bias in social movement research

Earlier this week, we discussed the need to study failed movements, not just the successes. Here, I want to draw attention to the general issue of bias in social movement research. The way I see it is that movement research is shaped by the following biases:

  • Survivor bias: We tend to focus only on movements that succeed in mobilizing.
  • Success bias: We tend to focus only on movements that get what they want.
  • Progressive bias: We tend to focus on movements that come from the left.

Of course, there are exceptions. For example, Rory McVeigh is a well known student of right wing populism and Kathleen Blee’s latest book looks at a random sample of Pittsburgh area movements.

But in general, the overall focus of movement scholarship reflects these tendencies. For every Ziad Munson who studies pro-life groups, we have five other scholars studying pro-choice groups. Collectively, movement scholars should supplement their individual case studies (including my own) with data sets like the NY Times/Doug McAdam/Stanford data set or Blee’s data that looks at larger samples.

Use the comments to discuss or praise research that works against these biases.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 30, 2016 at 12:01 am

6 Responses

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  1. How would study a movement has never mobilized? The existence of organizations by themselves or individual levels of activism cannot be called social movements by most definitions. Perhaps one can call such things contentious politics.


    Slow down

    September 30, 2016 at 5:13 am

  2. It’s possible to study a movement that has never mobilized by looking to places and times where all the presumed conditions for mobilization exist but for some reason, mobilization never happens. Another way to study negative cases is to look at individuals who are expected to mobilize given what we know about movement activists but who, for some reason, choose not to. This can be a stable choice — “I’m never going to join in,” or it can be something that shifts and fluctuates throughout the course of a single “event.” Indeed, this focus on behavioral variation at the micro-level of the individual is the focus of my paper on the Rwandan genocide, published in Sociological Theory last year ( My dissertation examined a similar question: how did Catholic bishops during the Holocaust in France originally decide to support the Vichy regime’s initial anti-Semitic policy against Jews in 1940, and how did a subset of this same cohort defect from this stance and mobilize to help save Jews mid-way through the way, in 1942 ( I think (but obviously, I’m biased) a good way to start looking for “failed cases” is to reframe them as “negative cases” and look for times when all the conditions exist where you would expect someone or some group to mobilize and they don’t. I’m not the only one doing this work — Scott Straus has a great new book examining similar questions but at the macro-level of genocide (

    As for the question of right-wing movements, yes: McVeigh, Blee, Cunningham, Goodwin, and others have done great work on this. But there’s also a new generation of scholars like myself, Dana Moss (Pitt), Chuck Seguin (Arizona), Thomas Maher (also Arizona), Robert Braun (Northwestern), Peter Owens (Wash U), Marie Berry (Denver) and more who have been working hard to bring research on social movements and contentious politics into conversation with research on extreme forms of political violence. Specifically regarding genocide, I discuss the long and complicated history of where these two fields have converged and diverged in a paper published last year in Sociology Compass (, but this group of scholars just named has been presenting at SSHA and ASA under similar topics and themes the last few years and some of us will be doing so again at this upcoming SSHA in two panels — “Unpacking the Relationship between Social Boundaries and Political Violence: Four Approaches,” and “Political Violence: New theoretical horizons.”

    Finally, dialogue about these same or similar questions have been posed over at the Mobilizing Ideas blog a couple of times — here are a few links for those who wish to follow the conversation:



    September 30, 2016 at 3:25 pm

  3. Oh! I forgot to add — Jocelyn Viterna (Harvard) has also written an excellent and multiple award-winning book, “Women in War: The Micro-Processes of Mobilization in El Salvador,” (, which explains the various mechanisms that compel women to mobilize for guerrilla warfare as part of the FMLN from a social movements perspective (she’s published articles from this same work, too, mostly notably her 2006 AJS “Pulled, Pushed, and Persuaded: Explaining Women’s Mobilization into the Salvadoran Guerrilla Army.”

    Also, Yang Su’s (UCI) book, “Collective Killings in Rural China during the Cultural Revolution” (, likewise having won many awards, analyzes extreme violence in Mao’s China in 1967 and 1968 from a social movements and contentious politics perspective. Both, for obvious reasons, I believe, challenge the “progressive bias” in most social movements research in their focus on mobilization for political violence and give us new tools to examine the different ways in which people do or do not mobilize for contentious politics.



    September 30, 2016 at 3:40 pm

  4. Aliza (from the audience? HI!!!):

    Thanks for attracting attention to Jocelyn’s work (go IU!!). That is an exemplary example of focusing not just on visible outcomes but also looking at variance before the outcome.

    We need to have more discussions like this. The work is out there and we need more. Then we need to sort of rework how we talk about movements from start to finish. Things like resource mobilization or political opportunity theory is “far down the stream.”




    September 30, 2016 at 6:02 pm

  5. All these points about bias were made so well by Bill Gamson in The Strategy of Social Protest, originally published in 1975. The book was widely praised, and is seen as one of the most important works generating the current approach to the study of social movements. Yet almost no one pays any attention to many of his key points.


    Paul Burstein

    September 30, 2016 at 6:56 pm

  6. I like Olivier Fillieule’s work on demobilization, e.g. “Some Elements of an Interactionist Approach to Political Disengagement”: .

    I did a study to try to explain the demobilization of a movement for university autonomy in Egypt: .


    Benjamin Geer

    October 11, 2016 at 4:25 pm

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