Social change and agency

Much of the drama of history is found in processes of large social and political change, both slow and rapid. The sudden collapse of the Soviet system in 1989 and 1990, the success of the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949, the decades-long rise of the nationalist right in France and the United States, the rise of fascism in Germany, Austria, and Spain in the 1930s, the success of movements for female suffrage in most western democracies since the beginning of the twentieth century — these are examples of social and political change that are of great importance for the future of humanity, for better and worse.

There is a school of thought that wants to think of social change as being largely the result of human agency: parties, leaders, social movements, organizations, and social classes bring about changes that they “want” that they plan for. And sometimes this is true enough: the Republican tax-cutting policies of the past forty years in the United States have brought about a lot of social change, and a lot of that has been deliberate. Ideology and class interests, conjoined with a determined and persistent political party, have led to a substantial shift of wealth and income to an ever-smaller percentage of the population.

But much social and historical change doesn’t look like that story. The change associated with GOP tax activism is a large and important one; but it is a pretty simple one as well. It is more akin to a pirate band taking plunder from a defenseless coastal population than a long, complex process of engagement with social forces, groups, and structures aimed at creating change.

Unquestionably there is a vast amount of agency, both individual and group, in typical processes of large social change. But much of this agency is contentious and decentralized, with widely different objectives, plans, strategies, and coalitions associated with different configurations of actors. Groups set out with one set of objectives; internal conflicts lead to adjustment and re-prioritization of objectives; other groups hijack the activism and organization of competitors and redirect their efforts towards a different set of goals altogether. The result is a set of outcomes that often would create an enormous sense of surprise for the activists and actors who were involved in collective efforts at the beginning: is this what we were striving for?

This feature of the multiplicity of social actors is what makes the field of contentious politics so important and so interesting. Scholars like McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly (Dynamics of Contention) have highlighted the complexity that underlies large social movements, and the social mechanisms through which multiple actors interact, compete, collaborate, and divide from each other. And it turns out that some of the same dynamics that are discovered in large processes of social movements are also found in more ordinary social environments as well; this is the special insight offered by Fligstein and McAdam in A Theory of Fields. Corporations, universities, and government agencies all embody some of the mechanisms of “contentious politics”.

But social movements represent just one important source of social change. In broad perspective, there are a handful of different kinds of social factors that are involved in important examples of social and political change. And, significantly, all of these mechanisms play out in a social world which also possesses some dynamics of its own that are largely beyond the reach of purposeful intervention.

Change through social movements

When major segments of a population are mobilized around an issue, they can become important sources of social and political change. This raises questions from several perspectives. First, what factors lead to successful mobilization of a group? Second, what tactics and strategies are available to social groups through which they can bring about change through collective action? And third, what tactics and strategies are available to “incumbents” — current power holders and the structures that they control — through which they can defeat the efforts of groups involved in collective action? Concerning mobilization: a group needs to be sensitized to an issue that it can be brought to care about, and this rarely happens spontaneously. Rather, leaders and organizations are needed to convey messages, gather resources, plan for collective action, and the like. As McAdam and Kloos show in Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Post-War America, the Tea Party served such an organizational role in conservative mobilization in the 2000s. Concerning tactics: groups can exercise their political will through mass actions — demonstrations, sit-ins, occupations, boycotts, and electoral contests. They can engage in “everyday forms of resistance,” in James Scott’s words. And they can support “ideological” campaigns, promulgating and legitimizing the perspective of their group to other non-committed social actors. Finally, incumbents (governments and existing power-holders) can use ideological means to discredit the insurgent organizations. They can use the legitimate enforcement of the legal system to interfere with mass actions. And they can call upon organized force — both official (police, military) and unofficial (militias, armed organizations) against the actions of insurgents. All of these dimensions have been visible in the collective actions and reactions that have occurred around the Black Lives Matter movement in the past year and a half.

Change through influential organizations

Social mobilization is rarely spontaneous. Rather, there is a need for organizations that have resources and capacities that permit them to rally supporters, conduct strikes and demonstrations, and coordinate efforts with other groups and potential allies. Coordinated collective action requires communication, confidence-building, and resources. Organizations like labor unions, political organizations, religious hierarchies, and kin groups are all able to fill these roles. Charles Tilly highlights the importance of the Catholic Church during the uprising in the Vendée (The Vendee); the Solidarity organization in Poland originating in Gdansk provided this impetus in 1980 (link); and SNCC was able to offer substantial organizational impetus to civil rights activism in the South in the 1960s. So organizations are a highly important ingredient of social mobilization; further, they can play an important role in determining the direction and strategy of a social movement. Labor unions in the United States in the 1960s played an important role in advancing the cause of civil rights, and much of this effort was prompted by the emergence of dissident union activism within unions like the United Auto Workers, including the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and Ford Revolutionary Union Movement (FRUM). Activism by African-American auto workers pushed the UAW into a more active position on the struggle for racial equality. (Here is a brief description of some of this history; link.)

Change through state power

The New Deal and the social agenda of the Roosevelt administration were examples of largescale social change initiated by a government. FDR and his political allies were able to enact programs and legislation that profoundly changed the relationship between ordinary people and the economy in which they lived. A generation later the enactment of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, supported by the advocacy and political efforts of the Johnson administration, led to a significant change in the political status of African-American citizens. As McAdam shows in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, these changes would not have been possible without wide and persistent activism and mass mobilization of the civil rights movement; but equally, they would not have occurred without the political efforts of the Johnson administration.

Change through education, media, entertainment

Public perception and worldview plainly play a crucial role in social mobilization and engagement in a struggle for social change. It is evident, then, that the content and pervasiveness of the institutions through which the opinions and perceptions of ordinary citizens are shaped are significant factors in the impulse towards social change. If children and young adults are exposed to values of human equality, freedom, and democracy throughout their education, it is more likely that they will be responsive to issues of racism and authoritarian state behavior later in their lives. On the other hand, if the content of the educational system downplays the importance of equality and democracy and minimizes the history of racial and sexual discrimination, then many in the population will be unmoved by calls for mobilization for greater equality. The influence of right-wing media on political attitudes has been well documented for the past several decades, and this is intentional: the owners of Fox News and similar sources have a message they want to convey, and their programs embody that message. And social media like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or right-wing sites like Parler and Rumble have proven to have an enormous capacity for generating hate-based activism. The institutions of education, media, and entertainment must be counted as causal factors in the occurrence of social and political change.

