The March on Washington, August, 1963

African-American citizens and a host of supporters made some of this country’s most important history fifty 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 many of us are remembering Dr. King’s legacy today on the fiftieth anniversary of this occasion.

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 Jr., 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.  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 was 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 the March on Washington, 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.

Democracy and contentious politics

 

Democracy and contention are back on the front page, thanks to the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).  As always, Chuck Tilly provided some important insights into today’s events based on his depth analysis of several hundred years of contentious politics.  The relevant work on the intersection between democratization and contention is Contention and Democracy in Europe, 1650-2000 (2004).  As the history of contentious politics demonstrates, nothing in the nature of social contention leads necessarily to a demand for greater democracy; in fact, nineteenth century observers tended to believe that “revolutionary contention” and democracy were antithetical to each other. So democratization and contention are interweaving subjects rather than different aspects of the same process.

As always, Tilly is interested in using historical comparisons to shed light on the processes of contention and democratization, and the history that they focus on in this volume is that of modern France and Britain.

To explain similarities and differences in French and British experience since 1650 constitutes a reasonable start toward more general explanations of variation within Europe as a whole. Since European polities and their immediate transplants originated most of the contemporary institutions we recognize as democratic, furthermore, any explanation that gets right the last few centuries of European involvement in contention and democracy offers some promise of helping to identify likely origins of democracy elsewhere. (7)

So comparison is one key methodological pillar.  The other is the framework of mechanisms and processes that he and his colleagues developed in Dynamics of Contention and in other subsequent works.  “[This book’s] claim to attention resets instead on the identification of mechanisms and processes that promote, inhibit, or reverse democratization” (ix).  This places Tilly’s approach in direct opposition to several other theories of largescale social change — theories that look for common structural factors that explain large outcomes such as democracy or revolution, and theories that look primarily to the intentions of the actors.

My inquiry guesses, furthermore, that the social world’s order does not reside in general laws, repeated large-scale sequences, or regular relationships among variables.We should not search for a single set of circumstances or a repeated series of events that everywhere produces democracy. Nor should we look for actors having democratic intentions, seeking to discover how and when they get chances to realize those intentions. We should look instead for robust, recurrent causal mechanisms that combine differently, with different aggregate outcomes, in different settings. (9)

If we are to attempt to understand the factors that are conducive to (or inhibitive of) greater democracy, we need to have a fairly specific idea of what we are thinking of under the concept of democracy.  Tilly provides this definition of democratization:

Democratization means increases in the breadth and equality of relations between governmental agents and members of the government’s subject population, in binding consultation of a government’s subject population with respect to governmental personnel, resources, and policy, and in protection of that population (especially minorities within it) from arbitrary action by governmental agents. (13-14)

Remarkable in this definition is the fact that Tilly does not chiefly highlight institutions such as representative voting or separation of powers, but rather several more general features of a polity: equality between government and the subject population, binding consultation of the subject population, and protection of the subject population from arbitrary action.  Each of these dimensions has a strong theoretical relationship to the concept of democracy; the equal worth of citizens favors the first point, the idea that citizens should contribute to the formation of government’s policies finds expression in “binding consultation”; and the idea of the rule of law is expressed in the idea of protection from arbitrary action.  Greater democratization means increasing one or more of these three dimensions in the given society.  Tilly refers to this as a “political process” approach to the conceptual problem.  And he folds this definition into a substantive historical hypothesis:

Only where positive changes in trust network integration, inequality insulation, and the relevant internal transformations of public politics all intersect does effective, durable democracy emerge. Most changes in public politics, on the contrary, produce undemocratic outcomes. (17)

So what are the high-level factors that work on the state’s side to influence the state’s ability to crush popular contention?  And what external factors might bring about abrupt changes in these factors?  Tilly refers to a state’s command of “coercion, capital, and commitment” as a measure of its ability to enforce its will — including the ability to repress popular movements demanding social and political change.  Coercion has to do with the apparatus of the military and police, and the administrative infrastructure through which these are controlled.  Capital has to do with the amount of wealth the state is able to summon to its purposes.  And commitment has to do with the networks of committed partners the state can call upon throughout the population within its scope of control — what he refers to as the “trust networks” of the state.  When the state’s ability to marshall these forms of power is great, contentious movements are unlikely to succeed.  But specific, concrete social factors can work to undermine each of these aspects of the state’s power.  Those factors can be internal — a food crisis that greatly undermines the loyalty of the state’s agents, for example — or external — the stresses of international efforts by the state.  In particular, he singles out revolution, conquest, confrontation, and colonization as large stresses for the state that can significantly change its ability to enforce its will (40).  And all of this leads Tilly to a fairly strong hypothesis:

Regional variation in the accumulation and concentration of coercion, capital, and commitment strongly affected the sorts of governmental institutions that formed in different parts of Europe through the centuries, but the presence of certain sorts of regimes in a region shaped what kinds of regimes formed later. (45)

These factors give some insight into how a regime can be more or less capable of resisting contentious challenges; but what factors influence the likelihood of such challenges themselves? Tilly’s analysis takes an important step towards greater specificity through his construction of three tables of concrete mechanisms in these areas of political process: “mechanisms segregating categorical inequality from public politics,” “mechanisms integrating trust networks into public politics”, and “mechanisms increasing breadth, equality, enforcement and security of mutual obligations between citizens and government agents” (18-20). Examples from each group of mechanisms are highly relevant to the processes currently underway in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya:

  • Adoption of devices that insulate public politics from categorical inequalities; for example, secret ballots, payment of officeholders, and free, equal access of candidates to media forward formation of cross-category coalitions (18)
  • Disintegration of existing segregated trust networks; for example, decay of patrons’ ability to provide their clients with goods and protection promotes withdrawal of clients from patron-client ties (19)
  • Central co-optation or elimination of previously autonomous political intermediaries; for example, regional strongmen join governing coalitions, thus becoming committed to governmental programs (20)

These tables amount to a detailed micro-analysis of mechanisms and processes that can occur more or less independently, and that have impact on the democratic issues of categorical inequalities, consultation, and protection.  Here is a causal model in which Tilly attempts to capture the meso-level causality that he finds in the comparison of British and French contentious politics over three centuries:

Tilly encapsulates his key findings in these thirteen hypotheses:

