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open problems in social movement research

Fabio

—–

Thank you Brayden, Omar and Teppo for the warm welcome. I’ll start my time guest blogging with a question for readers and my fellow bloggers: What are the important open questions in the social movement research? Please respond in the comments or email me. On Friday, I’ll write a post summarizing the main themes.

The social movement research area can seem intimidating to beginners. Not only is the literature quite large and scattered in multiple disciplines, but it seems like all the major obvious questions have been addressed. We have studies of recruitment, social revolutions, agenda setting/ framing/ problem definition, and the movement life cycle. We also have highly technical studies of intra-organizational networks in movements and the organizational demography of movements. We are also starting to see major studies of movement outcomes.


However, I still think that there are many obvious questions whose answer would consitute a real contribution to social science. So a few weeks ago, to collect my thoughts, I wrote a list of problems that I thought needed more attention. Here are some examples, with a “rating” indicating their difficulty:

6. Event scripting. Can you figure out the cultural script for certain types of movement events? What causes people to go off script? Rated G.

Or:

11. Christianity and social change. We all know that religion is important for movements, but I don’t think we have a terribly good theory of when it matters. What explains whether a social movement adopts Christianity, or any other major religion, as a framework? For example, socialist movements used to be Christian before 1880, then you got a bunch of atheist socialist movements like the Bolsheviks. Why? Rated R.

My hunch is that many of these questions have been addressed to some degree, but I don’t think we have a “definitive” answer in the same way we have the “definitive” artilce or book on framing or political process theory. So readers are invited to email or post what they think are open problems in this area and I’ll do a follow up post in a few days. Readers should feel free to point to research that addresses any questions raised by me or anyone else.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 6, 2006 at 4:12 pm

15 Responses

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  1. Is N. 11 rated R for “Religion”? :)

    Yes, since the long twentieth century is finally over and the great wave of secular social movements has dissipated after 1989, social movement theory kind of got caught with its pants down with the resurgence of religion as a major axis of mobilization. The focus on the religious factor as a major factor in mobilization was not ignored by early Parsonians–in particular those who took Weber seriously–such as Schmuel Eisenstadt with his notion of Judeo-Christian religions as fostering the idea of an “axial tension” between the actual world and transcendental conceptions of the “just society” and therefore fostering active intervention in the world with transformative goals.

    However, overall early SMR was dominated by “materialist Weberian” theorists (Tilly, Zald, etc.) which not only underemphasized religion but cultural factors in general. The resurgence of interest in culture in contemporary SMR (and Zald’s own “conversion” to the culture camp), should bode well for adressing the obvious lacuna relating to the role of religion in mobilization. In particular a return to the “Cultural Weberianism” of the Protestant Ethic and Weber’s work on world religions might help. One person that has done a lot to “bring religion back in” is Philip Gorski in particular his work on early modern state building and religion. However, this has ocurred without directly considering the role of religion in social movement activity and formation in a direct way.

    “Religiously Structured Action” (RSA) Anyone? Nah…it would never catch on.

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    Omar

    September 6, 2006 at 4:41 pm

  2. I wonder if some of the formal social psych stuff might help with number 6. If I recall, things like affect control theory have a very succinct way of thinking about the “grammar” and “syntax” of events. I don’t remember the details.

    But, this doesn’t answer your bigger question, but I get frustrated with “social movements” because it seems to me to be a perspective or orientation to research as much or more than an object of study. What isn’t a social movement? Since I could never quite figure this out, I gave up on social movements as a thing to study (all of this is to point out where “newbies” might have problems with the sub-field).

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    Lars

    September 6, 2006 at 5:22 pm

  3. RSA is catchy! I like it. And, BTW, #11 is rated R because it would require someone to really know about both religion and politics, and probably requires extensive comparative work.

    Lars said: “But, this doesn’t answer your bigger question, but I get frustrated with “social movements” because it seems to me to be a perspective or orientation to research as much or more than an object of study. What isn’t a social movement? Since I could never quite figure this out, I gave up on social movements as a thing to study (all of this is to point out where “newbies” might have problems with the sub-field).”

    Well, Lars, you have raised problem #12 on my list: “A lot of people have argued that conflict within professions is quite similar to a social movement. Is this a bogus comparison? Rated G.”

    You could revise #12 into a deeper problem #12.1: “What are the basic assumptions of the social movement perspective? Which forms of politics/conflict fit or do not fit the SM view? Rated R.”

    One answer is found in the Dynamics of Contention book which tried to argue that its was non-institutionalized state directed politics was covered by SM theory. Among hard core movement researchers, their has been debate over the MTT book.

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    Fabio Rojas

    September 6, 2006 at 5:56 pm

  4. The “what are the basic assumptions” and “which forms do not fit into the SM view” questions should be rated NC-17. No dissertating student should attempt to wade in these waters. ;)

    The latter question falls into an area of research that I think is promising. A lot of recent research has been dedicated to understanding the political outcomes of social movements, but I think we need more (and better) research looking at non-political outcomes. The wave of research that uses social movement concepts to assess organizational change might fit into this rubric. However, the organizational scholars have mostly been poaching off SM scholars, without contributing to the SM-outcome theoretical perspective. It’s unfortunate.

    I think you could phrase the question more generally, so that critics like Lars can see a real theoretical agenda: how do institutional outsiders gain influence in realms of society (e.g. corporations, the state) where there are no or few accepted or legitimate avenues of influence?

