Social Movements

By way of introduction, I’d like to draw your attention to some of the thematic threads that have structured the course. As you might have noticed, the case studies in this class have primarily centered on what I’ve at various times called “disruptive” social movements (as compared to “traditional” movements). I’ve used this terminology a few times in your weekly assignments but I wanted to explain and define the concept more clearly. Traditional movements may purport to seek significant changes but rarely pose an existential threat to the existing political order, either in terms of their methods or their objectives. Conversely, disruptive movements are inherently threatening, and impervious to co-optation by the power structure. To be clear though, “disruptive” is not a technical term or an established sociological concept — it’s just a designation I’m using for the sake of convenience to distinguish movements that aim to disrupt the existing social order from those that are largely compatible with the status quo. I’ve attached a study guide which charts the ways “disruptive” movements differ from their more conventional counterparts in much more detail. (This has also been posted to Blackboard for some time as a standalone study guide. It’s the same thing, if you’re wondering).

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Style of Organization
formal bureaucratic
informal networks semi-spontaneous crowds/mobs
Public Presentation
media-oriented campaigns open meetings
communiques anonymity secretiveness
State Response
(partial) accommodation cooptationconcessions
infiltration criminalizaton repression
petitionslobbying demonstrations civil disobendience
property destruction arsonsabotage
highly structured, top-down
horizontal, democratic, “leaderless”
charismatic spokespersons talking pointspress conferencesuniform signs and chants
action is its own message form over content unintelligible
Ideological Perspective
reformistnarrowly issue-focused
revolutionary anti-capitalist
Attitude toward Law Enforcement
obedientwilling to negotiate
defiant confrontational
seeks permanencemay employ paid staffers
short-lived avoids durability
particular companies, politicians, or state agencies
global capitalism governements society
Press Coverage
rarely receives notice
sensationalistic but sometimes extensive
cross section of society low participation threshold
hard-core activists willing to take risks
Measure of Effectiveness
passage of specific laws or policies raise public consciousness powerful interests concede to demands
extent of social disruptionavoid serious punishment powerful interests feel threatened
“power in numbers”strives to become “mass movement”
tight cell-based structure need for intimacy eschews mass appeal
ordinary citizenswin hearts and minds
indifferent to public image typically unpopular
I’m belaboring this point because I think the ongoing struggle between disruptive and traditional movements has been perhaps the single most significant force driving movement formation in the contemporary world. Of course, “real life” movements don’t typically espouse all the attributes of either type. Instead, most actual movements exist somewhere along the spectrum, though they often tend to gravitate toward one or the other pole. So the rubric I’m providing can best be understood as a continuum, rather than a rigid dichotomy.
As some of you have pointed out in your responses, in modern day America, the vast majority of movements tend toward the “traditional” end of spectrum, while avoiding or even actively denouncing “disruptive” possibilities. For that matter, there’s an widely-held expectation in the contemporary US that movements ought to conform to the “traditional” model. Some of you have fully embraced this logic in your responses. Even many sociologists who study movements use the archetypal “traditional” movement as their baseline starting point.
But I would argue that beneath this veneer of acceptability, the spectre of disruption lurks in shadows, emerging every so often to challenge the dominant ethos. In fact, traditional movements, despite their name, are a historically- and temporally-unique phenomenon that have only become widespread over the last 75 years in the US and a handful of other Western-style democracies. Elsewhere in the world, in Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa, and even much of Western Europe, disruptive movements have always been the norm. For that matter, disruptive movements were standard even in the United States prior to World War Two. We’ve focused on disruptive movements in this class, but “disruption” projects itself upon “traditional” movements in the form of absence, equivalent to an artist’s negative space. In fact, part of the reason proponents of traditional movements so often denounce disruptive possibilities is because the task of movement management requires that they constantly reaffirm their “traditional” credentials, vis-a-vis the unspoken Other.
So among the basic claims of this course is that all movements are compelled to navigate the boundary between tradition and disruption, whether they do so consciously and deliberately or not. Moreover, the potential of disruption can perhaps best be understood through a systematic analysis of one of the rare movements that breaks from the social order, against tremendous odds, and in the face of pressure to conform. Your task is to deconstruct and analyze a movement of your choice with special attention to the way the movement in question positions itself on the spectrum from tradition to disruption. Your written paper can be supplemented by a poem, musical composition, painting, theater production, dance performance, website, or digital video. It is due Sunday, May 16 (note the extra week), should be in the range of five pages, and should be submitted to Blackboard.
In the course of your analysis, apply at least two of the theoretical constructs introduced in class. (strain theory, network theory, new social movement theory, framing, resource mobilization theory, political process theory, etc.) You need not pass judgement on the validity of these theories, but you should demonstrate knowledge of their core tenets.
Among the issues you might consider (note that you don’t have to address all these points — just some suggestions).
What tactics and strategies does the movement employ? Where does the movement position itself on the continuum of tactical militancy? Why does it shun some tactics in favor of others?Are the movement’s tactics effective or ineffective? Why?
How disruptive was the movement? What social relations were disrupted? How did the extent of disruption change over time, and why?What forces served to spread the movement / expand the movement / sustain the movement?What forces served to restrain the movement / limit the extent of movement / end the movement?
How does the movement produce meaning / shared understandings?(Keep in mind, meaning is not produced only through words, but through slogans, music, art, and action itself.)If your movement has explicit goals or demands, how does it communicate those intentions and at whom are they directed? If there are no demands or the demands are ambiguous, explain.What assumptions and ideological beliefs underlie the movement’s practice?
How does the movement relate to other social movements?How does the movement engage with its opponents and enemies?What sort of repression, if any, did the protesters face?What concessions, if any, were granted in the aftermath of the incident?What was the lasting financial and physical impact of the movement?How does the movement interface with the government? business interests? the police? the political process?
How does the movement negotiate questions of difference within its ranks? (race, gender, class, sexuality)How does the movement make decisions? If there are leaders, to what extent do these leaders represent ordinary members?How does the movement choose its spokespersons and leaders?
Ethical Considerations
You’re not expected to conduct any outside research, but if you choose to do so, your research should draw exclusively on existing materials (publicly available records, websites, newspapers, books, journal articles). You are not expected, nor are you encouraged, to conduct interviews. Because disruptive movements often involve illegal activity, exposing information that is not already in the public domain can put participants at risk. Furthermore, information uncovered by researchers — even those sympathetic to protesters — can inadvertently aid law enforcement authorities and the state in the suppression of future civil unrest. Furthermore, I encourage you to avoid reducing your incident to a causal explanation. Subsuming the movement beneath a presumed sociological “cause-and-effect” sequence primarily serves to render it comprehensible and manageable.
the paper has to be within 5-10 pages