Institutional Opportunities and a response to this month’s essay dialogue

The essays posted in this month’s dialogue are so diverse and interesting! Scholars discuss the problems and promises of various choices activists make with their targets. In King’s essay he discusses the danger of cooptation of activists’ when cooperative strategies are used. When activists target the state, or when activists use the state to promote change to non-state targets, what is the effect of the small gains they often achieve? In democracies like the U.S., where the state is designed to absorb factional conflict (Meyer 2015), I think this is one of the most important questions for movements scholars and activists. I grapple with the question of incrementalism versus cooptation in my research. I’m finding a strong case for incrementalism only because of the nature of the movement’s institutional target that I’m examining, specifically, laboratory science. I use the animal advocacy movement and its work to reform and/or end the use of animals in research as my case study. Aligned with Einwohner’s work on “practice opportunity structure,” I think the nature of the institution that activists target determines their choice of strategies and tactics as well as the outcomes of those choices.

In McDonnell’s essay she discusses the choice between public and private sector targets, and how the opportunities activists identify can determine their “targeting practices.” Some scholars focus on individual campaigns and individual outcomes of relatively short-term campaigns. If we’re trying to analyze long-standing movements, with a diverse range of organizations and activists targeting the same institution and its practices over long periods of time, then I think the nature of the institution being targeted determines overtime outcomes.

For instance, historically, laboratory science has been a highly insulated institution, with both cultural practices (i.e. scientific language) and physical location (hidden laboratories) functioning to maintain scientific autonomy. In addition to these barriers, science was not always beholden to public opinion. It wasn’t until the mid 20th century that laboratory science came under intense scrutiny and succumbed to public and state pressure to be regulated (Stark 2012). Activists have spent much of their effort perforating the autonomy of this institution, breaking cracks in the walls to change practices within the lab even in the tiniest ways. Their effort included moderate and reformist tactics, such as lobbying for regulatory reform, and militancy, such as laboratory break-ins and home demonstrations.

I found that aggressive activists using militant protest forms threaten scientists in ways that change laboratory practices (specifically, record keeping practices). These tactics are part of an organization’s identity or reputation. In previous research (forthcoming in Social Movement Studies) I argue that the identity or reputation of an organization influences the type of media coverage it receives more so than the protest forms the organization chooses. Reputation, as Corrigall-Brown and Rohlinger point out this month, is an extremely important factor in determining outcomes of movement activity in multiple different movement fields, including mass media and policy. Reputation becomes more complicated when we consider the simultaneous use of institutional and extra-institutional tactics, or “insider” and “outsider” tactics.

Epstein (1996) describes individual activists and organizations in the AIDS movement trying to balance insider and outsider tactics. He describes how activists would protest and chant, “The blood is on your hands!” then turn around and try to meet with scientists to discuss future steps in AIDS research. This was a difficult interpersonal dynamic that was an obstacle for AIDS activists for obvious reasons. Who wants to sit and chat with an activist who tells everyone you’re a murderer?? In the animal advocacy movement this insider/outsider divide functions differently and in a way that helps push for constant incremental change in animal research. As opposed to the AIDS movement, the animal advocacy movement is longstanding and has proliferated so many organizations that it appears the movement is split in two. Animal welfarists and animal liberationists perceived as separate entities. Although these factions of the movement do not cooperate deliberately, the diversification of strategies creates a cooperative effect that is aligned with radical flank models.

Moderate and radical organizations function in tandem, not autonomously, and we need to understand how these diverse SMOs are mutually influential. I found that cooperation with targets does not coopt the movement all together. While moderate organizations use institutional reforms and cooperate with the movement’s target, there is also the militant faction of the movement that problematizes reformism. Aggressive, extra-institutional tactics inflict constant pressure on the movement’s target (animal researchers) to change. Moderate activists using institutional tactics benefit from that pressure as they push for more and more reformist changes. This “good cop, bad cop” effect has been found in state outcomes by Haines (1988) in his work on radical flank models and the black power movement. I found this effect for the animal advocacy movement as well, but only for its work against animal research. I think if I were to expand this work to the movements campaign against circuses or rodeos, that are more similar to the corporate targets that Soule, King, McDonnell and other scholars examine, the outcome would be different.


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