Change through generational and demographic shifts

These factors serve to identify some of the direct and purposeful sources of social and political change. But, as historians like Emmanuel Ladurie and Ferdinand Braudel demonstrated (link), there are long waves of change in history that are only remotely related to the intentions and purposes of the current generation. Long, slow processes can lead to substantial social change over time (link). For example, Paul Abramson and Ronald Inglehart argued that a large factor driving change in post-World War II democracies was “generational change and value replacement” (link). Here the idea is that value change in a nation is less about individuals and more about the shifting mix of cohorts of individuals over time. Here is their formulation of this hypothesis in the abstract to this paper:

Generational replacement has had a major impact on the distribution of materialist/post-materialist values among Western publics. Between 1970 and 1984 the ratio of post-materialists to materialists increased substantially in West Germany, Britain, and The Netherlands, and increased somewhat in France. In Belgium and Italy materialist values increased as a result of short-term forces conducive to materialism. In Germany, Britain, and The Netherlands population replacement contributed to the rise of post-materialism. In France, it reversed short-term forces contributing to materialism, while in Belgium and Italy population replacement partially offset short-term forces that contributed to materialist values. Analysis of the impact of generational replacement sheds light on the development of value orientations in Western societies and on a process through which attitude change occurs among mass publics.

Inglehart extends this argument along with Pippa Norris in Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism to offer a degree of reassurance about the likely future of extremist populism: the tide of progressive attitudes towards race and ethnicity is very powerful, and right-wing extremism should be expected to decline.

A similar argument can be made about demographic change in the ethnic composition of a region or country. No particular individual needs to change his or her culinary tastes, in order for the ratio of Swedish restaurants to Polish restaurants to shift as a result of largescale immigration of Swedish families into the region. And if Swedish people are, on average, more liberal than Polish people, then the region becomes more liberal — even though no individual has become more liberal.

Other longterm causes of large social and political change

It is clear that there are longterm processes of change in the world that affect us greatly, but appear to be “systemic” rather than agentic. Did anyone intend the deindustrialization of cities in what came to be known as the Rustbelt — Cleveland, Peoria, Milwaukee, Flint, Erie? Was there a grand plan behind the sudden ubiquity of the Internet, websites, and social media? Does the shift in population balance between the midwest and the south and plains states reflect a plan or policy? In all instances the answer in “no.” These are extended, anonymous processes that result from activities aimed at other goals altogether — outsourcing of manufacturing to reduce labor costs, creation of new products like iPhones and advertising-supported websites to enhance profits, individual families and employers making decisions about where their economic and social lives will be best pursued. And yet each of these changes is highly consequential for the future. Justin Gest dissects the social and political consequences of deindustrialization in The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality; the change in social and political life created by the internet revolution is palpable; and the political map deriving from the 2020 Census is discouraging to the current Democratic majority. Populous industrial states will lose seven seats (all but one in the industrial midwest), and southern and plains states will gain seven seats (all but Oregon in the southern or plains states). This is a very significant shift in the balance of political power between regions in the House of Representatives.

What all of this implies is that we humans can affect the direction of our societies through our actions and collaborations; but the certainty and power of our efforts are distinctly limited. There are large obstacles to effective social and political struggles for a set of shared goals; there are formidable resources available to the “incumbents” who oppose the achievement of our goals; and there are large, impersonal forces that are largely impervious to agentic intervention. This does not imply the counsel of despair; but it does suggest the importance of having a realistic and fairly modest expectation of how much success can be achieved in a foreseeable period of time. Two of my favorite aphorisms on this topic are from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Karl Marx, and they are contradictory. Dr. King wrote, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” And in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Dr. King’s sentiment is probably too optimistic; there is nothing inevitable about the achievement of a just society. On this topic, Marx seems to have the more realistic view.

(Here are several earlier posts that are relevant to this topic: real utopiassocial progress, social justice movements, progressive politics, purposive social actionprotest and dissent, power and social movements, corporate powerunintended consequences, and the civil rights movement.)

Gilbert on social facts

I am currently thinking about the topic of “organizational actors”, and Margaret Gilbert’s arguments about social actors are plainly relevant to this topic. It seems worthwhile therefore to reproduce a review I wrote of Gilbert’s book On Social Facts (1989) in 1993. It is a tribute to the power of Gilbert’s ideas that the book has much of the same power thirty years later that it had when it was first published. I also find it interesting that the concerns I had in the 1990s about “collective actors” and “plural subjects” expressed in this review have continued in my thinking about the social world through the current date. I continue to believe that constructs like collective actors require microfoundations that establish how they work at the level of individual “socially constituted, socially situated” individual human beings. I refer to this view as “methodological localism”; link.

I also find it interesting that my own views about social action derive, not from philosophy, but from immersion in the literatures of contentious politics and the concrete pathways through which individuals are led to mobilization and collective action. Unlike the methodological individualism associated with rational choice theory and neoclassical economics, and unlike the social holism that all too often derives from purely philosophical considerations, this literature emphasizes the actions and thoughts of individuals without making narrow and singe-dimensional assumptions about the nature of practical rationality. I learned through my study of the millenarian rebellions of late Imperial China that rebels had many motivations and many reasons for mobilization, and that good historical research is needed to disentangle the organizations, actors, and stresses that led to mobilization and rebellion in a particular region of China. The participants in the Eight Trigrams Rebellion or the Nian Rebellion in North China were not a plural subject. (For exposition of these ideas see chapter five of my Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science (1989), “Theories of peasant rebellion”.) I have included an excerpt from that chapter on the topic of collective action at the end of this post because it illustrates an “actor-centered” approach to collective action. It presents a clear counter-perspective to Gilbert’s views of “plural subjects”.

Readers may also be interested in a post written in 2009 on the topic of “Acting as a Group” (link).



Margaret Gilbert’s On Social Facts is an intelligent, closely argued and extensively analyzed treatment of the problem of social collectivity. What is a social group? What distinguishes a group from a random set of individuals—e.g. the set consisting of W. V. O. Quine, Madonna, and Napoleon? Is a social class—e.g. the English working class in the 1880s—a social group? Gilbert’s primary contention is that the notion of a collectivity—individuals constituting a group—is the central feature of social ontology and the chief focus of empirical social science. And she maintains that this concept can best be analyzed by the idea of a “plural subject”—the referent of the first-person plural pronoun, “we”.

The core of Gilbert’s theory of social groups involves the idea of the mutual recognition by a set of persons that they are engaged in some joint actions or beliefs. “A set of people constitute a social group if and only if they constitute a plural subject”; and a plural subject is “a set of people each of whom shares with oneself in some action, belief, attitude, or similar attribute” (p. 204). Gilbert argues that the pronouns “us” and “we” are the linguistic elements through which we refer to plural subjects in English. And she believes that plural subjects exist; they are not fictions or constructions, but agents which have beliefs, perform actions, and succeed or fail in carrying out their intentions. In later chapters Gilbert extends her conception of collectivities and plural subjects by considering several other important social notions: the idea of a social fact in Durkheim’s sense, the idea of a collective belief, and the idea of a social convention. In each case Gilbert argues that the concept of a plural subject supports a plausible and intuitively convincing analysis of the social concept in question. According to Gilbert, “social groups are plural subjects, collective beliefs are the beliefs of plural subjects, and social conventions are the ‘fiats’ of plural subjects” (p. 408). Gilbert’s account of social conventions is developed through extensive discussion of David Lewis’s influential formulation of this concept.

