New Ways to Define Activism

For our dialogue in August and September, entitled “New Ways to Define Activism,” we are considering activities that blur the lines of our definitions of activism. Many organizations and groups of individuals engage in activities that are similar in many respects to those carried out by social movement organizations yet we, as well as those participating, may not perceive it to be activism. For these essays we have asked our contributors to consider what may be gained or lost by stretching definitions of what counts as activism.

Thank you to all of our contributors, their essays are below.

Meghan Kallman, Brown University (essay)
Rebecca Tarlau, Stanford University (essay)
Alex Barnard, University of California-Berkeley (essay)
Jaime Kucinskas, Hamilton College (essay)
Kyle Dodson, University of California-Merced (essay)
Erin Evans, University of California-Irvine (essay)
Paul-Brian McInerney, University of Illinois-Chicago (essay)
Ed Walker, University of California-Los Angeles (essay)

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

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Blurring the State-Social Movement Divide: Activism with, in, and through the State

By Rebecca Tarlau

How should we theorize the relationship between states and social movements? In this post, I try to shed light on that question by offering two short vignettes that challenge how we think about activists’ relationship to the state. These vignettes are based on 18 months of field research with the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST), which is considered the largest social movement in Latin America and one of the largest agrarian reform movements in the world. The MST arose in the early 1980s, not as a united movement, but rather, as a series of dispersed attempts among landless rural laborers to escape poverty by occupying large unproductive land estates. Today, the movement includes over one million people who have gained access to land through these land occupations. Continue reading

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What’s contentious about free food?

By Alex Barnard

Six days a week in People’s Park, Berkeley, 75-100 people—most of them homeless, disabled, or unemployed—line up for a free vegetarian meal served by the group “Food Not Bombs” (FNB). On most days, there’s little to spark the interest of a social movement scholar: no flyers or banners declaring a message, no attention or repression from the authorities, and no disruption of the normal rhythm of life for the students walking one block away on Telegraph Avenue. At most, FNB looks like what Sampson et al. (2005) might call a “civic group” with a “purpose”—ending hunger—but lacking the “claims” for real transformation that make for a social movement. Continue reading

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Who is an Activist? On the Blurred Boundaries of Activism

By Jaime Kucinskas

In thinking of a typical activist, the first image that comes to mind is someone like this:

kucinskas1

We imagine someone loudly trying to bring attention to a cause, in an attempt to address a social problem or injustice. A typical activist, one would assume, is part of a larger movement, or group which is challenging some authoritative voice, structure, or culture.

Yet, I am not convinced this is the way most activists try to change society today. I am even less convinced that this is the way that some of the digitally savvy younger generations (such as my students) will try to change the world and bring attention to causes they care deeply about. Continue reading

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Too Far or Not Far Enough?

By Kyle Dodson

While they can vary (considerably), most scholars’ definitions of activism typically involve the idea of participating in activities that are intended to support or oppose social or political change. As an empirical matter, however, movement scholars rarely observe activism in all of its forms. Instead, movement scholars tend to focus on a smaller subset of activities—such as demonstrations, strikes, and occupations—that are more contentious and more modular. Continue reading

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Expanding the Scope of ‘Activism’

By Edward Walker

We tend to conceptualize social movements as extra-institutional challenges mounted by those who lack sufficient political access to get what they want through the normal channels of influence in states and other organizations. The assumption has typically been that those who enjoy such access will either find their preferences realized without requiring any effort – that is, they possess structural power – or, failing that, such privileged actors will engage in conventional lobbying, legal maneuvers, and the like to gain or maintain influence. The upshot is that those in politically marginal positions must either adopt unconventional strategies (i.e. activism) or risk continuing to be ignored. Continue reading

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By Any Means Necessary

By Erin Evans

This title is probably familiar to you. I think of Malcolm X at first. Ironically, I also think of some contemporary activists who use tactics like lobbying for policy reform or cooperating with their targets on compromises. These activists may have radical goals, like ending consumer capitalism or ending all animal use, but for a variety of reasons they use moderate tactics in pursuit of these radical ends. This month’s essay dialogue explores new definitions of “activism” and how changing conceptions of what it is to do “activism” influences our research on social movements. For researchers who focus much of their attention on activists who use “insider” tactics (Banaszak 2010, Epstein 1996) the debate on what qualifies as “activism” is especially important. Continue reading

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