More and more, we have shifted our attention from explaining the rise and fall of social movements to addressing their influence on political and other institutions. After all, social movements’ bids to effect social change are why people join them, and why we first studied them. Debates rage about the impact of current movements like Occupy and the Tea Party—not only about whether they have been influential and why, but also about what it means to be influential. The time has long passed since anyone could plausibly say that the consequences of movements are understudied.
All the same, this research, which transforms movements from an object of explanation to an explanation, still faces three major obstacles to developing a coherent and cumulative body of scholarship on the consequences of movements. First, if social movements involve challenges by those with little power, it follows that movement actors and actions are unlikely to wield routine causal power over most contested processes and outcomes in any institution. Second, movements seek influence over so many different institutions. Mainly they have targeted states (Amenta, Caren, Chiarello, and Su 2010), but also the news media (Ferree, Gamson, Gerhards, and Rucht 2002; Sobieraj 2011), businesses (Soule 2010), religious organizations (Katzenstein 1999), and universities (Rojas 2006; Moore 2008), among others. A path to leverage for movements in the U.S. court system might be a dead end for movements seeking influence over the Catholic Church or Nike. A third obstacle is logistical. Documenting the mobilization and activities of even one movement organization often strains effort. Add to that gaining a mastery of outcomes or processes movements hope to change, and it is easy to see that comparing the impact of even a few movements is demanding. And so case studies proliferate, but the selection process veers far from random, as scholarship masses around movements that are recent, significant, or ideologically appealing. Studies accumulate about the civil rights, environmental, abortion rights, LGBT, and feminist movements, while archives on veterans, anti-alcohol, gun rights, and old-age movements gather dust.
Scholars have been working around these obstacles. And here I have to disagree with my friend Jeff Goodwin about the relative merits of older and more recent work. The earliest literature on the political consequences of movements mainly stumbled over these issues. William Gamson’s (1975/1990) Strategy of Social Protest randomly sampled U.S. SMOs over a long historical period to ascertain which forms of organization and strategies were most effective. But the over-expansive research design, movement-organization focus, and spotty paper trails thwarted Gamson’s ability to prove that individual organizations caused any specific changes. With so many varied organizations, there was no way to account for the influence of other organizations within a given movement or political contexts on movement-relevant results. And why would strategies that worked for the United Auto Workers also pay off for the American Committee for the Outlawry of War? Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward’s (1977) Poor People’s Movements asserted that organization within movements of poor people prevented political concessions and that mass turmoil was effective in securing such concessions, but offered only circumstantial evidence regarding a few U.S. campaigns. More careful research shows that organizing is often central to movement influence (Andrews 2004; Ganz 2010) and that mass disruption is frequently counterproductive (McAdam and Su 2002). The classic books posed important questions that have been better addressed recently.
Having learned from these initial forays into the field, scholars have chosen from among three approaches to studying the institutional consequences of movements. The first way follows Gamson in focusing on the characteristics, processes, and strategies of movements and organizations that are likely to be influential regardless of external circumstances. In the literature on the political consequences of movements, this perspective is represented in monographs by Kenneth Andrews (2004), Marshall Ganz (2010), and Holly McCammon (2012). A second approach employs mediation models, which address simultaneously mobilization, strategies, and the institutional contexts in which movements engage. The main idea is that movement collective action and strategies need to fit contextual circumstances to be influential. This has been my own approach (Amenta 2006), as well as that of Marco Giugni (2004), and recent books by Joseph Luders (2011) and Doug McAdam and Hilary Boudet (2012). Most recently, scholars have focused on important movement-relevant institutional processes and outcomes, asking why institutional processes or policies were transformed or why they varied. In these studies, movements are brought in as needed, or if needed, as a potential explanation among others. This approach is taken in monographs by Drew Halfmann (2011) and Anthony Chen (2009). Halfmann, for instance, seeks to explain the main contours of abortion policy across three countries; movement typically lacked influence, but policies were transformed all the same.
The difference between the movement-focused studies and the institutional-policy-centered ones is analogous to the one that James Mahoney and Gary Goertz (2006) discern between variable-based and historical studies, or quantitative and qualitative research. Variable-based studies seek to understand “the effects of causes.” In this research, this group is represented by the influence of movements on institutional changes or shifts. By contrast, historical studies identify “the causes of effects.” In this context, scholars start with major institutional changes or differences and then seek to identify all conditions, possibly including movement-related ones, that cause or account for the changes or differences.
