q&a with hahrie han: part deux

We continue our Q&A with Hahrie Han on her new Oxford University Press book, How Organizations Develop Activists.

Question 3. A crucial distinction in your book is mobilizing vs. organizing? What does that mean?

 The highest engagement organizations in my study combined what I call “transformational organizing” with “transactional mobilizing.” The difference between mobilizing and organizing really comes down to the extent to which organizations invest in developing people’s skills, motivations, and such as they do the work. Mobilizers are focused more on breadth–getting more people to do more stuff–so they care only about the “transactional” outcomes: how many people wrote the letter? Organizers believe that they achieve breadth by building depth–how many people became more motivated or more skilled (“transformed”) as activists by being part of the letter writing campaign? So they design work that may be harder at first, but builds more depth over the long-term.

It might be easiest to describe the difference between “transformational organizing” and “transactional mobilizing” through some examples.

Let’s say an organization wants to generate a letter writing campaign to get letters to the editor published around a particular issue. Mobilizers would create letter templates and tools people could use to click a few buttons and send off a letter to their local paper. Organizers might ask people to compose their own letter, using trainings they provide. Or, organizers might match potential letter writers with a partner to compose a joint letter.

Mobilizers would have a few staff people organizing the entire campaign–those staff would create the templates, craft the messages asking people to write the letters, and coordinate any needed follow up. People themselves would not have to do anything more than click the buttons to indicate their willingness to write the letter. Organizers would set up the campaign so that staff people might design the trainings and the goals, but a distributed network of volunteers would be charged with generating letters in their local communities. Then, they would train and support those volunteers in getting those letters.

The organizations that had the highest levels of activism did both–they did organizing AND mobilizing to get both breadth and depth. It’s not that one is better than the other; it’s that organizations need both.

Question 4. Do any of your findings apply to contexts beyond activism or interest group politics? Why or why not?

The data in this book come from research with two major civic organizations, so a key question that arises is the extent to which these findings are generalizable. What about organizations working in different issue areas, with different populations, or from different ideological perspectives? What about other kinds of organizations? Certainly, further research is warranted to examine more closely the ways that organizations’ effects on activism and organizing and mobilizing strategies might differ across different populations and issue areas.

Thinking more broadly, however, there do seem to be some general findings that are worth highlighting. First, organizations matter. Or, put another way, transformation is possible. In both academic research and practical politics, there are so many instances in which we underestimate the ability of organizations to transform people’s interests, motivations, or capacities. In politics, for instance, it is far easier to use microtargeting to find someone already willing to vote a certain way than it is to try to transform a person’s willingness to do so. My findings imply that what organizations do can have a powerful impact on what people are willing and able to do. (I am not saying it’s easy, but it is possible and worthwhile.)

Second, agency matters. The highest engagement organizations in my study were successful because they were able to transform people’s ability to act on their goals. This was true when looking at people working across two different issue areas and in multiple locations around the country—from the deep south to the northeast to the midwest and the west. People are people are people, it turns out, and the quest for agency seems to be shared across many contexts.

Question 5. What is the biggest lesson of your book for sociology and social movement scholars?

Because I was trained as a political scientist, I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from sociologists and social movement scholars. I wrote this book hoping to say something useful to people thinking about collective action from a variety of different perspectives. My hope is that the core arguments in the book that I outline above—about the difference between transactional mobilizing and transformational organizing, about the importance of organizations and the development of individual and collective agency—speak to all of these audiences. Working across disciplinary boundaries is always tricky, though, so I do welcome feedback, critique and conversation!

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Written by fabiorojas

November 20, 2014 at 12:01 am

9 Responses

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  1. This is good stuff. Sorry I don’t have anything useful to add, I just think your arguments are really sound.



    November 20, 2014 at 2:52 am

  2. I’d like to echo what olderwoman said. Is Hahrie Han reading these comment threads?



    November 20, 2014 at 9:02 pm

  3. She’s on twitter. Why not ask her?



    November 20, 2014 at 9:04 pm

  4. I am reading! Thanks so much for the feedback….would love any other thoughts you have too!


    Hahrie Han

    November 21, 2014 at 3:46 am

  5. Hahrie, I know self-determination theory typically falls outside sociology, so I apologize if this is a bit out of left field, but I was wondering about the contrast between agency, as conceptualized here, and autonomy, as conceptualized in self-determination theory.


    Chris M

    November 21, 2014 at 7:26 pm

  6. Chris, I don’t know much about self-determination theory, but in terms of thinking about the relationship between agency and autonomy: I think of agency as being broader than autonomy. I know that some social psychologists define agency as being the combination of autonomy and competence. I think that combination is important, and I’d add a motivational dimension too. So I think of agency as having three major components: a cognitive one, a motivational/emotional one, and a strategic one.



    November 22, 2014 at 8:31 pm

  7. i like, and am interested, in your point, esp. in part 1, about agency. in a study years ago about The Zapatista Social Netwar in Mexico (Rand, MR994, 1998), we found that:

    “As the netwar got under way, two types of NGOs mobilized in regard to Chiapas, and both were important: (a) issue-oriented NGOs, and (b) infrastructure-building and network-facilitating NGOs. The former receive most of the attention, but the latter are equally important. In a sense, the former correspond to the “content” and the latter to the “conduit” — or the “message” and “medium” respectively — of social activism.” (p. 53)

    “The Mexican case instructs that militant NGO-based activism is the cutting edge of social netwar, especially where it assumes transnational dimensions. A transnational network structure is taking shape, in which both issue-oriented and infrastructure-building NGOs are important for the development of social netwar. This infrastructure is growing, so that the activism it enables can extend from the locale where issues are generated (e.g., Chiapas) to the distant hallways of policymakers and decisionmakers (including in Washington, D.C.).” (p. 118)

    i’m wondering whether your work confirms and elaborates on the utility of distinguishing between issue-oriented and infrastructure-building ngos.


    david ronfeldt

    November 23, 2014 at 2:41 am

  8. David, that is so interesting! I’m looking forward to looking up the article. In the organizations I looked at, there was not a distinction between issue-based and infrastructure-based NGOs–instead, the orgs I examined did both, but were explicit within their own organizations about the work designed to do issue work and the work designed to be infrastructure work. Both were equally important. I’m really interested to read your piece to see how they distinguished them into separate ngos.



    November 24, 2014 at 2:07 am

  9. actually, i deduced that observation from materials we examined. i was never able, as i recall, to double-check with activists who’d been in the field in mexico.

    the original booklet containing the quotes i posted, plus supporting materials, can be downloaded free here:

    a summary article containing almost same quotes appears as chapter 6 here, also downloadable for free:

    i also have a follow-up post at my blog here (but not sure i reiterated the points at issue):

    i hope these references help. onward.


    david ronfeldt

    November 25, 2014 at 7:04 pm

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