Author Archives: amyjonason

Rethinking Strategic Action in Food Security Projects

Those of us who study—or attempt to organize—collective action in the 21st century know the process is fraught with obstacles. We tend to conceptualize these obstacles in terms of the high risks inherent with protest, such as arrest or violent state repression. Social protest continues to be a forceful, exciting means of creating social change.  But it’s a relatively rare one. In the United States, humbler forms of collective association—the nonprofit, the social movement group, the civic project—work quietly “behind the scenes” to run the engine of social progress, however progress is defined. And “obstacles” in these settings have different faces. Bureaucracy. Burnout. Limited resources.  Like the risks of protest, these obstacles constitute threats to success. And nobody likes threats, because nobody likes to fail, be they an activist occupying Wall Street or the executive director of a struggling nonprofit organization.

I propose that by studying how people respond to obstacles in the course of organizing for social change, we can enrich our theories about strategic action.   Continue reading

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Fasting as Solidarity in Action

Today is a Day of Action for Worker Justice organized by Witness for Peace, a grassroots organization of people committed to the nonviolent support of those in Latin America and the Caribbean who are affected by unjust U.S. policies and corporate actions. People across the United States are called to fast in solidarity with a group of Colombian workers who were wrongfully fired from a General Motors plant in their country.

This day was brought to my attention by Jess Hunter-Bowman, a friend who is the associate director of Witness for Peace. I was inspired to write this post when Jess told me that several of the Colombian workers have chosen to go on a hunger strike, and some have marked this action by sewing their mouths shut (warning: the photo is a bit graphic).   Continue reading

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Moral Discourses in the Chicago Teachers’ Strike

As an elementary school student in New Jersey, I remember seeing my teachers in red shirts every Friday. Even then I knew it had something to do with the teachers’ union. (What can I say — I had a sociological eye!) Two decades later, I’ve learned the term “solidarity,” and I’m tracking the sea of red shirts in downtown Chicago this week with great interest as the city faces its first teachers’ strike in 25 years.

Everyone knows that the best way to raise your blood pressure is to view readers’ comments on online news articles. Well, I’ve risked my health, reviewing these comments along with original news sources, in order to present you with two very different, highly moralized images of teachers.

Side 1: Teachers are greedy welfare queens, neglecting the children in their care in order to demand more benefits from poor Rahm and his cash-strapped city government. A reader made the following comment on this article in the Washington Post: “I tried to listen to some comments by the president of the Chicago Teacgher [sic] Union President, Karen Lewis last night […] She was trying to talk through A mouth full of fingers that she got by biting off the hand that was trying to feed her.”   Another commenter writes, “In 21st century America, the only teachers who require union to protect them and to negotiate their salaries and benefits are either unqualified, inefficient, incompetent, lazy or all of the above.” Mayor Emanuel made remarks with a similar shame-on-you overtone. “This is a strike of choice — it’s the wrong choice for our children and it’s not necessary,” the Post quoted; and The New York Times,  “Don’t take it out on the kids of the city of Chicago if you have a problem with me.” At the end of this clip, a FOX newscaster remarks, “I feel bad for those kids today — no school for them.”

Side 2: Teachers are noble nurturers and victims of an oppressive system, fighting for their needs to be recognized. Evidence to this end highlights the sacrifices that teachers make for their students. One parent observes that her daughters’ teachers often uses their own money to buy supplies for their kids. A strike captain points out, “We don’t want to be on this picket line…our heart is in the classroom.” Pro-strikers explain that teachers are continuously asked to do more with less, such as the case of this teacher who has 43 pupils, age 5 and under. The argument is that teachers cannot be effective educators under their current conditions, and deserve to have a say in policy changes such as the extension of the school day.

One reason the strike is so polemical is that it references the current political imbroglio over education reform. But I think another is that it’s referential of larger issues about gender and power. Our society understands children as innocent, needing careful attention and protection. The care of children is a traditionally feminine responsibility, and teaching is a traditionally feminine career (76% of elementary and secondary public school teachers in 2007-2008 were female, according to the National Center for Education Statistics).  Those against the strike highlight the threat that it poses to children’s well-being. They imply that striking is selfish, an unladylike display of aggression, anger and greed that diverts teachers’ energy away from their real classroom duties. The other side argues that striking is a necessary evil that will, in the long run, allow teachers to better do their jobs. It argues that teachers make sacrifices to support children’s well-being, and deserve to be heard in return.

While children and their parents are certainly losing out in the short-term as teachers take to the streets, it remains to be seen whether this strike will spell long-term gains for public education. As one social worker said, the strike is a “history lesson” for many students. “We’re telling them, ‘This is how you stand for your rights.'”

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Remembering Chuck Tilly

Charles (Chuck) Tilly, a prominent and much-loved social movements scholar, died four years ago last Sunday. In 2005, Prospect Magazine called Tilly “America’s most prolific and interesting sociologist.”

Tilly’s work combines  insights from sociology, history and political science in the exploration of a wide variety of topics, including contentious politics, repression, violence, and identity.

The Social Science Research Council has a special section of its website dedicated to honoring Tilly’s life and work, and the site has been recently updated in observance of the anniversary of his death. Students might especially appreciate browsing some of Tilly’s famous annotated bibliographies, which span areas from research design to globalization.  Other features of the site include a list of selected publications (which nonetheless fills 27 pages!), links to review essays of Tilly’s life and work, and tributes and remembrances from other scholars. Visitors can also make a contribution to the Charles and Louise Tilly Fund for Social Science History.

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Introducing the Consortium on Social Movement Studies

Update 4/30/12: A livestream of this event is available here!


