Doug McAdam on contentious politics and the social sciences

Doug McAdam is hard at work shedding new light on the meso-dynamics of contention.  What are the specific social and psychological mechanisms that bring people into social movements; what factors and processes make mobilization more feasible when social grievances arise?  Recently he has done work on the impact of Teach for America on its participants, and he and his graduate students are now examining a set of environmental episodes that might have created local NIMBY movements — but often didn’t.

McAdam’s most sustained contribution to the field of contention is his 1982 book on the dynamics of the struggle for racial equality, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970.  The book was reissued in 1999 with a substantive new introduction, and it has set the standard for sophisticated sociological study of a large, complex movement.  McAdam collaborated with Sidney Tarrow and Chuck Tilly in articulating a new vision of how to approach the politics of contention in Dynamics of Contention.  And he has co-authored or co-edited another half dozen books on social movements and popular mobilization.  So McAdam has been one of the architects of the field of contentious politics.  Most importantly, he and his collaborators have brought innovative new thinking to the definition of problems for social research.

So it is valuable to dig into some of McAdam’s thoughts and his sociological imagination as we think about how the sociology of the future might be shaped.  I conducted an extensive interview with Doug earlier this month, and it opened up quite a few interesting topics.  The full interview is posted on YouTube (link).

There are quite a few important turns to the conversation.

  1. Segment 1: Why is the study of contention a central topic within the social sciences?
  2. Segment 2: How can we approach contention without looking only at the successful cases?  How about the moments where contention might have developed but did not?  We can combine quantitative and qualitative methods — perhaps in an order that reverses the usual approach.  Maybe we can use quantitative studies to get a general feel for a topic, and then turn to qualitative and case studies to discover the mechanisms.
  3. Segment 3: Another important theme: “We are voracious meaning-making creatures.” Human beings have a cognitive-emotional-representational ability to attempt to represent meanings and their own significance within the larger order.  Rational choice theory has too narrow a conception of agency.  Why did the Black community stay off the buses in Montgomery?  Because people were strongly enmeshed in communities of meaning and commitment that framed the bus boycott in terms of meaning and identity.
  4. Segment 4: The psychology of mobilization is complex.  It’s not just “rational incentives”.  Organizers and leaders use the affinities and loyalties of the community to bring about collective action.  For example, an interesting strategy by SNCC to “shame” church leaders into supporting activists.  Movements happen very suddenly; this seems to reflect a process of “redefining” the situation for participants.  Another interesting issue: what is the right level of analysis — micro, meso, or macro?  Doug favors the “meso” level.
  5. Segment 5: More on the meso level: disaggregated social activity.  McAdam argues that government actions are themselves often at the meso level.  And he makes the point that Civil Rights reform was strongly influenced in the United States by the issues created internationally through the tensions and ideological conflicts of the Cold War.  This explains why it was Truman rather than Roosevelt who endorsed the need for Civil Rights reform.  You can’t explain the broad currents of the Civil Rights movement without understanding the international context that was influencing the Federal government.  (This is an example of a macro-level effect on social movements.)
  6. Segment 6: Now to mechanisms and processes.  There are no laws of civil wars.  So we need to look downward into the unfolding of the episodes of contention.  Comparative historical sociology is a very dynamic movement today.  Your work isn’t quite as comparative as that of Tilly or McAdam.  Doug indicates that he favors comparison; but he tends to choose cases that are broadly comparable with each other.  Tilly often made comparisons at a much higher level of variation.  Q: Would you have been comfortable framing your study of the American Civil Rights movement as a comparison with the Solidarity Movement in Poland?  A: no.  There is too broad a range of differences between the cases.
  7. Segment 7: McAdam offers some interesting observations about the relationship between general theory and the specific social phenomena under study.  An important point here is a strong advocacy for eclectic, broad reading as one approaches a complex social phenomenon.  We can’t say in advance where the important insights are going to come from — anthropology, political science, history, sociology, ….
  8. Segment 8: We can dig into the social features that make certain figures very successful in bringing a group of people into a readiness to engage together.  Is social status a key factor?  Is it that some people are particularly persuasive?  Doug wants to break open the black box and get a lot better understanding of the meso-level processes and mechanisms through which mobilization occurs.  A closing topic: what about protest and mobilization in Asia?  Do you think these ideas about mobilization are relevant and illuminating in China or Thailand?  Or has it developed in too specific a relationship to democratic societies? Does the current understanding of popular mobilization help us when we try to understand movements like the Redshirt movement in Thailand?  Doug believes the framework is relevant outside the democratic West.  The ideas need to be applied loosely and flexibly.
  9. Segment 9: So the theory is really a “sketch” of the space of mobilization, rather than a set of specific hypotheses about how mobilizations always work.  And in that understanding — the field is very relevant to research on the Thailand movement.

