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Social movement theorists have pointed to the concept of threat as a mobilizing force. Yet whereas many objective conditions are threatening – presenting economic threats, environmental threats, and existential threats – such conditions do not always lead to collective action. What do resistance movements – past, present, domestically, and abroad – teach us about the ways in which threat inspires action? Alternatively, how have contemporary movements and events revised our understanding of the role of threat for mobilization? The essays in this Dialogue may explore a number of questions related to threat and mobilization, including: What kinds of signals do actors take from their environment as cues about threatening conditions, and how do assessments of threat vary across time and space? How do power dynamics intersect with threat to produce action – do marginalized populations respond to different kinds of threat than more privileged actors? Are some kinds of threats more likely to lead to smaller, “every day” acts of resistance, while others result in mass mobilizations? The answers to these questions lend insight to contemporary politics and further theoretical work.
Special thanks to Guest Editors Thomas V. Maher and Rachel L. Einwohner, who organized this exciting dialogue.
Thanks to our wonderful group of contributors on this topic.
Editors in Chief,
Grace Yukich, David Ortiz, Rory McVeigh, Guillermo Trejo
This blog contribution is split between father and son sociologists, Stuart A. Wright and Jared M. Wright, who share research interests in social movements.
Stuart Wright. In their seminal work refining the contentious politics model seventeen years ago, McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly (2001: 43) observed that the attention given to threat as a stimulus to collective action had remained “an underemphasized corollary of the model.” In my research on the Patriot movement leading up to the Oklahoma City bombing (Wright, 2007), I argued that this tendency could be due to the dearth of studies focusing on far-right movements which have invariably postulated a threat by liberal-left state and non-state actors. The Patriot movement and various elements of racial nationalism have come to see state sponsorship of civil rights, cultural pluralism, and social and economic justice as a problem rooted in the power of the federal government, paving the way for increasing antigovernment sentiments. As such, I found the mobilizing potential of threat to be a more significant force in the trajectory of contention that produced violent, anti-government violence. Continue reading
It would be fair to say that the notion of threat was never a stranger to scholars of collective behavior and social movements. The idea that aggrieved groups respond to developments or events that put them at risk economically, socially or even existentially, by rioting, protesting, or raising arms, was voiced early on by scholars working in different strands of the classical tradition. Still, it would be just as fair to say that as a useful analytical concept, threat suffered from chronic under-specification and under-theorization. And while a much needed address was offered by scholars working in the political process tradition through the concept of the Structure of Political Opportunity and Threat (SPOT), two persisting issues ensued, which are: (1) the structural bias of SPOT, and (2) the political bias of SPOT. Focusing primarily on political threat, I suggest that the structural bias of the concept was more a reflection of scholarly research preferences, terminologies and practices than an inherent conceptual quality, and that the constructivist attempt to remedy this structural bias has stopped short in fully acknowledging and appreciating the original relational foundations of SPOT. I address the second issue—the political bias of political threat—as part of discussing several promises of such relational re-reading of the concept of SPOT and, more particularly, political threat. Continue reading
Contemporary movements across the world remind social movement scholars to rethink the role threat and grievances play in collective action. Recently, several movements have emerged in response to threats. From the occupy movement, and indigenous water rights mobilizations, to local environmental racism battles and immigrant rights social movements, marginalized and excluded social groups are mobilizing against increasing threats within their communities (Mora et al. 2017). Threats are defined as the negative conditions that inspire mobilization; although scholars have given more focus to political opportunities, threats were originally given the same weight as political opportunities (Tilly 1978). Some of the key threats that mobilize communities are environmental, economic, erosion of rights, and state repression (Almeida 2003; 2018). Continue reading
Environmental problems have a long history of being difficult to resolve, from the frustrations of trying to manage collective resources (e.g., the tragedy of the commons) to environmental problems typically being ranked lower as national policy priorities relative to issues like the economy or terrorism, especially in the United States where there are strong partisan differences in environmental concern (Pew Research 2018). But with climate change’s global implications, the stakes have never been higher, and the irreversibility of a greenhouse gas build-up lends urgency to action. Despite this, inaction is stubbornly pervasive. Is there anything with the power to shake people out of complacency, resignation, or even denial? Continue reading