Gilbert argues against the individualism of Max Weber (and by implication, the premises of rational choice theory), by arguing that collectivities are the central subject of the social sciences, and that collectivities cannot be subsumed under (narrowly) individualist concepts. Thus Gilbert suggests that her theory offers support for holism over individualism (p. 3). Does it? I think not. An individualist is free to acknowledge that individuals have beliefs that refer to other persons and groups of persons; the position permits reference to shared purposes and actions involving a collection of persons deliberately orienting their actions towards a shared purpose. What individualism requires is simply that these are all the aggregate results of individual states of mind, and that the behavior of the ensemble is to be explained by reference to the beliefs and intentions of the participants.

An important test case for Gilbert’s account is the problem of collective action. Rational choice theory places much emphasis on public goods problems and the phenomenon of free-riding. How does Gilbert’s conception of plural subjects treat the problem? It appears to this reader that Gilbert makes collective action too easy. Plural subjects (groups) have purposes; individuals within these groups express quasi-readiness to perform their part of the shared action; and—when circumstances are right—the group acts collectively to bring about its collective goals. “The people concerned would be jointly ready jointly to perform a certain action in certain circumstances” (p. 409). She speaks of group will or communal will (p. 410). But the actions of a group are still the result of the choices made by constituent individuals. And however much the individual may align him- or herself with the collective project, the collective behavior is still no more than the sum of the actions taken by particular individuals. Moreover, it is necessary to acknowledge the endurance of private, individual interests that remain prominent for individual agents—with the result that we should expect individuals’ actions to sometimes involve free-riding, defection, and favoring of private over collective interests. It seems to this reader, then, that Gilbert leans too far in the direction of the Rousseauvian “general will” interpretation of social action.

How important for the social sciences is the notion of a social group or collectivity? Gilbert’s view is that this concept is foundational; it is the basis for a unitary definition of the subject matter of the social sciences. This overstates the importance of collectivities, it seems to this reader: there are important instances of social explanation that do not involve analysis of groups in Gilbert’s sense, and whose explanatory frameworks do not refer to groups, their behavior, their shared beliefs, or their collective intentions and self-understandings. A few examples might include neo-malthusian analysis of the relation between economic change and demographic variables; analysis of the effects of changes of the transport system on patterns of settlement and economic activity; and explanation of patterns of historical processes of urbanization in terms of changing economic and political institutions. These examples explain social phenomena as the aggregate result of large numbers of rational individual actions. They commonly refer to impersonal social structures and circumstances that function as constraints and opportunities for individuals. And they make no inherent reference to the forms of group collectivity to which Gilbert refers.

This is a rich book, and one that repays careful reading. It will be of particular interest to philosophers of social science and social philosophers, and the level of philosophical rigor will interest philosophers in other fields as well.


Here is a relevant excerpt from Understanding Peasant China, published in the same year as On Social Facts, on collective action as the composition of individual actors who are mobilized around a shared set of goals.

Rebellion is an example of collective action; but this concept requires some analysis, for not all forms of mass behavior constitute collective action. A collective action involves at least the idea of a collective goal (that is, a goal which participants in the event share as the aim of their actions), and it suggests some degree of coordination among individuals in pursuit of that goal. Thus a mass demonstration against the government is a collective action, whereas the panicked retreat through the streets after troops have dispersed the demonstration is not. Both are forms of mass behavior, but only the demonstration has the features of collective intentionality and coordination that would constitute a collective action. We may define a collective action, then, as the aggregation of a number of individuals performing intentional, coordinated actions that are intended to help attain some shared goal or purpose. This account distinguishes collective action from other forms of mass behavior in which the individuals do not intend to contribute to a group effect—for example, a panicked stampede in a football stadium, a run on a bank, or a cycle of hoarding food during a famine.

Collective actions can be classified according to the kind of shared goals that guide the individuals who participate in them—private interests and group interests. In some cases a collective action is inspired by the immediate gains available to each participant through coordinated action; in others, the action is inspired by the shared belief that the action will lead to an outcome that will benefit the group. An example of a collective action motivated by private interest would be a coordinated attack on a granary during a famine. No individual family has the strength to attack the granary by itself, but through coordinated efforts a group of fifty families may succeed. Each participant has the same goal—to acquire grain for subsistence—but the participants’ aims are private. By contrast, a demonstration by Polish workers in support of the Solidarity movement would appear to be motivated by a perception of group interest—in this case, the interest that Polish workers have as a group in representation by an independent labor union.

As we have seen in other contexts, the prospect of collective action raises the possibility of free riding: if the benefits of collective action are indivisible and undeniable to nonparticipants, it would be rational for the self-interested individual to not participate. To the extent that the potential benefits of a collective action are public rather than private, and to the extent that the action is designed to produce distant rather than immediate benefits, collective action theory predicts that it will be difficult to motivate rational individuals in support of the action.

Another important factor in the success or failure of collective action, besides the character and timing of benefits to members, is the idea of assurance: potential contributors’ confidence in the probability of success of the joint enterprise. As Elster, Hardin, and others show, the level of assurance is critical to the decisions of potential contributors. If success is widely believed to be unlikely, potential contributors will be deterred from joining the collective action. An important dimension of assurance is the likelihood that other potential contributors will act. Each must judge the probability that enough people will support the action and so make success more likely. One central task of leadership and organization is to bolster the assurance of each member of the group in the likely support of other members. (UPC 147-149)

Deliberation for activists

What is involved in deliberating within an activist group? This isn’t quite as simple a question as it might appear. Deliberation has to do with a discussion among a number of people aimed at arriving at a degree of consensus about facts, policies, and strategies. But it grades off into several other collective activities: contention over power and influence, efforts to deceive or manipulate, efforts to mobilize people over emotional issues.

I am led to think about these questions by a very stimulating seminar by a colleague, Lara Rusch, in which she presented some of her current research on the specific features of collective decision-making by activist groups in Detroit. (Here is an article of Lara’s on one aspect of the issue, the challenge of creating trust within a group of activists; link.)

What I’m interested in examining here is grassroots activist deliberation — the kinds of decision-making and action that are associated with movements like the anti-globalization movement, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and a variety of grassroots environmentalist movements. This kind of deliberation seems to be structurally different from those that are often highlighted within the literature of deliberative democracy. (Erik Olin Wright and Archon Fong’s Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance (The Real Utopias Project) (v. 4) is a great statement of current thinking about deliberative democracy. Here is an earlier post on deliberative democracy and here is another post on the Real Utopias project.)

Most examples in the deliberative democracy literature involve processes in which the task is simply to arrive at a majority recommendation about a fairly well defined issue, with the process increasing in persuasive force according to the strength of the majority. But a process like this doesn’t have to cope with the issue of maintaining the coalition after this one action. Activist groups, by contrast, are not regulated by formal rules of voting leading to a single adopted resolution, they are not bound by majority vote, and they are not concerned about simply coming to a decision about a single resolution.

