Category Archives: Student Activism in Social Movements

This dialogue explores the role of student activism in social movements. Contributors were asked to draw on research experience, interests, and even personal experiences in activism to shed light on the potential that student activism holds for producing significant social change in the U.S. and throughout the world – concentrating on what it is, specifically, about student activism that distinguishes it from other bases of activism.

Student Activism on Campus: It’s Not Just for Lefties Anymore

By Amy J. Binder and Kate Wood

When talk turns to college student activism, most people will conjure up images reminiscent of the anti-war movement of the 1960s. But when it comes to campus politics, the students doing the acting are not just on the left and the style they use are not just in-your-face protest. In our soon-to-be published book Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives (Princeton University Press, Fall 2012), we demonstrate that universities have an enormous influence on the tone and tenor of right-leaning students’ political styles—styles which, presumably, inform these students’ political activity later in life. Studying a population rarely explored by scholars of either education or social movements (but see work by Rebecca Klatch and John Andrew), we discovered that while conservative students’ ideological beliefs may be more or less shared across campuses, their political styles vary substantially from one university to the next.[1] By shared “ideological beliefs” we mean students’ commitments to fiscal conservatism, national security, social issues, and the like; by divergent “political styles” we mean students’ expression and performance of their politics.

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The Return of Student Protest

By Nella Van Dyke

For those of us who were present on a college campus in the 1980s, the tents of the students participating in the Occupy movement on campus this past year provided a feeling of nostalgia, and even a sense that things are as they should be.  College students should be protesting, and when a long time goes by without a visible protest on my campus, I think something is wrong.  When I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in the mid-1980s, I was accustomed to seeing the anti-Apartheid shanties on the quad as I walked to class.  As with myself, college student protest makes many people think of a specific era, most often the 1960s.  However, college students have always protested.  The first recorded student protest in the U.S. occurred in 1766, when students at Harvard protested the quality of the butter served in the campus cafeteria.  “Behold our butter stinketh and we cannot eat thereof” was their somewhat tongue in cheek rallying cry (Lipset 1972).  (I can’t help but share this quote whenever I have the opportunity).  Student protest is a part of the college campus landscape and culture, even though at sometimes it is less visible than at others.

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The Winter Chilean Students Said, Enough!

By Eduardo Silva 

Over the past 20 years, Chile earned a reputation as a case of successful transition to democracy and market economy; the very image of a prosperous, orderly country in which institutions channel and contain conflict.  Political leaders decoupled their parties from social organizations, foreswore mass mobilization as a political instrument, and, where the public is concerned, primarily used parties to get voters to the election booth.  In the Chilean collective psyche, pundits assert, mass demonstrations are overwhelmingly associated with political destabilization and the breakdown of democracy – chaos.  To be sure, diminished labor unions, environmental activists, indigenous peoples, and students occasionally mounted protests.  But these were usually small, isolated, easily controlled, occasionally channeled back into institutionalized politics, and soon forgotten.  In this context, the cycle of massive student demonstrations that gripped Chile from June to December 2011 marked a distinctive change in the characteristics and relative importance of student protests in that country.[i]

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Student Movements and the Power of Disruption

By Gabriela Gonzalez-Vaillant and Michael Schwartz 

Student movements have played a crucial role in many major social and political transformations, at least partially because of their unique social status. Students are young and relatively unencumbered; students as individuals inhabit a transitory identity that they will soon leave, usually without sticky stigma; students in aggregate occupy a dynamic status infused with an energetic new generation each year. These features help to explain why student movements emerge and re-emerge, but they also point to some of the reasons why student movements have so often failed to achieve their social change goals (Taylor and Van Dyke 2007: 277) . In this essay, we seek to understand why and when social movements do succeed in extracting concessions from dominant institutions. We begin by briefly theorizing the notion of disruption as central to social movement success. We then distinguish between two types of disruption that are often practiced by student movements and viewed as similar by sociologists. We argue that the radically different dynamics of these two forms of disruption very often affect the success of student movements in leveraging social change.[i]

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