Expanding the Scope of ‘Activism’

By Edward Walker

We tend to conceptualize social movements as extra-institutional challenges mounted by those who lack sufficient political access to get what they want through the normal channels of influence in states and other organizations. The assumption has typically been that those who enjoy such access will either find their preferences realized without requiring any effort – that is, they possess structural power – or, failing that, such privileged actors will engage in conventional lobbying, legal maneuvers, and the like to gain or maintain influence. The upshot is that those in politically marginal positions must either adopt unconventional strategies (i.e. activism) or risk continuing to be ignored.

Variations on this assumption, in various forms, have characterized our theories of contentious politics since their pre-history. Today we’re seeing this in the field-theoretic perspectives that have become more influential as of late, in which powerful incumbents write the rules and maneuver strategically to govern fields; such arrangements tend to remain in place unless unconventional insurgents (or, everyone’s favorite dei ex machina, exogenous shocks) come along to shake up the existing order. In the modern classics of social movement theory, we also see a definition of social movements that looks to the politically excluded as the primary sources of unconventional politics. And, I would argue, you even see a hazy version of this in early collective behavior and mass society theories, even if loaded with assumptions that few would share today. Still, consider Robert Park’s dissertation on the distinction between the unruly crowd and the civilized public.

Yet many of us have started to study cases that don’t quite fit the tried-and-true conceptualization of social movements, encouraging us to think beyond the limits of much social-movement-theory and also to build from organizational and political sociology. Consider a few examples.

Isaac Martin has drawn attention to “rich people’s movements,” in which the (very) well-off have organized social movement campaigns – involving both themselves and also the non-rich – to fight, for instance, for a constitutional amendment repealing the income tax. Williamson and Skocpol’s research on the Tea Party illustrates the layers of coordination between the Republican Party, outside patrons, and grassroots members. A vast literature now highlights the rise of activism inside organizations or “tempered radicalism” in which adherents working within bureaucracies seek to generate change. And, at a more general level, consider the cases of “multi-institutional politics” described by Armstrong & Bernstein or the “awkward movements” of Polletta and colleagues.

The “activism” found in each of these instances would arguably pass the Justice Potter Stewart test, but might be ruled out on other grounds: the actors are too well-resourced or politically connected, fail to be “outside” enough, aren’t targeting the “right” parts of society for change, or aren’t using sufficiently “unconventional” tactics. At a certain point, such scope conditions start to rule out the importance of some of the most significant forms of contentious politics taking place today.

My own work has called attention to a domain that extends our outlook for a different reason: I have examined how participation itself is increasingly prompted by professional political consultants working on behalf of paying clients, like a major multinational corporations. Such strategies are remarkably widespread today.

My book, Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2014), traces the origins, development, and current-day workings of the field of consultants who mobilize the public when firms, industry groups, and other organizations need to galvanize mass support in defense of their policy goals. Sometimes called “grassroots lobbyists,” they encourage both conventional forms of participation (petition-signing, letter-writing, social media posting) and also tactics that we usually associate with social movements, even if not the most transgressive ones (e.g. organizing rallies and demonstrations). They enact a model of supply-side recruiting, in which their political operatives selectively target would-be constituents who already vote and are engaged with other political causes. Companies tend to hire them when facing major policy threats. They sometimes disclose that they are working on behalf of a paying client but other times they do not; this had led many to be concerned that their practices are generating distrust in SMOs and advocacy causes more broadly. In fact, such distrust is manifest in the highly pejorative term that often gets applied to some of their practices: “astroturfing,” or faking grassroots participation to benefit a paying client.

This raises a critical question: should we still consider it “activism” when it’s being financed and organized by, say, the for-profit colleges, the soda industry, or Uber? Or, if that doesn’t count, what about the labor unions like the SEIU or national SMOs like National Council of La Raza that outsource much of their targeting and recruitment work to these consultants, as documented in the book?

It’s clear that the heavy role of these professionals in mobilizing political action generates substantial problems: their selective recruiting of participants makes for more unequal political representation, their work for major clients further extends the political power of big business, and the types of engagement they encourage are much more “transactional” and less meaningful to participants than other kinds of activism.

And yet to rule it out as activism entirely leads to an equal number of distortions in the other direction, blinding us to the many continuities between grassroots-for-hire campaigns and the important role of patrons in all advocacy causes, as originally highlighted by McCarthy and Zald over a generation ago.

In the end, then, we need a more encompassing understanding of activism that recognizes social-movement-like tactics are disproportionately favored by politically excluded groups, but are hardly their exclusive purview. The repertoire of contentious politics is no longer, if it ever was, available only to those operating from marginal social positions. It’s time to revise our theories to reflect this reality.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, New Ways to Define Activism

One response to “Expanding the Scope of ‘Activism’

  1. Pingback: activism forum at mobilizing ideas | orgtheory.net

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