So let’s consider one aspect of activist debate: the communicative effort by members of a group to sort out what they should do collectively, given the framing goals and values they share. The individuals and groups have come together because they share commitment to some purpose or goal. (Though there is always the possibility of uncommitted visitors and even provocateurs whose goals involve side-tracking the purposes of the rest of the group.) So how can individuals and sub-groups engage in a process that leads to a degree of consensus about future actions?

Here I take it for granted that activists share goals and values. But this is not wholly true. They may share a high-level concern — ending racism, pushing for sustainability — but may disagree sharply about finer details. So reaching consensus about action is often made more difficult by the fact of disagreement about important goals and values. For example, an environmental activist group may disagree about the scope of their collective efforts — global sustainability or improvement of their own region’s environmental quality.

Another important source of disagreement arises a step closer to action, deriving from differing theories of how social change works. One segment may think that the primary tactics should involve getting effective messages to the broader public through media coverage, whereas another group may think that it is essential to get the attention of policy makers through consequential and visible direct action. With broad disagreement about efficacy of various possible strategies, it is difficult to achieve consensus.

One option that exists in this case is for each camp to make an empirical or historical argument supporting its claims of efficacy; to the extent that opponents are open to rational assessment of evidence at this level, it is possible to narrow disagreement about efficacy.  In other words, rational persuasion based on evidence and inference is one possible avenue of communicative interaction within a group of similar-minded activists. But often partisan groups are as committed to their models of social action as they are to the ultimate outcomes.

The whole situation of activist deliberation is complicated by the fact that a social movement at any level of scale depends on the willing participation of individuals and sub-groups. So a degree of consensus is a practical necessity, if the movement is to maintain itself as an active and activist conglomeration capable of any form of collective action. To the extent that a proposed plan of action diverges substantially from the preferences and interests of a sub-group, there is the likelihood of defection of that group.

There are a couple of features of collective action that seem to make the problem of factions somewhat more manageable than it first appears. First,there is a degree of solidarity involved in almost every social movement; and a widespread feeling of solidarity provides some degree of motivation for each individual to join the collective action even if it is not one’s first choice.  In other words, activists often have a degree of willingness to support the decisions of the group even if they are on the losing side — unless the differences are sufficiently fundamental! Second, individuals and groups are capable of compromising: they can agree to an action plan in which Group A gets most of what it wants, but it promises to pursue part of what Group B wants as well.  And if there is a degree of inter-group trust, this may be sufficient to get both A and B to work together on the agree-upon plan.

David Graeber’s Direct Action: An Ethnography is a fascinating ethnography of anti-globalization activists preparing for a complex series of actions at the 2001 Summit of the Americas meeting in Quebec. As Graeber makes clear, these loosely affiliated anarchist groups were effective at planning and coordinating action. Here is an earlier discussion of Graeber’s book (link).

Civil Rights history

What is involved in assembling the history of a complicated period like the US civil rights movement?  This is a difficult question for any complex historical phenomenon, and there are many choices that the historian is forced to make.

  • When should we start the story?
    • End of the Civil War
    • Reconstruction
    • Jim Crow period
    • 1950s
    • 1960s
  • Which actors are we most interested in understanding — 
    • ordinary citizens
    • political decision makers
    • civil rights organizations
    • White supremacist organizations
  • Are we interested in large social and economic structures or individual leaders and groups? 
    • How did new urban concentrations of African Americans affect the movement?
    • How did limitations on property rights and Jim Crow laws affect the struggle?
    • What role did state and Federal law play in creating the conditions for mobilization?
  • What is the point of the history?
    • to interpret the everyday experience of segregation and inequality
    • to understand the motivations and actions of the leaders and officials
    • to identify the factors that led to mobilization and resistance
    • to interpret the experience of organization and liberation
    • to better understand the politics of civil rights legislation
    • to highlight the contemporary challenges in racial inequalities that remain
    • or all of the above.

The question of when to start the story is certainly an important one.  If our interest in the movement is how it worked — who were the important leaders, how did the key organizations get started, and so forth — then perhaps beginning in the 1950s is the right choice. This would be to look at the movement through the eyes of a sociologist. But if we really want to know what the context and causes of racial inequality were, then we need to start much earlier.  On this framing of the problem, we are interested in longterm causes and contexts, not simply the particulars of the struggle.  In this case the realities of slavery and the Jim Crow south are crucial, and the starting point needs to be sometime following the end of the Civil War. 

Doug McAdam’s Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, 2nd Edition takes its orientation from specific answers to several of these questions. His fundamental goal is to understand the Civil Rights period of the 1960s as a social movement.  He wants to understand the ordinary people who came to be mobilized in marches, demonstrations, and boycotts; he wants to understand the organizations that facilitated these acts of mobilization; and he wants to understand the legal and political context within which this mobilization took place.  He begins his account in the 1950s, taking the historical facts of racial inequality and oppression as a given. And he attempts to discover the factors that led to the successes and failures of this prolonged period of activism and protest.  There is not a great deal of narrative in McAdam’s book — he doesn’t tell a lot of stories of the particulars of various moments of activism, and he doesn’t attempt to give the reader a strong feeling for the experience of ordinary African American participants. Instead there is a sustained effort to quantify and understand the timing and location of various moments of public activism. And he wants to understand the national and international factors that were conducive to mobilization in those years.

Taylor Branch’s trilogy on the history of the same period of time takes a very different point of view (Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63). Branch’s narrative gives strong priority to giving the reader a vivid sense of the actors — from leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., to ordinary African American participants who were inspired to great involvement in the movement.  His book is based on a wide range of primary sources, including FBI files, and it is committed to providing a detailed and accurate account of the events of the movement.  He organizes his narrative around key events (the Freedom Rides, Selma, the Memphis boycott) and key individuals (Martin Luther King, Jr., J. Edgar Hoover). The trilogy is long and detailed; and yet it doesn’t answer all the kinds of questions mentioned above. 

Lance Hill’s The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement pulls the screen into a tighter focus by concentrating on a smaller geography and a specific element of the movement — the emergence of a grassroots organization that favored armed self-defense against organizations like the KKK.  Hill’s narrative gives the reader a very strong sense of the places and people of this organization — the circumstances in which they lived, the personal experiences that led them to this form of activism, and the ways in which this strategy played out in Louisiana and Mississippi.

In 1964 a clandestine armed self-defense organization formed in the black community in Jonesboro, Louisiana, with the goal of protecting civil rights activists from the Ku Klux Klan and other racist vigilantes. After several months of relatively secret operations, the group publicly surfaced in February 1965 under the name “Deacons for Defense and Justice.” By the end of 1966, the Deacons had grown to twenty-one chapters with several hundred members concentrated in Louisiana and Mississippi. The Deacons guarded marches, patrolled the black community to ward off night riders, engaged in shoot-outs with Klansmen, and even defied local police in armed confrontations. (2)

The reader gets a vivid understanding of the human circumstances of white violence and organized efforts at self-defense, and the actors become real through the narrative.

