Those of us who study—or attempt to organize—collective action in the 21st century know the process is fraught with obstacles. We tend to conceptualize these obstacles in terms of the high risks inherent with protest, such as arrest or violent state repression. Social protest continues to be a forceful, exciting means of creating social change. But it’s a relatively rare one. In the United States, humbler forms of collective association—the nonprofit, the social movement group, the civic project—work quietly “behind the scenes” to run the engine of social progress, however progress is defined. And “obstacles” in these settings have different faces. Bureaucracy. Burnout. Limited resources. Like the risks of protest, these obstacles constitute threats to success. And nobody likes threats, because nobody likes to fail, be they an activist occupying Wall Street or the executive director of a struggling nonprofit organization.
I propose that by studying how people respond to obstacles in the course of organizing for social change, we can enrich our theories about strategic action. Earlier scholarship on strategy and social change has committed two errors. First, it has understood activists’ strategic choices to be dichotomous. Action is either instrumental (calculated rationally, in terms of costs and benefits) or expressive (based on identity, shared values or tastes, or familiarity). Yet this framework doesn’t align with emerging psychological and sociological scholarship on culture, reason, and emotion. We now know that the social groups we spend time in actually condition our perception of what responses are rational and appropriate in a given situation. And without emotion, it turns out, our brains can’t make decisions at all (Damasio 2003)!
Second, we think of strategic choices as fairly straightforward. Activists execute tactical maneuvers efficiently and correctly. If a political target shuts an action down, activists figure out how to shout louder the next time around. Again, this perspective rests on a fairly narrow conception of obstacles as confined to political targets. And it assumes that activists have a wide array of strategic choices available at any given time. We’re only just starting to consider the contingent, path-dependent nature of strategic action. Decisions that social change groups make early in their existence set them on path-dependent trajectories in which their future choices are constrained by their past choices. This process is well documented by Kathleen Blee (2012) in her longitudinal qualitative study of fledgling activist groups. Additionally, Erika Summers-Effler (2010) has shown that groups develop patterned responses to obstacles that sustain participants’ excitement and commitment to the cause. These in-the-moment responses have long-term effects: over time, they cause groups to adopt new organizing strategies and new understandings of who they are and what they value.
My research investigates how civic groups decide on strategies of action for responding to a social problem, how they adjust their strategies in response to unanticipated obstacles, and the outcomes that result for urban communities and spaces. I’ve chosen food security as the social problem through which to examine these questions. A grassroots movement promoting the increased consumption of locally produced, sustainably grown food is gaining ground in the United States. Along with this trend comes increased concern for inner-city residents’ lack of access to such food. In the absence of a comprehensive federal strategy for addressing food insecurity, civic groups are stepping in to fill the gap. Many of these organizations are composed of civic altruists – people who are not themselves affected by food insecurity, but who wish to increase food access and promote the ideals of healthy eating and sustainable farming to inner-city residents.
I’ve closely followed two altruistic civic food projects, an urban food co-op and an urban community garden, for two years each. They both were begun by small groups of idealistic, hardworking people with grand visions for social change. The co-op organizers dreamt of forging strong bonds with neighborhood leaders who would then become empowered employee-owners of a cooperative grocery store. The garden organizers talked about becoming a model of sustainable agriculture for their city, empowering neighborhood residents with the knowledge and resources to take control of their diets by growing their own food.
But like many contemporary grassroots efforts, these projects confronted multiple obstacles. Leaders dropped out, citing changes at home and work. The neighborhood residents with whom participants so eagerly looked forward to working failed to get involved. And then there were the more visceral setbacks: a volunteer’s car window got smashed. Vandals raided the garden, pulling up plants that participants worked hard to cultivate.
As I’ve examined how these altruists make strategic choices and adjust to unexpected obstacles, it’s become evident to me that culture, structure, and emotion are densely intertwined in these processes. Here are three findings that illustrate this and challenge current paradigms of strategic action in social movements:
- We have assumed that social movement actors decide on strategies of action and then marshal the financial, material, human, and symbolic resources to put them in motion. But I find that strategic decision-making is a near-constant negotiation between the resources that actors have available and the visions they hope to realize. Sometimes, it’s resources that shape strategies, and not the other way around.
- This appears to be particularly true when a group faces a major obstacle, or when multiple small obstacles siphon enthusiasm and momentum away from a group over time. Low emotional energy makes groups vulnerable to dissolution and disruption (Collins 2004). Decisions to “start small” and “do what we can with what we have” are very attractive when failure looks like the only other option. These decisions have positive emotional consequences. They focus attention on what can be achieved in the near future, which builds excitement and attracts more participation.
- But putting “best available” resources into action has unexpected consequences, too. Civic altruists are wealthier and more educated than the inner-city residents with whom they hope to build solidarity. The resources to which they have access are not neutral. In times of group vulnerability, tapping into these resources can move projects forward at the expense of this solidarity. For example, the co-op organizers had trouble getting neighborhood residents involved in the planning process. They decided to postpone their dream of partnering with neighborhood leaders, and focused instead on working with university students to get a small grocery co-op going in the neighborhood as soon as possible. This unexpectedly created what geographers would call a “white space.” The university students recruited other university students to shop at the co-op, and eventually, its patrons looked nothing like those whom the organizers had originally envisioned.
I have no doubt that civic projects are critical agents of social change in an era of shrinking state budgets and rising inequality. My work aims to increase our understanding of the processes that incubate that change.