Movements and Institutionalization

Before I started graduate school in my early 30s, I was an activist and organizer through my late teens and 20s. There were some problems that drove me towards wanting to know more, empirically, about the movements in which I invested so much of my youth.

Here are a few of them:

I noticed that the groups I worked with had to deal with state intervention, but had little knowledge about how to respond to that intervention. (Interventions like police repression and brutality, passage of laws that were harmful to the movement’s goals, or even the contradictions involved with getting a permit for mass march.) I noticed that we planned our protests deliberately to get media attention, despite not understanding when or why our protests got the kinds of coverage we wanted. I noticed that a lot of organizations and activists cooperated with politicians on policy reforms, despite not understanding the long-term effects of those policies. I also noticed activists didn’t understand the long-term consequences of more disruptive or militant tactics they used. All of these questions continue to percolate in my thoughts, and in my work.

On the broadest scale I explore interactions between movements and institutions, like mass media, regulatory bodies, and international organizations. I started graduate school in a Political Science MA program at San Francisco State University, where I studied Germany and Switzerland’s constitutional provisions for animal rights. I looked at how the amendments differ dramatically because of the political and cultural constraints activists faced (Evans 2010). Activists in Brazil, South Africa, and The Netherlands contacted me after this work was published to tell me about their campaigns for constitutional amendments to protect animals. They wanted more information on the legal effects of the amendments in Germany and Switzerland to help build their campaign and inform how they would write their proposed amendments. I am currently working on that follow-up project with a law professor at Whittier Law School, Tom Kelch.

When I entered the Ph.D. program at UC Irvine I got interested in literature and research on movements and mass media. I used the Dynamics of Collective Action dataset to explore why some animal advocacy protests got one type of coverage that activists want: graphic description of animal abuse. The tactic of using graphic, or grotesque, images is gaining more scholarly attention (Halfmann and Young 2010), and I use graphic description to operationalize one form of “good” coverage. In my project I found that existing arguments on controversial protest activity might be more complicated than we think. Most scholars find that disruptive protest activity results in unfavorable coverage, and I found evidence supporting this argument. I also found that organizations that are well known for using disruptive and controversial tactics are more likely to appear in articles with graphic description of animal abuse. Simply, it may be more “who” organizations are, than what organizations do, that garners this type of desired coverage. This resonates strongly with recent work on organizational reputation and identity from Rohlinger and Brown (2013) and forthcoming work by Corrigall-Brown.

I’m involved in two collaborative projects related to movements and media. Edwin Amenta, Thomas Elliott and I are exploring the relationship between social movement organizations and media coverage beyond that of protests. We used New York Times articles from 1900 to 2010 to look at the conditions under which organizations receive various types of beneficial coverage, including standing, demands, and issue coverage. I’m involved in a project with Beth Gharity Gardner, Myra Marx Ferree, and Tim Sven Müller where we used the Shaping Abortion Discourse dataset to look at the use of neutral frames by journalists during the abortion debate from 1972 to 1995. We operationalized five types of neutral frames deployed by various actors in the abortion debate and examine the conditions under which these frames appear in abortion discourse. It is rare that scholars systematically examine neutral discourse, despite the broad consensus that journalistic practices of objectivity are influential in mass media.

My dissertation work examines the long-term effects of policy reforms that movements pursue. Activists often use policy reform to change practices they oppose, this can include industrial production that contributes to environment pollution, employment discrimination that contributes to racial or gender inequality in the workplace, or, in my project, scientific research using animals. Do policy concessions that are celebrated by some activists actually coop the movement, or do they provide a foothold for further change? This is a fundamental question of democracy: Can democratic structures, like policy reform and advocacy, get movements what they want?

Activists and scholars debate about the effects of using the state intervention to promote social change. Environmentalists debate whether establishing pollution caps actually legalize and encourage polluting, even if it is a lesser amount. Is this incremental change, or a way for the state and movement opposition to silence activists? Do these kinds of reforms placate the public, demobilize activists, and protect the practices movements want to end? Protection of animals, and the use of animals in various industries, is institutionalized through federal law. Empirical research on the political and cultural reality of how the resulting systems of regulatory oversight changes the use of animals will help us understand how institutionalization functions for multiple movements.

I use literature from both social movement consequences and science studies to look at the effect of regulatory oversight on scientists who use animals. (I, obviously, didn’t include citations for the extensive literature I draw from.) I interviewed principal investigators as well as other professionals involved with laboratory animals, like bioethicists, lab managers, graduate students, post-docs, and members of local committees who oversee all animal research projects. I also conducted field research at the largest conference for Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (the name of these local committees). I found that some policy reforms created structural access to laboratory decision-making through the creation of these local committees. This access facilitated dramatic changes in bureaucratic practices in the laboratory. More importantly, I found that structural access created the potential for changing the ethical justification and attitudes of those involved in animal research, especially for chimpanzees. In short, policies that provide activists and other influential actors, like bioethicists, access to the targeted practices hold the most promise for further change.

In the next chapter, “We Contain Multitudes: Movement Relevant Policy Reform and Its Effects on Mobilization,” I look at the relationship between federal policy reform and the movement. I use interviews with activists and organizational data to examine whether policies aided mobilization or hindered it. My preliminary data shows that the debate about whether to spend energy and limited resources on policy reform caused significant in-fighting in the movement, which isn’t surprising. What is most interesting is that the repercussions of that in-fighting caused organizational splintering that have positive effects for the movement over time.

On a more personal level, conducting research can come with very high stakes. Interviewing people whose work you find deeply problematic is difficult, emotionally. I’d like to write about the process of interviewing and conducting ethnographic research with scientists who use animals, given my background as an animal advocate. I’m proud of my work partly because I’m dealing with emotionally draining situations, but continue to prioritize the academic integrity of my research. “Your activist side should inform your questions, never the answers.” That’s what my advisor, David S. Meyer, told me the first time we met at UC Irvine. It is very good advice for those of us who feel deeply connected to the social movements we study. I’m formulating questions that contribute to our literature, but I’m also answering questions that are important to activists, which will continue to be most important to me.


Evans, Erin. 2010. “Constitutional Inclusion of Animal Rights in Germany and Switzerland: How Did Animal Protection Become an Issue of National Importance?”. Society & Animals 18:231-50.

Halfmann, Drew and Michael P. Young. 2010. “War Pictures: The Grotesque as a Mobilizing Tactic.” Mobilization: An International Quarterly 15(1):1-24.

Rohlinger, Deana A. and Jordan Brown. 2013. “Mass Media and Institutional Change: Organizational Reputation, Strategy, and Outcomes in the Academic Freedom Movement.” Mobilization: An International Quarterly 18(1):41-64.


Filed under Emerging Stars in Social Movement Research, Essay Dialogues

2 responses to “Movements and Institutionalization

  1. Pingback: Emerging Stars in Social Movement Research | Mobilizing Ideas

  2. Sounds like a great project Erin. Sorry not to be able to read it in full. I’m keen to get a better handle on what works.


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