These are just three examples of different approaches taken by historians and historically minded sociologists to the challenges of representing and understanding this crucial period in American history. They illustrate a basic point about historiography more generally: every historical topic admits of treatment from a wide range of perspectives and methods, and the stories that are told will provide very different insights into the history.

Ostrom’s central idea


Elinor Ostrom was a very important contributor to the theory of public rationality and the institutions that underlie cooperation, and she was most deserving of the recognition that accompanied her receipt of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009.  Her passing today is a sad loss for the academic world.

Her key contributions were included in Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, a masterful book that presents a new theoretical framework and body of empirical evidence for conceiving of the ways in which human communities can handle common property resources — forests, fishing grounds, grazing areas, water supplies. Anyone interested in the ways that collective action works in practice will want to read the book. (See also Baden and Noonan, Managing the Commons, Second Edition for an important set of perspectives on “managing the commons” and solving common property resource problems.)

Rational choice theory has been unfriendly to the idea that communities can self-regulate when it comes to public goods and public harms.  Garrett Hardin offered the theory of the “tragedy of the commons”, in which he argues that rational egoists will inevitably overuse a common resource. And Mancur Olson offered similar arguments about the feasibility of collective action in an extended group in The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Against these views, Ostrom and her research collaborators demonstrated that human communities have actually created a number of informal institutional complexes for regulating access to common resources that succeed in creating a stable balance between use and resource renewal.

Here is how Ostrom casts the problem in Governing the Commons:

The term “common-pool resource” refers to a natural or man-made resource system that is sufficiently large as to make it costly (but not impossible) to exclude potential beneficiaries from obtaining benefits from its use. (30)

Instead of presuming that the individuals sharing a commons are inevitably caught in a trap from which they cannot escape, I argue that the capacity of individuals to extricate themselves from various types of dilemma situations varies from situation to situation. The cases to be discussed in this book illustrate both successful and unsuccessful efforts to escape tragic outcomes. (14; kl 306)

Institutions are rarely either private or public — “the market” or “the state.” Many successful CPR intitutions are rich mixtures of “private-like” and “public-like” institutions defying classification in a sterile dichotomy. By “successful,” I mean institutions that enable individuals to achieve productive outcomes in situations where temptations to free-ride and shirk are ever present. A competitive market — the epitome of private institutions — is itself a public good. (14; kl 311)

Ostrom demonstrated, both theoretically and empirically, that legal regulation is not the only possible solution to public goods problems. Instead she documents community-based solutions to common property resource problems that have proved successful over multiple generations. These are quasi-voluntary arrangements through which a community of users (fishers, grazers, irrigators) are able to manage the resource collectively and control violators, in such a way as to preserve the resource over time. And she points out that these institutions can be self-maintaining, in that participants have an incentive to watch out for cheaters and shirkers.  In describing the Alanya inshore fishing system in detail she writes, “The process of monitoring and enforcing the system is, however, accomplished by the fishers themselves as a by-product of the incentive created by the rotation system” (19-20; kl 378).

Given that common property resource problems are ubiquitous, her policy recommendation are sensible ones:

An important challenge facing policy scientists is to develop theories of human organization based on realistic assessment of human capabilities and limitations in dealing with a variety of situations that initially share some or all aspects of a tragedy of the commons. (23; kl 436)

What is missing from the policy analyst’s tool kit — and from the set of accepted, well-developed theories of human organization — is an adequately specified theory of collective action whereby a group of principals can organize themselves voluntarily to retain the residuals of their own efforts. Examples of self-organized enterprises abound. (24; kl 449)

Essentially her research comes down to this point: There are multiple possible property systems through which access to natural resources can be mediated. A simple Lockean theory of private property holds that all goods have individual private owners. It is possible, however, to conceive of forms of “social property” or community property through which at least some assets are held in common, and for which there are fair and well-defined procedures for providing rights of access to the use and enjoyment of the social property.

As Ostrom demonstrated in depth, there are socially feasible arrangements in which a “common property resource” such as a fish stock is exploited by a number of independent producers within the context of a stable community.  In this instance we have a combination of private property (nets and boats) and social property (the waterway and fish stock), and Ostrom documents several different sets of social rules that establish the terms of access and use that individuals will have to the common property resource.

There is extensive debate over the economic efficiency or viability of social property arrangements such as these. Concerning fisheries and traditional practices of forestry, for example, there is the familiar argument that rationally induced free-riding will eventually undermine the community-based rules of use. The point here not that social property regimes are superior, but rather that they are possible. And Ostrom’s research illustrates a great variety of common-property resource regimes that appear to be efficient and stable.  It is therefore a matter of public debate which particular rules and institutions ought to govern the use of property. And there may be something in this finding that provides new ways of thinking about economic arrangements in the twenty-first century as well.

(I had an interesting exchange with Ostrom on the occasion of her receiving an honorary degree from the University of Michigan in 2006. I raised the topic of agriculture and food within the world economy and referred to a continuing debate I’d been having with my daughter about traditional farming versus largescale industrial agriculture.  My argument was that traditional farming was not productive enough to feed the world’s population, and my daughter’s view was that industrial agriculture is unsustainable and destructive of existing rural communities.  I asked Ostrom about her opinion.  Her response was: “you are both right.” In hindsight, after rereading Governing the Commons, I’m inclined to interpret her response as expressing the idea that solutions to our large global problems need to be mixed solutions. Her work on self-governing community-based systems for making use of resources suggests that she would have some sympathy for the continuing significance of traditional farming systems within the larger context of the world agriculture system. But at the same time, she was always insistent that we need to be realistic about the assumptions about behavior that underly the solutions we recommend.)

Searle on social ontology


Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language made a big impression on the field of the philosophy of language when it appeared in 1969.  But its author, John Searle, thinks the theory of speech acts has a much broader scope than simply the philosophy of language; he thinks it provides a foundation for the philosophy of mind, and — of particular interest here — for the philosophy of society.   Two books in the past decade or so have pushed this programme forward — The Construction of Social Reality (1995) and Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization (2010).  So — how much insight into the social world can we get from the ideas underlying speech act theory?

Fundamentally, Searle’s interest is in the nature of social ontology:

[The philosophy of society is] the study of the nature of human society itself: What is the mode of existence of social entities such as governments, families, cocktail parties, summer vacations, trade unions, baseball games, and passports? (MSW, kindle loc 161)

His answer is categorical and dogmatic; there is precisely one human intentional activity that underlies all of social reality:

Humans have the capacity to impose functions on objects and people where the objects and the people cannot perform the functions solely in virtue of their physical structure. [E.g. a five-dollar bill can’t be physically transformed into a grande latte.] The performance of the function requires that there be a collectively recognized status that the person or object has, and it is only in virtue of that status that the person or object can perform the function in question. (kindle loc 194)

Status functions are fundamental, according to Searle, because they are the bearers of rights, obligations, and norms — what he refers to as “deontic powers.” As a member of the American Philosophical Association, I have a right to attend the annual conference, and this right is embodied in the states of intentionality of other actors who recognize that status and the associated right.  “So status functions are the glue that holds society together.  They are created by collective intentionality and they function by carrying deontic powers” (kindle loc 225).

