The Problem with Research on Activism

By Dana R. Fisher

Social movement scholars have a problem: since the 1970s, when collective behavior and social movements emerged as a growing sub-field of sociology, research has focused on a very limited definition of activism. In many ways, this definition was constructed as a response to the psychologically driven work on collective behavior, which tended to focus on what McPhail called the myth of the maddening crowd.

Even today, however, the well-incorporated notion of contentious politics continues to focus its attention on actors that target the political system, with the majority coming from outside the political system. This predisposition in the field was on clear on display at last week’s CBSM Workshop on Protesters and their Targets (which was extremely informative and interesting by the way). But, as a result of the limitations of the ways we conceive of activism, the object of inquiry in much of the research on social movements overlooks the manifold ways that citizens (or non-citizens) participate, the organizations that mobilize them, and the tactics that they choose.

Although, recent research has expanded to look at social movement outcomes and to assess how individuals and organizations target corporations, much is still being missed! In particular, we are overlooking broad forms of activism that do not fit these narrow definitions and those of us who study them are left answering questions about how what we are studying is, in fact, activism. Let me propose a new, potentially overly broad definition of activism:

“Efforts by individuals or collectives to affect social change.”

With this definition, we as social movement scholars will be able to assess the ways that individuals or organizations affect social change through their everyday lives. Such a broadening will include everyday efforts that include individualized activities—like “liking” something or changing the colors of your Facebook page in support of marriage equality.

These everyday activities also include working for social change through an actual job. People work as canvassers, service members for AmeriCorps projects, as well as many other jobs as what we tend to call “social movement professionals.” This work is all about social change, but is frequently not considered activism.

These efforts also include participation in activities to affect change through institutional politics. One popular example is working for a political campaign as a paid (or unpaid) organizer or volunteer to affect social change by working within the political system itself to get people elected or referenda passed. In 2009, I organized a presidential session at the ASA in San Francisco with the theme: the movement to get Barack Obama elected.

Among other topics, presenters discussed how Unions pay their workers to be foot soldiers of democratic campaigns in key states and districts. Instead of working their usual job, these workers are paid to register voters who have been identified as likely supporters, to knock on doors, make phone calls, and even drive voters to the polling stations. Most of these efforts were not new to the 2008 election and persist today. Although many of their presentations used the term “movement”, most of the final papers that built on those presentations were published outside of the traditional outlets for social movements, and many were published outside the field of sociology itself.

At the same time, the activism of everyday life also includes efforts to affect social change by contributing to small initiatives in communities, such as volunteering to plant trees or clean up green space in local neighborhoods. One example of this type of activism can be seen in my recent book on volunteer environmental stewards in New York City. In the study, my collaborators and I found that New Yorkers got involved in planting trees as part of the MillionTrees initiative to make the city greener and more livable for themselves and their families.

For the sub-discipline to move forward, I suggest that we adopt such a broad definition of activism. I am well aware that broad definitions come with challenges of their own. Although expanding the definition is based on the assumption that these very individualized activities matter and make a difference, understanding how they matter is, in and of itself, an important research question.

By broadening our definition of activism, social movement scholars will be able to aim their research at more of the ways that individuals and organizations are affecting social change. In an increasingly complex world of shifting targets, tactics, and technologies, getting a sense how people make a difference and why is all the more important.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, New Ways to Define Activism

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