Category Archives: Great Books for Summer Reading

This essay dialogue aims to give readers a healthy selection of great books for their summer reading lists. We invited contributors to choose their favorite social movements/protest-related book of the past couple years, whether scholarly, activist, or fiction, and write a short review. Although mainstream academic social movements texts were welcome, we encouraged contributors to consider books that most readers might not know about, such as non-scholarly books that don’t get reviewed in academic journals. We include scholars from a wide range of disciplines as well as a variety of activists in an effort to give our readers a broad list of selections.

Looking Behind the Label and Reforming Global Industry

The recent essay series organized by Jennifer Hadden on climate change mobilization raises larger questions mobilization scholars should be asking: How can we collectively address complex global social problems, such as climate change, which are embedded in our systems of production and everyday habits? How can we build coalitions among movements, organizations, the state, and other players, to create effective reform programs?

Next we need to ask the even more challenging question of how do we successfully implement and regulate reform programs on the ground?

According to Looking behind the Label: Global Industries and the Conscientious Consumer, a new book out this week by Tim Bartley and his colleagues, reforming our system of production is possible, but incredibly complex and difficult to implement in a consistent, cohesive manner. Using a combination of survey data on ethical or politically motived “conscientious” consumption and case studies of certification and regulation programs for different products (timber, food, clothing, and electronics), they examine the effects of certification programs on how individuals shop and on global commodity chain production.

How much does buying fair trade or other certified products matter? Can we really change the world by voting with our dollars? What are limitations to individualistic tactics such as boycotting (avoiding consumption of certain products for political or ethical reasons), or buycotting products (deliberately buying products for political or ethical reasons)? How much can a combination of certification programs and conscientious consumerism do to address the social and environmental costs of mass consumption and production via global supply chains? They answer all these questions in the course of the book.

Their results first suggest location matters a great deal in one’s odds of being a conscientious consumer. Scandanavians, for example, were more likely to buycott (about 50%) or boycott (about 30%) a product at least once in the past year, than Americans (at about 25% and 20% respectively). Bartley and his colleagues argue people are more likely to buy certified products if they live near economic opportunity structures which enable them to easily to do so. Living in an affluent country or having access to ethical products through large supermarkets and other high volume chain stores, makes one more likely to buy ethical products.

In the second part of the book, drawing on their own ethnographic data, the authors walk the reader through four case studies examining how ethical certified products really are. What do we learn from these cases? We learn that even in the best of circumstances where certification and auditing systems exist to monitor production processes, they often fall terribly short.

These case studies of the lumber, clothing, food, and electronics industries showcase how complex production is, and how many structural and contextual factors need to be taken into account to understand how global production can be improved. The case of lumber certification reveals, for example, that even in the best of circumstances, such as when various state, private, and non-profit organizations collaborate to form a certification program to create a more sustainable lumber industry, underlying problems may remain. Even with a fairly successful lumber certification program, with certified lumber at stores such as Home Depot and Lowes, deforestation of old wood forests continues to occur at an accelerated rate – due to other industries which cut down trees, such as the cattle and soy industries in South American and palm oil plantations in Indonesia.

Bartley et al. additionally show how when prominent members of an industry, such as the electronics industry, choose to institute self-auditing programs, they often fail to enforce regulations. Thus they gain the ability to market their attempts at ethical production without being held accountable to actual results. Ultimately the electronics industry case shows how due to the underlying structure of the industry itself – in which tech companies undergo rapid cycles of innovation, production, and sales – it is unlikely that human rights issues and labor abuses, such as overwork and lacking job security, will be addressed any time soon. Companies fear slowing down production will hamper their ability to compete and turn the most profit possible on goods with short life cycles.

Despite these problems, buying some certified products certainly should be part of the solution.  However, it is incredibly difficult and time-consuming to investigate which products are worth it.  The authors’ case studies provide us with some hints toward what certified products might be worth buying.  For example, they suggest that buying fair trade products from farm cooperatives can be beneficial.  Buying fair trade products can support small-scale farmers in collectively organizing to counteract corporate agricultural blocs. It also helps produce funds for the cooperatives to help their farmers develop and modernize production.

