democracy in the making

A guest post by Kathleen Blee about her new book, Democracy in the Making: How Activist Groups Form.

The many years I spent studying overtly racist groups like neo-Nazis and the KKK (in my earlier books, Inside Organized Racism and Women of the Klan) made me interested in how activist groups develop a collective way of thinking, especially how they rule out alternative ideas and possibilities. In racist groups, the process can be quite dramatic. Fairly ordinary white people fall in with a racist group and quickly adopt its convoluted conspiratorial ideas as if they are self-evident.

Democracy in the Making looks at a very different set of activists – from 60+ new and fledging activist groups in Pittsburgh that I followed from 2004-2007, beginning from the time each group first appeared in public. My goal was to tease out the mechanisms by which groups set unspoken boundaries on what can be discussed or considered; in other words, how topics and ideas come to be understood as ‘off the table.’ My method was ethnographic and comparative, over time and across groups. I used a highly detailed observational template to capture not only what groups do and talk about in each meeting, public event, rally, press conference, and social event, but also what they fail to do and what they avoid talking about (that they might be expected to do or say, based on earlier times or other groups).

I’m interested in hearing from others who use ethnographic approaches to understand group dynamics or who have found ways to tap into the boundaries of action and imagination in collective social life.

Written by orgtheoryguest

February 14, 2013 at 10:27 pm

Posted in uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Kathleen: Any generalizable postulates about how ideology forms in interest groups in general? Any group, really, is an interest group in some degree. Should we expect similar dynamics to obtain at subtler magnitudes even in not-radical group formation?


    Graham Peterson

    February 14, 2013 at 10:38 pm

  2. Thanks for your post introducing your work. I am interested in knowing more about your ethnographic technique of covering multiple organizations down to the nuts and bolts (i.e., do you have a team of researchers? how you gained access? how you selected organizations, etc.). I am conducting ethnographic observations of multiple organizations (over 10 and counting), so I am particularly interested your experiences.



    February 16, 2013 at 6:25 pm

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