Seeing What is Not There: On 25 Years of Mobilization and Taking Space in Social Movement Studies

BY Zakiya Luna

When I think of what was most important to me about Mobilizationwhen I first encountered it –and my continuing relationship to the social movement scholarly community it represented I think of what I did not see. There wasn’t space in social movement scholarship for people who cared about race and gender—or people of color— and thanks to shifts in the subfield, sociology and protest, there is a bit more now. We were invited by the Mobilizing idea blog to reflect as “scholars like you who have had a past (or present) connection to the journal and are in a position to write about the importance of the journal for your own scholarship and for social movement scholarship more generally.”  I was a Notre Dame Young Scholar in 2012 so I contributed to the Mobilizing Ideas blog after that, even helping coordinate a dialogue on Roe and reproductive activism.  I eventually published in the journal in 2017. Also, I have been active in the ASA Collective Behavior & Social Movements section, the membership of which overlaps with Mobilization readers, and attended all the Mobilization conferences so far,  corralling students and faculty friends to attend.

I thought immediately of what it meant to see my article published in the special issue on race. And how one publication may open possibilities for other scholars, particularly graduate students, to imagine a different pathway Particularly if they are embarking on a project about which other express vocal doubt about will be able to find an article that 1) takes on race explicitly, 2) focuses on a contemporary, evolving movement and 3) is written by a scholar of color—a woman no less. And I think of excitement I feel to be reading the maaaaaany submissions for a special issue on Intersectionality I am co-editing with Sujatha Jesudason and Mimi Kim, who I first met at the CBSM pre-conference in 2011.  Our special issue CFP is a compilation of much of the exciting work on intersectionality and movements—and almost none of it appeared in Mobilization. Rather, most of the work is in journals that focus on race and ethnicity (e.g. Terriquez, Liu) or gender (Lepinard), signaling that the special issue is well-timed, but behind in other subfields in creating space.

The scholarship I find in journals and books influences my frameworks and the tools I wield for writing or methods for consideration. But rarely do words on the pages of academic texts shift my life in some cataclysmic way.  Rather, the intervention they represent among a community of scholars inspires me and provides a little spark to continue the work. Feminist scholars across a range of disciplines are the ones who have most provided that spark for me over the years. And many of those –like Belinda Robnett, Jo Reger, Myra Marx Ferree, Pam Oliver, Tina Fetner, and Verta Taylor— are also the scholars who have propped open the doorways to help some younger scholars working in a critical race tradition enter a space that, while not ours yet, feels a little more welcoming than it did when I entered it over a decade ago. This allowed us to enter conversations with more senior scholars, sometimes in the pages of Mobilization, sometimes elsewhere.

Over the years there have been side conversations and acknowledgements in the sociological social movement spaces about race and movements but they felt like the exception. While US social movement theory has built a lot of theoretical models off the U.S. civil rights movement, largely peopled by people of color, when I was in grad school and up until a few years ago there were only two senior scholars (full profs) of color recognized as names who I could regularly see cited alongside the largely White and male set of scholars recognized as the experts: Belinda Robnett and Aldon Morris. Fabio Rojas and Joyce Bell were also brought in sometimes if people wanted to talk about Black Power specifically.  Or, you could talk about race in relation to the White power movement as Kathy Blee had done or Rory McVeigh both did. Other than that, we needed to seek out feminist venues such as Gender and Society or Race/Ethnicity journal venues. But that is not a lot of space.

