Message from the Chair: Protest, Elections, Media, and Inequality

By Kenneth (Andy) Andrews, CBSM Section Chair, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

We have arrived at a moment where protest and efforts to understand protest are everywhere. I am certain you are familiar with the broad contours of recent protest. The Crowd Counting Consortium documented 653 protests as part of the Women’s March on January 22nd and over four million participants. In subsequent weeks, there have been hundreds of protest events across an incredible array of issues and locales. Both established groups like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood and new ones like Indivisible have jumped into the fray. Trump provides a singular and unifying target for activism related to immigration, healthcare, gender, LGBT rights, abortion rights, racial justice, and on and on. Perhaps the best recent parallel is the way Obama provided a focal point for right wing activists and conservatives over the prior eight years.

Thinking about this moment, I recalled a conversation I had with Anthony (Tony) Oberschall several years ago. Tony described the politically and intellectually charged environment when he first started working on social movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s where seemingly every day was marked by events on college campuses, throughout the U.S., and across the globe that spoke to the emerging theoretical debates and perspectives being developed. Importantly, these debates were not contained by or within the boundaries of our subfield. We seem to be in the midst of a similar moment.

Suddenly, it seems, protest and social movements are of interest to much broader audiences. I am sure many of you have had the experience in recent months where relatives, acquaintances, and colleagues have a newly discovered interest in what we study. Who’s participating in the resistance and why? What kinds of coalitions are emerging? What are the main targets? What lessons can we draw from prior movements and protest to understand the current moment? Will any of it make a difference in the short or long run?

A growing number of movement scholars are reaching out to broader publics and their research and insights are gaining some traction in the media. And, of course, there are many voices beyond our relatively small academic niche attempting to make sense of the current political moment. For example, in early February, NPR ran a story arguing that “relative deprivation theory” explained support for Trump as well as protest against the administration.

Certainly, movement scholars have powerful tools for making sense of contemporary protest, including theoretical perspectives (even those discarded 35 years ago!) and research skills for documenting and explaining protest and activism. For example, the techniques for counting and surveying demonstrations pioneered by John McCarthy, Clark McPhail, Charles Tilly, and others have been critical for providing real time evidence about the emerging resistance. At the same time, the current moment presents significant intellectual puzzles, exposes weaknesses, and generates new intellectual opportunities for our field. I will sketch several themes with an eye toward framing a dialogue.

Despite the centrality of political institutions to the study of protest and movements, our understanding of the connections between protest and movements, on the one hand, and political parties and elections, on the other, is very limited. Too often, we treat parties and political institutions as a black box and as distinct from the movements that are presumed to be “outsiders”.  The connections between white supremacist (or alt-right) movements and the Trump election, Occupy and the Sanders campaign, and Black Lives Matter and recent mayoral elections are among many possible examples. Of course, political scientists who do specialize in elections and political parties were no better prepared to anticipate Trump’s success in the Republican primaries. Going forward, it is clear that we need to pay much more attention to what is happening within and around political parties.

Second, the recent election and activism surrounding it underscore the need to develop deeper understanding of media and communications. This has emerged as a major area of theory and research in recent years, although it is likely that we’re continuing to focus too heavily on the major mainstream outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post. How are activists circulating information and claims through media? Who is engaging with activist media and what kinds of identities and collective action emerge from it? Here again, we stand to benefit greatly by building bridges to scholars in neighboring disciplines that study communications and media as well.

Finally, the Trump election and resistance to it is linked in complex ways to rising inequality, but our theories and research have little to say about inequality. This is striking given that stratification and inequality has defined the core of sociology for decades. Moreover, economists and political scientists have devoted considerable attention to rising inequality and its political consequences. Movement scholars have been slow to take up these questions – which may be a holdover from the earlier efforts to counter simplistic arguments about grievances. Nevertheless, this has limited our ability to answer fundamental questions about the ways inequalities pattern protest and movements.

In the spring 2017 issue of Critical Mass, we are fortunate to publish three essays by leading scholars of movements – Dana Fisher, David Meyer, and Jo Reger – reflecting on the origins, dynamics, and possible futures of the current wave of resistance.