free spaces and social movements

Last week, we discussed the role of social media and movements, where I suggested that we needed to think more about how “open spaces” such as Facebook or Twitter might facilitate protest. Huggie Rao sent me a new ASQ paper co-authored by Sunasir Dutta about the role of free spaces in movements. The data is from an 1857 mutiny in India and argues that religious festivals create temporary free spaces:

Free spaces are arenas insulated from the control of elites in organizations and societies. A basic question is whether they incubate challenges to authority. We suggest that free spaces foster collective empowerment when they assemble large numbers of people, arouse intense emotion, trigger collective identities, and enable individuals to engage in costly collective action. We analyze challenges to authority that invite repression: mutinies of regiments in the East India Company’s Bengal Native Army in India in 1857. We take advantage of an exogenous source of variation in the availability of free spaces—religious festivals. We predict that mutinies are most likely to occur at or right after a religious festival and find that the hazard of mutiny declines with time since a festival. We expect community ties to offer alternate avenues of mobilization, such as when regiments were stationed close to the towns and villages from which they were recruited. Moreover, festivals are likely to be more potent instantiations of free spaces when regiments were exposed to an oppositional identity, such as a Christian mission. Yet even free spaces have a limited ability to trigger collective action, such as when the political opportunity structure is adverse and prospective participants are deterred by greater chances of failure. These predictions are supported by analyses of daily event-history data of mutinies in 1857, suggesting that free spaces are an organizational weapon of the weak and not a substitute for dissent.

Read the whole thing here.

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Written by fabiorojas

December 5, 2012 at 12:01 am

Posted in fabio, social movements

3 Responses

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  1. The phrase “the hazard of mutiny” gives one pause, doesn’t it? This is probably the most blatantly anti-revolutionary abstract I’ve read in a long time. That is, it tells the establishment exactly where the danger of social change resides and how best to avoid it. Just make sure all the festival-goers are aware of the adverse “political opportunity structure” (which you have of course established in advance) and emphasize the great “chances of failure”. How to protect society from change at a time of religious celebration? Find the free spaces and fence them in.

    (Maybe I’m just in a bad mood. I’ll read the paper and retract everything if need be.)



    December 5, 2012 at 10:09 am

  2. Hi Thomas. By your logic social movement scholars should stop studying protest organizing because the bad guys will know what to do to avert protest.

    By “hazard” of mutiny we don’t indicate anything moral, but instead mean something very specific to event history models – i.e the chance of an event happening in a time-period (day, in our paper) conditional on non-events in every other preceding period.

    Hope you get a chance to read the paper beyond the abstract.



    December 9, 2012 at 5:00 pm

  3. I recognize that I’m somewhat committed to that logic. I suppose one response is that social science is “neutral” and helps both sides equally well. I would counter, first, that if a social movement’s success depends on the obscurity of its tactics then shedding light on them, even from all sides of the issue, will provide a net advantage to the establishment (which needed to break through that obscurity). Second, even where both sides suffer disadvantages that from their ignorance of what works and what doesn’t, once a particular bit of knowledge is made publicly available the side that is best equipped to exploit it (i.e., has more resources) will benefit disproportionately. For this reason, yes, I do think social movement scholars should think carefully about exposing the “secrets of the success of social movements”.

    I still haven’t had a chance to look at the paper in detail, but let me emphasize that I’m not criticizing either your conclusions or your intentions. Nor even your methods. You’re right to say that I’m reacting to “the very idea” of this kind of research. You may also be right to suspect (as I do) that I’m overreacting a little in this particular case. Still, I think these issues are worth thinking about.



    December 10, 2012 at 9:13 am

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