Searle thinks that rules, institutions, and collective intentions are the fundamental “atoms” of social phenomena; and — this is the dogmatic part — he thinks that these all depend on one mental action, which he refers to as a Status Function Declaration.  He holds that we cannot understand the working of a rule, a socially embodied obligation, or a socially embodied right, without postulating a commonly recognized Status Function Declaration that establishes that practice.  And, sure enough — a status function declaration is a form of a speech act.

All institutional facts, and therefore all status functions, are created by speech acts of a type that in 1975 I baptized as “Declarations”…. With the important exception of language itself, all of institutional reality, and therefore, in a sense, all of human civilization, is created by speech acts that have the same logical form as Declarations…. Institutional facts are without exception constituted by language, but the functioning of language is especially hard to see. (kindle loc 253, 282, 1683)

So speech acts, and the linguistic intentionality that they express, are the foundation of all social phenomena.  “All of institutional reality is created by linguistic representation” (kindle loc 313).  Voila.

What this all seems to boil down to, is three points: (1) Social interactions always involve language, both internally in thought and externally in communication. (2) The idea of a norm is an inherently social idea that needs to be embodied in the beliefs and attitudes of the individuals in the group through linguistically framed mental representations. (3) Norms need to be shared and publicly articulated if they are to be socially real.  Searle represents these three common ideas in a more technical vocabulary: individuals have individual and collective intentionality; individuals have deontic commitments; and deontic commitments result from status function declarations  — speech acts of a specific kind.

Let’s consider each of the points.  Is intentionality inherently linguistic?  Of course adult human intentionality is — we can always paraphrase a state of consciousness as a linguistic declaration of some sort, and it is common to think of “thought” as internal speech.  But is it possible to imagine purposiveness and intentionality in a non-linguistic species?  Can we find examples of non-human cooperation that appears to presuppose intentionality without language?  The answers to these two questions appear to be affirmative.  Examples of primate problem-solving, group hunting, and simple cooperation in which the behavior of members of a group are oriented to the behavior of others all appear in the animal behavior literature.  (Here is an earlier post on current research on human cooperation that appears to contradict the assumption that intentionality requires language; link.  The post draws on the work of Michael Tomasello and colleagues in Why We Cooperate.)

Is it possible for a group of humans to embody a set of norms of behavior that are not explicitly formulated in language?  Again, it seems that we have good empirical and theoretical reasons for thinking that “implicit norms”, conventions, and practices exist.  Searle himself gives some attention to what we would call “norms by convention”, but only to argue that these examples are on their way to full-fledged status function declarations (“pre-institutional examples of the same logical form”) (kindle loc 404, 449).  But David Lewis’s extensive work on the topic in Convention: A Philosophical Study (which Searle does not discuss) gives substantial support for the idea that conventions can emerge within a human group without formal linguistic articulation, and they can persist as a basis for organizing group behavior without requiring “codification” through a speech act.  Here is a simple example:

In my hometown of Oberlin, Ohio, until recently all local telephone calls were cut off without warning after three minutes. Soon after the practice had begun, a convention grew up among Oberlin residents that when a call was cut off the original caller would call back while the called party waited.  Residents usually conformed to this regularity in the expectation of conformity by the other party to the call.  In this way calls were easily restored, to the advantage of all caoncerned.  New residents were told about the convention [deontic speech act!] or learned it through experience [no deontic speech act required!].  It persisted for a decade or so until the cutoff was abolished. (43)

So, according to Lewis, coordination through tacit or implicit convention is a common feature of social life, and it does not require a deontic speech act for its effectiveness.  (In fact, Lewis argues that the arrow points the other direction: language presupposes conventions rather than being a necessary condition to the possibility of a convention.)  Lewis’s analysis is responsive to condition (3) above as well; Lewis has demonstrated how a practice can become “common knowledge” and effective in regulating coordinative and cooperative behavior, without ever having been expressed through a deontic declaration.

So it seems that Searle’s insistence on the inescapable role of language and performative speech acts goes beyond what is justified by the facts.  The social is not reducible to a set of logical characteristics of language.  That said, it is of course true that human social life — coordination, planning, strategizing, conspiring, cooperating, and competing — is enormously dependent on our species’ ability to use language to express our thoughts and intentions.  But we don’t gain very much by paraphrasing social action in the language of speech acts; the real challenge for the social scientist is to explain social outcomes, not to redefine them.

Most fundamentally, we would hope that the philosophy of society or the philosophy of social science will help to formulate better theories and better research questions in the social sciences.  The hard part of the social sciences is not arriving at a logical analysis of how institutions and norms can be defined in terms of something else; it is rather the difficult challenge of sorting out real human behavior within a set of institutions and explaining outcomes on that basis.  But because of its single-minded focus on a single logical hypothesis, Making the Social World doesn’t really do that.  It is a formal treatment of the supposed relationship between institutions and speech acts that unfortunately does not provide substantive insight into the workings of real social institutions or human behavior.


Contentious politics in China

By official count, the incidence of popular protest in China has increased ten-fold in the past fifteen years.  Kevin O’Brien and Rachel Stern report that the Chinese state reported 8,700 “collective incidents” in 1993, and this number had grown to 87,000 by 2005 (12).  And the issues that have evoked protest have expanded as well: land seizures, egregious local corruption, lay-offs and labor mistreatment, ecological and environmental concerns, and the Sichuan earthquake and building collapses, for example.  (The photo above is drawn from a 2008 story on factory protests in Dongguan in the Telegraph (link).)  A recent volume by O’Brien and Stern, Popular Protest in China, is a collection of some of the best current work by China scholars on popular protest in contemporary China.  Contributors include some of the researchers who are doing the most detailed work on this topic today, including William Hurst (The Chinese Worker after Socialism), Kevin O’Brien (Rightful Resistance in Rural China), Guobin Yang (The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online), and Yongshun Cai (Collective Resistance in China: Why Popular Protests Succeed or Fail).  So the volume offers an excellent perspective on the state of the field.

(It is mildly ironic to note that the conference on which the volume is based was held in 2006 — several years before the global financial collapse that threw millions of Chinese workers out of work.  The incidence and severity of factory protests has certainly increased in the intervening years.)

