Spontaneity: An important and neglected topic in social movements

Spontaneity in social movements is likely pervasive, but we do not know how pervasive it is, or about the different forms it make take, as it has received far too little attention in movement scholarship to date. I know that I have seen it on numerous occasions in my own research and participation in social movements but have never paid it much attention.

For these reasons, I am thrilled about David Snow and Dana Moss’ courageous new article, “Protest on the Fly,” recently published in the American Sociological Review, which brings our attention back to spontaneity in social movements. Snow and Moss define spontaneity as “events, happenings, and lines of action, both verbal and nonverbal, which were not planned, intended, prearranged, or organized in advance of their occurrence” (Snow and Moss 2014: 1123).  In their analysis, they provide examples of important spontaneous occurrences which shaped trajectories of action for movements’ and their targets, and which at times tragically led to violence. Some of the spontaneous events they identify include initial protester-police confrontations in Cairo on January 25, 2011, which eventually led to the Egyptian president’s resignation.

Based on their ethnographic research and other sources, the authors argue that spontaneous collective actions are most likely to occur: (1) in non-hierarchical movements that adhere to deliberative, democratic decision-making processes; (2) in ambiguous situations in which actors do not know what to do next, such as when scripts for action are disrupted or plans are completed and actors are given an opening for improvisation; (3) when actors are shaped by priming, or have increased sensitivity to stimuli due to previous experiences; and (4) based on ecological features of where movements emerge and protest. Importantly, they argue that that spontaneity is not always operative in the field, nor is it mutually exclusive to organization and planning. What happens in the field is dynamic, and spontaneous actions and events can happen within and following planned protest events in ways that significantly shape the course and character of collective actions.

Snow and Moss’s article suggests that we have an “overly-organized” understanding of protest and how movements operate. We need further research to identify the extent to which this is true. A typology of different kinds of spontaneous actions would be a useful place to start.

We should also examine in more depth how spontaneity and flexibility in collaborative decision-making affects the efficacy of movement leaders’ strategies. Ganz’s (2000) research on strategic capacity suggests that spaces and rituals which encourage spontaneity to arise, such as those that occur in discursive decision-making processes between vocal, opinionated, and diverse leaders, can be beneficial to movements. This was echoed by some of the contemplative meditation leaders I interviewed.  For example, Saki Santorelli, the Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare and Society, described how his leadership style is akin to a jazz musician. He listens to his team, they collectively argue over his ideas, and the result is like a jazz song; it’s an improvisation built upon organized forms and practices. This kind of democratic spontaneous decision making seems quite different from spontaneous violent action that erupts in social situations rife with ethnic or religious tensions, destitution, and a history of grievances. Future research can identify how particular kinds of spontaneous action can lead to varying results.

There are various challenges to studying spontaneity, which researchers will have to take into account. First and foremost, it is challenging to even identify whether an action or event is spontaneous or not. For example, one of the contemplative meditation leaders I interviewed, Adam Engle, was trying to plan an event for a year with the Dalai Lama, but could not get access to him, when he “serendipitously” met the Dalai Lama’s brother at one of the spiritual leader’s public teachings. His brother then introduced him to the man himself, and planning for the event proceeded. While we could look at this event as spontaneous, and he described it as such, but a sociologist would likely perceive this interaction as an outcome of network linkages. Scholars will have to be careful to distinguish spontaneity in cases such as these, which require overriding actors’ opinions. In addition, we have to be clear in identifying spontaneity in means and outcomes, and assess out of these dual possible manifestations of spontaneity, which are most important for our particular research questions.

Another challenge in researching spontaneity is the problem of multiple, contradictory forms of data, or incomplete data. There are of lot of situations where the majority of participants claim events occurred spontaneously, while a small number of influential figures may have strategically planned or influenced the event in ways that reporters or researchers are unaware of. For example, during the Ferguson protest I blogged about previously, from my perspective as a participant observer, protesters spontaneously decided to walk back and forth across the crosswalk to avoid arrest by local police.  Yet, the following morning, I spoke with a student with sources among the protest’s student leadership who told me that the police had suggested to campus security that if students walk across the crosswalk, they would have no reason to arrest them. Although tactic of traversing the crosswalk seems spontaneous, the meaning is considerably different depending on the perspective of the observer and the amount of data collected. Future research will benefit from parsing out how strategic action can operate in conjunction with or in support of efficacious spontaneous collective action.

Of course, the challenge of acquiring comprehensive data applies not only to spontaneity but to movement scholarship in general. With such a potentially slippery topic as spontaneity, we have to be cautious in bringing spontaneity in as an explanation, taking care not to use it as a placeholder for explaining mobilization which arises quickly and in a way that we don’t fully understand. One way we can do this is by carefully identifying and describing the social conditions and historical antecedents the led to a spontaneous event, as Snow and Moss suggest, and including as many different sources as possible. But perhaps now we can begin to consider the role of spontaneity in protest events and social movements without dismissing it as irrelevant or treating it as a bad word in social movement theory.

1 Comment

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One response to “Spontaneity: An important and neglected topic in social movements

  1. Pingback: More evidence for spontaneity: Accidental activation in online campaigns | Mobilizing Ideas

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