Bullseye? The Consequences of Mobilizing Unintended Targets

By David Everson

Amidst the calls for a more relational and dynamic approach to the study of social movements, the protester-target nexus would seem an area of inquiry ripe for further development. Social movement scholars have already begun to fruitfully expand our horizon of targets beyond the state, reflecting not only the multitude of arenas in which contention occurs, but also an enveloping political landscape confronting activists characterized by the ever-increasing blurredness of the boundaries between governments and the institutional agents of global capitalism. Though we surely have much to learn about the strategically-chosen targets of activists, future work should also not lose sight of the unintended targets of social protest, and the manner and means by which the spectator audience can alter the course of contentious trajectories. I will suggest below that a renewed focus on “bystander publics” (Turner 1970) promises to yield potentially novel theoretical insights for our models of movement-countermovement dynamics and social movement outcomes. I support this claim by drawing from my dissertation work on Euro-American memory of and attitudes toward the American Indian Movement (AIM), which suggests that our understanding of the unintended consequences of movements needs to account for the processes through which dominant group bystanders alter the “discursive fields” through which social movements, and even racial groups, are culturally constructed.

If the mass public is infrequently the primary target of movement efforts (Van Dyke, Soule, and Taylor 2004), the media-saturated and hyper-surveilled social landscape confronting activists ensures that the relational course of social conflict is ordinarily anything but dyadic. Political sociologists, of course, have long acknowledged the importance of the “audience” to the evolution and outcome of social contention (Schattschneider 1960), and activists remain all too aware of their routine dependence on the public for both direct (e.g., activists, funding) and indirect (e.g., public opinion) support. Despite this reality there has been relatively minimal sustained follow-up in the literature to Ralph Turner’s (1970) early theoretical work on what he termed “bystander publics” (see, as exceptions, McVeigh 1996; Gamson 2004; Santoro 2008). These publics are typically only routinely invoked in the debate over whether and how movements can leverage favorable public opinion for desired policy outcomes. Yet the ex-ante formation of public attitudes toward activism, and indeed activists, remains largely under-explored theoretical terrain. Thus, achieving a more complete picture of the complex manner in which bystanders influence the course of social contention requires further theoretical and empirical work on the questions of why and how movements generate either sympathy or antipathy from their public audiences.

With this in mind, how should we proceed in theorizing the foundations of bystander attitudes toward social movements? Gamson (2004) suggests an initial corrective to the typically atomized frameworks of public opinion, arguing that an understanding of bystanders needs to account for the multiple identities and group affiliations that structure individual attitudes. I would add in addition that such attitudes must be theorized as geographically-embedded, and that we cannot hope to understand their formation or durability over time without accounting for the distinct historical and cultural legacies that shape the social contexts through which activism is filtered. The history of white-native conflict and its resolution, for instance, looks much different in western South Dakota than it does across the Missouri River in the eastern half of the state. In my dissertation I propose that these distinctive historical episodes of social conflict leave lingering memories and cultural narratives in their wake that partially structure the interpretive and evaluative processes, or “discursive fields” (Spillman 1995; Snow 2008), surrounding bystander reaction to social movements. Drawing on Blumer’s (1958) group position theory, I expect to find variation in the content of these contextually-bound cultural narratives, even if their structural form reflects similar processes of dominant group power legitimation over subordinate groups. Bystander attitudes are thus theorized as a thoroughly historical and sociocultural phenomenon, contextually embedded across time and space.

By focusing on Euro-American bystander attitudes toward AIM, both at the peak of its confrontational activism in the early 1970s and some forty years later in 2015, my dissertation sheds light on how dominant groups not only interpret and evaluate threatening protest and movements, but also how these culturally-constructed narratives are potentially re-formed over time. The latter is enabled by my project’s research design, which involves follow-up interviews with a sample of bystanders whose attitudes on AIM and American Indians were documented through various attitudinal instruments (public opinion surveys, constituent mail, juror voir dire transcripts) during the 1970s militant peak of Red Power. To probe the extent to which bystander attitudes are structured by both contextual cultural legacies of intergroup conflict and proximity to threatening protest, the data I am utilizing geographically spans western and eastern South Dakota and Minnesota.

Though I am still collecting and analyzing the interview data for my dissertation, preliminary findings provide one glimpse into how a renewed focus on bystanders can contribute to the expansion of our understanding of movement outcomes. In examining the hegemonic discursive field of AIM protest over a forty-year period, I find that a potential unintended cultural consequence of the movement was to trigger the development of a novel dominant group narrative legitimating extant white-indigenous social inequities. Quite interestingly, this narrative surfaces consistently in the precise geographic areas where the threat of the movement’s confrontational activism was most severe.

By proposing a shift in the culturally hegemonic discursive field as an unintended legacy of AIM activism, I intend to not only stimulate the movement outcomes literature in a promising direction, but to also consider the implications of such narrative modifications for the persistence of social inequalities, be they racial, economic, political, or cultural. Social movements, particularly those comprised of marginalized populations like AIM, rely on support from sympathetic audiences to buttress their social change efforts. Yet it is perhaps in studying the varied strategies to deter such change, adopted by targets intended and unintended alike, that movement scholars may glean broader insights into both the course and cultural legacies of social activism.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Protestors and their Targets

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