(Note the strong connections between this discussion and a few of the earlier interviews — Tilly, Tarrow, and Zald in particular (link).  My interview with Gloria House about her experience with SNCC in Lowndes County is very relevant as well (link).)

The March on Washington, August 1963

African-American citizens and a host of supporters made some of this country’s most important history almost forty-seven years ago in the mobilization that resulted in the March on Washington in August, 1963.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his most famous speech on the occasion, and of course many of us are remembering Dr. King’s legacy today as thousands of people throughout the country give a day of service in his memory.

(Over eight million people have viewed this YouTube video of the speech.)

The civil rights movement created deep and permanent changes in our country, and they were hard won. And what is clear today is the depth of change that was needed — not at the margin, not gradually, but at the core and rapidly. The attitudes and structures that constituted racial inequality and racism in this country in the 1950s and 1960s were a profound, coercive social reality. Only a concerted, courageous, and sustained social movement involving millions of people could have broken the roots of that system of thought and power. (Doug McAdam’s Freedom Summer and Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 provide vivid narratives of the depth of these challenges and responses.)

It is hard to think of many historical social movements that had as much impact and success as the U.S. civil rights movement.  Its objective was not to change a temporary situation — a war, a military occupation, an egregious dictatorship, or a famine — but to create a thorough change in attitudes, ideas, and institutions; and to do that in a nation in which racism was organic.  Laws, public schools, housing, jobs, universities, hospitals, and transportation — all were racialized, all demanded change.  And then to create a movement that deliberately worked through nonviolent change — this was exceptional.

A rich tradition of leadership within the black community is one part of the story of success of this struggle for equality.  Of course many of the leaders and agents of change of that movement are now household names — Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy. But many other key figures are not so well remembered. One man in particular deserves recognition, Bayard Rustin.  Rustin was a civil rights activist throughout the 1940s and 1950s.  He was one of the earliest organizers of what became known as the Freedom Rides, and he served 22 days on a chain gang in North Carolina for violation of segregation laws in transportation in 1947.  (He also was sentenced in 1944 to two years in the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary for violations of the Selective Service Act as a Quaker pacifist and war resister.)

Rustin was the key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, and he was an invaluable strategist for Dr. King.  But because of his open homosexuality he kept his visible role in the mobilization of the March on Washington to a minimum.  Numerous participants credit his organizational abilities and acute perception of what the moment required as crucial to the success of the March and what followed from it.  He went on to become an outspoken advocate for gay and lesbian rights in the 1980s. Rustin is a great example of the persistence and courage shown by so many civil rights activists and leaders throughout America’s struggles.  (Here is some basic information about Rustin’s biography.  The NPR program State of the Re:Union ran an excellent piece on Rustin this morning; link.  Here is a film based on Rustin’s life.)

Rustin stands out as a particularly vivid example of a kind of leader who was common throughout the early decades of the modern civil rights movement: articulate, smart, passionate, committed, and courageous in the face of prejudice and threat.  And there were hundreds of such men and women.  For example, Doug McAdam provides an appendix in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 listing well over 150 leaders from churches, NAACP local chapter, independents, and students who were important protest leaders during the late 1950s.  And the networks and organizational capabilities of these men and women translated into successful mobilizations throughout the South.

McAdam’s account of the rise of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s also gives particular emphasis to the organizations that existed within African-American society, and the millions of people who supported those organizations.  Particularly important were the churches, the local NAACP chapters, and the universities.  “Perhaps the most important resource supplied by these institutions wa a potentially mobilizable body of participants.  By virtue of their integration into the most organized segments of the black community, the students, church members, and NAACP personnel were readily available for recruitment into the movement” (128).  The movement was successful in the face of often violent opposition, because hundreds of thousands of African-American people supported its efforts with courage and tenacity.