  1. Differing combinations of coercion, capital, and commitment in various regions promote the formation of significantly different kinds of regimes, and different directions of regime change, within those regions.
  2. Trajectories of regimes within a two-dimensional space defined by (a) degree of governmental capacity and (b) extent of protected consultation significantly affect both their prospects for democracy and the character of their democracy if it arrives.
  3. In the long run, increases in governmental capacity and protected consultation reinforce each other, as state expansion generates resistance, bargaining, and provisional settlements, on one side, while on the other side protected consultation encourages demands for expansion of state intervention, which in turn promote increases in capacity.
  4. At the extremes, where capacity develops farther and faster than consultation, the path to democracy (if any) passes through authoritarianism; if protected consultation develops farther and faster than capacity and the regime survives, the path then passes through a risky zone of capacity building.
  5. Although the organizational forms – elections, terms of office, areal representation, deliberative assemblies, and so on – adopted by democratizing regimes often emulate or adapt institutions that have strong precedents in villages, cities, regional jurisdictions, or adjacent national regimes, they almost never evolve directly from those institutions.
  6. Creation of citizenship – rights and obligations linking whole categories of a regime’s subject population to governmental agents – is a necessary but not sufficient condition of democratization.
  7. In high-capacity regimes, nondemocratic citizenship sometimes forms, and with extensive integration of citizens into regimes even reduces or inhibits democracy.
  8. Nevertheless, the prior presence of citizenship, other things equal, generally facilitates democratization.
  9. Both creation of citizenship and democratization depend on changes in three arenas – categorical inequality, trust networks, and public politics – as well as on interactions among those changes.
  10. Regularities in democratization consist not of standard general sequences or sufficient conditions but of recurrent causal mechanisms that in varying combinations and sequences produce changes in categorical inequality, networks of trust, and public politics.
  11. Under specifiable circumstances, revolution, conquest, confrontation, and colonization accelerate and concentrate some of those crucial causal mechanisms.
  12. Almost all of the crucial democracy-promoting causal mechanisms involve popular contention – politically constituted actors’ making of public, collective claims on other actors, including agents of government – as correlates, causes, and effects.
  13. In the course of democratization, repertoires of political contention (arrays of widely available claim-making performances) shift from predominantly parochial, particular, and bifurcated interactions based largely on embedded identities to predominantly cosmopolitan, modular, and autonomous interactions based largely on detached identities. (7-8)

Here is what France’s political history looks like, according to Tilly’s analysis of its path through the space of “governmental capacity” and “protected consultation”:

 

Some readers might be disappointed at the complexity of the analysis Tilly offers here.  But that is inherent in his foundational assumptions: that there are many relevant mechanisms and processes, that these mechanisms interact in multiple complex ways, and that there are many pathways to democracy and dictatorship.  So even the most systematic tracing of possible scenarios will result in a highly complex “phase diagram” of a polity as it moves through its political processes over time.

 

*          *           *

In light of the recent post about Steve Pincus’s reinterpretation of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, it is interesting to pull out a few of Tilly’s observations about the same period.

  • The Glorious Revolution that brought William and Mary to power wrought enduring effects, but at a price. Considering the British Isles as a whole, the settlement of 1690 produced a higher capacity government than had ever existed before. It did so, for the time being, at the expense of protected consultation. (144)
  • The new regime likewise brought the rise of party politics and Dutch inspired fortification of public finances (Braun 1975: 290–94, ’t Hart 1991; Kishlansky 1996: 290; Scott 2000: chapter 21). Creation of a Bank of England (1694) coupled with parliamentary control over governmental indebtedness to produce a relatively secure national debt, heavy involvement of London financiers in the funding of that debt, and widespread investment of the wealthy in government securities (Armitage 1994; Muldrew 1998: 328–29). (145)
  • As military forces exploded during the 18th century, moreover, Parliament’s authorization of taxation and expenditure added weight to parliamentary decisions, beginning a decisive shift of power from the royal administration to Parliament (Brewer 1989; Stone 1994; Tilly 1997). (147)

These points converge closely with Pincus’s points about the modernizing state, and the role of financial elites in the changes of the period.  But it is also interesting that Tilly treats the earlier part of the English seventeenth century as being more crucial for the process of British democratization.  The “Glorious Revolution” plays a secondary role in his analysis.

 

Mechanisms of contention reconsidered

Social contention theorists Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly created a great deal of interest in the “mechanisms” approach to social explanation with the publication of their Dynamics of Contention in 2001.  The book advocated for several important new angles of approach to the problem of analyzing and explaining social contention: to disaggregate the object of analysis from macro-events like “civil war,” “revolution,” “rebellion,” or “ethnic violence” into the component social processes that recur in various instances of social contention; and to analyze these components as “causal mechanisms.”  Here is how they define contentious politics:

By contentious politics we mean: episodic, public, collective interaction among makers of claims and their objects when (a) at least one government is a claimant, an object of claims, or a party to the claims and (b) the claims would, if realized, affect the interests of at least one of the claimants.  Roughly translated, the definition refers to collective political struggle. (5)

Here is the way they characterize the distinctive nature of the analysis offered in their new work:

This book identifies similarities and differences, pathways and trajectories across a wide range of contentious politics — not only revolutions, but also strike waves, wars, social movements, ethnic mobilizations, democratization, and nationalism. (9)

And here is how they want to make systematic, explanatory sense of the heterogeneous examples of social contention that the world presents: to identify and investigate some common social mechanisms that work in roughly similar ways across numerous different instances of social contention.

Social processes, in our view, consist of sequences and combinations of causal mechanisms.  To explain contentious politics is to identify its recurrent causal mechanisms, the ways they combine, in what sequences they recur, and why different combinations and sequences, starting from different initial conditions, produce varying effects on the large scale….  Instead of seeking to identify necessary and sufficient conditions for mobilization, action, or certain trajectories, we search out recurrent causal mechanisms and regularities in their concatenation. (13)

They offer these definitions of the key analytical terms:

Mechanisms are a delimited class of events that alter relations among specified sets of elements in identical or closely similar ways over a variety of situations.

Processes are regular sequences of such mechanisms that produce similar (generally more complex and contingent) transformations of those elements.

