This month, we have a second round of contributions on social movement failure. Last month’s first round of essays brought up a variety of ideas and solutions to understanding social movement failure, and we have asked contributors to the second round to weave some reactions to points raised in the previous posts into their original insights on the topic. Contributors to the first round of essays for the social movement failure topic certainly offered a lot of great material for this kind of exchange. We hope you enjoy these new contributions on this important topic:
Category Archives: Social Movement Failure
Gathering my thoughts on how we measure social movement failure is, for me, a deja vu experience. Imagine that it is 40 years ago and I am struggling with this question as I conduct the research reported in The Strategy of Social Protest (Dorsey: 1975). I write the following:
Success is an elusive idea. What of the group whose leaders are honored or rewarded while their supposed beneficiaries linger in the same cheerless state as before? Is such a group more or less successful than another challenger whose leaders are vilified and imprisoned even as their program is eagerly implemented by their oppressor? Is a group a failure if it collapses with no legacy save inspiration to a generation that will soon take up the same cause with more tangible results? And what do we conclude about a group that accomplishes exactly what it set out to achieve and then finds its victory empty of real meaning for its presumed beneficiaries? Finally, we must add to these questions the further complications of groups with multiple antagonists and multiple areas of concern. They may achieve some results with some targets and little or nothing with others. (p. 28).
If I were writing this today, I wouldn’t change anything. Continue reading →
By Joel Beinin
Ignited by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in the impoverished Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid in December 2010, a prairie fire engulfed much of the Arab world during 2011. Social movements of the previous decade converged in the uprisings: broad pro-democracy activism exemplified by Egypt’s Kifaya (Enough!), campaigns against police brutality, in defense of judicial independence, prisoners’ rights, women’s rights, and in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Morocco, workers’ actions to defend their standard of living. However, the 2011 occupations of public space proclaiming “the people want the fall of the regime” and demanding “bread, freedom, and social justice” were much more than a social movement. They were popular rebellions with a revolutionary thrust directed, albeit vaguely and without a clear program, against both autocratic neo-patrimonial rule and neo-liberal crony capitalism. Continue reading →
In my “Sociology of Protest” class, when we get to the section of the course that addresses social movement outcomes I always start off with a brief exercise. I put the following on the board: “A successful movement is one that ________________________” and then ask the students to complete the sentence. The students always come up with excellent responses and typically identify a variety of ways in which movements can be successful, including achieving lasting social change and increasing awareness of a particular cause or issue. We then use these responses to think about ways of operationalizing movement success, and move into a lecture and discussion of Gamson’s (1990) classic treatment of movement success in terms of acceptance and new advantages. Continue reading →
This month’s essay dialogue will focus on why some movements fail. With many questioning the success of movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, we think it is time to revisit one of the questions that has plagued the social movement community for a long time. Every activist and community organizer has examples of success and failure, but social movement researchers and activists are far more likely to focus on movements that succeed. Contributors this month and next will reflect on what movement failure is and why some movements fail. What are the key reasons that some movements never take off or fizzle out before succeeding? What are we missing if we ignore social movement failures? How should we understand failure, what is the role of intentional and unintentional outcomes, and how do we measure failed movements? We have lined up a fantastic group of scholars and organizers to reflect on these issues and will feature their essays throughout December and January and invite you to comment and respond. As always, we are grateful for the participation of our distinguished contributors:
Edwin Amenta, University of California, Irvine (essay)
Christian Davenport, University of Michigan (essay)
Daniel Escher, University of Notre Dame (essay)
Marco Giugni, University of Geneva (essay)
Kevan Harris, Princeton University (essay)
Jen McKernan, AFT Michigan (essay)
Many researchers, activists and ordinary citizens are trying to figure out what is meant by social movement “success” and in so doing social movement “failure.” We are somewhat confused about these concepts because most of our collective attention has been spent on trying to understand social movement emergence (i.e., when we are most likely to see them) and the use of diverse tactics (e.g., when we are more likely to see violent vs. non-violent behavior). Scholarship has only recently moved to define, conceptualize, and measure success and research has barely started on the idea of failure, which is the focus of my essay today. This renders the discussion put together in this forum both timely and useful.
By Edwin Amenta
Asking why social movements fail is a little like asking why children do not have backyards full of ponies. Most social movements fail most of the time because they embody a recipe for failure: they combine ambitious goals with severe power deficits. In U.S. history alone, think about the communist, nativist, gun control, anti-alcohol, and prison-reform movements—failure, failure, failure, failure, and failure. With global warming continuing unchecked, a good case could be made, too, for the environmental movement as a failure. Even movements widely considered the most influential of the twentieth century—the labor, African-American civil rights, and feminist movements—have been so only partially or intermittently. Continue reading →
An airplane flight over eastern Kentucky, or a satellite map of southern West Virginia, reveals a strange sight—vast tracts of disturbed earth stretching for hundreds if not thousands of acres at a time. This is mountaintop removal mining, a method of extracting coal from the surface. It involves removing vegetation, blasting rock, extracting coal, and then attempting to reshape the rock back into a mountain again. Although this form of surface mining began in 1970, it began attracting sustained attention from environmental activists in the late 1990s as mine sites grew rapidly in size. Small mines are about the size of a hundred football fields; large ones sprawl across 15 square miles.
By Jen McKernan
Failure in social movements is an overwhelming topic. When I started thinking about things under our control that we could do differently to minimize the chances of self-imposed failure, I kept coming back to the organizational structures we create. We know that more money, more time, better lists, and more volunteers would all help. But how can we also work smarter with the resources we have, while we continue to work harder to improve our resources?
I spoke with terrific organizers and activists who contributed incredible insights and revisions. They have all been a part of many different movements, brainstorms, meetings, plans, rallies, accountability sessions, campaigns, debriefs, press conferences, and work groups to make the world better for more people. They gained their hard-won experience in the trial by fire that is organizing. The result is short list of bad structures that happen to good movements. Continue reading →
By Kevan Harris
Ask Iranians what caused their country’s 1979 revolution, and usually a little folk sociology comes out. Iran under the Pahlavi monarchy was a “pressure cooker,” they say, and the top eventually was blown off. Authoritarian political rule coupled with rapid social change meant the revolution was inevitable. Around the country, I have been told this story many times from academics and armchair intellectuals to aging aunties.
Of course, as Jeff Goodwin recently pointed out, no set of political opportunities existed under the Pahlavi dynasty in the 1970s which could have provided an opening for successful mobilization from below to trigger a revolution. Yet a series of widening protest cycles over 1977-78 eventually paralyzed the state’s coercive apparatus, forced a fissure among political elites, and engineered a fiscal crisis. It was state breakdown theory in reverse. Even Theda Skocpol admitted that if any revolution had ever been “made,” Iran’s came closest to the description. But as Charles Kurzman persuasively argued, not only is the 1979 Iranian revolution unexplainable with our current theoretical toolkit of social science, it was also “unthinkable” to most of the participants making it.