As we reflect on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., it is crucial to remember how steep the challenges were and how much we all owe to the activists and followers who joined with King and brought us closer to a society embodying racial justice and equality.  And as an observation about history, we can marvel at the magnitude of change that these men and women brought about.

Messy regional problems and collaborative leaders

Regions are highly complex social formations: millions of people, thousands of businesses, hundreds of non-profit organizations, and lots of problems.  Some problems are relatively simple to deal with.  If the local river is being polluted by sanitary system overflows during heavy storms, the solution is costly but straightforward: the region needs to invest in a sewer separation infrastructure project.  

What is more difficult for a region to handle is a situation where it is confronted by a complex of problems that are substantially inter-related and that fall outside the scope of traditional policy-making organizations.  These are sometimes referred to as “wicked” problems, and they are difficult both scientifically and practically.  They are difficult scientifically because it is hard to trace the various interlinked forms of causation that have created the problem.  And they are difficult practically because their solution requires the cooperation of groups and actors whose interests and understandings of the situation are often at odds.  And this cooperation may need to persist over a very extended period of time — longer than the attention span of many of the politicians, business leaders, and university presidents who have taken an interest in the problem.

Take the problem of job losses in the Detroit metropolitan region.  This is a situation that is caused by a complex set of conditions and occurrences of long and short duration: business decisions about plant closings, national trends in consumer behavior, the financial crisis of 2008, family traditions of college attendance, cultural expectations about blue-collar and white-collar work, patterns of racial segregation, fiscal problems for state and local governments, and deterioration of the natural and built environment.  This problem is particularly difficult to deal with for several important reasons:

  • the causes of the problem are interdependent
  • high unemployment itself reinforces some of the causes of rising unemployment
  • the policies that would reverse job losses are not easy to identify or implement
  • solutions fall outside the scope of authority of the individual decision-making organizations
  • solutions may require legislative action, business decisions, and mass behavioral changes that are difficult to elicit or coordinate

Solutions that have been proposed include —

  • increase the percentage of college-educated adults
  • make the metropolitan area more attractive to talented young people
  • encourage entrepreneurship 
  • create a more business-friendly environment
  • lower the tax burden on businesses
  • restructure state and municipal government to reduce public costs
  • encourage investment in high-tech industries such as alternative energy and bioengineering
  • create an “arts corridor” that links Motown and the design talents of the auto industry

But notice this important fact: these recommendations do not add up to a coherent and actionable strategy.  This is true for several reasons.  The relationship between the factor and the intended result is not a certain one in any of these cases; the actors who would need to take concrete actions in order to bring the factor into being are different in most of these cases; each intervention is costly, so we can’t actually do all of these at once; the operational timeframes of these strategies are very different, from months to decades; and some of the strategies here would interfere directly with the efficacy of others.
More abstractly, interventions that might have a positive effect on employment may be difficult to achieve for a number of different reasons:

  • they require coordinated action by multiple actors: for example, the legislature, the county executive, and several major corporations; and coordination is difficult to achieve
  • the promising interventions may be conditional on achievement of several other difficult actions as well by other actors
  • there may be a “blocking” actor whose interests would be harmed by the intervention in spite of its otherwise positive effects

It seems evident that a region that faces “wicked” and strongly interlinked problems like these needs to manage to create a plan for addressing the problem and a coalition of actors who have the resources and decision-making authority to take the steps specified by the plan.  The plan needs to be based on the best possible analysis of the economic and social effects of various interventions, based on sound social science and social policy analysis.  The actors might include: a group of legislators and the governor and mayor; multiple business groups; a cohesive set of labor leaders; and a few regional foundations which are prepared to commit significant resources to the plan.

Every step of this description poses new challenges for the region, because essentially we are faced with a public-goods problem at the level of a large, complicated public with a number of independent actors: there are costs associated with the formulation of a plan and the marshalling of a coalition, and the benefits of the effort will be broadly shared by the public as a whole.  So no single organization or actor has an incentive to play the lead as agent of change, and the incentives for collaboration are weak as well.

