Slippery as an Old Banana: Pinning Down Explanations for Social Movement Emergence and Momentum

By Deana Rohlinger

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Doron Shultziner’s article, “The Social-Psychological Origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” provides an important reminder that relational dynamics matter. Whether studying a particular movement or a campaign rolled out in a specific community, we learn a lot about the emergence and course of social movements by studying the perspectives of different kinds of players, who also have a direct or indirect stake in the political game.

Some students of social movements may not find this welcome news. Studying interactions among groups of actors is messy work. It can be difficult to parse out the chronology of action, let alone the background factors that may have played a decisive role for a movement. Likewise, collecting the data needed to fully understand interactions among different players can be tricky to find, making this work time-consuming and ill-fitted for those seeking jobs or tenure. Worst of all, studying interactions among players reminds us that our motivating questions – such as “What factors explain movement emergence?” and “Are the factors that explain movement emergence and movement momentum different? ” – are slippery as an old banana peel and, consequently, difficult to answer with any real degree of certainty.

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The Civil Rights Movement is instructive in this regard because it is clear that the answer to the emergence and momentum questions vary according the time period under analysis and the data used to make one’s case. Let me briefly highlight three books, each of which attributes movement emergence to a different cause, to make this point.

  • In his compelling analysis, Aldon Morris (1986) credits the coordinated action by black community organizations for the emergence (and momentum) of the Civil Rights Movement. Drawing on interviews and archival data, Morris notes that the Civil Rights Movement began with the Baton Rouge bus boycott in June of 1953 and attributes the success of the boycott to preexisting institutions (such as black churches) and new organizations (such as the Urban Defense League) created to guide direct action campaigns. He points to local movement centers, which consisted of “an interrelated set of protest leaders, organizations, and followers” (p. 40), for the spread and momentum of the Civil Rights Movement throughout the South.
  • Doug McAdam’s (1999) explanation of the Civil Rights Movement also highlights the importance of “organizational readiness” within local communities, but suggests that without insurgent consciousness and political opportunities the Civil Rights Movement would not have emerged. He adeptly illustrates how these factors (organizational readiness, insurgent consciousness, and political opportunities) interact and shape collective challenges from 1930-1970. Viewed this way, movement momentum and progress (including decline) is a function of how these factors interact in a particular locale over time.
  • In contrast, Angela Jones (2011) argues that the Civil Rights Movement emerged during 1897 and 1910. Drawing on archival documents Jones asserts that intellectual elites, who disseminated their ideas via the black press and in public debates, should be credited with movement emergence because their work created an engaged black “public” and the ideological framework used by civil rights activists in the 1950s. While movement momentum is beyond the scope of the book, it is clear that ideas – rather than organizations or opportunities – are used to date the birth of the Civil Rights Movement.

Arguably, each author is correct in his or her assessment. After all, our definitions of movement emergence and movement momentum are determined by our data and theoretical motivations, rather than conceptual clarity regarding how we identify each.

To seriously take up these concepts, we would need to consider:

  • Are there criteria that collective action must meet to be considered an emergent movement (e.g., is there an organizational readiness threshold)? How important are external credentialing (e.g., a politician or media outlets saying, “Here is an interesting movement!”) and temporal dimensions (e.g., this collective challenge has been around for several months) to our understanding of social movement emergence?
  • How can we distinguish movement emergence from movement maintenance/momentum?
  • Are there framing, identity, emotional, or leadership tasks that are specific to each phase of the movement?
  • Do we expect movement emergence and momentum to manifest differently at the local, national, and transnational level?

These, of course, are not easy questions to answer.

However, this may be the historical moment that we can meaningfully move forward and make some of these distinctions.

According to the Initiative for Policy Dialogue, collective challenges are on the rise worldwide, meaning it is a good time for scholars looking to gain conceptual and analytical leverage to compare contemporary movements to those of the past. In addition to learning more about movement emergence and maintenance, comparing “new” and “old” movements would allow us to evaluate whether movement processes such as recruitment, retention, identity work, and emotion work, as well as how movements think about targets and outcomes are different in now than in the past. Yes, the environment in which activists operate has changed. It is not clear that globalization and technological innovation, among other factors, have fundamentally changed what we know about social movements.

Comparing the Civil Rights Movement to the Occupy Wall Street Movement might be a fruitful first step to learning more about social movement emergence and maintenance. Likewise, such comparative work would shed additional light on:

  • The virtues and pitfalls of consensus decision-making in social movements.
  • The influence of political generation on collective challenges.
  • How gender and sexual orientation affect leadership opportunities.

Comparing “new” and “old” movements may be our most important – and most challenging – task. The key to understanding the complexity of social movements and pinning down slippery concepts such as mobilization and momentum may lie in our ability to look to the past and the present simultaneously.

This work has practical implications as well. It can provide an opportunity for young and more established scholars to learn from one another. In our race to provide graduate students with the latest research techniques and trends, and their scuttle to amass credentials that will hopefully translate into job post graduation, we are in danger of losing our connection to the existing treasure trove of knowledge. Comparative work, in short, may offer not only conceptual clarity but also help ensure that we are productively advancing our understanding of movements.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Origins of Social Movements

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