The majority of my research interests seek to answer two of the big questions in social movements scholarship. First, I am a sucker for the “mobilization question.” While some scholars have grown tired of this pursuit, I still find great appeal asking why social mobilization occurs during some times and at some places, but not others. Questions like those offer one succinct way to address the difficult theme of collective agency. Second, I am also interested in understanding the underlying organizational forms of social mobilization. For example, once mobilization occurs, do the participants organize in manners that fall back upon existing social divisions in the wider society or do they instead collect themselves in novel ways that reflect their own ideology and tactical decisions?
While the literature addressing these questions is quite vast, the set of answers offered are still hotly debated due to differing historical and political circumstances, the scope and scale of the case(s) analyzed, as well as secondary research interests and varying scholarly backgrounds. My own secondary research interests lie in the area of social network analysis. For me, I typically see movement participants and non-participants alike as behaving more or less interdependently in either an implicit or explicit networked context. Such a perspective has certainly guided a tremendous amount of research on social movement recruitment, protest diffusion, coalitions, and overlapping membership in movement organizations. For subjects like these, particular relationships between actors form networks that define the phenomena in self-evident manners. However, the value in social network analysis lies less in its deployment as a methodological tool for a particular class of phenomena, but more in its use as a paradigm on social life. This paradigm contends that people and their actions are interdependent, resources flow through relationships between people, the configuration of people and their relationships provide opportunities and create restrictions, and that the patterns of these relationships constitute social structure (Wasserman and Faust 1994:4). If movement scholars can apply this paradigm beyond the typical subjects, I think we can get a lot of analytical mileage.
To address my two favorite general questions on social mobilization, I am particularly drawn to conceptualizing their possible answers in terms of interdependent relationships. It’s remarkable to consider the volume of theory on movements that invokes ideas and imagery with cognates in social network theory. For example, think about concepts in the field like movement factions, polarization, coalitions, and political alliances; divided elites; micromobilization topics like bridging (or brokerage) mechanisms, a movement’s reach, and “bloc recruitment;” as well as describing an organization in terms of having a “centralized leadership” characterized (presumably) by hierarchical relationships, in contrast to a “decentralized organizational structure.” Social network theory offers a highly general way to think about and measure each of these concepts, among many others. Further, the field offers some explicit ways to measure the concepts.
The type of interdependence between actors can take many forms. One of the most basic relationships that can exist between two people is that of a shared characteristic, or an “attribute.” Clearly a shared time period of coexistence would be assumed and perhaps a shared, narrowly defined geographical space. Bear in mind that some social movements events, like protests, can be relatively rare phenomena. Should rare events cluster within narrow temporal and spatial distances, it’s unlikely a coincidence. Other relevant shared characteristics might include participants’ race/ethnicity, class, gender, age, and political leanings. While these characteristics themselves do not constitute a direct relationship in of themselves, they are quite often associated with shared life experiences. Due to a combination of homophily and segregation in social life along these dimensions, mobilization likely emerges initially in ways that reflect these patterns of daily interaction. I am highly interested in understanding how people’s associations during the same time and at the same place result in both movement growth and, perhaps, acceleration. Further, the degree to which these forms of movement association reflect existing social cleavages is a point I believe to be highly worth investigating.
The relationships that most people directly associate with social network analysis reflect direct experiences between two social units. Usually relationships like friendship and familial ties come to mind first. While I find the concept of “friendship” too abstract in the context of social mobilization, relationships that indicate frequency of personal interaction (e.g., co-workers, social visits) or communication (e.g., email, telephone calls, SMS) likely serve as better relationships for analysis in this context. The dramatic growth of information communication technologies (including social media) has not only made these relationships more readily available for the public at large, but the access to publicly available network data has increased as well. Data from ICTs that includes references to both time and place are especially interesting to me, as they present an empirical link from individuals to documented movement activity. Moving to larger scales beyond individuals, we could consider resource flows between social movement organizations, transportation routes between cities to explain event diffusion and large-scale participation, the volume of postage between states for the growth of historical movements, student exchange programs or trade between countries in the context of transnational movements, and much more.
My research agenda seeks to approach questions of social mobilization as a phenomena that results from and exhibit particular network processes existing either within a movement or among the movement’s context. Rather than focusing solely upon the traditional intersections of movements and networks, I find it more interesting to conceptualize mobilization and movement organizations as a subset of social life formed by the connections we engage in and sometimes make.