My first research experience came as an undergraduate assistant on a project about riots and other acts of collective violence. That experience led to my senior thesis about variation in how community leaders in the 1960s talked about riots and rioters in their cities. When I went on to graduate school, I planned to continue studying collective behavior and violence, but once I started reading (and reading and reading…), my interests evolved. I focused more on formally organized components of social movements. I became a research assistant on a project studying local environmentalist organizations and then a collaborator on a project studying the Sierra Club. Our collective focus in the project was at the organization level: what makes some civic associations more effective than other ones? (Answer here: Andrews et al. 2010). But as we looked ever more closely at the elected leadership teams that form the participatory backbone of the Sierra Club, I became increasingly interested in the effects that participating might have on participants: did the experience of leading change the leaders?
Pursuing that question, we found that some leaders learn a great deal through their experiences, although most leaders spent the bulk of their time in the least learning-intensive activities (like meetings) (see Baggetta et al. in Cigler and Loomis 2011). We also found that the way leadership teams interacted substantially impacted how much time each leader was willing to commit (Baggetta et al. 2013; summary here; podcast here). Clearly the structure and practice of participation shaped the participants, at least while they were in the group.
Coming out of that project, I wondered if those impacts were sticky. Do structures and practices within groups influence members only while they are in that group or can they change people’s engagement with politics—conventional and contentious—beyond the group? Social movement scholarship has addressed this a bit; Doug McAdam’s Freedom Summer, James Max Fendrich’s Ideal Citizens, and Catherine Corrigall-Brown’s Patterns of Protest all show long-lasting impacts of activism on activists. But the vast majority of people will never have experiences like Freedom Summer. Could more routine forms of associational participation have a spillover effect? Alexis de Tocqueville suggested as much in Democracy in America, and contemporary empirical work showed that the development of civic skills, interests, identities, and network ties could facilitate that transition (Verba, Schlozman, & Brady 1995).
To study this further, I moved away from movement activity and into the recreational sphere. I interviewed leaders from 25 community choirs and surveyed more than 1,000 members within them. I found, to my surprise, that these groups provide as many (and sometimes more) opportunities for members to develop civic skills and connections than environmental and peace movement organizations (Baggetta 2009). Those skills, however, do not seem to transfer directly into greater political participation. Instead, practicing skills and conversing with one’s choir-mates can alter how one talks about the choir’s relationship to the public sphere. Thinking about the choir as a public sphere entity, rather than merely a place for personal recreation, modestly increases political activity (Baggetta 2009b).
These finding align with a growing body of work on the interactive internal dynamics of associations (see, for example, Fine 2012, Perrin 2006, Eliasoph 1998) and highlight the need for better data on what really goes on inside organizations. The surveys of members and leaders that much previous scholarship (including my own) is based on can only get us so far, as we must rely on reports from participants who rarely have the opportunity to step back and see the patterns of activity and interaction taking place. Qualitative approaches can give us better descriptions of these patterns, but even the most ambitious efforts (like recent works by Baiocchi et al. (2014) and Blee (2012)) eventually reach a ceiling for the number of settings they can reasonably assess and compare. My current project attempts to fill the gap between qualitative studies and survey studies—and brings me back to studying social movement organizations more directly.
I am currently developing a systematic social observation (SSO) approach to studying associations. SSO studies rely on carefully developed coding forms and protocols and trained research assistants who enter a wide range (and large number) of field settings to observe and record what transpires in significant detail. Perhaps the most classic use of the technique was William H. Whyte’s studies of the use of urban public space (check out Whyte’s awesomely narrated video report here; book version here). More recently, it has been used to study things like retail shopping behavior (Underhill 1999) and disorder in urban neighborhoods (Sampson 2012). I am bringing the technique into associational settings.
I am currently focusing my attention on college student groups. Students are likely one of the most civically malleable populations out there (Levine 2007). The structure of extracurricular life can have profound effects on the pathways students follow through college and beyond (Chambliss and Takacs 2014, Armstrong and Hamilton 2013). But what goes on in student associations? How many organizations generate intense protest activity (Gitlin 1980) or any movement-like activity at all? How many groups consider political engagement as a possible action (Binder and Wood 2013)? How many only attempt to influence individuals (Eliasoph 2012)? And how many ignore the wider world altogether? Do members of groups with diverse memberships (if there are any) really interact across lines of difference? Do groups meaningfully champion democratic skills, attitudes, and identities? Or do they just teach youth how to endure long, poorly-run meetings? My research assistants and I are field testing and revising our SSO forms now. With our soon-to-be-finalized forms in hand, we’ll be heading out to more thoroughly answer these (and more) questions and map the “civic extracurriculum” currently being taught in student associations. Once we know what’s really going on in groups, we’ll be able to start following the individuals who pass through them to see if and how their civic selves change—and if social movement activity is ever part of their experience.