Threat and Mobilization or Perception and Action

By Aliza Luft

Adrien Nemoz was 21 years old when his friends told him in horror that a stained-glass portrait of Marshal Pétain, the French Vichy regime’s authoritarian leader, was hanging in a chapel across the Fourvière Basilica. A tall, imposing Church overlooking Lyon, the Fourvière was seen by many as the moral center of the city. For Nemoz and his peers, it was unconscionable that a tribute to Pétain would hang in this holy place. After all, only several months earlier Pétain had agreed to an armistice with Hitler, resulting in the Nazi occupation of half of France. Something had to be done.

Two hours later, Adrien Nemoz hopped a train to the other side of the city, crisscrossed through the cobblestone streets of Vieux Lyon, and climbed up the hill to the Fourvière. There, he waited until the guard of the Chapel fell asleep and then dragged a ladder across the garden to where the portrait was hanging, eventually laying it to rest against a wall. Nemoz then climbed the ladder, snuck into the church, stole the portrait, hid it under his cloak, and then carefully climbed back down. Exhilarated but afraid, Nemoz quickly descended the hill to a friends’ house for safety only to learn that the Nazis had been there the day before and had arrested a group of his peers. He subsequently ran across the University Bridge towards home, pausing only to break the portrait into a hundred pieces and toss it into the Rhône, below.

Adrien Nemoz’s story is one of many from the Resistance and Deportation History Centre archives, where I recently returned from fieldwork. The French Resistance was heroic: hundreds of thousands of men and women like Nemoz decided to resist Vichy and the Nazi occupation during World War II, whether through violent and armed activism or nonviolent cultural activities such as publishing anti-occupation articles in clandestine journals and furnishing fake papers to help Jews escape. They did so at the risk of arrest, torture, deportation, and death. But while these French citizens and immigrants fought against the occupation, many of their peers did not. In fact, the vast majority were attentiste — a group characterized by their “wait-and-see” position who preferred to wait until the occupation was over rather than act politically. Still others chose to collaborate, like the Milice (militia) who tortured and killed their fellow French men and women at the behest of the Vichy government. Finally, throughout the war, many in France shifted stances from support for the Vichy regime and Nazi Germany to resistance against them and vice versa. This variation in how people choose to act in violent contexts is the subject of my book as well as my previous work in Rwanda and a challenge for all scholars of high-risk movements: when the threat of danger is high and there is pressure to act in conflicting ways, what influences individuals’ decisions about how to behave?

Prior to any study of threat and mobilization is the puzzle of explaining how an objective concern (or even an imagined one) becomes subjectively felt as real and meaningful. Any study of threat and mobilization must therefore consider how a threat is defined and understood and by whom, and also how these definitions and understandings may change over space and time. A threat can be objective (i.e., climate change), but without the subjective perception that the threat is meaningful, it is unlikely to inspire action. Thankfully, scholars of contentious politics have identified likely factors that increase the perception of threat. For example, individuals are more likely to perceive a threat as meaningful the closer they are to the hazard — local circumstances matter — and they are also more likely to perceive a threat as important if they see themselves as particularly sensitive to its effects.

Additionally, the perception of threat increases when high-status actors such as local political leaders or religious authorities communicate that a threat is meaningful, and perceived threat is also likely to increase when the claims of a threat emanating from above resonate with one’s personal history and external reality. The communication of threat is therefore a kind of framing project, and whether or not the framing of a problem as threatening succeeds depends on the work of leaders (what Einwohner 2007 calls “authority work”) and the perceived relevance of their claims. Beyond the work of authorities, people also look to those similarly situated to determine whether or not a threat is real and meaningful. This includes family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and even sometimes members of a shared social category.

That said, the study of threat and mobilization is much more than the study of perception. Action matters, too. If people feel they are especially likely to be exposed to a hazard and also personally affected by it, they are more likely to try and counter it if they feel they have the resources they need to succeed. Resources come in myriad forms — moral, cultural, social organizational, human, and material (Edwards and McCarthy 2004). They can also include access to palliative resources to mitigate the consequences of acting in the face of threat. Resources can also come from within a group or outside of it, and they can vary historically (i.e., media and technology) and socially (groups with affluent members might have more access to material resources, whereas groups of the working class might have more access to human capital).

