samples and social movement research
This post is both intellectual and self-interested. Throughout my career, I have chosen to focus on specific movements and treat them like a “laboratory” for social change. My work on Black Studies uses Black Power as starting point for studying institutionalization. My more current work on the anti-Iraq War movement examines how parties interact with movements.
One problem that persistently comes up during peer review is that people have problems with the selection of the movement. The complains often say (a) “Why study one movement?” or (b) “Your sample is too limited/has issues.” For example, I am currently having a paper reviewed that has a sample of nearly 700 activists drawn from the largest convention of social movement activists in recent years. The reaction from prior reviews? “Meh.” Here, I refer only to the sample, not criticism of the paper’s theoretical argument, which has been revised in subsequent versions.
The touchiness about the sample puzzles me because many of our most enduring works on social movements rely on samples of activists from a single organization or movement. For example, many of McAdam’s papers on Civil Rights movement participation often rely on extremely specific samples, like the paper with Paulsen that uses data from the Freedom Rides – a very specific phase of the Civil Rights movement. Snow et al. 1986’s article on framing uses a hand full of interview snippets from Christian activists to illustrate the function of framing within movements. Meyer and Whittier’s spill over paper uses illustrative cases from the women’s movement.
So, why the push back on the sample? A few hypotheses:
- That’s just sociology. We have inconsistent standards.
- The field has shifted. We no longer tolerate samples from one organization or movement. The norm is just different.
- Outsiderness. Perhaps, papers that analyze a sample of activists is just not what is expected from a movement paper, so people are hyper-critical.
Aside from being personally frustrated on this issue, I find it puzzling. If one really wants to understand activists and movements participation, then it would be normal to generate data from a sample drawn from, say, protests, or an organizational roster, or participants in a movement convention or conference. As long as your question is about internal comparisons, and not comparing participators with non-participators, then this seems obvious – at least to me.
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