In conclusion, the authors suggest that although conscientious consumption and the emergence of certification and auditing programs are important avenues to addressing human rights and environmental problems in our production systems, they are far from a sufficient solution. Given the companies’ lack of commitment to enacting deep structural change, the complex structure of global commodity chains, and the relatively weak role of many developing countries in protecting their workers, to even have a chance to truly reform production systems, a combination of social movements to raise awareness of human rights violations and environmental problems endemic in our global system of production and a collective commitment to deep structural change (e.g. increased governmental regulation, reforming structures of production) will be needed.

I used the book in my global social problems course this past semester and the students found it very insightful. Ultimately, the book moves readers away from individualistic stances on saving the world through buying “socially responsible” products, to a much more critical sociological perspective by forcing us to look at how our political and economic structures can be the deepest source of international human rights violations and environmental degradation.  The book helped the students understand at a much deeper level how challenging it is to enact collective change at a global level. It showed them how many factors one needs to take into account in addressing global production problems — such as varying global supply chain structures in different industries, local and national economic structures, state regulation, movement and NGO mobilization, and collaborations between the many interested players. Yet, even if a certification program and production reform are successfully implemented in a single industry, other industries can still exacerbate underlying social problems.  This complexity was eye-opening to them and provided many important lessons to take away.

I think the book would also work well in a social movement course. It adds a useful perspective on how movements need to work with powerful institutions such as businesses and the state, yet also warns of the limitations of mobilization for social change within business and the broader capitalist system without outside movements or organizations to maintain accountability to improved outcomes.

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Review of Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism

Worthen, Molly. 2014. Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. Oxford University Press.

Worthen, Molly. 2014. Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. Oxford University Press.

The role of ideas for collective action has long been regarded as central to the study of social movements. However, the focus fluctuates between implicit and explicit discussions. This vacillation is complicated by the fact that, at times, ideology has been perceived as a derogatory component only advanced by religious, social, or political extremists (Oliver and Johnston 2000; Kniss and Burns 2004). Too often, when scholars attempt to distinguish the role ideology plays in movement mobilization and potentially factionalism, it gets reduced to artificially simple and coherent sets of ideas that necessarily unite members. Yet, ideologies center on cognitive, emotional, and morally charged experiences for individuals and groups as they are localized and constructed in response to varied knowledge and conditions; it’s the very stuff that we have stakes in for understanding any social movement (Williams and Platt 2002). In light of this, then, ideological production and negotiation are vital to examine, as they point to how movements choose among alternative courses of action.

Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism by Molly Worthen takes up a history of ideas and institutions that undergird the twentieth century evangelical movement in the United States. Tracing the core act of ideas and thinking—judgment, reasoning, making connections—Worthen elaborates upon the evangelical “imagination” challenging readers to not just view it as a singular mindset. Continue reading

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Critical Considerations on Collective Empowerment: Class, Civil Society and the State

By Efe Can Gürcan and Gerardo Otero – Simon Fraser University

John Holloway, Change the world without taking power: the meaning of revolution today (London & New York: Pluto Press, 2010)

John Holloway, Change the world without taking power: the meaning of revolution today (London & New York: Pluto Press, 2010)

Eleven years after its first publication (in 2002), John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power remains one of the most contested and controversial books of contemporary Marxist theory, having been translated into ten languages and seen three English editions in 2002, 2005 and 2010 (Holloway 2010: ix-x). In response to a series of critiques to the first edition of his book, namely on how can we advance the struggle for society’s self-determination—or Communism—without taking state power, the 2005 edition presents a new epilogue. Upon continuing controversies, the 2010 edition includes an “extensive” preface, in which Holloway felt it necessary to reassert the timeliness of the book after the waning of the Zapatista movement and Argentine piquetero and neighborhood assembly movements. In his preface, he rather points to the so-called “state-centered developments” (Holloway 2010: xi) in Venezuela and Bolivia, and keeps asking: “how do we stop making capitalism?” (Holloway 2010: xii). He claims that he does not know the answer to this question, while, on the other hand, quite firmly asserting that “the state has no part” in the solution (Holloway 2010: xii).

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A Theory of Fields: A Review

By David Hess

A Theory of Fields, by Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam. Oxford University Press, 2012.