Sidney Tarrow frames the volume by observing that there has been a welcome recent convergence between China studies and the field of contentious politics.  The contributors to the volume have made productive use of some of the core concepts of the theories of contentious politics that have been developed in the past two decades — resource mobilization, political opportunity, issue framing, social networks, issue escalation, etc., that have proven so productive in the analysis of a range of instances of contention and collective action.  And Tarrow poses a comparativist’s challenge: to what extent is it possible to discern similar processes of mobilization and escalation in the China case?  Further, Tarrow points out that much of the theorizing about contentious politics has taken place in the context of more democratic regimes; so how much of a difference does the fact of China’s authoritarian political system make for the occurrence and character of social contention?
One of the important insights offered by several of the contributors is the importance of disaggregating structures like “political opportunity,” “actor,” and “issue.”  O’Brien and Stern put it this way in their introduction:

The essays in this volume show that political opportunity in China depends (at a minimum) on the identity of the participants, the region, the grievance at hand, and the level of government engaged. (14)

The Chinese state is not a “monolith” but a “hodge-podge of disparate actors,” an “attractive, multidimensional target.” (14, quoting O’Brien and Li, Rightful Resistance in Rural China)

And, of course, we have to recognize the widely different circumstances facing potential contentious actors in different regions and segments of the country.  The point is an important one: we should not look to the intellectual framework of contentious politics research as a set of conceptual recipes for deductively explaining contention.  Rather, we are better off looking at the literature on contentious action as a toolbox of “mechanisms and processes” that recur across contexts and that aggregate differently in different circumstances.  (This is, of course, the methodology that Tarrow, McAdam, and Tilly advocate in Dynamics of Contention.)
Each chapter focuses, by and large, on a different thread within the current literature on contentious politics: framing (William Hurst), trust (Teresa Wright), transnational actors (Patricia Thornton), leadership (Feng Chen), networks (Yanfei Sun and Dingxin Zhao), repression (Yongshun Cai), communication (Guobin Yang), and opportunity (Yanfei Sun and Dingxin Zhao). As such, the volume also serves as something like a tutorial on current theories of contentious politics.
Liz Perry’s concluding essay frames the argument around “rebellion” (protest against particular officials) versus “revolution” (protest against principles and structures of government). And she is inclined to think that the rise in protest in China today falls in the former category — mostly harmless from the point of view of the power and structure of the regime. 

Despite its remarkable frequency, then, contention in contemporary China remains limited in size, scale, and scope.  With few exceptions, the social composition, territorial reach, and endurance of individual protests have all been highly circumscribed. (206)

But I’m inclined to think that this misses one of the most important implications of the contentious politics literature, and the import of its most important case. Small-scale mobilization and protest can escalate to fundamental and widespread demands for justice. And a broad movement can emerge that is not revolutionary — devoted to the overthrow of the state — and yet is persistently transformative: dedicated to the long, slow transformation of society and state in the direction of equality and dignity for all members of society. The great historical example of this — the example that motivated some of the best work in the literature of contentious politics — is the American civil rights movement. This movement demanded a fundamental change of law and of culture, and it succeeded. And we might say that this is what ordinary people in China today demand and deserve.  The demand for voice and legal protections of lawful activities that swims throughout the more specific claims currently being made has the potential of becoming a very widespread movement.

(There are a number of earlier posts on these issues, collected under the tag CAT_collective action.)

Protests in China

Carrefour protest in Beijing

China has witnessed a visible increase over the past ten years in the number of protests, demonstrations, and riots over a variety of issues. Areas of social problems that have stimulated collective protests include factory conditions, non-payment of wages, factory closures, environmental problems (both large and small), and land and property takeovers by developers and the state.

It isn’t surprising that social conditions in China have given rise to causes of protest. Rapid growth has stimulated large movements of people and migrant workers, development has created massive environmental problems for localities, and opportunities for development have created conflicts between developers and local people over land and property rights. Following the terrible earthquake in Sichuan and the collapse of many buildings and schools with tragic loss of life, there was a wave of angry protests by parents against corrupt building practices. So there are plenty of possible causes for protest in China today.

What is more surprising, though, is that the state has not been successful so far in muzzling protest, or in keeping news of local protests from reaching the international public.

YouTube provides a surprisingly wide window on protests in China and other parts of the world. It is worth viewing a sampling of clips from YouTube that surface when one searches for Chinese protest.  The following clips were collected in January 2009.  But here is a sobering fact: most of these clips have disappeared from YouTube with a message indicating that they violate “terms of use.”  One is forced to speculate about the pressures that brought this about.

Unemployment for Chinese migrant workers

Labor protest in Shanghai

Shoe factory protest for back wages

Environmental protest in Xiamen

Protest about water pollution in Xiamen

Parents protesting children’s death in Sichuan

Will the sociology of the future be able to use the contents of YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook as an important empirical indicator of social change in societies such as China, Malaysia, or Russia?  One thing is evident from this small experiment: YouTube is not an archive, and researchers are well advised to capture and document the items they want to study.

Fair prices?

We live in a society that embraces the market in a pretty broad way. We accept that virtually all goods and services are priced through the market at prices set competitively. We accept that sellers are looking to maximize profits through the prices, quantities, and quality of the goods and services that they sell us. We accept, though a bit less fully, the idea that wages are determined by the market — a person’s income is determined by what competing employers are willing to pay. And we have some level of trust that competition protects us against price-gouging, adulteration, exploitation, and other predatory practices. A prior posting questioned this logic when it comes to healthcare. Here I’d like to see whether there are other areas of dissent within American society over prices.

Because of course it wasn’t always so. E. P. Thompson’s work on early modern Britain reminds us that there was a “moral economy of the crowd” that profoundly challenged the legitimacy of the market; that these popular moral ideas specifically and deeply challenged the idea of market-defined prices for life’s necessities; and that the crowd demanded “fair prices” for food and housing (Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture). The moral economy of the crowd focused on the poor — it assumed a minimum standard of living and demanded that the millers, merchants, and officials respect this standard by charging prices the poor could afford. And the rioting that took place in Poland in 1988 over meat prices or rice riots in Indonesia in 2008 are reminders that this kind of moral reasoning isn’t merely part of a pre-modern sensibility.  (For some quotes collected by E. P. Thompson from “moral economy” participants on the subject of fair prices see an earlier posting on anonymity.)

So where do contemporary Americans show a degree of moral discomfort with prices and the market? Where does the moral appeal of the principles of market justice begin to break down — principles such as “things are worth exactly what people are willing to pay for them” and “to each what his/her market-determined purchasing power permit him to buy”?

There are a couple of obvious exceptions in contemporary acceptance of the market. One is the public outrage about executive compensation in banking and other corporations that we’ve seen in the past year. People seem to be morally offended at the idea that CEOs are taking tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation — even in companies approaching bankruptcy. Part of the outrage stems from the perception that the CEO can’t have brought a commensurate gain to the company or its stockholders, witness the failing condition of many of these banks and companies. Part is a suspicion that there must be some kind of corrupt collusion going on in the background between corporate boards and CEOs. But the bottom line moral intuition seems to be something like this: nothing could justify a salary of $100 million, and executive compensation in that range is inherently unfair. And no argument proceeding simply along the lines of fair market competition — “these are competitive rational firms that are offering these salaries, and therefore whatever they arrive at is fair” — cuts much ice with the public.

