For my first Mobilizing Ideas post, I wanted to write about a new book I recently read that I highly recommend, for scholars and activists alike: David Pettinicchio’s Politics of Empowerment (Stanford University Press, 2019).
There is so much that I like about this book. Empirically, it is a rigorous treatment of the successes and setbacks of the disability rights movement. But the other aspect of the book that I like is that it is a very good illustration of one of the new directions that I feel the field of social movements ought to move in. Specifically, there is a need to pay much closer attention to the political institutions that movements often seek to influence. A number of folks in our field (e.g. Amenta 2014, Andrews and Gaby 2015) have discussed the importance of considering institutional actors, and what movement mobilization looks like from their point of view, rather than analyzing movements only from the perspective of movement actors.
Pettinicchio does this admirably, showing how U.S. government actors began focusing on disability rights policy even before the movement took the highly mobilized form it eventually did. Activists nonetheless played a crucial role, especially as the competing demands of politics, and the fleeting moral convictions of institutional actors, required outside pressure to take disability rights policy to the next level, and ensure that the law on the books translated into law in action.
While the disability rights movement is surely unique in particular ways, the give-and-take between activism and institutional politics that Pettinicchio so carefully documents is likely far more typical than many earlier social movement studies might lead one to believe. Activists often know this first-hand, and so scholarship that focuses on this interplay, besides providing a fuller picture of movement consequences, will likely also be of greater practical use to activists seeking to optimize their policy influence. Well done, David, and I hope others follow your excellent example!