Social Movements Without Protests: The Politics of Alignment in Social Movements

BY Apoorva Ghosh

Do social movements have to be carried out through protests or other contentious means? When protests wane, does the social movement activity also die out? If no, can the non-disruptive, and the less “visible” nature of challenging target entities be explained through possibilities other than abeyance structures which are still deficient in explaining how outcomes are achieved during periods of non-protest? In other words, should social movement activity be theorized exclusively through the cycles of protests? While several studies—theoretical as well as empirical—do suggest the possibility of carrying out social movements through non-disruptive means, a more robust understanding of social movements carried out entirely without obstructive means was lacking. In other words, we lacked a theoretical alternative to the grand contentious politics model to understand the carrying out of social movements. This theoretical monopoly has received a challenge with the recent publication of the article “The Politics of Alignment and the ‘Quiet Transgender Revolution’ in Fortune 500 Corporations, 2008 to 2017” in Socio-Economic Review. This paper has been recognized through the 2021 CBSM Mayer N. Zald Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Student Paper Award.

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As the title suggests, this article offers a theoretical alternative to the contentious politics model by conceptualizing “Politics of Alignment.” The word “alignment” is not entirely new to the social movements literature. Snow and colleagues used this word to conceptualize how activists bring more participation into movements. The use of “alignment” in this work, however, shows how activists challenge their target entities by aligning their activism with the values and interests of their target entities, while also leveraging their vulnerabilities to obtain the desired outcomes.

The concept of alignment was used this way for the first time in Bernstein and Ghosh’s work on “repertoires of alignment” presented in a panel session of ASA annual meeting in 2015.  It was argued that the insider activists of the LGBT workplace movement challenged their employing corporations by framing their demands in terms of the values and interests of these corporations, and also by using benchmarking tactics confronting their employers by asking “don’t we want to be as good as [your peers who did what we’re asking you to do]?” And so, insider activists can serve as important conduits of the isomorphic diffusion of movement outcomes within target entity clusters, for example the business corporations within an industry sector or geographical location.

The article on politics of alignment confirms this insight quantitatively, but the main goal of this work is to show how external SMOs can also use the tactic of alignment to pursue their goals. It defines politics of alignment as SMOs engaging their target entities into social movement programs which benefit these entities economically and/or reputationally; the tactic involves these SMOs adding a timed intervention in these programs to meet specific movement demands which if not met, would make these entities lose the reputational and economic benefits they had been deriving out of these programs. The paper draws on the prospect theory of behavioral economics to argue that when target entities fear the loss of the program benefits, and when they find the cost of losing them higher than the cost of meeting the movement demands, they choose to meet the demands instead that are sought through the intervention.

There is a caveat in the politics of alignment though—activists must be able to institutionally access their target entities. If activists can do nothing other than protesting outside the compound walls, the possibility of devising social movement programs and making target entities participate in them would not arise. And this institutional access is more possible when the movement achieves some legitimacy for its cause in the external environment. For example, the paper shows that Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) Corporate Equality Index (CEI) program started and grew as the legitimacy of LGBT rights as a social movement cause continued to increase over the last two decades. And when the external environment for demanding sex-reassignment health benefits for transgender employees was ripe in 2011, because of the availability of inclusive insurers as well as more support for marriage equality, HRC introduced the demand for these health benefits by introducing a criteria expansion as an intervention in its CEI program, which was followed by a surge of adopters among Fortune 500 corporations in the subsequent years.

The quantitative analyses of 456 Fortune 500 corporations in the ten-year period of 2008 to 2017, while controlling for all possible organizational and institutional factors, found the role of LGBT workplace movement and especially its politics of alignment to be the most important predictor for adoption. With that being said, the role of isomorphic diffusion was not discounted. More analyses showed that while the early movers adopted largely following the politics of alignment and some form of institutional access activists had to these early movers, the late movers adopted mainly in an institutional environment where the adoption of these health benefits had increased among their industry and location peers, with the role of insider activists coming into play as the catalysts of diffusion. These robust longitudinal analyses show that an understanding of organizational change can be best gathered when both the social movements and institutional forces are examined together.

The theory of politics of alignment has important implications for social movement studies, especially for those examining how movement outcomes are achieved. In current times several social movements have achieved a good amount of legitimacy to their cause in their external environments; the Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a shining example. It would be worthwhile to monitor the extent to which this movement will continue to be carried out through protests and other disruptive means in the future. If BLM protests wane following the cycles of protests, social movement scholars should be critical of equating the BLM activity with these cycles. When protests are not taking place, it would be worthwhile for scholars to study the interactions between BLM SMOs and their target entities incisively to develop a more inclusive understanding of the collective challenge BLM poses, and this is where the politics of alignment can offer a theoretical base to start with. The politics of alignment can be useful to study environmental, climate change, anti-trafficking, and numerous such movements where activists are known to be institutionally interacting with their target entities. Social movement actors are no longer complete outsiders to their target entities. The key to an inclusive understanding of how social movements are carried out, therefore, lies in examining all kinds of interactions between challengers and their target entities, and this examination would also pave the way towards better understanding of how social movement outcomes are achieved.

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