Episodes are continuous streams of contention including collective claims making that bears on other parties’ interests. (24)

They distinguish among environmental mechanisms (“externally generated influences on conditions affecting social life”), cognitive mechanisms (“operate through alterations individual and collective perception”), and relational mechanisms (“alter connections among people, groups, and interpersonal networks”) (25-26).  And they offer a few examples of mechanisms: mobilization mechanisms, political identity formation mechanisms, and aggregation mechanisms.

The approach can be summarized in these terms:

Seen as wholes, the French Revolution, the American civil rights movement, and Italian contention look quite different from each other. … Yet when we take apart the three histories, we find a number of common mechanisms that moved the conflicts along and transformed them: creation of new actors and identities through the very process of contention; brokerage by activists who connected previously insulated local clumps of aggrieved people; competition among contenders that led to factional divisions and re-alignments, and much more.  These mechanisms concatenated into more complex processes such as radicalization and polarization of conflict; formation of new balances of power; and re-alignments of the polity along new lines. (32-33)

This is roughly the conception of social ontology and explanation that was put forward in 2001, and it was a powerful challenge to a more positivistic methodology that insisted on looking for general laws of contention and uniform regularities governing things like revolutions and civil wars.

By 2007, however, Tarrow and Tilly found it necessary to reformulate their views to some degree; and this re-thinking resulted in Contentious Politics.  So what changed between the theory offered in 2001 and that restated in 2007?  The answer is, surprisingly little at the level of concept and method.

Tilly and Tarrow refer to three main lines of criticism of Dynamics of Contention to which they felt a need to respond:

Although that book stirred up a lively scholarly discussion, even specialists who were sympathetic to our approach made three justified complaints about it.  First, it pointed to mechanisms and processes by the dozen without defining and documenting them carefully, much less showing exactly how they worked.  Second, it remained unclear about the methods and evidence students and scholars could use to check out its explanations.  Third, instead of making a straightforward presentation of its teachings, it reveled in complications, asides, and illustrations. (xi)

What did not change between the two formulations was the conceptual foundation.  The key concepts of contentious politics, mechanisms, processes, and episodes are essentially the same in the 2007 book as in 2001.

Contentious politics involves interactions in which actors make claims bearing on someone else’s interests, leading to coordinated efforts on behalf of shared interests or programs, in which governments are involved as targets, initiators of claims, or third parties.  Contentious politics thus brings together three familiar features of social life: contention, collective action, and politics. (4)

Further, they analyze contention in the same basic terms in 2007 as in 2001:

For explanation, we need additional concepts.  This chapter supplies four of them: the events and episodes of streams of contention and the mechanisms and processes that constitute them.

And their definitions of mechanisms and processes are unchanged:

By mechanisms, we mean a delimited class of events that alter relations among specified sets of elements in identical or closely similar ways over a variety of situations.  Mechanisms compound into processes.  By processes, we mean regular combinations and sequences of mechanisms that produce similar (generally more complex and contingent) transformations of those elements. (29)

One goal of the 2007 book is to simplify the discussion of mechanisms.  The authors highlight three mechanisms as being particularly central to episodes of contention:

  • Brokerage: production of a new connection between previously unconnected sites
  • Diffusion: spread of a form of contention, an issue, or a way of framing it from one site to another
  • Coordinated action: two or more actors’ engagement in mutual signaling and parallel making of claims on the same object (31)

Other mechanisms that are discussed include social appropriation, boundary activation, certification, and identity shift (34).  And their key examples of processes are mobilization and de-mobilization — each of which consists of a series of component mechanisms.

One difference between the two versions of the theory is more substantive.  In 2007 Tarrow and Tilly give greater priority to the performative nature of contentious politics: contentious performances and repertoires have greater prominence in the story offered in 2007 than in the analysis of episodes provided in 2001.  This is not a new element, since Tilly himself made extensive use of the ideas of performance and repertoire in his earlier analyses of French contentious politics; but the theme is given more prominence in 2007 than it was in 2001.

Overall, it seems reasonable to say that Contentious Politics expresses the same conceptual framework for researching and understanding contention as that found in Dynamics of Contention.  There is no fundamental break between the two works.  What has changed is more a matter of pedagogy and presentation.  The authors have sought to provide a more coherent and orderly presentation of the conceptual framework that they are presenting; and they have sought to provide an orderly and systematic analysis of the cases, in order to identify the mechanisms that recur across episodes.

Where additional work is still needed is at the level of conceptualization of causal mechanisms.  There is now a large body of discussion and debate about how to think about social causal mechanisms, and many observers are persuaded that the move to mechanisms is a very good way of getting a better grip on social explanation and analysis.  But how to define a social mechanism is still obscure.  The definition that MTT offer does not really seem satisfactory — “a delimited class of events that alter relations among specified sets of elements in identical or closely similar ways over a variety of situations.”  A mechanism is not an event (or a class of events); rather, it is a nexus between a cause and an effect; it is the pathway through which the cause brings about the effect.  It is a materially embodied set of causal powers and their effects.  But the specific formulation provided by MTT doesn’t succeed in capturing any of these root ideas.

Various philosophers have attempted to specify more clearly the notion of a causal mechanism (Jon Elster, Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences; Hedstrom and Swedberg, Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory, my own Varieties Of Social Explanation: An Introduction To The Philosophy Of Social Science). We can give good examples of what we mean by a causal mechanism.  But to date, it seems that we have not yet been able to come up with a fully satisfactory definition of a causal mechanism.  (Here is a short conference paper by Tilly in 2007 that takes a different approach by linking the concept to Robert Merton’s work; link.)

So the disaggregative approach that MTT advocate is a crucially important breakthrough in the study of complex social phenomena, and it seems convincing that it is “mechanisms” that disaggregation should lay bare.  Moreover, the idea of mechanisms aggregating to processes and constituting episodes is an intuitively compelling notion of how complex social phenomena are constituted.  These are genuinely important new ways of conceptualizing the complex social reality of contention and the task of providing descriptions and explanations of complex social episodes.  Contentious Politics is a very good presentation of these fundamental ideas.  What we don’t yet have, however, is a fully convincing and fertile conception of the root idea, the notion of a causal mechanism.

(See other postings under the thread of causal mechanism for other discussions of the topic.)

