On Time, Agents, and Comparisons

By Burrel Vann Jr.

The Civil Rights Movement has been central to our understanding of social movements and critical for the development of social movement theory. We’ve amassed a rich history of the movement, with various scholars focusing on particular periods and places, instances of collective action, and both individual and structural precipitants and consequences of activism.

The focus on such an influential movement has been and will continue to be beneficial to our understanding of collective action processes insofar as researchers engage in intra- and inter-movement comparative work. Research that tracks one movement across time will highlight the long trajectories movements typically have (i.e., when movements begin and end); it can also tell us a great deal about changes in collective action processes at different stages, and how and when these are sparked. Additionally, work that compares findings from the Civil Rights Movement to the processes at work in other movements can demonstrate the generalizability of our theories.

In his re-examination of the emergent stage of the Civil Rights Movement, Shultziner’s (2013) article highlights differences in the collective action process over time. He identifies three stages of movements: emergence, maintenance, and consequences, and reemphasizes the importance of grievances in mobilizing participation. He finds that what prompted the Montgomery bus boycott in December 1955 was the shame and humiliation experienced by Black bus riders. Given this early and somewhat isolated event in the Civil Rights Movement, his analysis demonstrates an important point: movements can have much longer trajectories that extend before (and after) collective action.

Given that movement histories run long, how are we to delineate between stages of a movement? Moreover, how do we know when a movement and/or its stages has begun or ended? Although I do not have complete answers, I’d like to highlight a few cases that can help us think about how to proceed through the next phase of scholarly work on social movements.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the recent shootings in Ferguson, Missouri (Buzzfeed’s Compilation of Coverage), the riots, and what this tells us about movements and collective action. Partially prompted by Halfmann’s and Andrew’s (2014) response to Amenta’s message (2013; 2014) and Shultziner’s work, I’ve been contemplating the importance of:

  • Mounting collective grievances stemming from structural shifts. Ferguson’s population has grown from 1% to 67% Black in the last 40 years, and currently has a 94% White police force.
  • The lived experience of Black individuals under these conditions. Lanre Akinsiku at Gawker wonders if Michael Brown stood up to Officer Wilson because he was tired of living in the constant state of fear many Blacks face.
  • The role of precipitating events (here, Michael Brown’s homicide) and activists in sparking action and movements. In addition to rioting, Black gun clubs have emerged as a response to eroding trust in police.

On one hand, we see that over time shifts in structural conditions may have led to grievances amongst Blacks. Are these shifts a consequence of Civil Rights Movement activity? Moreover, are the contemporary riots a part, or a consequence, of the movement? If we are to track movement trajectories, we need better ways of delineating the beginning and ends of movements and their stages. If not, everything might be a movement or a consequence of one.

Addressing intra-movement dynamics, Shultziner argues that, contrary to a necessity for organizations, leadership, resources or “response[s] to abstract and far-removed notions of political opportunities” (p. 127), grievances are most important in the beginnings of a movement. This isn’t surprising. Snow and Soule (2010), for example, argue “none of the various sets of conditions necessary for the emergence and operation of social movements is more important that the generation of deeply felt shared grievances” (p. 23), including dissatisfaction, threat, fear, and resentment. Furthermore, and to my point on comparative work, the impacts of grievances on mobilization can be observed across movements, including Ku Klux Klan (McVeigh et al. 2004), White Power (Futrell and Simi 2004; Blee 2002), and Patriot/Militia (Van Dyke and Soule 2002) organizing. For Shultziner, it’s not that organizations, leaders, and resources didn’t matter, but that grievances matter more for mobilizing participation at earlier stages in the life cycle of a movement (particularly when such infrastructures are lacking).

What is the role of signifying agents in the progression of movements through these stages (and particularly, the Montgomery bus boycott)? Signifying agents help transform grievances into action. In much of the literature, however, movement representatives (adherents and/or leaders) are the ones who engage in signifying work (see Snow and Byrd 2007 for more detail). In the Tea Party Movement, fears about redistribution of wealth and distrust of the government (McVeigh et al. 2014; Skocpol and Williamson 2012; Zernike 2010) prompted the growth of Tea Party rallies across the nation. Local activists and community members coordinated these activities. (Highly resourced conservative organizations such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity jumped on board, and formal Tea Party organizations were formed thereafter.) Similarly for Shultziner, Jo Ann Robinson, President (leader) of the organization Women’s Political Council, was a catalyst; she was able to identify the Montgomery bus system as a source of riders’ humiliation, and suggest corrective collective action as the solution. Both cases required signifying agents to coordinate collective action, but what is the structural location (network position) of these coordinators of activism? Does membership in organization(s) enable them to bridge distinct communities and/or grant them the legitimacy to coordinate such activities? Moreover, do they need to be part of organizations at all?

If we are to continue to advance the study of social movements, our work must include the study of over-time intra-movement dynamics to interrogate changes in movement stages, the role signifying agents play in each stage in a movement (or at critical junctures to facilitate stage changes), and inter-movement comparative work to explore how our findings on the form and function of one movement across time compares with alternative movements.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Origins of Social Movements

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