Social movements scholars from around the globe are participating in an exciting new initiative: the Consortium on Social Movement Studies (COSMOS). COSMOS was founded at the European University Institute by leading social movement scholar Donatella della Porta. It has united over 50 PhD students and post-doctoral fellows around three of della Porta’s research projects. The first, funded by the European Research Council, is a 5-year investigation into “democratization from below,” della Porta explained to me in an email. It will incorporate emerging research on the most recent wave of the Arab Spring. The second project, also a 5-year effort, will investigate the Occupy movement and other anti-corruption and alternative political movements. A third project will compile and analyze survey data from demonstrations. Continue reading

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A Different Kind of Diffusion

A friend recently posted a link to this photo in the Jakarta Post.

The caption reads, “Female police officers dance to diffuse the tension at a fuel price hike rally in Surabaya, East Java [Indonesia], on Thursday. The police later fired tear gas into the crowd to disperse the rally.”

It’s unclear whether the dancing was a spontaneous action, or a planned tactic. It seems to have been somewhat coordinated, though — the two women in the middle, and to a lesser extent the one on the right, appear to be making the same movement.

During a protest, the police are the representatives of the state, the actor against whom protesters are directing their grievances. I’ve never heard of police employing lighthearted strategies to address the threat of violence in a protest setting. Have you? Of course, the fact that these dancing police officers are female makes their choice of tactic that much more interesting.


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Can You See a Grassroots Movement from the Top of the Ivory Tower?

The latest issue of The Atlantic Monthly has a thought-provoking article on Srdja Popovic, “the secret architect of the Arab Spring.” After participating in the movement to oust Slobodan Milošević in 2000,  Popovic did a brief stint in Parliament and then started the Center for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), which trains activists who are interested in generating grassroots change in their home countries. Trainees have included the Egyptians who engineered the uprising in Cairo in early 2011,  helping to kick off the wave of protests known as the Arab Spring.

CANVAS encourages tactical innovation and promotes the power of bottom-up change. The quote below suggests that these emphases aren’t shared by incumbents of other institutions — including academia:

… [F]or all his method’s success, Popovic feels that those who should be paying the most attention—academics, politicians, journalists—instead continue to view politics largely as a game played by governments and decided by war. “Nobody, from very prominent political analysts to the world’s intelligence services, could find their own nose when the Arab Spring started. It is always this same old narrative: ‘It happened in Serbia by accident. It happened in Georgia by accident. It happened in Tunisia by accident. But it will never happen in Egypt.’ And this is the mantra we keep hearing—until it happens.” Continue reading

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Twitter’s New Policy: Censoring Social Activism?

Late last week, the social networking service Twitter announced changes to its policy: It will now “reactively withhold content from users in a specific country” when legally requested to do so. In a follow-up to the original blog post, Twitter argues that this is a step toward greater freedom of expression. Previously, censored content was removed on a global scale; now it will only be removed at the country level:

In short, we believe the new, more granular approach to withheld content is a good thing for freedom of expression, transparency, accountability— and for our users. Besides allowing us to keep Tweets available in more places, it also allows users to see whether we are living up to our freedom of expression ideal. Continue reading


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Morally Shocking Potatoes and the Force of the Internet

As the recent outrage over SOPA and PIPA has reminded us, the Internet serves a democratic purpose, providing many channels for users to generate content and relay information to each other. In fact, it’s so simple that a pre-teen can use it! In the video below — which is becoming a sleeper hit — an elementary school student presents the results of her science experiment on sweet potatoes, implying not-so-subtly that we’re probably better off buying from the organic section:

I call the organic movement a “lifestyle movement”; while rooted (pun intended!) in some scientific data on the link between pesticides and human disease, it seems to have especially galvanized a class of college-educated individuals with high cultural capital who advocate buying organic as a personal choice. Judging from the comments section, a lot of folks viewing the video are a part of this movement, and they already agree with the young girl’s conclusion. But thanks to the far-reaching powers of the Internet, this video could mobilize both strangers and friends. Here I’m playing on the title of a well-known article by the sociologist James M. Jasper and Jane Poulsen, who coined the term “moral shocks” to describe a mechanism by which people can be recruited to a social movement even if they have no social-network connections to it. If Internet users continue to link to this public video on their blogs, social media profiles, and the like,  its visibility will increase, and it will become more likely that someone with few connections to the organic movement will see it and be drawn in.

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Digitally Enabled Social Change: Giving the “Fashion Police” a New Voice

A recent NPR story exemplifies the process of Digitally Enabled Social Change (DESC), per Kevin Matthews’ post from Dec. 12. Frustrated by a sexist slogan on a girls’ sweatshirt at a major clothing retailer, some “moms,” the story says, utilized the powers of the Web to take matters into their own hands.

When New York resident Lauren Todd saw a photo of the “I’m Too Pretty To Do Homework” shirt on Facebook last August, she was annoyed. So she started a petition on the social action website… Her petition urged shoppers to boycott J.C. Penney until it stopped selling shirts with what she called sexist messaging. Five hours later, Shelby Knox started tweeting about the petition.

“From the time that Lauren started the petition on and J.C. Penney pulled the shirt,” Knox says, “it was about 10 hours, in which it got over 2,000 signatures, and at one point was generating over 400 tweets a minute.”

Now, it’s not clear to me that the signers of the J.C. Penney petition were all mothers, or even all women, for that matter. But that aside, the article raises some interesting questions about the varying power of Internet activism. The J.C. Penney campaign was successful, but a similar Target petition was not. DESC is clearly a useful, tactical tool for activists, allowing them to utilize the power of their social networks in an innovative way. But when it comes to issues of economic justice, perhaps it is best coupled with more old-fashioned forms of protest. What do you think?

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