The Chinese-American Left in the early 20th century

There hasn’t been much historical scholarship on the forms of political activism that existed within the Chinese-American communities in the US in the early part of the twentieth century. Historical research on the Chinese-American community has more often focused on poverty, discrimination, employment, immigration law, and racism. A very important exception to this is the life-long research of Him Mark Lai, collected in a fascinating recent book (Chinese American Transnational Politics, edited by Madeline Hsu). And, as Lai demonstrates, it is a fascinating and important story.

Lai was an independent scholar who devoted a lifetime to historical and archival research on the history of the Chinese communities in the United States. He was trained as an engineer and had a career as a mechanical engineer for Bechtel in San Francisco. But what he really cared about was history. And he became a founding pioneer in the field of Chinese-American studies. Here are several links to biographies and archives of Lai’s contributions (link, link).  Here is how Lai frames his analysis of the Chinese-American Left:

The different Chinese left movements from the later nineteenth through the greater part of the twentieth century were offshoots of important political and social movements of the West.  Probably because the Chinese population constituted only a small minority in the United States, little scholarly attention has focused on the historical development of these movements among them.  This essay strives to piece together information scattered among many publications and oral sources to reconstruct this history and the varying roles of the individuals involved.  This essay emphasizes activities concerning Chinese people in America rather than interpreting the inner workings, conflicts, or ideological leanings of global left movements.

Two factors stimulated the emergence and rise of left-wing activities among Chinese in America: the desire to improve their status in America, where they faced exploitation and racial oppression, and the hope of modernizing China into an internationally respected nation. (53)

The topic of interest here is the political identities that began to emerge within Chinese-American communities in the 1920s and 1930s. This is interesting for several reasons: the fact of an indigenous left in the US during these decades, which poses the questions of influence and alliance within the American left and radical working class movement; and the fact of rapid political development for reform and revolution in China itself, which raises the question of influence of Chinese radical thought on American Chinese intellectuals and activists. Lai documents the appearance of anarchist, socialist, and communist thought in leaders and intellectuals in leading Chinese-American communities, and he attempts to tease out the intellectual and political influences that created this efflorescence of the Chinese left in the US.  (Here is an interesting link to short texts referring to Chinese anarchists in the United States in the 1920s.)

One potential influence that conspicuously did not occur was deliberate recruitment of Chinese people by left labor organizations in the US. “Even the Socialist Party, despite its emphasis on the common interests of the proletariat regardless of race or nationality, was hostile toward Chinese labor” (53).  Only the IWW was able to genuinely embrace the anti-racist principles of the theory of socialism; only the Wobblies made determined efforts to organize and mobilize exploited Chinese workers in the US.

A key influence on Chinese-American activists was the impact that had been created in China by exposure to socialist and anarchist critiques of modern society.

During this period, Chinese Marxists and anarchists were chiefly intellectuals and students who had gone abroad to study and become politically active reformers and revolutionaries.  Through Japanese and European writings, they learned about the ideas of Bakunin, Kropotkin, Marx, Engels, and others.  Many articles touching on these doctrines appeared in newspapers and periodicals established by reform and revolutionary organizations in Hong Kong and Japan (54).

(Here is an online review by Jason Schultz of Arif Dirlik’s book, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution.  Dirlik gives a good representation of the thread of non-communist radicalism in China.)

These developments among Chinese activists and intellectuals diffused to the Chinese diaspora and concentrated Chinese populations abroad.  “Around the turn of the twentieth century, first the reformers, then the Hongmen, followed by the revolutionaries, founded newspapers in major New World Chinese communities such as San Francisco, Honolulu, Vancouver, and New York City” (55).  “The teachings of Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin gained in popularity as petty bourgeois Chinese intellectuals embraced the concept of committing acts of terrorism to help destroy the old order” (55).  “Around 1907-08 the IWW recruited two Chinese sympathizers in San Francisco to translate some of their literature.  In 1909 a Honolulu book club was already in existence and met periodically to discuss such works as ‘A Critique of Socialism,’ ‘Scientific Socialism,’ and ‘Marx'” (55-56).

Some of these political-social theories began to have an influence on ordinary working people in the Chinese communities of the United States.  “Immigrants from China, many influenced by anarcho-syndicalist philosophies, were active in labor issues among the Chinese population on the North American mainland.  The widespread labor unrest in the United States and Canada that peaked during the years following World War I probably contributed to such developments” (58).  “One of the first major labor organizing efforts occurred in Vancouver, with the founding of the Zhonghua Gongdang [Chinese Labour Association] in 1916 and that group’s efforts to organize sawmill workers in the area. In 1918 and 1919 the association led successful strikes that won on such issues as shortening the workday from ten to eight hours” (58).  “In the United States, Chinese spearheaded a major labor organizing effort in 1918, when Chicago waiters organized the Mon Sang Association to demand better working conditions.  However, the largest group of Chinese organized workers was the Sanfanshi Gongyi Tongmeng Zonghui [Workers’ League of San Francisco, or Unionist Guild], founded in 1919 in San Francisco, which at the time had the largest population of Chinese shirt-factory workers” (58).

Anarcho-syndicalist ideas appear to have the earliest appeal to Chinese-American activists; but Marxism soon came along as well.  “Chinese in America showed interest in Marxism as early as December 1919, when Oi-won Jung, a KMT party member who had also been active in the Chinese Socialist Club, helped organize Xin Shehui [New Society] in San Jose, California, ‘to study capitalism and communism and the radical politics of the New Russia'” (61).  But, Lai argues, this influence did not reflect a connection between Chinese activists and the Communist Party of the United States of America; rather, the influence proceeded from debates occurring in China around the direction and strategies of the KMT. And the mortal split that eventually occurred between the KMT and the CCP forced division between radical Chinese groups in the US as well (70).

This summary only touches upon the complex and fascinating narrative that Lai constructs, interweaving the local grievances expressed by the Chinese-American community and the increasingly complex political relationships that evolved in China between KMT and CCP groups as China struggled towards revolution.  It is a history well worth reading, and gives a good illustration of the power of “micro-history” as a way of discovering the underlying complexities of macro-level, world-historical phenomena — revolution, ideology, racism, injustice, and resistance.

