In a recent (March 23, 2015) article in The Nation, Robert L. Borosage proclaimed that “the populist movement has finally arrived” and that “we live in an Occupy movement.” Borosage alludes to several key issues about the recent mobilization around inequality. First, new political opportunities have emerged where political elites in both parties have discussed inequality as one of the most significant problems facing the country today. Of course, their stance on inequality is in part a success of the Occupy movement which raised the salience of the issue, but also reflects potentially new opportunities for legislative change (although neither party has really proposed a systematic policy solution to the problem).
Second, despite the more recent focus on the Occupy movement, inequality has actually been on the rise for decades. This point reminds me of an activity developed by William Gamson for the participants of the 2011 Young Scholars in Social Movements Conference (I was one of those participants). He distributed a prompt that read something like: “Until recently, there has been no popular surge of moral indignation at the unfairness of it all, and no social movement to demand to stop and reverse the trend. People may be aware of this fact and angry about it, but their attention and anger doesn’t seem to get channeled into organized collective action.” Note that the conference was in May of 2011, months before the beginning of the Occupy movement.
Third, unlike the inequalities and disadvantages that are the product of so-called modern progress, globalization and other broad social forces, the “new inequality isn’t an act of nature,” Borosage writes. This suggests that people have increasingly come to see inequality as a manmade injustice. Fourth, social movements matter! They matter precisely because neither party has provided the public with choice when it comes to solving the problem of inequality. Borosage argues that like the civil rights movement, women’s movement and gay liberation movement, the Occupy movement is a “civilizing movement” that fights against these injustices.
Finally, it is not enough for movements to increase awareness about unjust inequality. They must also persuade activists and the public that they – their participants – have the ability to affect change. As Borosage writes, “As awareness grows, movements must offer a real hope that things can change. Joining a movement often entails facing mockery, scorn and ostracism as well as taking great risks. Few people are ready to make pointless sacrifices, to beat their heads against unmoving walls. Movements must offer more than solidarity; they must offer the hope that the time for change has come.”
My colleagues, Katie Corcoran, Jacob Young, and I, sought to investigate some of these issues (especially the last two points) in a recently (March 2015) published paper in Sociological Inquiry. Using cross-national, individual-level data from 29 countries, we investigate whether and how feelings of efficacy, perceptions of injustice, and the interaction between the two, shape the likelihood of individuals to participate in low, medium and high-cost forms of political action. We treat signing a petition or joining a boycott as low cost action, participating in a lawful demonstration as medium cost, and unofficial strikes or occupying buildings/factories as high-cost forms of collective action. We used the classical definition of efficacy which refers to how much freedom of choice and control individuals have in their lives. Respondents were also asked why people in their country live in need. Individuals were asked to select from four different reasons. We treated “modern progress” and “injustice in society” as measures of structural explanations of disadvantage (the former as legitimate disadvantage and the latter as unjust disadvantage) and “unlucky” and “laziness/lack of willpower” as individual-level explanations.
In sum, we found that individuals with perceptions of both legitimate structural disadvantage and perceptions of unjust structural disadvantage have higher chances of participating in all types of collective action. However, while we also found that efficacy is not associated with participating in high-cost forms of action, efficacy does explain participation in high-cost forms of action when individuals also perceive inequality as rooted in structural injustice. In other words, our key finding suggests that in order for individuals to turn to higher cost, more disruptive forms of action, such as unlawful demonstrations and occupying a building, they must both perceive structural disadvantage as being unjust and also believe that their participation can affect change.
Returning to Borosage’s point about the role of social movements in mobilizing individuals around unjust inequality, our findings suggest that social movements play an important role in helping individuals overcome the costs of political participation. Social movement organizations and leaders do so not only by raising awareness about inequality but also by changing perceptions among potential activists about the value of their participation in affecting change. Borosage’s article also alludes to the issue of timing – what is about inequality today that has mobilized the people? Our findings shed some light on this question. In addition to current events and new political opportunities, there is a growing view among the publics of many nations that inequality is unjust and that there is something they can do about it through disruptive action rather than more institutionalized means like voting.