Research on collective action tends to focus on the formidable structural obstacles that disadvantaged people face when they challenge the status quo. These groups often lack resources, such as money and volunteer labor. They often face a political structure in which elites bar them access or unite against them. They may experience direct coercion; they may be economically dependent on the very thing they wish to challenge; or they may anticipate defeat before even starting (Gaventa 1982).
Yet even when these broader conditions change, expanding the number of committed activists is fraught with difficulty. Groups fighting to create change often struggle to garner sympathy from the community in which they work. Or they may gain sympathy but struggle to recruit others to join them in acting against a threat (Beyerlein and Hipp 2006; Oegema and Klandermans 1994). Favorable organizational and political conditions alone do not by themselves create a resonant connection between committed activists and potential participants.
Before potential participants join efforts for change, groups with resources must create social ties, share understandings, overcome symbolic boundaries, and build trust together.
The Space Between
In the study of social movements and activism, we have often overlooked this fundamental act of creating connections between different groups of people. We tend to analyze social networks of activists, group identity, and salient messages after they have formed. We take for granted that social networks will form, that group identity will emerge, and that salient messages or framings will resonate without understanding why those things happen—or why they fail to happen.
These things seem so basic: Organizing 101, some might say. Yet scores of examples illustrate that creating and sustaining resonant connections is difficult. In their efforts to help, numerous non-profit organizations, activists, government authorities, and journalists have gotten things wrong, have misunderstood the situation at hand, have acted ineptly, and have provoked longstanding tensions with locals that endure for years or decades.
Indeed, despite an abundance of organizational resources, these may remain encapsulated and unshared because activists are reluctant to offer them to people they do not understand (McCarthy and Zald 1977). Or the resources they offer may be the wrong type. Or community members may hesitate to accept them from groups they do not trust. In a related way, political opportunities are never simply “known” but are communicated by particular trustworthy authorities, neighbors, or friends and then interpreted for meaning (Benford and Snow 2000; McAdam 1999).
Freedom Summer, for instance, is cited approvingly as a case in which diverse groups came together to operate Freedom Schools and to register Blacks to vote in 1964 in Mississippi. However, during the summer, and especially afterward, underlying tensions emerged. Local black organizers had different styles and skills compared to the external, mostly white, college-aged volunteers. These mostly white volunteers brought “a kind of ‘missionary’ attitude” marked by paternalism and insensitivity toward residents and a superior attitude toward local organizers and leaders (McAdam 1988: 103). They had little experience with the “other” (rural) America, saw things they were not prepared for, and were frequently overwhelmed and exhausted (McAdam 1988: 44–65, 74–75, 86–88). The project broke up within a year.
My research examines this space between favorable conditions and actual micro-mobilization among potential participants using the case of mountaintop removal coal mining in central Appalachia.
Understanding Connections in General
Creating connections between different groups is inherently a cultural act. It is a cultural act because it involves sharing and collectively creating knowledge about the world that is meaningful and informational (Patterson 2014). From this knowledge, people create schemas that enable them to quickly organize and process incoming information (DiMaggio 1997). Thus, a person upon meeting or even hearing about another makes snap judgments about that person’s suitability as a member of her or his particular social network (DiMaggio 1992; McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Cook 2001).
A key mechanism to promote a sense of connection, or resonance, between different groups is cultural matching (Rivera 2012). Cultural matching is the process in which one group demonstrates its understanding of and similarity with another group by sharing commonalities and capacities in certain key areas. These serve as the basis for determining who belongs in a group.
Understanding Connections in Mobilization
What we know about how relationships form helps us to understand micro-mobilization. In micro-mobilization, activists and potential participants—each of whom brings their own experiences, skills, and values—intuitively evaluate one another. Activists attempt to recruit those who are already culturally similar (Leondar-Wright 2014). Potential participants join those who are culturally similar—and generally avoid those who are different. Both self-select into situations that they intuit they have the ability to navigate.
Activists and potential participants, of course, already belong to larger groups that influence mobilization (McAdam and Paulsen 1993). This broader community establishes shared understandings, expectations, and sense of appropriateness through norms, values, sanctions, and codes (Clemens 1997). Potential participants evaluate not only the group they would be joining but also the perceived responses of their community—social shame, ostracisms, potential repression, loss of business, and so on. Collective memory of previous attempts at collective action and historical trajectory matter, too.
Entrenched interests or elites, meanwhile, attempt to match culturally with the broader community as a way of shoring up credibility, especially when their structural advantage cannot persist on mere entropy (e.g., Bell and York 2010). Elites sometimes directly confront activists; usually, however, they work through the broader community in more subtle ways to affect the conditions in which activism can occur, deploying symbols, maintaining economic inequalities, manipulating information, redirecting conflict, and so on (Gaventa 1982; Lukes 2005).
Over time, both sides may work to change certain aspects of their culture. When attempting to recruit potential participants who are different, activists may—by learning more about potential participants—attempt to change certain aspects of themselves such as their clothing, hair, or word choice (e.g., McAdam 1988). But changing one’s culture is difficult. The areas over which matches potentially occur—styles, values, and skills—are durable (Bourdieu 1984). Yet the groups that can highlight their commonalities with potential participants, that can demonstrate overlap in their core styles, values, and skills are far easier to understand and to trust. They nimbly avoid stepping on or transgressing symbolic boundaries. They often sidestep elites’ efforts at polarization.
Through my research, I show that by paying greater attention to the cultural dynamics involved in micro-mobilization, scholars and activists alike can better understand why efforts at mobilization sometimes fail even when structural conditions are ripe for action. Organizations succeed or fail to mobilize community members—that is, garner sympathy and convert it into action—depending on their abilities to match culturally with residents. From this mechanism stem shared understandings, meaningful interactions, and trust, all of which turn individually held grievances into collectively held ones.