(And now, for something completely different — Monty Python’s version of anarcho-syndicalism:)

http://www.youtube.com/v/rAaWvVFERVA&hl=en_US&fs=1

Red shirts as a social movement

The redshirts in Thailand have moved onto the world stage in the past several months.  Massive protests in Bangkok have stymied the Thai government and have held the army and police forces at bay for months.  Demands from redshirt leaders and posters include removal of the military-backed government of Prime Minister Abhisit and a commitment to prompt elections.  In the background seems to be a demand for a shift in the playing field in Thailand, with meaningful attention to social inequalities.  And exiled former prime minister Thaksin plays a continuing role in the background, offering video messages at protest meetings and veiled instructions to redshirt demonstrators.  Efforts at clearing the protest encampment led to dozens of deaths in April, and a major crackdown this week seems to have succeeded in breaking the protest in Bangkok with another handful of deaths and a great deal of arson in the center of the city.  But there are indications that protests and violence may spread to other parts of Thailand.

What all of this implies is the presence of a major social movement in Thailand, supported by many thousands of rural and urban Thai people, mostly from the lower end of the socioeconomic order.  This much is clear through the journalism that has developed around the current turmoil.  What we haven’t yet seen, though, is a careful analysis of the dynamics and processes of this movement.  How is it organized?  How are followers recruited?  What resources are leaders able to call upon?  What are the grievances that motivate potential followers?  The time is ripe for a careful, analytical study of the movement.  And intellectual resources exist for such a study, in the form of the extensive literature on social movements and contention that exists in the current social science literature.  However, that literature largely focuses on social movements in the democratic West, and scholars in this tradition generally lack deep knowledge of the politics of Asian countries.  So we need to find ways of crossing boundaries if we are to make use of social movement theory in the context of the Redshirt movement.

One of the most important voices in the current literature on social contention is Doug McAdam.  His study of the black insurgency in the United States is a sophisticated and extensive analysis of the dynamics of the US civil rights movement in the South (Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970), and perhaps there are some parallels between the two movements.  McAdam’s work is entirely focused on examples of protests and mobilization in the United States.  But in the introduction to the second edition of this work he provides a clear and powerful statement of the state of the field, and his synthesis of the best current thinking about how to analyze social movements is of general interest.  So perhaps this is one place to begin the search for an empirically and theoretically informed study of the Redshirt movement.

Here are a few of McAdam’s central points.

Increasingly, one finds scholars from various countries and nominally different theoretical traditions emphasizing the importance of the same three broad sets of factors in analyzing the origins of collective action.  These three factors are: 1) the political opportunities and constraints confronting a given challenger; 2) the forms of organization (informal as well as formal) available to insurgents as sites for initial mobilization; and 3) the collective processes of interpretation, attribution and social construction that mediate between opportunity and action. (viii)

Or in short: political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and framing processes (viii-ix).  Here are brief descriptions of each of these axes of analysis.

Expanding political opportunities.  Under ordinary circumstances, excluded groups or challengers face enormous obstacles in their efforts to advance group interests….  But the particular set of power relations that define the political environment at any point in time hardly constitutes an immutable structure of political life.  Instead, the opportunities for a challenger to engage in successful collective action are expected to vary over time.  It is these variations that are held to help shape the ebb and flow of movement activity. (ix)

Extant mobilizing structures.  … By mobilizing structures I mean those collective vehicles, informal as well as formal, through which people mobilize and engage in collective action.  This focus on the meso-level groups, organizations, and informal networks that comprise the collective building blocks of social movements constitutes the second conceptual element in this synthesis. (ix)

Framing or other interpretive processes. … Mediating between opportunity, organization and action are the shared meanings, and cultural understandings — including a shared collective identity — that people bring to an instance of incipient contention.  At a minimum people need to feel both aggrieved about some aspect of their lives and optimistic that, acting collectively, they can redress the problem. (ix-x)

So how can these basic sets of questions help in forming a careful analysis of the Redshirt movement?  McAdam’s general point is that these angles of analysis have emerged as key within dozens of studies of collective action and social movements.  They represent an empirically informed set of theoretical perspectives on collective action.  We shouldn’t look at these three sets of factors as setting a blueprint for collective action; but it is a good bet that new instances of social movements will involve each of these factors in some way.

Putting the point another way: we can read McAdam’s synthesis as posing a research framework in terms of which to investigate a new example of a social movement — whether the Falun Gong in China, the monks’ movement in Burma, the Maoist insurgency in India, or the Redshirt movement in Thailand.  It is certainly possible that a given case won’t fit very well into this set of questions; but McAdam’s hunch is that this is unlikely.

So it would be very interesting to initiate a careful study of the Redshirt movement along these lines.  Such a study would need to review the shifting circumstances of political power over the past ten years or so in Thailand, both at the national level and at the state level.  Certainly the military overthrow of the Thaksin government created “ebbs and flows” of the sort to which McAdam refers.  And the Yellowshirt demonstrations of 2008 also shifted the fields of power in Thailand.  What openings did these various events create for Redshirt mobilization?  Second, we would need to know a great deal more about the local and regional organizations through which Redshirt mobilization occurs.  What are those organizations?  What resources do they control?  How do they manage to succeed in mobilizing and transporting many tens of thousands of rural supporters to the center of Bangkok?  And how do they manage to continue to supply and motivate these supporters through several months of siege?  Finally, and most importantly, we need to know much more about the mentality and social identities of the Redshirts.  What do they care about?  What are their local grievances?  What are their most basic loyalties and motivations?  McAdam points out that most studies of successful social movements have found that activists and supporters usually possess dense social networks and deep connections to their communities; will this turn out to be true for the Redshirt movement?

There is a cynical reading of the movement that would almost certainly not stand up to this kind of careful analysis: the idea that the Redshirts are simply the pawns of Thaksin, and that Thaksin’s financial support to individual followers is sufficient to explain their behavior.  This doesn’t seem credible on its face; it makes the movement out to be an automaton controlled by a distant leader.  Surely Thaksin plays a role; but equally certainly, leaders and followers have their own issues, agendas, and passions.