Here is another example of public divergence from acceptance of pure market outcomes: recent public outcries about college tuition. There is the common complaint that tuition is too high and students can’t afford to attend. (This overlooks the important fact that public and private tuitions are almost an order of magnitude apart — $6,000-12,000 versus $35,00-42,000!) But notice that this is a “fair price” argument that would be nonsensical when applied to the price of an iPod or a Lexus. People don’t generally feel aggrieved because a luxury car or a consumer device is too expensive; they just don’t buy it. It makes sense to express this complaint in application to college tuition because many of us think of college as a necessity of life that cannot fairly be allocated on the basis of ability to pay. (This explains why colleges offer need-based financial aid.) And this is a moral-economy argument.

And what about that other necessity of life — gasoline? Public complaints about $4/gallon gas were certainly loud a year ago. But they seem to have been grounded in something different — the suspicion that the oil companies were manipulating prices and taking predatory profits — rather than an assumption of a fair price determined by the needs of the poor.

Finally, what about salaries and wages? How do we feel about the inequalities of compensation that exist within the American economy and our own places of work? Americans seem to accept a fairly wide range of salaries and wages when they believe that the differences correspond ultimately to the need for firms to recruit the most effective personnel possible — a market justification for high salaries. But they seem to begin to feel morally aggrieved when the inequalities that emerge seem to exceed any possible correspondence to contribution, impact, or productivity. So — we as Americans seem to have a guarded level of acceptance of the emergence of market-driven inequalities when it comes to compensation.

One wonders whether deeper resentment about the workings of market forces will begin to surface in our society, as unemployment and economic recession settle upon us.

Transnational protest movements

We’ve seen a fairly large increase in the occurrence of large international protest movements in the past thirty years. The anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s drew a substantial following across Europe and to some extent North America. (Historian E. P. Thompson played a significant leadership role in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; see for example PROTEST AND SURVIVE.) Anti-globalization protests in Seattle, Washington, and Davos drew substantial support from international organizations and participants. Major anti-war protests occurred in numerous European cities after the onset of the US-led war on Iraq. And now protests in London against the G20 meeting and in Strasbourg against NATO have drawn supporters and groups around Europe (post). (Here is a current account of the Strasbourg protests in the Dernieres nouvelles d’Alsace.)

These movements are riveting in a number of ways, from the point of view of sociology and international politics. We can ask questions at every edge of the phenomena:

Power and influence. How effective are mass demonstrations at achieving their declared goals? Do mass demonstrations influence government and multinational policies in the direction intended by the organizers and followers? For that matter — how much of an influence can a large demonstration in Rome have on a subsequent effort to mobilize over a similar issue in New York? What is the role of mass media in the timing, pace, and public impact of large demonstrations?

Mobilization. What processes of mobilization and organization are at work in these specific periods of mass mobilization? To what extent do modern transnational protests embody a significant degree of common purpose and political identity? (Here’s a recent post on the difficulty of defining a group mentality.) What organizations have the most influence in determining the strategy and tactics of the mass political actions that are called for? What networks of leaders and counter-politicians can be discerned in the period of mobilization leading up to the mass event? What is the nature of the networks that exist within the various communities of interest — environmentalists, anti-war activists, anti-globalization activists? What sorts of issues have proven most potent in mobilizing significant numbers of adherents and organizations from different countries? What motivates followers to heed the call and bring themselves to London or Strasbourg? What is the combination of commitment, identity, and adventure that results in involvement?

Internal politics. What factors internal to a movement — whether environmentalist, anti-globalization, anti-war, anti-nuclear — lead to cohesion and dissension within the movement? What factors lead to the occasional outbreaks of violence between protesters and police? (See an earlier post on this question.) Is violence a deliberate tactic on either side — militants or forces of order? What role do organizations such as anarchist groups and other radical, rejectionist groups play within the broader movement? Is it possible for small groups of rejectionists to “hijack” the large demonstration for their own purposes?

These questions overlap several distinct areas of research: resource mobilization theory, social movements, international relations theory, and comparative politics. (This is a point that McAdam, Tilly, and Tarrow make in Dynamics of Contention: there is much to be gained by studying these contentious movements across the traditional areas of study.) And the questions are probably further complicated by the availability of internet-based forms of communication and mobilization.

Sidney Tarrow has turned his attention to international protest movements as a particularly interesting form of “contentious politics.” His 2005 book, The New Transnational Activism, treats international protests and their movements from the point of view of the Tilly-McAdam-Tarrow framework of theory and analysis of contentious politics. Here are a few framing assumptions from the introduction:

Students of domestic movements long ago determined that collective action cannot be traced to grievances or social cleavages, even vast ones like those connected to globalization. Acting collectively requires activists to marshal resources, become aware of and seize opportunities, frame their demands in ways that enable them to join with others, and identify common targets. If these thresholds constitute barriers in domestic politics, they are even higher when people mobilize across borders. Globalization is not sufficient to explain when people will engage in collective action and when they will not.

Nor does combating globalization automatically give rise to “global social movements.” For Charles Tilly, a “social movement” is “a sustained, organized public effort making collective claims on target authorities” that uses a well-hewn contentious repertoire on the part of people who proclaim themselves to be worthy, unified, numerous, and committed.

For one thing, forming transnational social movements is not easy. Sustaining collective action across borders on the part of people who seldom see one another and who lack embedded relations of trust is difficult. For another, repertoires of contention grow out of and are lodged in local and national contexts. Even more difficult is developing a common collective identity among people from different cultural backgrounds whose governments are not inclined to encourage them to do so.

Tarrow’s central hypothesis about transnational protest movements comes back to the core idea of “opportunity structures.” International organizations and networks have created a new set of opportunities for transgressive groups who have an interest in challenging the status quo.

Tarrow identifies several important types of sources of evidence and theory for his current work: international political economy, anthropologists and students of public opinion, specific studies of international protest events, studies of transnational networks and institutions, and theorists of the idea of “global civil society.” He explicitly locates the book as falling squarely within the research program established in Dynamics of Contention; his goal is to make use of this ontology of social mechanisms and processes to provide a sociology of transnational protest.

What I’m eager to see is some of the concrete empirical work that this approach suggests: specific empirical studies of the networks, organizations, and dynamic processes through which major transnational protests have unfolded in the past decade or so. It would seem that some important new tools helpful for such study are now much more readily available — essentially, using the internet to track organizations, announcements, and efforts at mobilization. Tarrow provides some of this research — for example, in his summary of research on the networks and localism of participants in the “Battle of Seattle”. But this level of analysis seems to be where the action needs to be at this point in the study of transnational social movements. But Tarrow is certainly right in thinking that this subject area is important, and it is one that follows very logically from the framework of analysis of social contention developed by himself, Doug McAdam, and Charles Tilly in the earlier Dynamics of Contention.

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