In light of the recent proliferation of mass mobilization events like Occupy/99%, immigrant rights, the Arab Spring, and the Ukrainian protests, many interested in social movements have turned their attention to protest participation. No doubt, this new wave of protest research has provided important theoretical insights on mobilization as well as methodological advancements.
However, scholars have also recently pointed to important organizational and institutional aspects of social movements and social change that should not be overlooked. In fact, the two recent Charles Tilly Book Award winners, Drew Halfmann and Kathleen Blee, address these very aspects of mobilization.
When I began studying the disability rights movement, it became apparent that understanding mobilization, social change and policy outcomes required looking beyond grassroots protest and other forms of direct action to understand America’s disability rights revolution. Indeed, the disability rights movement shines light on several important themes in political sociology, which my work seeks to address, including a current book project I am developing.
First, the disability rights struggle showcases the porous boundaries between the American state and civil society. In a short paper I published a few years ago in Sociology Compass, I argued that disability rights activism reflected a particular kind of institutional activism such that a lot of the movement for rights-based legislation was in the government. But, several who would go on to be important figures in the disability rights movement – founding protest groups and organizing demonstrations – either had direct contact with many of these political entrepreneurs both in Congress and the executive branch, or were professionalized in the government in some way. For this reason, I argued that the lines have become increasingly blurred in terms of who is an insider and an outsider as well as the sites where these actors work to promote change.
Second, the case of disability rights highlights the important relationship between institutional constraints and entrepreneurial behavior – especially how actors use resources to reshape policy agendas and ultimately outcomes. The focus of a recent paper in Research in Social Movements, Conflict and Change, as well as an important theme of my current book project, is the way in which political entrepreneurs provided a new policy context for rights mobilization that had not existed in the past. As strategic action fields, expanding policy communities created new venues for disability political discourse by facilitating issue expansion including the rise of a rights-based policy frame. Importantly, as committee jurisdictions expanded, it also created new opportunities for established and new disability groups to have a place at the table. One of the objectives of this paper and my ongoing projects is to think about how policy communities, as strategic action fields, can help specify political opportunities for given social movements.
Third, and drawing from a long history in political sociology focusing on the link between the state and civil society, America’s disability rights revolution exemplifies the ways in which policies create constituencies. Note that much of the way in which legislators, health and welfare professionals and even the regular public thought about the government’s role in disability policy was to provide (or facilitate) rehabilitative services and other social benefits to people with disabilities. However, when this service provision-oriented policy monopoly gave way to a broader and more heterogeneous community, rights began to grow in prominence. Much of the language of rights that made its way through the policymaking process became an important framework for grassroots mobilization. It provided the motive and the necessary tools for organizations and activists to mobilize.
Finally, disability rights can shed light on an area that is considerably underdeveloped in the social movements literature: the relationship between social movements and policy outcomes. While the Americans with Disabilities Act was hailed as one of the most important civil rights policies, it soon became clear that it would do little to change the economic wellbeing of people with disabilities. Michelle Maroto and I have a recent paper on this topic in Law and Policy which focuses on how institutional layering in part explains the inability of policy to affect change. In a subsequent paper in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, we suggest that policies haven’t adequately addressed barriers to the labor market or the persistent earnings inequalities that exist for individuals with disabilities. Perhaps not surprisingly, many inside and outside the government were pointing to a failure on the part of federal policy when it came to employment discrimination. How did this so-called failure shape mobilization?
Throughout the 1980s, the disability rights movement focused on issues of access (especially to public transportation) and had further developed ties with political entrepreneurs in the federal government who would pursue the ADA in Congress. Following the enactment of the ADA, the movement began to shift focus away from federal politics, and increasingly focus on a heterogeneous set of issues and non-policy related objectives. The original data I collected on disability nonprofits and protest events between 1961 and 2006 also points to several other trends following the ADA. First, the disability policy agenda shrank considerably; that is, Congress spent far less time and resources on disability in the 1990s and 2000s. Second, the disability organizational field also contracted for the first time and third, there was a significant decline in the use of direct-action tactics by the movement. One way to interpret these patterns is thinking about the ADA as a form of cooptation by the state such that it demobilized a segment of the disability rights movement that may have otherwise played a more significant role in addressing the ADA’s failures in improving the economic well being or people with disabilities. It would not be until the mid-2000s that political elites in Congress re-opened the ADA with what would become the ADA “Restoration Act”.
Ultimately, the direction my work has taken emphasizes the importance of the dynamic interplay between supply and demand factors shaping social change (sometimes referred to as top-down or bottom-up, respectively). America’s disability rights revolution also showcases the importance of situating grassroots challenges in the broader political and institutional context, as well as the ways in which the role of institutional activism and grassroots activism evolves over time. This dynamic relationship sheds light on how so-called insiders and outsiders help to produce and reshape policy outcomes, and how policy outcomes can create or constrain opportunities for mobilization.