A Theory of Fields is the product of the longstanding collaboration that began during the 1980s, when Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam were colleagues at the University of Arizona. They define a strategic action field as a “constructed mesolevel social order in which actors (who can be individual or collective) are attuned to and interact with one another on the basis of shared (which is not to say consensual) understandings about the purposes of the field, relationships to others in the field (including who has power and why), and the rules governing legitimate action in the field” (p. 9). They distinguish fields from the concept of “institutional logics,” which they see as implying too much consensus among actors and focusing too much on reproduction (p. 11-12).

Field theory is of general importance in the social sciences because it provides a way to balance tendencies toward structural determinism and agency as well as micro and macro scales of analysis. There are many theory traditions of field sociology, and F&M provide a discussion of some of them, but in terms of accumulated symbolic capital such as citations, Bourdieu’s field theory is clearly the leader and arguably the most intellectually significant point of comparison.  Having found a somewhat loose appropriation of Bourdieu’s field sociology to be valuable in the study of science, technology, social movements, and society, I am sympathetic with F&M’s use of Bourdieu’s work and willingness to modify it as they see fit. Continue reading

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The Journey to Tahrir: Revolution, Protest, and Social Change in Egypt

By Arang Keshavarzian

The Journey to Tahrir: Revolution, Protest, and Social Change in Egypt, by Jeannie Sowers and Chris Toensing (eds). Verso, 2012. ­­

Since the overthrow of Tunisia and Egypt’s entrenched dictators, pundits and academics have scrambled to keep up with the surprising and fast-moving events across the region.  Much of the journalistic coverage gravitated towards the dramas and spectacle of the protests and the immediate concerns and checkered outcomes of these revolutionary moments.  Much ink was spilled on notions of twitter revolutions, the leaderless and youth-dominated movements, the potential for Islamist “hijacking the revolutions,” and the consequences for the US-led regional order.  Meanwhile, the bulk of the academic community studying politics in the Middle East were caught flat-footed.  In the last decade and half this scholarship was deeply invested in a paradigm that sought to explain “the lack of democratization” in the region by focusing on the vigor of the region’s authoritarian systems.  Continue reading

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Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America

By Betsy Leondar-Wright

Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America, by Barbara Jensen. Cornell Press, 2012.

And unlike most things I’ve read about kids disengaged from school, which focus on their deficits and fret about their life chances, Jensen, a counseling psychologist who has long worked with such kids, celebrates the working-class cultural strengths that motivate some of them, even as she is realistic about their struggles.

Reading this wise and evocative book through my own lens of wanting to organize progressive social movements, I saw that the working-class cultural traits she describes are some of the essentials of movement-building.

“If there’s no rebel energy, there’s no movement,” the late working-class activist Bill Moyer wrote in Doing Democracy.  He didn’t mean violent rebellion or randomly scattered rage, but strategically targeted rebellion against unjust power-holders. Tame tactics would never make social change. Looking around at the devastation in the U.S. economy and environment, it’s clear that too many of us are taking terrible injustices sitting down. We have a society-wide shortage of rebel energy, as Bruce Levine. Continue reading

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June Essay Dialogue: Great Books for Summer Reading

Summer is here, and when you head to the beach (or, more likely, your library carrel), Mobilizing Ideas wants you to be reading the latest and greatest notable books on social movements and social change. This month, we asked several scholars and activists: what is your favorite movements-related book, fiction or nonfiction, published in the past few years?  While academic social movement texts were welcome, we encouraged contributors to select books that might not be reviewed in mainstream academic journals.  As usual, we are releasing several posts now and will publish a few more on this topic later in the month. We received some great responses, which we hope will help you select some good titles for both entertainment and education as you get your much needed summer rest.

Matthew Baggetta, Indiana University
Leading Teams, Setting the Stage for Great Performances (review)

Jennifer Earl, University of Arizona
Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 (review)

Karen Gargamelli, Common Law, Inc.
The Revolution Will Not Be Funded (review)

Arang Keshavarzian, New York University
The Journey to Tahrir: Revolution, Protest, and Social Change in Egypt (review)

David Hess, Vanderbilt Univesity
A Theory of Fields (review)

Betsy Leondar-Wright, Boston College
Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America (review)

David Pettinicchio, University of Washington
What WE Have Done: An Oral History of the Disability Rights Movement (review)

Fabio Rojas, Indiana University
Challenging Operations: Medical Reform and Resistance in Surgery (review)

Enjoy!

Editors in Chief,
Grace Yukich, David Ortiz, Rory McVeigh, Dan Myers

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