce, 2010). Markets have long been a key feature of people’s lives. However, with privatization of many government services and reduced resources for the nonprofit sector, markets are increasingly becoming the means by which more and more human needs are met.

However, by ending her analysis in the 1990s, the book, while foundational, is already dated, especially as more social movement activities (especially private politics) are conducted online. As Earl and Kimport (2011) show, information technologies result in cost reductions in for protest (in both time and money) that are already changing targets and tactics employed by activists. Furthermore, Soule’s analysis neglects the growth of ethical consumption (Nicholls & Opal, 2005). The two trends are related: with the spread of information technology, consumers can more readily monitor the actions of corporations and support those corporations with which they share ethical concerns (Stehr, 2008; Stehr & Adolf, 2010). Of course, such changes necessitate the revisiting and updating of scholarly work. That keeps sociologists in business. And sociologists would do well to build on the framework Soule offers in Contention and Corporate Social Responsibility, revisiting her theoretical framework and updating it based on the new repertoire of tactics and targets afforded by information technologies. This is particularly true for social media and new technology platforms for mobilization, where much contemporary activism is taking place.


Earl, Jennifer, & Kimport, Katrina. (2011). Digitally Enabled Social Change: Activism in the Internet Age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

King, Brayden G., & Pearce, Nicholas A. (2010). The Contentiousness of Markets: Politics, Social Movements, and Institutional Change in Markets. Annual Review of Sociology, 36, 249-267.

Nicholls, Alex, & Opal, Charlotte. (2005). Fair-Trade: Market-Driven Ethical Consumption. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Soule, Sarah A. (2009). Contention and Corporate Social Responsibility. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Stehr, Nico. (2008). Moral Markets: How Knowledge and Affluence Change Consumers and Products. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Stehr, Nico, & Adolf, Marian. (2010). Consumption between Market and Morals: A Socio-Cultural Consideration of Moralized Markets. European Journal of Social Theory, 13(2), 213-228.

Tarrow, Sidney. (2011). Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics (Third Edition ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Great Books for Summer Reading 2014

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