Target(ing) Practice(s): Social Movements’ Relations, Repertories, and Consequences

By Dana M. Moss

Who activists target and how is an important topic for scholars of mobilization, and one that the Collective Behavior and Social Movements section of the American Sociological Association will discuss at the annual pre-conference workshop in Chicago this summer. My thoughts on the study of movements’ targeting practices and tactics are outlined below.

First, we should think about how movements create relationships with their targets, or why they fail to do so.

Whether movements are seeking to change the public’s consumption of water in drought-stricken California or their position on a particular ballot measure, it is worth considering how movements create—or foreclose—the kinds of relationships needed to enact social change with their intended targets. Movements engage in all types of outreach to change hearts and minds, but some strategies are far more likely than others to garner sympathy. I was thinking about this recently when I witnessed two activists wordlessly handing UC Irvine students pamphlets on veganism during the rush between classes. The students cringed and stuffed the papers in their pockets. It seemed as though the activists were checking off a box: distributed pamphlets to a bunch of random and potentially-impressionable young people? Check! Without having gathered data on this incident, I would wager my JSTOR subscription that zero minds were changed that day. Public education efforts require labor, time, and money—things that movements rarely have in ample supply. And yet, actions such as distributing pamphlets often seem to be all cost and no reward.

It is useful, then, to consider not just what activists do, but whether their strategies and tactics are actually forging relationships with potential allies and adherents. That way, we can better understand whether change-seekers have the potential to produce some kind of impact, or whether their efforts are likely to evaporate into thin air. We should be asking, how much time and energy are activists spending targeting specific individuals and institutions with the potential to produce changes in policy or practice, and how much of movements’ resources are dedicated to targeting nebulous audiences online or on the street, such as “the public,” “the media,” or “the international community” in an effort to “create awareness” or “start a conversation”?

Second, we can think about targeting practices as repertoires.

Repertoires of contention are patterned across movements, but these repertoires also advantage or disadvantage some groups over others according to their resources, social capital, and degree of professionalization. As Ring-Ramirez, Reynolds-Stenson, and Earl argue, the deployment of tactics is not random or conceived wholly anew for each campaign, and neither is the selection of targets. Movements often spend a lot of resources and time—too much time, according to Sarah Sobieraj’s book Soundbitten—targeting the media in the hopes of controlling their message and influencing public opinion. And as Jennifer Earl and her colleagues show, activists also target the public and their constituents with blogs, Twitter trends, and Facebook pages in addition to the more traditional work of holding demonstrations, producing petitions, hosting meetings, and the like. This ever-expanding repertoire may be more of a burden than a help for many social movement groups, because it is not just enough to open a Facebook or Twitter account. Developing a social media presence requires constant maintenance and participation. Just the other day I received an email from Everytown for Gun Safety heralding that their gun-safety campaign #WearingOrange “trended worldwide on Twitter, reaching over 215 million people.” Getting an issue or campaign “trending” on Twitter may be a part of the now-standard repertoire, but the question remains: is this just another item on movements’ to-do lists, or does it actually help them forge the relationships that I referenced above?

Paying attention to movements’ contexts can also help to explain why targeting practices rendered relatively mundane in the U.S. can be highly effective in other places. For example, when I conducted interviews with Jordanian activists in 2011, I found that activists would move their peaceful demonstrations from one government doorstep to another until a minister or his deputy invited them inside for negotiations. As an American, I initially found this strange. After all, no member of the White House staff is going to invite protesters inside for talks during a rally. I soon discovered that Jordanian officials often reopened negotiations with protesters in order to maintain street-level stability. For this reason, protest was far more effective in producing “negative inducements to bargaining” than I had expected in this non-democratic context. Recent research on protests in China also illuminates a similar dynamic, since officials are expected to stamp out the sparks of dissent without provoking a violent confrontation. Further comparisons of these targeting repertoires across time and place are warranted.

Third, we should be attuned to the consequences of targeting repertoires.

Take the case of mass demonstrations targeting corrupt regimes across the globe in recent years. This has, in some cases, forced the corrupt and autocratic out of power and produced tentative transitions to civil democratic regimes. This is undoubtedly a good thing. But then again, a side effect of all of this protest success is that anytime a legitimately-elected government does not do what a certain group of constituents wants good or fast enough, protesters return to the streets to demand the fall of the regime, again. This targeting practice destabilizes elected civilian governments and encourages militaries to step in to facilitate so-called transitions to democracy. And now, even though the people of Egypt, Thailand, and elsewhere want and need the rise of a democratic system, they have gotten stuck in a cycle of protest-induced destabilization and authoritarian retrenchment. If governments are continuously targeted with mass protests because a “do-over” is perceived as the only solution, nascent democracies will forever lack the one thing they really need—the time to set policy, good or bad, and be voted out of power, rather than ousted.

That said, movements may instigate street demonstrations and Twitter campaigns without specific and pragmatic outcomes in mind. For many, the act of shouting in the streets may be more about expressing grievances and self-empowerment than about policy change, and collective expressions of rage or hope are not inherently valueless. Movements scholars agree on one thing: that collective actors are highly rational, and they are undoubtedly correct. Suggesting that targeting practices are sometimes ill-fitting or unlikely to produce a measurable outcome does not mean that movements are irrational. It just means that they are made up of people, rather than cost-reward calculating robots.

We can add to these ideas in Chicago. See you there.


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3 responses to “Target(ing) Practice(s): Social Movements’ Relations, Repertories, and Consequences

  1. coreywrenn

    Actually, there is a good bit of consideration that goes into vegan leafleting…and much of the research points to moral shocks (the cringe factor you mention) as the most powerful motivator for change when recruiting strangers in lieu of personal networks. They also have determined college students to be the most receptive audience to animal rights messages. These organizations alluded to have also been looking into which of these leaflets get the most response, with more and more opting for more inviting images of healthy, happy animals. Most animal rights organizations encourage volunteers to distribute leaflets at information tablings in tandem with videos, conversations with volunteers, or food tastings. Vegan Outreach (which is probably the group you witnessed) is the only organization that generally leaflets without providing context.


  2. Pingback: Protestors and their Targets | Mobilizing Ideas

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