Category Archives: Social Movement Failure

Struggling to Resist: Cultural Matching and the Fight over Mountaintop Removal

By Daniel Escher

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.

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When Bad Structures Happen to Good Movements

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

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Failure and Success from the Inside and Outside: Studying Iran’s Green Movement

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.

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Movement Success and Failure: Looking both at “Ones” and “Zeros”

By Marco Giugni

As a number of observers have argued at different points in time, the study of the outcomes and consequences of social movements has long been a neglected area within the social movement literature. This is no longer true. Today we can count on a wide range of valuable works which have improved our knowledge of why and how protest may lead to political, social, or cultural change. This body of works, however, presents a major shortcoming: they have most often focused on movement success, while being silent on movement failure. Yet, one of the most well-known books looking (also) at the political consequences of social movements, written by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward about 35 years ago, was subtitled “Why They Succeed, How They Fail.” But students of social movements and collective action do not seem to have received their message. Continue reading

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Social Movement Failure