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    brayden

    September 6, 2006 at 7:29 pm

  5. Brayden wrote: “I think you could phrase the question more generally, so that critics like Lars can see a real theoretical agenda: how do institutional outsiders gain influence in realms of society (e.g. corporations, the state) where there are no or few accepted or legitimate avenues of influence?”

    Ah … that is the key link between social movement research and new institutional thought. If the culturallly accepted blueprint for an organization does not include a venue for outsiders (like Congress), then does that mean that the social movement format is a “natural” tool that outsiders can use to enact change? Thus, if an organization is weakly coupled with its political environment, does that mean it will be periodically challenged by social movements?

    This is very NC-17 sociology.

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    Fabio Rojas

    September 6, 2006 at 7:53 pm

  6. Unfortunately, I think Lars might be up to something in claiming that social movement theory (SMT) is becoming a “perspective” like social psychology or something (as in “a social psychological approach to (fill in the blank)”). There is for instance the recent ASR by Frickel and Gross in which scientific change is conceptualized using SMT and an article by Shyon Baumann (in press at Poetics) in which processes of transformation in artworlds are reconceptualized using SMT (BTW I want to add that I have nothing against these papers [I think that they are both excellent] I just bring them up as examples of a recent trend).

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    Omar

    September 6, 2006 at 10:29 pm

  7. “Unfortunately” because you don’t like me or because you don’t like the institutionalization (perspectivization?) of SMT?

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    Lars

    September 6, 2006 at 10:35 pm

  8. Hah. very funny. I’ll take the second option. Remember Lars: You are good enough, you are smart enough and gosh darn it, people like you.

    The perspectivization of substantive fields usually results in their dilution. How many bad papers have we read that start with “An Institutional Approach to…” I think it is important for fields to retain a strong identity around substantive problems and a specific subject matter.

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    Omar

    September 6, 2006 at 10:41 pm

  9. Oops! Hopefully Brayden hasn’t written a paper that starts like that.

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    Omar

    September 6, 2006 at 10:44 pm

  10. Thanks for scooping me Omar. Better change the title of that paper I’m working on. ;)

    Like

    brayden

    September 6, 2006 at 11:19 pm

  11. Actually, the Finkel and Gross article (and the Rao AJS article on the haute cuisine profession) inspired social movement theory problem #12. There is much admirable in these papers, but ultimately, I don’t feel that that relabling professional conflict a social movement gets you much extra milage. If *every* conflict can be depicted in movement terms, doesn’t that really dilute the power of the theory?

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    Fabio Rojas

    September 7, 2006 at 12:20 am

  12. My hunch is that many of these questions have been addressed to some degree, but I don’t think we have a “definitive” answer in the same way we have the “definitive” artilce or book on framing or political process theory.

    Is it the same thing to say that we have a definitive answer to question X (why do SMs emerge?) and that we have a definitive book on theoretical framework X (Political Process)? I think not and given SM scholars’ notoriously poor record of predicting things as fundamental as the timing of SM emergence (do we have a good explanation of 1968 yet?), which claims SMs make, which tactics they use, and whether and how they will be influential, I’m not at all comfortable saying that we have many “definitive” answers. (Although, I think theories of individual participation are a strong point.)

    What are the important open questions in the social movement research?

    1. When do social movements emerge? Let’s not give up on the political process perspective, but it has a long way to go.

    2. Also, even the “why” question is still open, as the above discussion of religion and SMs illustrates. Look for a reexamination of “strain” theories as discussions of this sort become more common.

    3. How and under what conditions do SMs influence social institutions? (rephrasing Brayden’s Q). Take the religion question again, but in reverse. How do SMs shape religious institutions? Liberation Theology and indigenous movements would be an interesting focus of study, I think. The recent surge in org theoretical concerns with social movements and the concurrent Dynamics of Contention push to study “contentious events” offer real opportunities for understanding processes of institutional change and the role that SMs play.

    4. Why have “institutional outsiders” adopted such strikingly similar forms (for the past 200 years!) if they’re not institutionalized? Certainly it’s not because SM forms are “natural.” Why not form a guerilla army? A charitable foundation? Interest groups? Underground terrorist networks?

    5. Do leaders (charasmatic and otherwise) matter? How and under which conditions?

    6. Why do SM organizations adopt the issues (or the claims) that they do? Take Radical Women, for example, which takes up socialism, feminism, racism, labor, homophobia, and police brutality. Why these? Why not animal rights? New Social Movement scholars have tried but ultimately failed to answer such questions.

    And I’ll never get any work done if I keep going! Thanks for the question, Fabio. I’d love to see your list.

    Like

    Jeff

    September 7, 2006 at 8:29 pm

  13. Open Problem #1: How to keep me awake when trying to read SM work. I mean, it should be exciting stuff, but 99% is deadly, deadly boring. Once I get a bit beyond Tarde and Le Bon, my eyes glaze over.

    Open Problem #2: Pushing SM theory beyond tautology.

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    rackels

    September 8, 2006 at 3:49 am

  14. rackels said: “Open Problem #1: How to keep me awake when trying to read SM work. I mean, it should be exciting stuff, but 99% is deadly, deadly boring. ”

    Welcome to academia! We take any fun topic and make sleep inducing! Guaranteed!

    Like

    Fabio Rojas

    September 8, 2006 at 5:12 am

  15. […] Here is a very, long post… On wednesday, I asked readers to offer their opinion on open problems in social movement theory. As promised, here is a summary of comments and problems proposed by readers, followed by my own list of 21 problems. First, some comments: […]

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