The kind of study suggested here does not yet exist, so far as I can tell.  It would be necessary to pull together a great deal of local knowledge about the social constituencies and local organizations that are involved in the movement — information that isn’t presented in any detail in the journalism that has been offered to date about events in Thailand.  But once a researcher has pulled together preliminary answers to questions in each of these areas, he/she will be much better positioned to answer pressing questions of the day: will the movement survive the repression in Bangkok this week?  Will it spread to other locations in Thailand?  Will the government succeed in preserving the status quo?  And schematic answers to these questions would provide a much more substantial basis for understanding the movement and its location within Thai society.

Here is one small contribution to the effort.  McAdam emphasizes the importance of “identity shift” in the evolution of a social movement.  He thinks that a very substantial part of a movement’s strength and staying power derives from the new forms of collective identity that it creates.  There is evidence of shifting identities along these lines within the Redshirt movement.  Consider this interesting analysis of language from Thailand’s Troubles:

ไพร่, which sounds like prai, was a dusty word which rarely saw the light of day. Now on every other t-shirt worn by people of the Red movement printed large and proud is prai.

Prai has perhaps a dozen meanings including cad, citizen, plebian and proletariat. In the context of the Red movement protest, which includes an element of class conflict and rebellion over inequality, prai frequently means commoner and peasant.

This sounds quite a bit like a shift of identity, from disregarded poor person to proud member of a movement.

(Several earlier posts have focused on events in Thailand.  Here is a post from about a year ago on civil unrest in Thailand.  See also the social movements thread in UnderstandingSociety.)

Equality and violence in Alabama, 1960s

image: Ben Shahn photo of Arkansas sharecropper
Creating civil and political rights for African Americans in the 1960s required courage and persistence by hundreds of thousands of ordinary people.  The system of Jim Crow assured subordination in fundamental rights and needs for millions of rural southern black people — the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to use public amenities, and the right to a decent education.  This system was held in place by the threat and reality of violence — beatings, lynchings, shootings, and pervasive threats against individuals and families.  This kind of violent environment made it particularly difficult to see the road from subordination to equality.  The people of Lowndes County, Alabama, played a key role in this journey.  This is the core message of Hasan Kwame Jeffries’ excellent recent book, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt.  “Bloody Lowndes” was considered the most repressive and most violent area of black suppression in the South.  So success in achieving African American voter registration and elected representation would be an important step forward.
Here is how Jeffries describes the county:

Jim Crow was a grim reality in Lowndes County, Alabama, at the beginning of 1965.  African Americans attended separate and unequal schools, lived in dilapidated and deteriorating housing, and toiled as underpaid and overworked domestics and farm laborers.  They were also completely shut out of the political process.  There were five thousand African Americans of voting age in the overwhelmingly black rural county, but not a single one was registered. (Introduction)

Jeffries tells the story of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) and its effort to succeed in registering the black population of the county.  The struggle for equal rights in Lowndes County was nationally important, and SNCC activist Stokely Carmichael played a central role in the sustained effort.  This independent political party struggled to register black voters in order to gain elected offices for black candidates. The LCFO — represented by the image of the black panther — struggled for two years against violent opposition, attempting to exercise rights created by the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  (Huey Newton and Bobby Seale eventually drew inspiration from the LCFO and its symbol in the establishment of the Black Panther Party in Oakland.)

Racist violence in Lowndes County was common, and it is instructive to listen to oral histories of people who were there.  One example is Professor Gloria House, who participated in the SNCC effort to mobilize the county as a young Berkeley graduate student who “went south”.  Here is an interview in which she offers a first-hand account of one particularly violent incident in Lowndes County. It is an important and dramatic testimony about the period.  Dr. House describes the arrest of a small group of SNCC workers; their imprisonment in the local jail for two weeks; their release; and the murder of one of the SNCC workers at the hands of white extremists.

A crucial part of the story of Lowndes County that Jeffries tells is the role that forcible resistance played.  The example of nonviolent protest was available, of course, through the strategies and actions of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  But in the face of shotguns, torches, and ropes, the tactics of vigils, demonstrations, and boycotts seemed inadequate to the task.  Part of the success of the LCFO movement in Lowndes County was the clear statement by ordinary people in the county that they would not be intimidated, and that they would defend their rights and their lives with force if necessary.

It is interesting to compare Jeffries’ detailed study of the struggle in Lowndes County with the more general treatment of the movement in Doug McAdam’s Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970.  McAdam looks in detail at the factors across the South that facilitated or impeded the movement for civil and economic rights.  But Lowndes County doesn’t come into his narrative directly.  More generally, the factor of “forcible resistance” doesn’t play much of a role in his theoretical analysis.  Generally his view appears to be that forcible resistance was largely counter-productive to the movement, in that it stimulated vastly greater white supremacist response (142).  This question is worth examining in detail; there is a commonsense logic that implies that a population that makes clear its willingness to use force to defend itself against violence would deter violent attack.  So we might speculate that populations with this willingness to use force in self-defense would be more successful in establishing a zone of rights in local society.

It is important to recognize clearly and honestly the degree of violence that was exercised through the rule of the Jim Crow South, and the role that armed self-defense sometimes played in the struggle for equal rights.  It is one of the remarkable achievements of the American civil rights movement that its leaders and followers were able to steer their course towards freedom in a way that ultimately quieted the appeal to violence on all sides.

(Here is some background on Lowndes County, Alabama (link).  The ChangeDirection blog has a good multi-part series of posts on Stokely Carmichael’s evolution as a leader in Lowndes County and nationally.)

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.

http://www.youtube.com/v/PbUtL_0vAJk&hl=en_US&fs=1&

(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.

Civic engagement and formative institutions

A disposition towards civic engagement and community service seems to be a very fundamental component of social psychology that differs significantly across cohorts and populations.  But the frequency of this motivation across the population is also surely a key component of the health of social order.  One would hypothesize that this is an aspect of individual motivation and identity that determines the level at which a community will succeed in accomplishing its most critical tasks such as poverty alleviation, remedies for poor schools, or addressing homelessness.  If a city has a significant level of high-poverty schools, with associated low levels of student academic success in the early grades, surely it is helpful when a significant number of adults and young people experience a desire to help address the problem through mentoring and tutoring programs.

But the question of how this component of social psychology works is a complex one.  What are the influences in daily life through which children and young people acquire this sensibility?  What are the value systems and institutional arrangements that encourage or discourage a disposition towards civic engagement?  What kinds of experiences increase (or reduce) an individual’s motivation to be involved in community service?  (Here is an earlier posting on this question.)