This is where “leaders” come in.  One would hope that a region has a cohort of individuals and organizations with a specific set of characteristics:

  • an evidence-based vision concerning the way forward — the changes that are needed in order to address the problem and the sorts of interventions that would bring these changes about
  • a broad conception of the balance of public and private interests
  • a willingness to engage in costly collaborations that promote the public good
  • a practical ability to create and sustain collaborations among other powerful actors
  • access to the resources of an organization: money, staff, prestige, and influence with other actors

The traditional categories of leaders are easy to understand.  Their positions might include “elected official,” “corporate CEO,” “non-profit CEO,” “foundation president,” “newspaper publisher,” “labor leader,” or “university president.”  These individuals stand at the head of formal organizations, and their organizational positions give them ready-made channels of influence on public policy.  Their experiences in leading their organizations may also give them a degree of insight into how to approach the broad problems that a region often faces — disaster recovery, loss of major industries, a rising trend in social or ethnic conflict.

Some of these leaders are officially charged with the responsibility of formulating strategies and policies that will assist in the solution of problems; so mayors and governors need to be actively involved in the formulation of plans for dealing with these sorts of challenges.   But most of these leaders are not charged in this way; instead, their formal responsibilities include specific organizational goals: “maximizing stockholder value,” “achieving the philanthropic goals established by the board of directors,” “increasing readership and advertising revenues,” “protecting the interests of the members.”  There will always be a wide distribution of balance points between private and public interest that are chosen by these leaders; some are more public-spirited, and some are more single-minded about the interests of the organization they lead.

In addition to these traditional categories, there are sometimes leaders in a complicated community who don’t fit into the usual boxes.  They don’t have executive authority in corporations, foundations, or labor unions, and they aren’t elected to positions of official leadership.  What they do have is a set of assets that fall in the category of social capital:

  • a big rolodex filled with relationships to powerful and influential people
  • a strong and positive reputation in the leadership community
  • an ability to be persuasive in dealing with a wide range of actors
  • a passionate commitment to “making the region better”
  • a philosophy of collaboration that they can make compelling to other actors

We might call this kind of leader a “high-level socially connected broker” (HLSCB) — a person who is well positioned to broker relationships among other powerful “elite” actors.  The influence these leaders wield does not derive from the dollars they can commit from their own organizations (foundations, corporations), or the votes they can marshall (labor unions, student organizations), or the direct legislative influence they can wield (lobbyists, large law firms, business associations).  Instead, their influence stems from ideas, passion, and relationships, and their ability to facilitate durable collaboration among actors with somewhat divided interests.  The size of the rolodex is a measure of the density of the networks within which this actor functions; the HLSCB is unusually rich in a set of network relationships that permit him/her to make contact with an unusually large number of other influential actors.  And the HLSCB has a set of personality characteristics that lead him/her to make use of the networks and personal charisma he/she possesses to form working coalitions dedicated to solving difficult problems.  These leaders can be successful in helping a region address its wicked problems — and perhaps more successful than the more traditional varieties of leaders are likely to be.

Why is this an interesting set of topics for UnderstandingSociety?  For several important reasons: it casts a spotlight on some of the most difficult types of problems that a region can face; it highlights some of the reasons that actors in a single sector are unlikely to be able to solve such problems; it underlines the question of motives and incentives for leaders and stakeholders that plague efforts to solve these types of problems; and it postulates one of the conditions that may be most important for securing meaningful collaboration around efforts to solve these large problems.  And it would appear that the broker-leader is one of those ingredients for successful collaboration.

Leaders within complex organizations

Complex organizations depend on an extended group of leaders who have the responsibility of articulating and carrying out the missions of the organization. Leadership groups within complex organizations should be expected to be a factor that influences the performance of the organization, for better or worse. Here I am thinking of medium-sized organizations — 500-2500 employees — with some degree of functional specialization — for example, a manufacturing company with divisions of manufacturing, marketing and sales, product design, finance and accounting, human resources, and government relations or a university with divisions of academic affairs, student recruitment, business and finance, student affairs, and external relations.

