When I met this week with Sarah*, my first potential graduate student advisee as a new faculty member at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, I was thrilled for this particular student that she would be able to learn from Professor Hahrie Han’s recently published book How Organizations Develop Activists. As I began to describe the book to this student – a master’s student who is interested in communication and political advocacy – it became clear to me that Han’s book makes valuable contributions for at least five distinct groups of people that I’ll simplistically describe as students, activists, scholars, policy experts and decision-makers. In this post I first summarize key aspects of the book that allow it to speak meaningfully to such diverse audiences, and then I consider some of the book’s concrete contributions to these different groups of readers.
(1) Key Aspects of This Book: Research Questions, Research Design and Findings
Han launches this book with the recognition that getting people to act politically is hard to do. She then asks what seems like a very basic question: how do organizations succeed at getting people to act politically? She studies this question by comparing the local chapters of two civic associations, one that brings together environmentally conscious members to focus on environmental issues, and another that brings together doctors to focus on health issues.
The research design that allows her to make meaningful conclusions about organizational effectiveness is a comparison of the practices of association chapters that differ mainly by whether they are high-engagement or low-engagement in relation to their members. In addition to the comparative work of the practices of high- versus low-engagement associations, Han also conducts a series of field experiments that are designed to further the investigate the question of why some organizations are more successful than others at developing activists and leaders to advance policy change. Along with this carefully constructed research design, Han incorporates vignettes that capture typical representatives of different kinds of association members (e.g. the “lone wolf”, the “mobilizer” and the “organizer”). These vignettes are drawn from intensive field work, and the authenticity of the vignettes transforms the book into a living and breathing narrative.
A key finding from this painstaking research is that the most effective and vibrant associations do not only mobilize their members to take political action – they also organize their members to advance up a ladder of activism and leadership development. The book then dives into investigating the core practices of organizations that succeed in using an organizing approach, including advanced uses of available technologies. Through this research Han finds that the key to success for civic organizations is the development of a strategic plan to both mobilize and organize their members.
Since it is so rare for any piece of writing to communicate something meaningful to such a broad group of readers, I think it’s worth first pausing to consider what is unique about the book’s design and structure. Han successfully combines three main characteristics that are rarely integrated in a single book: (1) Ambitious and important research goals; (2) State of the art research methods and intensive original data collection; (3) A compellingly clear voice and narrative that interprets and communicates the implications of the study. While it can be argued that the first two characteristics are not all that rare, the ability to combine ambitious research goals and methods along with a clear narrative is truly a feat.
A final key contribution of the book’s design that I think is crucial to note is the way it engages with contemporary technological advances, without becoming single-mindedly focused on time-limited digital tricks. This is quite a challenge, and an important one for those of us interested in effective study and practice of mobilizing and organizing. It would be naïve to simply ignore how technology is changing the way we communicate and organize associational life. Yet, too often research and practice can get bogged down in the specific website or app that will hopefully transform politics as we know it. Han’s book does a masterful job at engaging seriously with the technological innovations used by associations, while contextualizing them in the big-picture advances of 21st century associational life.
(2) Different Groups of Readers
When I consider the contributions this book can make for someone like Sarah, the graduate student I met with this week, I think we can imagine her as representative of readers that include activists, policy experts and decision-makers. Sarah is in the second year of our master’s program with an interest in comparing two key associations in the American Jewish community, namely J-Street and AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee). Although she is working to produce a high-quality master’s thesis, she is not interested in becoming a life-long student or scholar, but rather she aims to become a leader in communications and policy change.
As someone who sees herself as a future leader and spokesperson on behalf of the more politically conservative end of the ideological spectrum of the Jewish community in the US and Israel, Sarah’s interest in these organizations goes well beyond theoretical curiosity. As a student who consciously enrolled in a program that has a reputation for being more left-leaning on the political spectrum, Sarah has already shown her interest for deep engagement with a broad spectrum of ideas. Although we touched only the tip of the iceberg of her research interest in our first conversation, a clear motivation for her choice of these organizations was to learn about their ultimate effectiveness in advancing their policy interests.
Returning to my role in the conversation as a new faculty member and potential advisor, the usefulness of Han’s book to students as well as to scholars comes to the fore. I am beginning to face the challenges of developing a syllabus that includes high-quality, challenging scholarship – and that also includes completely readable and compelling writing. As I have climbed a few rungs on the ladder of the academic hierarchy, it seems clear that the higher one gets, the more incomprehensible the writing tends to become. As an academic interested in supporting students to recognize good scholarship and to produce it themselves, Han’s book provides a kind of road map for both students and scholars in the field.
* “Sarah” is not the student’s real name.