Balancing Strategy and Constraint in SMO Practices: Insights from How Organizations Develop Activists

By Edward Walker

Hahrie Han’s How Organizations Develop Activists represents an important contribution to scholarship on social movements and advocacy organizations. All too often, in my view, studies elide the distinction between thicker forms of engagement that build and enhance relations among participants (“organizing”) and forms that mainly involve getting people to take action regardless of whether those relations have been cultivated in a meaningful way (“mobilizing”). Yet, understanding this distinction has serious consequences for a variety of features of advocacy campaigns. It impacts the extent to which interests are established through participation rather than necessarily prior to action, whether activists feel that their personal efforts are being recognized and acknowledged by others active in the cause, as well as more pragmatic issues about maximizing the potential that activists can most effectively marshal their collective energy and effort into the larger enterprise. The stakes of understanding the organizing/mobilizing distinction are high, I would argue, both for how scholars conceptualize social movements and also for how activists decide their strategy in any given campaign.

This book is also quite timely, given other features of both the shifting advocacy environment and the changing scholarly conversation surrounding it. Many have worried about how the advocacy environment has been altered since the “advocacy explosion” of the 1970s and 1980s, with more groups relying on checkbook-and-mailing-list models of organization. The concern has been, of course, that such groups involve not only less meaningful contact been leaders and rank-and-file members, but, more significantly, that members are less connected to one another. We now see, in some respects, an amplification of these concerns in studies of online activism, although there are some very important counter-trends (It’s important to note here that Han’s book also offers critical insights on this very count: the mobilizing/organizing distinction doesn’t map cleanly onto the online/offline split; it’s possible, Han argues, to do real organizing online as well as offline).

There are also many thinking through the fluctuating forms of transactional and “plug in” civic and political engagement (again, possible both online and offline), found in studies by scholars including Paul Lichterman, Zeynep Tufekci, Kevin Lewis, Philip Howard, and in some of my own work. Beyond all of these, there’s the shift toward supply-side recruitment of activism and the selective targeting of participants by campaigns, aided by new data sources and technologies. I see Han’s book as offering substantial new insights that are relevant to all of these debates.

What I would like to highlight is that although not framed primarily as a contribution to organizational theory, HODA also makes us think carefully about how best to understand the relationship between strategy and organizational environment.

Notably, the book does have a strong message for advocacy groups and SMO organizers: if you focus your efforts too heavily on “lone wolf” mobilization strategies, you are likely falling short of realizing the full potential of your members’ and leaders’ collective capacity. The book suggests that while mobilization is a necessary ingredient in nearly all campaigns – even if not at every moment of it – the strategy of constantly mobilizing without substantial organization-building is usually a recipe for failure. Additionally, mobilizing without organizing is anathema to building civic skills and fostering interest formation for participants (pp. 130-33).

And yet I found myself wondering about how much organizations really choose one of these strategies over the other. The book quotes PICO Campaign Director Joy Cushman to support a point found throughout the study: “the organizer thus makes two [strategic] choices: (1) to engage others, and (2) to invest in their development. The mobilizer only makes the first choice. And the lone wolf makes neither” (p. 10).

Sociologists who study social movements and organizations often point out that strategy selection is often highly constrained by environmental circumstances such as the availability of models to imitate, resource constraints, inherent cultures of leadership that vary considerably across SMOs, and apparent vulnerabilities of the target(s) of the campaign (or, for non-political organizations, opportunities for gaining advantage). In short, strategy is endogenous.

To its great credit, HODA does highlight that strategy selection is constrained, especially in the third chapter. The argument there is that organizing is hard work, and is not usually chosen as the first option until groups are faced with a major external challenge. For some groups, it’s more about resource shortages that require greater use of volunteer labor in place of paid staff, and organizing, in turn, depends on those volunteers. For others, it was more a story of seeking the capacity to play a more extensive role in national electoral politics. HODA also very nicely makes clear that once these strategies are adopted, SMOs tend toward path dependence given both the “taste” for certain models of engaging members and also more practical considerations about the transaction costs of adopting an alternative model. As Han argues, “the structure in place provides incentives for cultivating activists… Strategic choices about where to locate responsibility, in other words, can condition subsequent choices about how to cultivate activism that make mobilizing or organizing more likely” (p. 79).

Where does this leave us on the question of “choice?” My estimation is that Han’s book gives us an image of strategic choice that is constrained but far from determined by environmental conditions. Although I think that I would place a bit more emphasis on the “structure” than the “agency” side of this particular equation, HODA does give us a strong sense about the sources and consequences of strategy selection both for SMO leaders and also for the efficacy of their campaigns. Those victories that come through mobilizing without organizing may be satisfying in the short term but may ultimately prove to be, in large part, pyrrhic.

Overall, How Organizations Develop Activists is a book that should be read by all scholars interested in social movements, civic engagement, and politics, as well as by activists considering how best to effect policy change through the work of their grassroots membership. Books like Han’s are quite valuable to both of those audiences in this time of an unsettled civic landscape with new technologies, rising inequality, and increasingly professionalized advocacy.


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Filed under Essay Dialogues, How Organizations Develop Activists

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