I have always been fascinated by how people collectively mobilize to popularize their deep-seated personal beliefs and values among dissimilar and/or disinterested others. How do people recruit busy, disinterested others to join their causes and collectives when there is seemingly no extra time and an ever-growing to-do list? (As we are all well aware of now in early October in the midst of the fall semester.) In pursuit of answers to these questions, I have spent the last five years studying how Buddhist meditation was made popular in secular workplaces in America.
By tracing how meditation emerged in seemingly disparate social spheres, including in Fortune 500 companies such as Google, in the U.S. Armed Forces, in secular public schools, in top scientific research institutions, and in classrooms in higher education, I uncovered an underlying movement of intellectual elites. These meditators formed an intellectual community interested in science and meditation in the 1970s. Members of this community went on to establish social movement organizations in the latter 20th century, which began bringing Buddhist-derived forms of meditation into different targeted institutions. The contemplative leaders’ publications on the benefits of meditation in scientific peer-review journals, and effective publicizing of these results in popular presses and mainstream media outlets, has legitimized meditation as a “healthy” practice for non-Buddhists of all stripes (e.g. non-believers, the religiously indifferent, and adherents to other religious traditions.) Meditation has been adopted as a panacea for mental and physical health problems such as depression, anxiety, psoriasis, and chronic pain. It has also been championed as a skilled practice which will promote creativity, emotional intelligence, and leadership qualities. In short, it has become a “solution” to seemingly any individual or social problem. So how did this happen and what insights can this case lend to scholarship on social movements?
In studying this case, I spent years trying to figure out what this was a case of. Many of my key informants described their work as part of a larger “mindfulness” or “contemplative” movement. This meditation movement had standard features of a social movement. In accordance with Goodwin and Jasper’s (2003: 3) definition of movements, the contemplative meditators comprise an organized, sustained collective which seeks to systematically alter taken for granted aspects of mainstream American culture and professional workplace practices by training targeted audiences in secular fields in meditation practices. These practices, as Michal Pagis documents in her 2010 Qualitative Sociology article, teach practitioners a new embodied kind of knowledge which is steeped in Buddhist philosophy and values. These values, beliefs, and practices are often antithetical to taken-for-granted institutional logics and local cultures in the movement’s targeted secular organizations. Thus, by diffusing Buddhist-derived meditation into esteemed organizations (such as Stanford, Google, Aetna, and the U.S. Army), the contemplatives lay the groundwork for broader cultural and institutional change.
Yet the contemplative movement does not look like or operate like most contentious movements. The contemplatives try to operate in alignment with Buddhist ideology, which generally seeks to negotiate potential problems through social skill or “skillful means” rather than through engaging in conflict. Consequently, there have been few conflicts I could identify them engaging in, and the incidents I know of often blew over with little impact on the emergence of the movement.
The contemplative meditation movement also operated across many fields, yet was organized in critical ways by the central social movement organizations established to bring meditation to each different institutional field. This is distinct from cases of institutional entrepreneurship within a company or institutional field. In the end, I realized that I have a consensus-based movement on my hands.
Studying this case has made me aware of various directions we can take movement research over the next few years. We have much to gain in social movement scholarship by examining in more depth how religious movements emerge and expand (see posts by Ziad Munson and Grace Yukich). Unlike many movements which benefit from focusing on a particular issue and targeted audience (Gamson 1975), religious movements often have multi-pronged agendas which seek to diffuse their transcendent ideologies and practices in multiple social spheres simultaneously. Thus, they provide us with a wonderful opportunity to study multi-institutional politics (Bernstein and Armstrong 2009) by comparing how movements diffuse in particular ways across different social sectors.
I’d also like to bring attention to the following three understudied areas which I believe we should develop further in scholarship on social movements:
First, we need to examine in more depth the many ways which movements organize, expand, and diffuse knowledge through consensus-based strategies. Although there has been some excellent research on consensus-based tactics in the past several decades (e.g. Michaelson 1994, Pellow 1999), there is much room for development in this direction. I speak more about the ways religious movements in particular can mobilize through unobtrusive, non-contentious tactics in a forthcoming paper in the Sociology of Religion.
Second, I’d like to bring attention to Larry Isaac and his colleagues’ (2012) research on movement schools (Isaac et al. RSMCC 2012). It takes a step forward in understanding where and how activists convene and collectively are trained in profound transformative ways in movement tactics, ideology, and emotional control.
Third, we have much to gain in movement research by incorporating insights from social psychology on emotion and how activists come to regard shared practices and ideas as meaningful. In particular, we can try to better understand how embodied practices and collective rituals can be used to create group culture(s) and the production of shared meaning and intrinsic motivations (see Stryker et al. 2000). Additionally, in movements we have much to gain by drawing more heavily on the complex nature of culture(s) as described in research on the sociology of culture (see Williams 2006: Williams-Social Mvt Studies 2006) and on the nascent work on altruism, morality and social solidarity in groups (see Jasper 1997, Effler 2010, and the new ASA section on these topics).