action before belief

Last night I started reading Ziad Munson’s new book, The Making of Pro-Life Activists: How Social Movement Mobilization Works, and it turns out to be a really, really interesting treatment of the processes that lead people to get involved in social movements.  The key question motivating the book is, do people join movements because they believe in the cause or do they believe in the cause because they joined the movement? On its face, it seems like the answer would be straightforward – beliefs must precede involvement; why else, if not for beliefs and values, would anyone sacrifice their time and resources to a cause? This is the conventional wisdom of many social movement studies (e.g., recently Klandermans but going all the way back to Tocqueville). But Munson discovers through in-depth qualitative analyses of pro-life activists that this conventional wisdom doesn’t always hold true. Many activists alter their beliefs as the result of participating in a movement. Here is Munson’s summary:

The link between beliefs and action must be turned on its head: real action often precedes meaningful beliefs about an issue. Demographic and attitudinal differences between activists and nonactivists cannot explain why some people join the pro-life movement and others do not. Instead, mobilization occurs when people are drawn into activism through organizational and relational ties, not when they form strong beliefs about abortion. Beliefs about abortion are often underdeveloped, incoherent, and inconsistent until individuals become actively engaged with the movement. The “process of conviction” (Maxwell 2002) is the result of mobilization, not a necessary prerequisite for it (pg. 20).

People join causes little-by-little, at first perhaps through small events because they have friends in the cause or perhaps just out of curiosity about the organization. Participation changes the way you think about the issues and causes you to reconsider your beliefs. From a psychological standpoint, this makes a lot of sense (see cognitive dissonance). From a practical perspective this also makes a lot of sense. Many organizations purposefully seek to alter the beliefs and values of their participants (hello, organized religion!), and so we should be surprised if people who joined a social movement didn’t adjust their beliefs to fit the movement’s values. Munson shows that people regularly join movements without being sure what they really believe about the movement’s issue. It’s not that they join the pro-life movement with a strong pro-choice agenda. They’re just not sure what they think or how they feel about the cause. The movement refines a person’s value system until they become true believers (or drop out).

The study has implications for the way we think about organizational selection processes at the individual level. Selection, especially among organizations with a social mission, are greatly affected by personal relationships and the recruiting capacities of the organization. Belief can follow.


Written by brayden king

June 5, 2009 at 4:04 pm

9 Responses

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  1. Good stuff. In addition to values, I’d be interested too in the implications for how movements shape participants’ identities. This is implicit in, for instance, McAdam’s stuff on what happened to Mississippi Freedom Summer participants: their careers were significantly altered compared to non-participants.


    Sean Safford

    June 5, 2009 at 4:46 pm

  2. Glad your posted on this topic, Brayden. There’s a long standing dispute in movement studies about what social ties mean – are they gate ways for people who already believe, or do they socialize people (see Kitts 1999, or the McAda/Diana volume on networks and movements)? Munson’s book (and others) shows that the answer might very well be the first case.

    My addition is that beliefs still matter in that they set general bounds for behavior. People won’t hang out with others whose believes seem outrageous (e.g., you don’t see many registered Republicans joining green anarchist collectives just because their friends did). Perhaps Munson’s book best addresses those whose current beliefs are ambiguous with respect to the group, or that are “in the ball park” – the marginal cases.



    June 5, 2009 at 6:43 pm

  3. Fabio – I completely agree with you and I think Munson’s analysis doesn’t indicate otherwise. Beliefs can be a significant barrier to participation in a movement, but once joining a movement your beliefs become much more clearly articulated. What’s striking though is that a significant proportion of all activists at one time were fairly neutral in their beliefs. The movement cultivates whatever pre-existing belief tendency they might have.



    June 5, 2009 at 7:57 pm

  4. Three thoughts:

    First, it may not be that people join movements. People join people.

    Second, this process brings to mind what Kilduff and Tsai discussed in their 2020 book about social nets and organizations: a combination of serendipitous and instrumental mechanisms generate networks. I wonder what happens if we loosen up instrumental to mean purposeful (there may not be a set outcome motivating someone who hangs out with pro life activists, just a sense of purpose). Then, we can think about a more integrated theory which explains over time how some become activists, but maybe also how some do not. Does anyone do this kind of qualitative work and try and look at variation in end-state involvement?

    Maybe some ties keep “nascent” activists out of movements too.



