the future of membership-based organizations
Many of the new generation of activists would tell you that membership-based social movement organizations – i.e., traditional voluntary associations that depend on member contributions to survive – are dead. Those old stodgy structures are being replaced, they claim, by activist networks that rely on social media and other connective technologies to coordinate collective action. I attended a conference recently at USC where many of the presenters bought into this idea.
I’m skeptical. First, we don’t have a lot of empirical data to support the notion that membership-based organizations are dying off or that they are losing their functionality. Most of the studies I see that examine recent protests find that SMOs are still alive and quite active. They often form coalitions with other SMOs, using new technologies to coordinate themselves, but they haven’t disappeared from what I can tell. Second, I think they are likely to change and alter in form significantly over the coming years. We are likely to see more online activity replace traditional meetings, for example. I expect that they will transform structurally, learning how to position themselves as key nodes in activist networks, before they die.
Here is an interesting conversation about this topic with Craig Calhoun and Jeremy Heimans. Jeremy touts the new activist trope that membership organizations are becoming extinct, while Craig has a more nuanced, historically embedded take. I agree with Craig.
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