Social Movement Dynamics at the Group Level

Throughout my academic career, my area of focus has been the social movement group. Social movement groups (SMGs) are a key mechanism to connect individuals to each other and get them informed and mobilized on important social issues. Sociologists of social movements have often found that political conversion on an issue occurs concurrently with activism, not prior to activism. This was certainly my own experience as an activist. As such, I tend to see the social movement group as representing the promise of democracy and civic engagement in our society: it is a vehicle through which individuals are connected to each other and plugged into citizen action in our society.

Yet, on the other hand, SMGs are also subject to all the internal dynamics that occur in any social group, making them interesting laboratories to study broader social processes. That first SMG I was a part of in college helped me become informed and active on a wide variety of social issues, but the internal dynamics of that group also included a lot of sitting around and telling stories about run-ins with the police, flirting with each other, arguing about politics, playing board games, and talking about our classes. The group fused and split based on more than politics; we developed a shared culture that was infused with our ideological beliefs, but also bigger than them, drawing on our history, interactions, and personalities, as well as ideas from the wider culture.

These twin tendencies of the SMG, platforms of citizen action on the one hand and laboratories of social dynamics on the either, have consistently intrigued me. I am particularly interested in how these tendencies intersect. For example: how does the culture of a group constrain and enable the group’s ability to foster civic engagement? How does the collective identity shared by members of a group make a particular kind of protest more or less desirable to them? How do SMG members “perform” their beliefs for each other in the context of interaction? As such, my research into social movements has focused at the group level, examining the meaning-making processes that go into being an active collective that seeks to promote or resist change.

As an example of how I approach these issues in my work, I’ll discuss a paper I authored that is forthcoming in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion entitled Talking to God Among a Cloud of Witnesses: Collective Prayer as Social Performance. This paper draws on data taken from a three-year long study that examined politically and socially progressive religious groups as they conducted both worship services and activist/volunteer work. Given that religion is often stereotyped as a conservative force in our society, I entered this study interested in what progressive religious identities look like, and how the cultures of progressive religious groups both draw on wider discourses and ideologies as well as shape their members’ understanding of the world.

For this particular paper I focused on prayer, one of the primary faith practices of many religious groups. Social scientists have often approached the study of prayer as an individual phenomenon, examining how people pray when they are by themselves. Yet collective prayer, the time when faith communities come together to commune with their understanding of the divine as a group, is a key ritual for many religious assemblies. As such, like all rituals, collective prayer represents a set-apart time where the community dramatically represents their beliefs, identities, and boundaries, building and maintaining a group culture.

I was particularly interested in how collective prayer represented the dramatization and enactment of political cultures. All the groups I examined, to varying degrees, worked their progressive political beliefs into their services, with collective prayer often representing a key tool for doing so. For example, groups would take time in services to pray for workers striking in Wisconsin, or for Americans to come to a greater appreciation for the environment, deeming these particular political concerns sacred by bringing them into collective communication with the divine. In particular, groups used collective prayer to build political culture (1) by engaging with specific traditions and ideologies, and (2) by “performing community” in ways that delineated proper membership.

To engage with specific traditions and ideologies, groups often explicitly chose prayer practices and languages that marked them in a certain way. For example, members of the African Methodist Episcopal congregation that I examined talked specifically about how their effusive prayer behaviors connected them to the traditions of the Black Church, which they saw as the historical hub of community action for African-Americans in the U.S. Similarly, members of a multi-racial church I observed that had several immigrant communities represented in its membership intentionally conducted prayer in multiple languages, as well as used specific phrases borrowed from liberal theologians such as Rene Girard, in an effort to perform their community’s diversity and progressivism in collective prayer. In both these instances, we see how participants consciously understand certain prayer behaviors and languages as an active engagement with specific traditions and ideologies. The prayer behaviors, as such, represent a primary mechanism through which these faith groups build politicized group cultures that connect them to specific traditions and narratives.

Additionally, collective prayer allows members to perform community in ways that delineate adequate participation in the group, to draw on Eliasoph and Lichterman’s language on “group style.” To provide an example, the multi-racial congregation I mentioned above conducted a prayer service where they prayed extensively for “civil rights martyrs” such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers. As the community prayed for each figure, the prayer leader referred to them with comments such as “who was felled by an assassin’s bullet for speaking truth to power.” Members of the community, including the worship leader, grew emotional, wiping back tears as the prayer progressed and the list of martyrs grew longer. As the prayer wound down, the band played a slow and somber rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” further sacralizing the figures named in the prayer by deeming them “saints.” This particular prayer powerfully dramatized the shared political beliefs of the community’s culture and socio-political ideology, explicitly sacralizing their concerns about racism and violence, casting those who stand against these social ills as “saint like.” My interviews and observations of this community further indicated what this prayer was already suggesting: to be a true member of this community is to share in their sacralization of civil rights.

While I go into further detail on all these examples and what they tell us about rituals, group cultures, and politics in the larger paper, this brief sketch demonstrates my interests and approach to studying social movements and civic engagement. We see how the use of sacred rituals serves to connect members of these communities to politicized histories and narratives, ultimately generating group cultures that suggest certain kinds of civic engagement and draw specific boundaries with regard to politics and ideology. Currently, I am continuing to examine questions about social movement participation at the group level, working on a project on environmentalist activists in the Pacific Northwest, exploring how activist groups serve as sites where members initially spurred into action by NIMBY style concerns can be educated on how the issues their interested represent local manifestations of wider social problems. Through this and future work, I hope to uncover additional group-level dynamics that shape how participants in SMGs understand and practice collective action.


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Filed under Emerging Stars in Social Movement Research, Essay Dialogues

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