The Dynamics of Coalitions in Social Movements

BY Michael T. Heaney

While many outstanding articles have been published in the journal Mobilization, one article stands out to me personally as having been exceptionally influential on my own work: “Coalitions and Political Context: U.S. Movements Against Wars in Iraq”, October 2005, by David S. Meyer and Catherine Corrigall-Brown.

Timing is everything. And that is true to a large degree in this case. In August 2004, Fabio Rojas and I had begun working on a long-term project about the antiwar movement in the United States. Meyer and Corrigall-Brown’s article, published just a year later, gave us some great leads to pursue in our research.

At the same time, I think that I would have been drawn to this article no matter when I first read it. Its thoughtful exposition of the politics of coalitions gives it a timeless quality. And it provides an approach that could be adopted in studying most social movements.

Rather than summarizing the article, I point to three of its ideas that strike me as widely applicable in the study of coalition dynamics in movements.  I explain specifically how these ideas influenced my collaboration with Fabio.

First, Meyer and Corrigall-Brown conceptualized coalitions as a union of a variety of group types. Notably, they viewed some organizations as having multiple group types. This approach is illustrated in their diagram of Win Without War in Figure 1 of their article, which I have reproduced here with their permission. This visualization prompts the reader to think more deeply about the role that group types, and their intersections, play in coalition politics.

In viewing this diagram, it immediately struck me that there are three types of organizations in this coalition. There are organizations that are antiwar only, such as Peace Action, which are at the heart of the antiwar movement. There are organizations that do not have an explicit antiwar mission, such as the Feminist Majority, which are really hangers-on in a peace coalition. Also, there are organizations that are both antiwar and something else, such as Pax Christi USA, a Catholic peace group. These organizations might be thought as a type of “hybrid” organization.

Fabio and I suspected that there might be something special about the role of these hybrid organizations in the coalition. Having an organization like Pax Christi in the coalition could be the linchpin to convincing many Catholics to be a part of Win Without War’s efforts.  Some people might feel uncomfortable being a part of principally antiwar organization, but Pax Christi could enable them to act out their Catholic identity while being a peace activist. Thus, we hypothesized that these organizations were critical not only to coalitions, but also to the overall mobilizing effectiveness of the movement. Our article in the American Journal of Sociology on “Hybrid Activism”, published in January 2014, would ultimately test and support this hypothesis.

Second, Meyer and Corrigall-Brown highlighted that it is important to think not just about whether organizations were in a coalition but also the degree to which they cooperated and how that changed over time. I had made a similar argument in my Ph.D. dissertation, completed the previous year in 2004, but in the somewhat different context of health policy lobbying coalitions. Yet it was very instructive to see the idea applied differently in the social-movements context. Meyer and Corrigall-Brown investigated membership and cooperation within Win Without War in the first and second Iraq wars. Their analysis naturally raised the question of what other ways coalition participation might change over time and what effects that might have.

Shortly before Meyer and Corrigall-Brown’s article had been published, but after it had been finalized, two of the coalitions in their study – Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) and United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) – went through a dramatic but failed experiment of working together. Using our surveys of participants at ANSWER-sponsored and UFPJ-sponsored events before, during, and after this attempt to coalesce, Fabio and I were able to explore how activists’ networks changed as a result of the variable coalitional cooperation that Meyer and Corrigall-Brown had anticipated. Our results were published in Research in Social Movements, Conflict and Change in 2008. They showed, among other things, that the attempted unification and then split between UFPJ and ANSWER ultimately empowered previously less-central actors in the movement, such as Code Pink: Women for Peace. Our findings, along with those of Meyer and Corrigall-Brown, should be taken as encouragement for social movement scholars to further explore variations in coalition cooperation and their consequences for movements.

Third, I was impressed by how Meyer and Corrigall-Brown generated such an insightful analysis from relatively simple data about coalitions. They drew primarily on descriptions of five coalitions and the membership list of Win Without War at two points in time. This information was all readily available online, not requiring extensive fieldwork or archival research. By presenting two snapshots of Win Without War, they demonstrated unambiguously that time is a powerful variable, especially when it is applied to coalitions. Looking at the comings and goings of advocacy organizations in a coalition is stunningly revealing of its politics: What are the external pressures on these groups?  Who cares most about the issue?  Is the social movement growing or falling apart?

Fabio and I were able to build on Meyer and Corrigall-Brown’s analysis in Chapter 5 of our book, Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11. We used a similar data-gathering approach to theirs to obtain information on eleven national antiwar coalitions, which we supplemented with leader interviews. We considered the membership dynamics of the coalitions, as well their relationships with the Democratic Party. In line with the larger argument in our book, we found that coalitions’ Democratic attachments were predictive of their withdrawal from the movement during the presidency of Barack Obama. Similar analyses could readily be undertaken of coalitions in almost any social movement.

My essay only touches on some of the interesting elements of Meyer and Corrigall-Brown’s article. Likewise, I only detail some of the ways that it influenced my work. Thus, I commend it to you heartily and hope that it is similarly generative for your own thinking and research.


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