Author Archives: Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick

About Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick

I am a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, where I am also the Assistant Director at the Center for the Study of Social Movements and Social Change. I am the Senior Assistant Editor at Mobilization, the international journal of social movements (at Notre Dame and San Diego State University). I specialize in social movements and human rights in both the United States and in the Indian subcontinent. My dissertation draws on qualitative and quantitative methods to explore the impact social movements have on human rights violators in rural India. Recent thinking along these lines can be found in a recent volume co-edited by myself and Alison Brysk: From Human Trafficking to Human Rights: Reframing Contemporary Slavery (Pennsylvania Series on Human Rights, 2012). Prior to academia I worked as a human rights advocate. From 2003 through 2009 I was on staff at Free the Slaves, the sister organization of Anti-Slavery International, itself the world’s first and longest running human rights NGO. And before that I studied human rights and international security at the Korbel School of International Studies.

Tinkering [human rights, contemporary slaveholders, protest drones]

What fun to be asked about one’s own research! After finishing a PhD in sociology (Notre Dame, 2013) I took a job at a School of Public Policy in Europe. Best move ever. In what follows I sketch the three main veins of inquiry that have kept me busy recently.

A human rights approach to the contemporary anti-slavery movement
At present I am engaged in three primary lines of inquiry. The first involves the development of a human rights approach to contemporary slavery and human trafficking. A decade in the contemporary anti-slavery movement convinced me that current thinking within the movement was driven by Christian evangelical’s conceptualizations of salvation (here). But what’s the positive alternative? I initially sketched this out with one of my mentors (Alison Brysk) in a co-edited volume—From Human Trafficking to Human Rights (Penn 2012, here)—and developed more fully in two journal articles. Continue reading

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Pussy Riot

Not sure if you’ve been following Pussy Riot’s tussle with the Russian state, but the lead singer Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s closing statement is absolutely thrilling. It is difficult to imagine riveting political protest in the West. While the indictment of the “Corporate State System” might apply in the United States, and the cultural disruption of groups like the Yes Men is certainly engaging, the sheer inertia and success of the system renders many forms of protest inert and off-putting. In Russia, however, it sends a thrill down my spine to read:  Continue reading


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In memoriam, Mayer Zald (?-2012)

Mayer was a generous and personable human. I remember his warmth and sincerity, whether talking to his peers or graduate students, from his times at McCarthy Award events. What a career, and what a legacy. Adieu!

Mayer Zald (2009)

Rory McVeigh, Chair of the Sociology Department at Notre Dame, noted as much in this announcement to a university listserve:
I just received word that Mayer Zald passed away this morning after suffering a massive heart attack a couple of days ago.  As many of you know, Mayer had an extraordinary career as a leading scholar in research on social movements and organizations.  He was also a great friend of Notre Dame Sociology.  He is a recipient of our McCarthy Lifetime Achievement Award and has attended McCarthy Award ceremonies on campus several times.  There are thousands of stories out there about how Mayer reached out to a young scholar completely out of the blue to offer congratulations on an article or to provide advice or encouragement.  Even at his advanced age, he was extraordinarily active and productive.  Only a few months ago he was enthusiastically telling me about an article he was working on with young colleagues at the University of Michigan charting out future directions in social movement research.  He was truly one of a kind.
See also:
Video of Mayer Zald, talking about his academic career
– Jeff Goodwin’s note on the Collective Behavior list-serve

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Protest Psych – Counseling for the politically wayward

I’ll be honest with you, I’ve got a copy of LeBon’s The Crowd that I keep meaning to read. Of course I’ve internalized what we all now think he was saying—protestors are crazy!—because social movement scholars have spent the last thirty years insisting that protestors are rational actors behaving in politically salient ways. But I’ve got this nagging curiosity that I keep meaning to do something about: Maybe LeBon was writing about a fundamentally different time. Maybe protests and protestors were different. That’s not what this post is about, because I’ve ­not pulled LeBon back down from the shelf.

Anyway, it was with this general line of curiosity that an article from the Times of India struck me broadside: Protestors against a proposed nuclear power station were made to undergo psychological counseling.  What’s this now? Seriously? The People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy has been protesting for some time, but as best I can tell from a quick perusal of the web, this is the first time there’s been an attempt to brainwash them. Maybe it’s not brainwashing, maybe it’s less sinister. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has demanded an explanation from the Indian government. No other details seems to be publically available at this point. Also noteworthy: this psychological intervention follows on the heels of a government investigation of the possibility that PMANE’s work is supported by “foreign funds.” The investigation led to the detainment and deportation of a German national.

There’s no need to belabor the analysis here. India is truly a social movement society. I’ve never been to India when there wasn’t a bandt or strike or sit in or walkout or protest that effected trains, taxis, rickshaws, airplanes, government workers, women carrying water, men breaking stones, and a thousand other activities and sectors. So a protest against a new reactor is nothing new. But at a time when western security forces are developing more and more refined responses to large-scale protests, it seems that the Indian government is moving LeBon-ward. Diagnosing the protestor as patient and administering the cure.

Which brings us back to The Crowd. I wonder if LeBon got some things right about the world he lived in. Maybe, like the Fantastic Mr. Fox tells Rat, “certainly she lived, we all did. But it was a different time; let’s not use a double standard.” But then when I see the Indian government treating protest like a disorder I settle back into the conventional wisdom: LeBon was crazy. I guess I really should read his book.


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Movements have half-lives

Social movement scholarship, especially in the US over the last decade, has focused on a host of smaller movements. I’m part of this trend as well, studying movement-based efforts to address contemporary slavery and trafficking. But lately I’ve been wondering—what’s the half-life of the average mini-movement?

the decay curve for a radioactive substance (BBC)


I’ve been trained in two different traditions: the international relations literature on civil society’s boomerang effects (Sikkink, etc) and the (largely domestic) social movement literature on political opportunity. Somehow the first tradition—with its institutional focus on human rights, international institutions, and state power—focuses on the relationship between states and publics in creating and implementing norms. And the second tradition—with its focus on domestic political and economic trends and shifting public opinion—focuses on the relationship between issue framing, movement resources, and political opportunities to blend money and message for movement success. Continue reading

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Stratfor Spies: For-profit corporations tracking movement activity

In 1984 a gas leak at Union Carbide’s facility in Bhopal, India killed 15,000 people in one of the world’s worst industrial disasters. In 2000 Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide, allowing it to jettison further obligations to the families of the 15,000 dead and hundreds of thousands affected. According to a spokesperson, Dow’s subsequent payout of $500 per victim was “plenty good for an Indian.” The gas leak remains a live issue in Indian politics, both at the community and national levels, and for reasons of national pride, as well as basic fairness. Yes Men, what?

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Suicide as High Risk Activism (?!)

Individual involvement in social movement activity—once Molotov Cocktails, but lately petition-signing with the occasional occupation—has had us wringing our hands for a few decades now. Grievances, opportunities, networks, availability, cute protestors … ah yes, and the issues themselves—all serve as key motivators.

But something caught my eye the other day. Something like a quarter of a million farmers are estimated to have committed suicide in India over the last year, or so the papers say. Continue reading


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