Doug McAdam and Cynthia Brandt have addressed part of this question through a study of young people who have been involved with Teach for America (NYT story).  Their article, “Assessing the Effects of Voluntary Youth Service: The Case of Teach for America,” appeared in Social Forces this month.  Here is how the authors describe their project:

We use survey data from all accepted applicants to Teach for America (TFA) between 1993-98 to assess the longer-term effect of youth service on participants’ current civic attitudes and behaviors.

Their survey includes individuals who were accepted into Teach for America in the relevant years.  They break the population into three groups: graduates, drop-outs, and non-matriculants.  Their central findings are these:

  • “The graduates seem to have emerged from their TFA experience with an enhanced attitudinal commitment to service and civic life.” 
  • “Bottom line: relative to their age peers, our subjects participate at very high levels in all the forms of civic/political participation we examine.”
  • “The graduates lag significantly behind one or both of the other groups in their current levels of participation in “civic activity,” “institutional politics” and “social movements.””
  • “On all seven dimensions of civic life—service, civic activity, institutional politics, social movements, voting, charitable giving and pro-social employment—the graduates lag significantly behind one or both comparison groups.”

These are surprising findings.  The TFA population as a whole shows a higher level of civic engagement than the general population.  But within the TFA population, the graduates lag.  This seems to cast doubt on one of the central claims for community service: that the experience leads young people to develop characteristics that make them more engaged in the future.

McAdam and Brandt offer a few hypotheses about how we might explain these findings: burnout, delay in transition to career, a feeling of “having done my part,” a sense of disillusionment with service; and the possibility that non-matriculants may have had other experiences that are even more conducive to lifetime civic engagement.

Here is their summary conclusion:

What, in the end, are we prepared to say about the significantly lower levels of current service on the part of matriculants relative to non-matriculants?  Temporary exhaustion on the part of recent graduates (and drop-outs) appears to be a part of the story.  But so too are negative reactions to TFA and, for many, the isolating nature of the teaching experience.  Whatever the mix of these (and unmeasured) explanatory factors, the stark fact remains: far from increasing subsequent civic involvement, the TFA experience appears, for some, to depress current service participation.

But here is another striking conclusion based on their data: the gap evidenced in the civic engagement of the graduates is entirely explained by the 15% of graduates whose experience with TFA left them dissatisfied.  The 85% who were satisfied with the program demonstrate the same levels of civic engagement as the drop-outs and non-matriculants.  “It is the 15 percent of the graduates who have a retrospectively negative view of their TFA experience who account for the service/civic “gap” between graduates and the other two subject groups.”  This suggests that a program for community service needs to work hard to assure that the expectations of its volunteers are met.

McAdam and Brandt go out of their way to indicate that their research should not be understood as a foundation of criticism of TFA or of programs of civic engagement more broadly.  Rather, their goal is to find ways of assessing causal claims that are made on behalf of programs of youth engagement and community service.  In order to influence attitudes and behavior, we need to have evidence-based analysis of how a variety of relevant institutions actually work.  This kind of survey research is one such instrument of assessment.

The largest national service program in the US today is AmeriCorps (including CityYear).  Here is a link to an ongoing study of AmeriCorps members and their levels of civic engagement following their period of service.  McAdam and Brandt summarize the most recent findings of the AmeriCorps study:

The 2008 results are representative of the findings from the study as a whole.  While AmeriCorps members differ from those in the comparison group on some attitudinal items, behavioral effects are few and far between.  The two groups—AmeriCorps and comparison—were compared on fourteen measures of civic participation, including voting, charitable giving, and volunteer service.  They differed on only four, with one of the differences favoring members of the comparison groups.  In short, the modal behavioral effect appears negligible.

The survey research that McAdam-Brandt have done is one interesting and important way of trying to gauge the impact of a certain kind of institution on a feature of social psychology.  It is intriguing to wonder whether other tools might also shed light on the transformative and developmental processes that occur within the experience of intensive community service.  For example, how does the experience of working together in a racially and socially mixed group affect the social understandings and motivations of the young people who are involved?  How does the experience of spending a summer in a public health clinic in Chiapas influence the college students who participate?  Are there qualitative methodologies available that would shed more light on these concrete mechanisms of identity formation?  Would a study based on interviews and focus groups provide some insight into the processes of change that young people undergo in an AmeriCorps placement, a CityYear team, or an intense two months in a poor community in Mexico?

Suppose a researcher carried out a focus-group study on a group of CityYear corps members from September to April, and suppose the research provided evidence suggesting that Corps members had acquired specific competences of inter-community understanding.  Suppose interviews and focus group videos show that white corps members had demonstrated a growing ability to understand the situations and worldviews of their black or brown fellow corps members, and vice versa.  This would be evidence for judging that the CityYear environment leads to social-psychological development in the area of inter-cultural and inter-racial competence.  The young people who have undergone these experiences have become more attuned to racism, racial disadvantage, and the nuances of difference that exist in the perceptions of white, black, and brown young people.  They have increased their skill and confidence in interacting with a wider range of people.  And, presumably, they will live their adult lives with greater commitment to inter-group dialogue and struggle to reduce the inequalities associated with race in our country.  How might this set of facts relate to the framing of a longitudinal survey of CityYear alumni?

Essentially we would reason along these lines.  If the changes and developmental mechanisms that were documented in the qualitative study are real and durable, then there should also be differences in the attitudes and behaviors of CityYear alumni five, ten, and fifteen years later.  So a survey of alumni, along with an appropriately defined control group, should demonstrate significant differences in attitude and behavior.  And if there are no such differences, then we would be pushed towards concluding either that the developmental changes identified in the qualitative study were spurious, or they were indurable.  So there is a close logical relationship between the hypotheses suggested  by the qualitative study (about processes and effects of social development) and the longitudinal study (about the attitudes and behaviors of a population at later moments in time).

This is important work if we are interested in helping young people acquire the attitudes, values, and practices that will make them good citizens and caring members of communities.  And ultimately, it is a question that can be usefully investigated using a variety of tools of social and behavioral research.