Each approach has merits and drawbacks. The movement-centered analyses identify important puzzle pieces regarding what movements can do to increase their chances of making an external mark. These analyses also remind us that analyzing simple mobilization or protest, as many scholars do to assess the influence of movements, is highly limited. Yet these analyses do not take seriously enough the contexts in which movements act. Scholars of political phenomena have found that certain policies may be highly difficult to influence, including those closely tied to the national cleavage structure or for which extensive political or material resources are at stake, regarding military matters, or on which public opinion is very salient and strong. Similarly, political contexts in which democratic rights are greatly restricted provide rough terrain for challengers seeking political influence. Mediation arguments, which address movement influence and institutional change in about equal proportions, go furthest when addressing relatively influential challengers that contend over a long period in with a checkered career of influence over a series of different contexts. Like movement-centered studies, they run the risk of a movement’s campaigns being unlinked to the main developments in policy and thus overlooking those key moments. Policy-centered studies are best situated to explaining important institutional outcomes, but their big-picture focus sometimes shunts movements so far into the background that their paths to influence may be disregarded or minimized. They tend to ignore the strategies and collective actions of movements that is the strength of the movement-centered approach.
Issues surrounding the impact of movements will be featured in a Gamson-style session at the upcoming 2014 ASA meeting in San Francisco. Panelists will address the tradeoffs among these different approaches, as well as a series of questions about how best to study the influence of movements across a variety of institutions. Is it possible to use theoretical ideas regarding the influence of movement on political institutions, the main site of research, in accounting for the transformation of other institutions? What have we learned about contention regarding these other institutions that might apply to contention over political institutions? Which specific problems of inquiry do different institutions present? Which ways of thinking are the most useful in addressing what it means for movements to be influential in political and social institutions? Which are the most productive ways to address the counterfactual issue in every study of the impact of movements—would specific institutional changes have occurred in the absence of challengers, or specific actions they had taken? What are best ways to address the fact that these studies are almost always case studies? What are the relative benefits of article- and book-length treatments of these issues? Overall, which paths of thinking and research are the most promising to develop a more cumulative and coherent literature on the influence of movements?
There will be a number of other exciting sessions. An open-submission session (organized by Mary Bernstein) will address Social Movements Across Institutions, including both the causes and consequences of movements in different institutional settings. A double Authors Meet Critics session (organized by David Pettinicchio) will contend with the two most recent Charles Tilly Book Award winners: Drew Halfmann’s Doctors and Demonstrators and Kathleen Blee’s Democracy in the Making. James M. Jasper is organizing a panel on Protest Movements in Comparative Perspective, in which pairs of scholars studying movements across different countries will seek to find convergences and divergences in their approaches to study. Another open-submission session (organized by Sarah Sobieraj) focuses on Social Movements and Media, addressing both old and new media. The roundtable sessions (organized by Drew Halfmann) will take place just before the business meeting.
Amenta, Edwin. 2006. When Movements Matter: The Townsend Plan and the Rise of Social Security. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Amenta, Edwin, Neal Caren, Elizabeth Chiarello, and Yang Su. 2010. “The Political Consequences of Social Movements.” Annual Review of Sociology 36: 14.1-14.21.
Andrews, Kenneth T. 2004. Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: The Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Its Legacy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Chen, Anthony. 2009. The Fifth Freedom: Jobs, Politics, and Civil Rights in the United States, 1941-1972. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Ferree, Myra Marx, William Anthony Gamson, Jürgen Gerhards, and Dieter Rucht. 2002. Shaping Abortion Discourse: Democracy and the Public Sphere in Germany and the United States. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Gamson, William A. 1975/1990. The Strategy of Social Protest. 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Ganz, Marshall. 2010. Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement. New York: Oxford University Press.
Giugni, Marco. 2004. Social Protest and Policy Change: Ecology, Antinuclear, and Peace Movements in Comparative Perspective. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Halfmann, Drew. 2011. Doctors and Demonstrators: How Political Institutions Shape Abortion Law in the United States, Britain, and Canada. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Katzenstein, Mary. 1998. Faithful and Fearless: Moving Feminist Protest inside the Church and Military. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Congressional Voting, 1965 to 1973.” American Sociological Review 67:696-721.
Luders, Joseph E. 2011. The Civil Rights Movement and the Logic of Social Change. New York: Cambridge University Press.
McAdam, Doug and Hilary Boudet. 2012. Putting Social Movements in their Place: Explaining Opposition to Energy Projects in the United States, 2000-2005. New York: Cambridge University Press.
McCammon, Holly J. 2012. The U.S. Women’s Jury Movements and Strategic Adaptation: A More Just Verdict. Cambridge University Press.
Mahoney, James and Gary Goertz. 2006. “A Tale of Two Cultures: Contrasting Quantitative and Qualitative Research.” Political Analysis 14: 227-249.
Moore, Kelly. 2008. Disrupting Science: Social Movements, American Scientists, and the Politics of the Military, 1945-1975. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Piven, Frances Fox and Richard A. Cloward. 1977. Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail. New York: Pantheon.
Rojas, Fabio. 2006. “Social Movement Tactics, Organizational Change, and the Spread of African-American Studies.” Social Forces 84: 2139-2158.
Skocpol, Theda. 2003. Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
Sobieraj, Sarah. 2011. Soundbitten: The Perils of Media-Centered Political Activism. New York: New York University Press.
Soule, Sarah A. 2010. Contention and Corporate Social Responsibility. New York: Cambridge University Press.