Comments on Shultziner and Social Movement Theory

By Anthony Oberschall

I am puzzled by Doron Shultziner’s “reconsideration” of social movement theory’s apparent failure to account for the social-psychological antecedents of collective action (e.g., shame and humiliation preceding the Montgomery bus boycott). For 50 years of research and writing, I (and many others) have distinguished the social-psychological roots of collective action – briefly termed discontent and grievances – from framing, mobilization, and opportunity. All four require independent, though overlapping, explanations (see Oberschall 1993:16-19 on “the origin of social movements”).

Shultziner puts the accent on shame and humiliation in person-to person-interaction experiences as the emotion motivating protest: bus drivers on segregated buses persistently, frequently, and intensely abused black riders in Montgomery. It is not surprising that strong emotions in many situations motivate many types of actions in both institutional and in loosely structured contexts. The emotion need not be humiliation, and the response need not be protest. Fear as a response to threat – e.g., the terrorist threat after 9/11 – is a common explanation for the ill-conceived war on terror by the Bush administration (involving Guantanamo, torture, surveillance, invasion of Iraq, etc.) (see Thrall and Cramer 2009). Intense shame and humiliation due to person-to-person abuse experiences are not, however, necessary for protest. The 1960s lunch counter sit-ins occurred when management closed the counters, thus avoiding interaction, and the protesters remained seated, some to be arrested. Grievances and emotions there were, but not the shame and humiliation experienced by Montgomery bus riders (Oberschall 1989:31-53).

On Montgomery specifically, Martin Luther King, Jr. writes about a “long history of injustice on the buses of Montgomery…it was a slowly developing process. Mrs. Parks arrest was the precipitating factor rather than the cause…. The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices. Almost everybody could point to an unfortunate episode that he himself had experienced or seen” (1958:50-51). For Shultziner as for King, the issue is to explain how abuses and humiliation in segregated bus riding that have existed for decades but triggered a protest in 1955 and specifically in Montgomery. He calls the motivating emotion “humiliation” rather than “injustice,” but he is in broad agreement with King.

Whether to designate the motivating emotion “humiliation” or “injustice,” or both, is not crucial for an explanation of emergence because either one or both together can motivate protest. I believe that on top of negative reaction to abuse, additional positive beliefs and emotions also motivate protest, such as hope, commitment, solidarity, and faith. An elderly black woman expressed it well in words that have become justly famous: When King told her to ride the buses because she was too old to keep walking, she replied “…I’m gonna walk just as long as everybody else walks…my feets are tired, but my soul is rested” (Raines 1977).

Shultziner did a superb job of digging up data on bus ridership, bus revenues, bus drivers’ frustrations, and abuse increases in the 1950s. But how does one get from abuses and humiliation on buses and Rosa Parks’ arrest to the boycott? The boycott was not a spontaneous collective action. Sources on the boycott describe the planning meetings and organization of the boycott in the immediate days following her arrest in minute detail (King 1958; Viorst 1979: chap. 1). In fact, there were antecedent actions, such as confrontation with the city authorities over the abuses months earlier by black activists, and plans for challenging the bus segregation ordinance. Jo Ann Robinson, head of the Women’s Political Council, confronted the mayor about the seating arrangements and threatened a citywide boycott of buses in a May letter to him if nothing changed. When nothing changed, E. D. Nixon, head of the local NAACP, and some black activists were preparing a test case should an esteemed black rider “above reproach” be arrested. Claudette Colvin, a teenager who was pulled off a bus and was handcuffed, happened to be pregnant and not a good choice, although her arrest occasioned black leaders’ protest meeting with the manager of the bus company and City Commission. Rosa Parks turned out to be perfect choice (King 1958:26). Actually, Shultziner describes all of it.

Mass crowd protests without prior organization, as happened in the overthrow of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, are possible and have happened (Oberschall 1996). What they require is a widely shared historical precedent and cultural knowledge about mass protests in the population which directs thousands of people to converge at the same time in the same place and with the same symbols and grievances to confront the authorities – Charles Tilly calls it a repertoire of collective action – after a well-publicized incident that outrages them (e.g., shooting of innocent bystander). But Montgomery blacks had no such repertoire in 1955. Collective action repertoires developed later in the civil rights movement, and made for diffusion of sit-ins, ghetto rioting, and other actions.

Social psychological antecedents, grievance dynamics, protest diffusion, and precipitating incidents have long been an integral part of the theory of social movements. That theory has served us well, and as with all theories, it will be elaborated an improved with more research.

I agree that insufficient attention has been given in the theory of social movements to explaining the success and failure of achieving movement goals ­– that is, outcomes. I have written about it and made suggestions on incorporating conflict theory (which deals centrally with outcomes) into movement theory (Oberschall 2010). Here I want to elaborate briefly on the social psychology of emotions and motives of both protesters and adversaries.

Do emotions derail or reinforce instrumental goal attainment? After Rosa Park’s arrest, Jo Ann Robinson circulated a boycott flyer throughout the black community in which she stressed Park’s arrest for not yielding her bus seat – that clearly addresses the humiliation and injustice issue – but she also stressed that “if Negroes did not ride buses, they could not operate”; she called for staying off the buses on December 5 – a reference to the financial power of black riders. It was a dual appeal, to emotions and also to instrumental action.

In some instances, segregationists’ loathing and hatred of blacks led to violent actions that made the perpetrators “feel good” but clearly backfired on goal attainment, as happened when the posse led by Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark attacked the black marchers on the Selma bridge in the incident known as “Black Sunday.” Nicholas Katzenbach, Attorney General, later told a visiting Selma official that the Department of Justice had expected 2,000 new black registrations from the Selma registration drive, and instead 15,000 registered under the new Voting Rights Act: “You people in Selma passed that [the act] on the bridge that Sunday” (Raines 1977:212).

For an understanding of outcomes, we have to research and study the social psychology and the institutions not only of challengers but their adversaries – that is, both Jo Ann Robinson as well as Sheriff Jim Clark. The start has been made, and fortunately much more can be and will be done for it is a fascinating and rewarding undertaking.


King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1958. Stride Towards Freedom: The Montgomery Story. New York: Harper and Row.

Oberschall, Anthony. 2010. “Conflict Theory,” in Handbook of Politics, pp. 177-93. New York: Springer.

Oberschall, Anthony. 1996. “Opportunities and Framing in the East European Revolts of 1989,” Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Oberschall, Anthony. 1993. Social Movements: Ideologies, Interest and Identities. Transaction Books, New Brunswick, NJ.

Oberschall, Anthony. 1989. “The 1960s Sit-Ins: Protest Diffusion and Movement Takeoff,” Research on Social Movements, Conflict and Change, 11:31-53.

Raines, Howell. 1977. My Soul is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered. New York: Bantam Books.

Thrall, A. Trevor, and Jane K. Cramer. 2009. American Foreign Policy and the Politics of Fear. Threat Inflation since 9/11. New York: Routledge.

Viorst, Milton. 1979. Fire in the Streets: America in the 1960s. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Origins of Social Movements

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