By Kyle Dodson
While they can vary (considerably), most scholars’ definitions of activism typically involve the idea of participating in activities that are intended to support or oppose social or political change. As an empirical matter, however, movement scholars rarely observe activism in all of its forms. Instead, movement scholars tend to focus on a smaller subset of activities—such as demonstrations, strikes, and occupations—that are more contentious and more modular.
Initial explanations for the tendency to focus on contentious activities at the expense of others suggested there were two forms of politics—social movement and conventional—that represented two different models of claims-making. Movement politics involved the use of contentious activities by “outsiders” or “challengers” who frequently lacked access to institutional channels. Conventional politics, by contrast, involved the use of institutionalized activities—such as voting—by “insiders” or “polity members” who enjoyed routine and unencumbered access to the political system.
Since the turn of the 21st century, however, scholars have criticized this approach, arguing that less contentious activities—which can also be used to support or resist changes to the social or political order—deserve attention from movement scholars as well. Many have argued that scholars should view social movements as taking advantage of both contentious and conventional activities. As they note, many instances of conventional activism are actually movement-based.
Along these lines, recent studies illustrate how movements organize and mobilize activists to engage in more conventional activities. Movements participate in party politics, they mobilize support or opposition to legislative proposals, and they take advantage of opportunities in the court system. These findings have led some to suggest that social movements have become part of the institutional framework for democratic politics.
But does this approach go far enough? Could social movement scholarship benefit from further expanding the scope of inquiry to include activities that may not typically be thought of as “movement activism”?
What about instances of conventional activism that are not clearly linked to social movements?
Under the right conditions, each of these activities could be seen as activism (and, granted, some are closer to activism than others).
For example, when movement scholars analyze conventional activism, they typically focus on activities where there are explicit ties to movement organizations—in part, because they are motivated to understand how movements affect policy outcomes. Some researchers have analyzed the lobbying efforts of women’s organizations. Others have examined the electoral influence of the religious right. However, most conventional activism is not directly organized by social movements. Indeed, most people who participate in elections do so not because they were contacted by a social movement organization (or even a political party for that matter). Most people participate out of habit or a sense of civic obligation.
As a result, most people who vote, contact officials, or otherwise participate in politics are a few degrees removed from the mobilizing efforts of social movement organizations. However, their decision-making process—for example, which issues to consider or whose campaign to support—could be a downstream result of efforts made by movements further upstream. And these individuals’ choices could be motivated by social movement activities. Focusing only on movement- or party-related activities could over look these dynamics—and in particular the very real effort of some individuals to actively support (or oppose) a social movement campaign. In short, taking a restrictive view toward activism risks overlooking how movements can indirectly pressure targets.
At the same time, taking a broader view toward activism could alert scholars to new forms of activism that are developing or becoming more popular, especially within realm of contentious politics. Research on transnational activism highlights how protest is shifting away from a hierarchical structure—where the impetus for mobilization comes from organizations—and toward a more diffuse, decentralized form of activism—where the impetus for mobilization comes from loosely-organized networks of local activists. The latter structure has been a wellspring for tactical innovation, but it can be overlooked when scholars focus strictly on more modular forms of contentious activity.
These possibilities suggest, then, that there are benefits to taking a broader view of activism. For example, it would acknowledge the myriad ways in which social movements can act to effect social change, and it would make analysts more sensitive to tactical innovation. But are there limits to taking a broader view?
One downside concerns the importance of collective identity and solidarity for social movements. As others note, collective identity is crucial to mobilization because it engenders a sense of commitment to a group, making it more likely that an individual will expend the time and energy that collective action requires. However, an expansive definition of activism that includes several different constituencies could undermine collective identity, making it more difficult to mobilize adherents. It could also have the effect of unintentionally encouraging individuals to participate in the less demanding forms of activity (e.g., voting) because it involves less effort, leaving few people to do the heavy lifting that many movements need to survive and flourish.
Another cost of stretching the definition of who counts as an activist is that it potentially obfuscates the signals that movements are attempting to communicate to targets. When anyone can be an activist simply by voting for a candidate or supporting a party or campaign, then it becomes difficult to understand who is represented by a movement. It also provides others with opportunities to reframe the movement’s message. The lack of a clear or inappropriately-framed signal could, in turn, undermine the ability of movements to achieve their objectives.
Ultimately, there are both costs and benefits to any definition of activism—regardless of how narrow or expansive it is. As the dynamics associated with activism evolve, scholars should continue to investigate how those dynamics intersect both with more conventional forms of activism as well as less modular forms of protest.