Simultaneously, sometimes people act in the face of threat when they feel they have nothing left to lose (to quote Goodwin 2001, they see “no other way out”). This relates to the argument about local circumstances, above, but adds an important addendum that helps explain mobilization. A hazard might be proximate and an individual might be a likely target, but sometimes, people hold off on acting until they know for sure that the threat is about to strike. This is a main finding of Einwohner and Maher (2011) and Maher’s (2010) research on Jewish resistance in ghettos and death camps as well as Soyer’s (2014) scholarship on Jewish responses to ghettoization during the Holocaust. In all three studies, Jews who resisted Nazi violence were more likely to do so when they perceived their deaths as inevitable.

Finally, it is important to note that the fact of mobilization does not always and only imply that actors do so because they share the same belief system as other mobilizers or even of the leaders organizing the action. In other words, we cannot infer from action itself that the perception of threat is common to all movement participants, or equally subjectively felt. As a growing body of work suggests, people are drawn into mobilization for a variety of reasons: some of these have to do with shared ideology, others with network ties, and yet others participate because they fear repression from movement organizers or peers if they choose to behave otherwise (a different kind of threat). Plus, people’s reasons for participating may change over time, they may undergo ideological transformations in the course of their participation, or they may enter and later exit a movement altogether (Luft 2015; Owens and Snow 2013; Viterna 2013).

In sum, the relationship between threat and mobilization is a complicated one. There are also many issues I have not discussed here, including interesting findings from kindred disciplines and subfields that merit attention and further scholarship. For example, political psychologists distinguish between anger and anxiety in their research on mobilization and find that anger is more likely to inspire action while anxiety is more likely to de-mobilize would-be activists. They also suggest that anxiety is more likely when a threat is apparent but the cause is unclear. In another example, a team of cultural cognitive sociologists at Notre Dame suggest that different frames can “evoke” different schemas and so how a threat is publicly articulated might matter for how an individual personally feels she ought to respond (this distinction correlates with declarative public culture and non-declarative personal culture) (Wood, Stoltz, Van Ness, and Taylor, forthcoming). Last, I have not discussed in this short essay the difference between threats to oneself versus threats to others or to abstract values, nor have I discussed the difference between threats one may face for mobilizing versus threats one may face if they were to remain inactive, though of course, the two often relate. I’ll leave these many thoughts and more for my next post!


I thank Jared McBride and Charles Seguin for their feedback on an earlier draft of this post.


Centre d’Histoire de la Résistance et de la Déportation, Témoignage No. HRT131 [VHS], Adrien Nemoz. Translation mine.

Edwards, B. & McCarthy, J.D. (2004). “Resources and Social Movement Mobilization.” In David A. Snow, Sarah A. Soule, Hanspieter Kriesti (Eds.), The Blakcwell Companion to Social Movements (pp. 116-152). London: Blackwell.

Einwohner, Rachel L. (2007). “Leadership, Authority, and Collective Action: Jewish Resistance in the Ghettos of Warsaw and Vilna.” American Behavioral Scientist 50: 1306-1326.

Einwohner, R.L, & Maher, T. (2011). “Threat Assessment and Collective-Action Emergence: Death-Camp and Ghetto Resistance During the Holocaust.” Mobilization. 16(2): 127-146.

Goodwin, J. (2001). No Other Way Out: States and Revolutionary Movements, 1945–1991. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Luft, A. (2015). “Toward a Dynamic Theory of Action at the Micro-Level of Genocide: Killing, Desistance, and Saving in 1994 Rwanda.” Sociological Theory. 33(2): 148-172.

Maher, T.V. (2010). “Threat, Resistance, and Collective Action: The Cases of Sobibór, Treblinka, and Auschwitz.” American Sociological Review. 75(2):252-272.

Owens, P.B., Su, Y. and Snow, D.A. (2013). “Social Scientific Inquiry Into Genocide and Mass Killing: From Unitary Outcome to Complex Processes.” Annual Review of Sociology. 39(1): 69–84.

Soyer, M. (2014). “We knew our time had come”: The Dynamics of Threat and Microsocial Ties in Three Polish Ghettos Under Nazi Oppression.” Mobilization. 19(1:47-66).

Viterna, Jocelyn S. (2013). Women in War: The Micro-processes of Mobilization in El Salvador. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Wood, Michael Lee, Dustin S. Stoltz, Justin Van Ness, and Marshall A. Taylor. (2018). “Schemas and Frames.” Retrieved (

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