Who Gets Left Out When We Talk About “Activism”?

By Grace Yukich

In a 2005 piece, Doug McAdam and colleagues argue that “disproportionate attention accorded the struggles of the sixties has created a stylized image of movements that threatens to distort our understanding of popular contention” (2). Dominant conceptions of movements, they continue, include disruptive, public protest; loosely coordinated national struggles over political issues; urban and/or campus-based protest activities; and claim making by disadvantaged minorities. After analyzing media reports of public protests, they contend that this dominant conception of movements is outdated, too restrictive, and has outlived its usefulness.

Perhaps the same is true not only of “movements” as a phenomenon of study but also, more specifically, of “activism.” Though activism could be broadly conceived as work for social change, in social movement scholarship, it is typically defined as public, disruptive action involving “collective claims against outsiders” (see Alex Bernard’s essay). In my book One Family Under God: Immigration Politics and Progressive Religion in America (Oxford 2013), I examined how interfaith coalitions are working for immigration reform and for greater acceptance of immigrants in the nation’s religious communities and wider culture. I studied social movement organizations who did a lot of things. Some were easily identifiable as “activist.” They organized public protests, public vigils, and press conferences. But they also met to pray for immigrant families being split up by deportation. Group members accompanied undocumented immigrants to their check-ins with immigration officials to prevent their detention. They held interfaith religious services, and group members babysat the children of immigrants while they attended group meetings.

In other words, many of the things they did were private acts with no megaphones, microphones, or police officers in sight. Taken by itself, babysitting would not typically be defined as activism. Should it be, in this case, simply because it is part of the work of a social movement organization? Or should it be “activist” because those involved are doing it with the intention of creating social change? According to dominant definitions, praying, accompaniment, joint worship, and babysitting are not “activism” because they are not “disruptive.” But might they, in fact, disrupt the status quo? Can seemingly everyday activities do that by changing the hearts and minds of others just as effectively in some situations as a peaceful march or even a violent riot? This is what the activists in my book, many of whom had long histories with movements and marches, believed and explicitly intended to do. They targeted not only the state but also the hearts and minds of their own neighbors, friends, and members of their religious communities in seeking to create social change.

Of course, I am using the term “disruptive” differently from how it is typically used. Here, it is more individual and communal rather than societal. In babysitting the children of an undocumented immigrant, perhaps a U.S. citizen’s emotional status quo is disrupted enough to force that person to see immigrants differently, to treat their immigrant neighbors differently, to correct their relatives’ misconceptions of immigrants, and so on. Yes, it might also change how they vote. It might ultimately change immigration policy. But most scholars now agree that the state is not the only target that matters. It is not the only set of institutions and relationships that shape people’s lives on a daily basis. So, in that sense, disruption on an individual and communal level might be significant if the result is a shift in the balance of power in relationships and communities.

When we only focus on social movement organizations or on collective, public, socially organized disruption, we are leaving out a lot of the rich landscape of social change work that exists. We are also leaving out a lot of people who are working for social change in ways that may be significant but are rarely recognized. An example from my current research: In the interfaith coalitions I studied for my book, most of the participants were Christian or Jewish. This raised a question about what people of other faiths common among immigrants, such as Buddhists, might be doing to work for social change. If they weren’t joining faith-based community organizations or going on marches, did that mean they weren’t working for change at all?

In the interviews I have been conducting with Socially Engaged Buddhists, I have learned that while some Buddhists are engaging in what would typically be defined as activism, many more engage in social change through “right livelihood,” an intentional decision to choose an occupation that is socially and ethically responsible. If a Buddhist leaves a career as an investment banker to become a health care practitioner working in underserved communities, perhaps that creates more social change than if that same person had marched with Occupy Wall Street.

More importantly, some of those who are left out of typical studies of activism are the most marginalized members of society. We miss those who are not educated or well-networked enough to join a social movement, regardless of how frustrated or threatened they are. Again, take the case of undocumented immigrants. Many have joined or created social movement organizations during the last several years, participating in contentious actions like class walkouts, or “coming out” press conferences for DREAMers. But many of those undocumented immigrants are college students or parts of mixed-status families. In other words, they are people with more voice and more power than the most vulnerable undocumented immigrants with minimal formal education, no English skills, and few family connections in the U.S. If these most vulnerable immigrants are not publicly, collectively advocating for immigrant rights, does this mean they are not working for social change in other ways? Or do we not know what those ways are because we have not been looking for them?

I recognize the potential problems with defining everyday activities as activism. It could dilute the definition to the point that is has little meaning. But some everyday activities may be more aptly characterized as activism than others, with the distinction depending either on the actor’s intention (or not) to create change or the actual, measured level of change the action typically achieves. The problem is, we currently do not know which everyday actions might be important engines of intentional social change work because we largely have not studied them.

This highlights one of the biggest constraints on current studies of activism, including attempts to expand its definition: methodological limitations. It’s not so hard to study public events, particularly if they are covered by the media. It’s not that difficult to study social movement organizations, where the participants are easy to find and to follow. It’s much harder to study daily, private actions or spontaneous, relatively unorganized attempts to create social change.

These are not “social movements,” but perhaps they should count as “activism.” We need to find ways to study them if we want to understand all of the ways people are working for social change today, some of which may be more effective than the well-worn protest march. By expanding our notions of what counts as activism, we could also begin to break down the boundaries Kyle Dodson mentions between the social movements sub-field and other areas of study, such as culture, politics, inequality, race, religion, and social psychology. This much-needed dialogue could strengthen knowledge about how social change occurs and, therefore, about how to build a more just world.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, New Ways to Define Activism

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