Building Coalitions and Movements

By Suzanne Staggenborg

Coalitions seem obviously important to social movements and social change: when activists and organizations with common goals join together, they are likely to be more effective in achieving those goals than if various individuals and groups act on their own. Yet we know that coalitions are difficult to organize and maintain due to ideological differences, organizational competition, lack of networks, and other problems. Diverse coalitions, which bring together people of different races and ethnicities, class backgrounds, ideologies, etc., are likely to have the most difficulty organizing. Much of the research on coalitions has focused on how and why coalitions organize and the various problems they encounter in doing so (see Van Dyke and McCammon 2010). Political opportunities and threats are among the environmental factors that affect coalition formation. Internal organizational dynamics, both of member organizations and of the coalition organization, affect the functioning and maintenance of coalitions. While we now have a strong body of empirical research on some aspects of coalitions, there are a number of ways in which we need to expand this work.

First, we should question some of our assumptions about coalitions. Social movement scholars generally assume that coalitions are positive developments for movements and that activists share our views. Yet I was surprised in research I did on event coalitions formed to organize the Pittsburgh G20 protests to hear some activists talking about coalitions in negative terms, with one activist referring to the “C word” (Staggenborg 2015). To be sure, many activists do find coalitions valuable, and there are disagreements within groups about the importance of coalitions. But it is interesting that concerns about the value of coalitions come up at all; some activists seem to object to coalitions on the grounds that they can be hierarchical and exclusionary, imposing strategies and goals on their members and only allowing official representatives to participate. Some activists feel that the term “coalition” is inaccurate in describing loosely defined alliances. This is related to a second assumption that social movement theorists often make, which is that coalitions are made up of organizations. In reality, many coalitions consist of individuals who are participating on their own or who may be informal representatives of social movement organizations (SMOs) rather than formally designated organizational representatives.

Some theorists have suggested that the role of SMOs in social movements is changing, possibly decreasing in importance due to the increased use of internet technologies and social media. Earl and Kimport (2011: 119) note changes in the role of SMOs, but argue that we should not dismiss their ongoing influence, which may be more subtle than in the past. We certainly need more research on the changing role of organizational structures in movements. Insofar as formalized movement organizations are becoming less central to contemporary social movements, it makes sense that coalitions might also be becoming more informal over time. But we need empirical studies to show how the composition of coalitions is or is not changing. If coalitions are becoming more informal, this has a lot of implications for their origins, maintenance and strategies. And if movements rely less on SMOs to lead and maintain them, they may rely more on informal networks and coalitions.

One implication of changing structures of coalitions or alliances has to do with their openness to outsiders. Are informal coalitions likely to be more open to a diverse set of participants than more formal coalitions consisting of organizational representatives? Activists who see coalitions as hierarchical seem to think so, but there is also a danger of exclusivity in informal alliances. More informal coalitions might form through preexisting activist networks, perhaps groups of friends, and persons outside those networks might have difficulty breaking in, particularly insofar as trust–which is critical to coalitions–rests on friendship. Coalitions of like-minded people, with similar ideological views and tactical preferences and experience working together, are much easier to form than are diverse ones. This is not to say that informal coalitions cannot be diverse, but we would want to consider the obstacles to diversity associated with organizational structure. More formal coalitions of organizations have their own sets of difficulties, and more similar organizations, such as those with paid staff, are likely to find it easier to work together. But coalitions of organizations might also make deliberate efforts to bring in particular organizations as, for example, when environmental organizations court labor unions. Of course, membership of organizations in coalitions may be more or less active, with some sending formal representatives and others simply lending legitimacy by allowing their names to be listed as members of the coalition. Depending on how representative a coalition is of the broader movement, it may or may not have the ability to direct collective action campaigns.

The relationship of coalitions to broader movements and communities is understudied. Coalitions are often formed in response to opportunities and threats, but they have to build on existing mobilizing structures—organizations, networks, etc.—in the movement community. Movement activists may create coalitions out of an explicit desire to build the movement, sometimes by generating a victory. Some coalitions form around particular events for limited time periods, but they create visibility for the movement, strengthen networks and bonds of trust, and draw new activists into participation. Longer-term coalitions may direct campaigns, which are critical to movement goals but sometimes difficult to launch without a coalition. Even when a campaign fails to achieve its goals, it may help to build the movement. We need more research to examine the ways in which coalitions sustain and build movements, in addition to achieving other outcomes.

References cited:
Earl, Jennifer, and Katrina Kimport. 2011. Digitally Enabled Social Change: Activism in the Internet Age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Staggenborg, Suzanne. 2015. “Event Coalitions in the Pittsburgh G20 Protests.” The Sociological Quarterly: 386-411.

Van Dyke, Nella, and Holly J. McCammon, eds. 2010. Strategic Alliances: Coalition Building and Social Movements. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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Filed under Coalition Building, Essay Dialogues

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