    June 5, 2009 at 9:06 pm

  5. I see a bias in the question “does belief precede or proceed from political involvement?”. This bias comes from a specific view of social processes. An anacronic view. If social processes, even from the point of view of the individual, are seen only in the moment and do not fall under the criticism of certain parameters, action can be, in my point of view, misinterpreted.
    First, because every discourse captured at a particular moment can be the instantaneous photograph of something modified by recent invisible events. The same subject can deliver different speeches about the system of public transportation when in the comfort of his home, after a nice meal and after reading a subject on the papers about the transport system in Bogotá and a totally divergent speech can be delivered by the same individual in the street after feeling hungry while awaiting for the crowed bus he had been on to arrive to his stop, which took a long time due to jammed traffic.
    Secondly, the telling of tales and personal stories are re-interpreted, in the long term, according to the present. Not only does the studies of memory from a purely biological point of view corroborate this hypothesis, but also studies of oral history and psychology since Freud.
    Besides that, taking discourses produced at specific times and places for granted as truth may be viewed as naive if one takes into account the sociological as well as the psychological studies in the fields that analyze the answers given by subjects as part of a social role played by these subjects according to places and roles they play in these such places. Taking into account American sociology, the same view can be developed if one departs from the studies of Parsons.
    All this things said point to the aspect of discursive truth that it may hold part of it, but never the whole complexity of it.
    Another question to these studies is “What is ‘value’ and how can one identify and measure it”. If one departs from the point of view that value is one thing, and action is another, the question the book asks makes sense, but when one departs from the theoretical point of view that value and action are two moments of a complex called ethics and that they cannot be uncoupled very easily in the analysis of the action, for example, even due to the reasoning that there is no one-to-one complex value-action, as well as there is not a one-to-one coupling of action-meaning for each historical ‘fact’. For, for each action there could be a whole complex structure of values that influence subjects’ thought at each context given, and each action goes through the filter of interpretation of the other subjects, that might change when the context chances.
    I’m not saying that such phenomena are so complex that they are impossible to be studied. All I’m saying is that if one departs from the point of view that values = discourse, and the discourse taken as the sample is the discourse given officially by the complex called ‘institution’ at a particular time and context, to a particular audience, one may go from that easily to the conclusion that individuals first join the institution and afterwards get the values (as seen, as something detached and above human history, personal story and detached from human action).
    Preconceptions can be the cause of biased analyses. One example is the common discourse by scholars in Brazil, particularly in the Social Sciences Institute in the University of São Paulo given in a very mather-of-fact way during classes about other subjects of studies during the 90s, that were so dismissive about the meaning of the emergence of the so called ONGs at the time, that it took me years, as a student, to view them as an important new political actor. If one tries analyzing the point of view from where your own teachers’ speeches come from originally, one may come to thinking how incomprehensible such new institutions seemed from the point of view of one who looked upon the world from a very specific point-of-view in which government, unions and parties made a very specific sense (for, the theoretical basis of the institute departs and is traditionally connected to durkheiminean studies of institutions, and today, bourdieunean, which represents a certain development of the same point of view) for what we needed to deal with (in the case of NGOs) had a greater amount of voluntarism and multiplicity than ever observed from the point of view of institutional phenomena. At the very present moment, a breath-taking endeavor from such institutions (NGOs that in the multiplicity of groups that are so called by the same name, but which from the point of view of their internal organization would represent a pletora of different institutional organizations) that emerged years ago connected each to different topics, such as human rights, women rights, black rights, indian rights, indian women rights, defense of the rights of social control of the image of many groups in the media (woman image, black people image, homosexuals image), movements for public communitary radios rights, lesbian movements, lawyers and journalists movements, internet blog movements and many others that are, at the present moment, or, maybe better explained, whose waters are at the present moment flowing towards the same political effort, which is a participatory process for the creation of new laws for the media. I see no scholar giving it any thought at the moment, and it’s the moment at which this very thing is in full moment of occurrence, in full moment of creation and self-invention.



    June 7, 2009 at 7:10 pm

  6. […] by incentives –  but rather by acquiring an insurgent revolutionary identity which emerges in the course of the movement.  Clearly, the identification of opposition protesters has shifted over time: from Moussavi […]


  7. […] movement’s future look weak. Especially since I’m still hypnotized by this post from orgtheory (my underline): Last night I started reading Ziad Munson’s new book, The Making of Pro-Life […]


  8. […] my book, this matters.  As Ziad Munson’s ethnography of the Pro-Life movement argued “mobilization occurs when people are drawn into activism through organizational and […]


  9. […] a summary.  From the copy: “Munson makes the startling discovery that many activists join up before […]


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