These conversations about lack of space continued but the subfield did not seem ready for what or who was coming.  The second time I was on the job market, in 2012, I paid even more attention to the job talk Q&A portion as how people responded to my work gave me a sense of what potential colleagues expect to see in my later published work. Soon after one talk a leading scholar in the field and I met. He noted that my work was interesting but I just had to make it interesting to people who did not care about race and gender. My research was on the reproductive justice movement, a women of color-led and focused movement.  He was signaling my work had potential but needed reframing to appeal to people who did not prioritize what two key shapers of social life—gender and race—meant for movement practice and theory. I had to figure out a way to make them care about people and struggles about which they were not invested.  If this was where the field was, then I would either need to not publish in certain journals or downplay the central role of race and gender together in my work. Neither of these seemed like sustainable approaches for my career or soul. And thankfully, some have responded encouragingly to my work. Or thought creatively about how physical spaces of the subfield operate  (even “small” things like Mobilization conference organizer Hank Johnston explicitly having senior scholars sit at different tables for networking so newer people can meet people can go a long way).

Still, I kept “showing” up in spaces.  As one of the 2012 Notre Dame Young Scholars I developed some connection with some fellow “emerging stars” and senior scholars. Hence why I probably felt comfortable emailing Rory McVeigh to suggest Mobilizationdo a special issue on Race. Or years later to pitch a special issue on Intersectionality.  I wanted a clear space in which to engage. My initial time submitting a piece to Mobilization (2015), I received a nice rejection letter after reviewers and editor agreed I had an interesting case (reproductive justice movement broadly), but the paper was not up to par.   Later that year, at the American Sociological Association 2015 meeting, the Collective Behavior and Social Movement section had a pre-conference reception celebrating a milestone for Mobilization. As the cake was cut, we were asked for a show of hands who had reviewed for Mobilization—many hands went up including mine. Who had published in the journal? Fewer hands went up. Who had been rejected by the journal?  It looked like almost the whole bar raised their hands including many senior scholars who I respected. I was in good company—lots of people clearly had trouble making their work appeal to our peer reviewers in the field. That reception there was also a conversation among the handful of scholars of color in attendance, the email exchanges after which led to the development of the Committee on Membership, Diversity and Inclusion. While there were formal interventions like the Committee, there were also informal ones people were making throughout the subfield, especially as the changing political landscape made clear that sociology writ large needed to challenge the mainstream assumptions and widen its scope to remain relevant to a changing society.

Our special issue on Intersectionality and Social Movements seeks to widen the scope in many ways. As sociologists, we know that publishing it not a neutral process. Recognition of scholars of color (and particularly women of color) as theorizers in the field who can evaluate another people’s scholarship is no small thing. And each time I tell someone about the issue they are excited. At a European conference this summer, they had run out of nametags so I used a spare one from the Mobilization conference. I spoke with scholars about the special issue throughout. One woman warily looked at my nametag, asking if I “represented” Mobilization. I explained no and told her about the special issue to which she replied incredulously, “How did you break into that masculinist space?” The how is in part outlined above—I kept showing up. The why is because I think back to what it first felt like to enter yet another space in the discipline that was not designed for me and what theoretical tools I wished had available when I first embarking on my research.

Morris’ June 2019 reflection on social movement is a summary of a conversation that has been happening for a long time in the subfield and has implications for understanding contemporary and future movements.   It is important to avoid essentializing –the problem of missing bodies and power analysis in social movement theorizing cannot be solved by just “letting” people into the field. As my own 2017 piece shows, being Black does not mean you will share the same view on all issues with other Black people, any more than being a woman means you have the same views—thus cannot presume all will produce more relevant theory. But when subfields limit who is considered a theorist, they limit the power of theories. People who studied—or were engaged with—movements around reproductive justice, immigrant rights, Black liberation among others were not in many cases not surprise by the rise in visible White nationalism. Those grassroots movements have been addressing it for years as they developed innovating approaches for building power that is more sustainable than only “resistance.” But those stories are not as well known. I write this essay for all the people who never submitted to Mobilization because they never saw anything that appeared close to their work. Your time to show up and lead the field is now.


1 Comment

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One response to “Seeing What is Not There: On 25 Years of Mobilization and Taking Space in Social Movement Studies

  1. Reah Arora

    This is amazing work, thank you for bring the voice of POCs to the table Zakiya. It’s deeply encouraging


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