The complexity of an organization stems from the fact that a number of different kinds of activities are being carried out simultaneously by different groups of people, and there is no authoritative single “master bureaucrat” who sets tasks and oversees results for all agents of the organization. Inevitably there is some degree of decentralization of activity, with decision-makers at a variety of levels who are empowered to set the agendas of their units in such a way as to best achieve the overall goals of the organization. And higher-level leaders have a responsibility for attempting to achieve a suitable degree of collaboration and communication among lower-level leaders to make it likely that the activities of the units will contribute to a coherent and effective effort to achieve the organization’s goals. And complex organizations that fail to achieve a sufficient degree of coordination of effort internally wind up being pretty unsuccessful; their product is often one that reflects the specific needs of each of the units, but fails to satisfy the overall goals of the organization. (This is the point of the joke that a camel is a horse designed by committee.)

Here are some of the central tasks of an organization’s leaders. Leaders help set the strategic direction for the organization; they implement actions and processes at unit-levels within the organization; they collaborate with each other in efforts to achieve higher effectiveness within and across units; they seek out opportunities for new activities or initiatives that will further one or more priorities for the organization. And, as anyone knows who has worked within a variety of organizations — both organizations and leadership groups function at a very wide range of effectiveness, from the dysfunctional to the superb.

Why are leaders important to the effectiveness of the organization? Because they serve to articulate the goals of the organization and the sub-units; they work with others to articulate strategies and activities for achieving these goals; they motivate staff within their units to carry out strategies; and they have the organizational resources needed to arrive at collaborative efforts across units. Persons who are good at these various activities will make the organization more effective; and persons who are less good at them will pull the organization down. The leader who tends to demoralize his/her staff is unlikely to be able to stimulate high-quality work within the unit; persons who defend their turf rather than looking for opportunities for cross-unit collaboration will interfere with the organization’s ability to achieve coherence of effort and synergies of collaboration.

So what are some of the features of good leadership skills and a good leadership team? Here is the list I would offer as an observer of several organizations. Good leaders are cognitively and emotionally ready for collaboration; they are ready to see the gains that can come from honest and sustained efforts at solving problems that cut across the scope of several units. Second, good leaders are attuned to the shared mission and values that the organization has adopted. They don’t excessively favor the particular interests of their unit over the larger priorities of the organization; instead, they attempt to align the activities of the unit with the priorities of the organization. Third, good leaders are committed to effective management of their own areas. They attempt to bring best practices into all the activities for which they are responsible. Fourth, they have the ability to motivate the members of their teams, building trust among team members and a degree of unity about the goals to which the unit is oriented. Fifth, they possess a willingness to innovate. They are problem-solvers who are actively seeking out new solutions to the problems their units face and the problems faced by the organization more generally. Finally, they have a fundamental willingness to think broadly about the organization’s needs and priorities beyond their own specific areas of responsibility.

The defects that a leader or team can demonstrate are also fairly obvious. Lack of communication is a common fault within organizations, leading to circumstances in which other leaders and team members are in the dark about current plans and strategies. When Larry Bird stole the inbounds pass from Isiah Thomas in Game Six of the NBA Eastern finals in 1987, it was crucial that Dennis Johnson was already streaking to the basket. Second, bad leaders engage in gamesmanship and bureaucratic rivalries, aiming to achieve their ends in opposition to their peers. This obviously undermines trust, and it makes collaboration all but impossible. Third, bad leaders are largely driven by narrow unit-based interests, or even their own personal interests, rather than the organizations priorities and goals. And finally, bad leaders may display poor skills in motivating and managing the staff of the unit.

These are a few speculative hypotheses about what makes one leadership group more effective than another. But the hard question is this: what empirical methods exist for evaluating these hypotheses about effective leadership and management? Are there credible methods of investigation that would permit organizational researchers to evaluate the causal importance of some of these features of leadership? Or is “leadership” just one of those topics that has to be left to the “management theory” books that one finds in airport bookshops?

This topic is relevant for understanding society, because much of the action in contemporary society is carried out by the complex organizations described here. So having a better idea of how priorities and goals are linked up with concrete activities within an organization is a very important part of understanding the large social processes that jointly determine social change in the twenty-first century: economic development, social movements, educational progress, health care systems, and the like.