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

http://www.youtube.com/v/bjXpzWIpS58&hl=en&fs=1

Labor protest in Shanghai

http://www.youtube.com/v/Kc_JGyWX1D4&hl=en&fs=1

Shoe factory protest for back wages

http://www.youtube.com/v/wkA2mgCDfz0&hl=en&fs=1

Environmental protest in Xiamen

http://www.youtube.com/v/xSjNK1Q4iiA&hl=en&fs=1

Protest about water pollution in Xiamen

http://www.youtube.com/v/ZLiWaFQ2YNI&hl=en&fs=1

Parents protesting children’s death in Sichuan

http://www.youtube.com/v/apNKr6gqx2c&hl=en&fs=1

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.

Internet activism in China


Guobin Yang’s The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online is a boundary-breaking book. It is a sociology of the communities who use the internet in China; it is a contribution to the study of social movements; it is a history of a recent period of China’s modern history during which internet activism became important; it is an ethnography of the wangmin — “netizens”; and it is a snap review of some of the hottest issues in front of the Chinese public today — environmental problems, corruption, exploitation of factory workers, abuse of power, and social inequalities. Much more than in North America or Western Europe, the internet functions as a location of social activism in China, according to Yang. And it serves an enormous audience; China’s internet population is staggeringly large. Yang estimates that by June 2008 “the number of internet users had reached 253 million” (2). He indicates that surveys find that online activists are mostly young and urban, but reflecting diversity in age and occupation (32). And Yang refers to a highly heterogeneous set of internet constituencies that include “homeowners, pensioners, migrants, hepatitis-B carriers, ant farmers, consumers, even computer gamers and pet owners” (27).

Yang puts his view of the role that internet activism is playing in China in these terms:

Analyzing online activism will both reveal the new forms, dynamics, and consequences of popular contention in the age of the Internet and will shed light on general patterns and dynamics of change in contemporary China. I show how Chinese people have created a world of carnival, community, and contention in and through cyberspace and how in this process they have transformed personhood, society, and politics. This book is about people’s power in the Internet age. (1)

So what is the significance of the online presence of China’s internet users? Does the internet represent a new tool for organizing and expressing grievances? Is it simply “performative” — a space where feelings and reactions can be more safely aired than in physical spaces? Yang takes the view that the activism expressed on the internet is “active” — it is engaged, it leads to groups having stronger affinities with each other, and it can lead to a different kind of politics and democracy in the world of factories, officials, corporations, and homeowners. And in the 1990s and 2000s, these forms of collective action are more likely to be non-confrontational than was true in the mobilization leading up to 1989.

It is challenging to conceptualize the concept of “internet activism.” Is it simply a communications technology? Is it a backbone of copper and fiber through which hundreds of millions of Chinese people can interact for large purposes and small? How does the social reality of “internet society” relate to our traditional categories of “government,” “economy,” “culture,” “religion,” etc.? Yang describes his theoretical approach as “multi-interactionism,” by which he means that internet activism develops in dynamic relationship to a handful of separate social factors that facilitate and constrain the actions users can take. He refers to state power, culture, the market, civil society, and transnationalism (7) as the large contextual factors that bound the social reality of the internet; and he argues that the creative and innovative users adapt flexible strategies for dealing with each in interaction. (He attributes this view to the interactionalist approach to contention taken by Tilly, McAdam, and others.)

A question that inevitably arises when we think about the internet in China is the issue of technology censorship. How important and effective are the Chinese state’s efforts to regulate and control the internet? Does the “great firewall” actually put a significant brake on the forms of expression and mobilization that can occur in cyberspace? James Fallows gave an assessment of the overall effectiveness of censorship in 2008 in the Atlantic (link); his view there is that the state’s aim is largely to make “subversive” uses of the internet more trouble than they are worth. Is this a fair assessment? Yang too suggests that the state’s efforts at censorship are fairly ineffective, writing that “state power constrains the forms and issues of contention, but instead of preventing it from happening, it forces activists to be more creative and artful” (7). This tends to support the idea that the advantage still lies with the user; and yet it seems clear that the state is devoting a very large amount of resources to the effort. Yang describes the situation this way:

An entire apparatus of institutions and practices have appeared for the control of the Internet. Under these conditions, Internet activists have three ways of negotiating political control: rightful resistance, artful contention, and digital “hidden transcripts” of the information age. The main issues in online activism reflect both the political constraints on contention and the social milieu of activism. (23)

Yang describes the institutions and rules that the government has created to control internet activism in some detail (47-53). And he argues that the Chinese state is aware of a fundamental contemporary reality: a relatively free access to the information superhighway is a critical component of economic success. So control and economic innovation are in conflict, and so far users have been successful in finding ways of expressing themselves and gaining access to ideas and information from others.

What sorts of issues have created strong responses from online activists? There are many examples of websites and campaigns that are stimulated as protests against injustice — police beatings and killings, bad treatment of workers or homeowners, etc. And there are many instances of campaigns that have to do with assertions of group identity and rights — for example, the hepatitis-B carriers or diabetes patients. So social protest and identity expression are key. But here is a more extensive list of issue areas that Yang identifies within online activism: popular nationalism; rights defense; corruption and power abuse; environment; cultural contention; muckraking; and online charity (55). And within the category of rights defense he lists: vulnerable persons, homeowners, forced relocation, hepatitis-B carriers and diabetes patients, consumer rights, human rights, and other issues of urban middle-class concern (56). (Many of these issues about rights are the same subjects that Kevin O’Brien identifies under the heading of “rightful protest”; Rightful Resistance in Rural China.)

We might close by asking what effects “internet activism” is likely to have in China. And after reading Guobin Yang’s book, we might offer a best guess that goes along these lines. The internet serves as a large, dynamic space of expression and contention, that plays a critically important role in shaping Chinese people’s political and social attitudes. Its importance is less as an instrument of political organization and mobilization, than as a decentralized medium of consciousness formation. The anger and sorrow that is expressed over a single wrongful death — repeated tens of thousands of times in a variety of forums and forms — can also produce a stronger sense of a need for change in China. And so the effects of internet activism are somewhat unpredictable. But we might speculate that it can lead in the end to powerful and popular demands in earthly China for important legal and institutional reforms. Perhaps Charter ’08 will be the big winner (link): legal protections and a broadened scope for life within civil society.

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