Society Magazine

How "micro" Does the Sociology of Social Movements Need to Go?

Posted on the 08 June 2023 by Dlittle30 @dlittle30

Doug McAdam's Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 is recognized as a leading sociological study of the US Civil Rights movement. With the addition of the new introduction to the 1999 edition, the book provides a cutting-edge treatment of the movement from the point of view of the field of contentious politics. McAdam offers three broad families of social mechanisms intended to account for the success of mobilization of groups with a grievance about the status quo:

Increasingly, one finds scholars from various countries and nominally different theoretical traditions emphasizing the importance of the same three broad sets of factors in analyzing the origins of collective action. These three factors are: 1) the political opportunities and constraints confronting a given challenger; 2) the forms of organization (informal as well as formal) available to insurgents as sites for initial mobilization; and 3) the collective processes of interpretation, attribution and social construction that mediate between opportunity and action. (viii)

And McAdam holds that these three factors help to account for the dramatic rise in Civil Rights activism, protest, and strategic choices of the movement across the South in the 1950s into the early 1960s. He asks the key question: “What led normally accepting African-Americans both in Montgomery and throughout the South to risk their livelihoods and their lives in support of civil rights?”. This is the theoretically central issue of mobilization: what factors facilitate mass mobilization around a set of interests or grievances?

Given the diversity of local situations in cities, towns, and farms across the South, we can speculate that the answer to this question will be different in different locales. But significantly, McAdam provides very little "micro-sociology" of the development of engagement on the part of ordinary African-American people making their lives in various places. He writes about the significance of churches, colleges, and the NAACP as "the organizational base of the movement" (125), but he goes into little detail about the activities and resources associated with these institutions and organizations. He writes:

Representing the most organized segments of the southern black population, the churches, colleges, and local NAACP chapters possessed the resources needed to generate and sustain an organized campaign of social insurgency. (128)

But how did these organizations actually act during the critical period; how were their actions different in different settings; and how did this influence rising activism on the part of ordinary people? What were the local processes that led to local mobilizations? His answer is a general one:

On one level, then, the importance of the churches, schools, and NAACP chapters in the generation of insurgency can be attributed to their role as established interactional networks facilitating the "bloc recruitment" of movement participants. That is, by building the movement out of established institutions, insurgent leaders were able to recruit en masse along existing lines of interaction, thereby sparing themselves the much more difficult task of developing a membership from scratch. (129)

This is a general formulation of a social mechanism. But it is not a specific and factual account of "recruitment" in a particular time and place -- for example, Montgomery prior to the bus boycott. Rather, McAdam emphasizes the idea that ordinary people saw it as their church-created duty to participate in protest. McAdam treats the church, colleges, and local chapters of the NAACP chiefly as "network" sites, where potential participants in the activist movement were located, where they further developed their claims and commitments, and where they encouraged each other in protest.

The general hypotheses provided within the current literature of contentious politics is valuable enough. But we would like to know more about variation: were the dynamics of the Black church different in Montgomery and Little Rock? Were local NAACP chapters different in their behavior or engagement, and did these differences result in differences in level and kind of activism in their surrounding communities?

Social historians of the Civil Rights movement go into much more granular detail about the movement. In greater or lesser detail, the social historians provide readers with insight into specific episodes of mobilization, conflict, and adjustment. They provide us with relatively detailed case studies of these episodes, with a reasonable amount of detail about background circumstances, existing organizations, the leadership available to the black community, instigating events, and the level of grievance and activism present in the population. For example, Aldon Morris's Origins of the Civil Rights Movement provides substantial detail about the individuals, leaders, and organizations that played important roles in the mobilization of support for movement goals in a variety of locations; Hasan Kwame Jeffries' excellent book, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt describes the origins of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization among black rural "tenant farmers"; and Lance Hill's Deacons for Defense does similar work in his analysis of the mobilization of rural African-American people in organized self-defense. A detailed history of particular episodes -- the Montgomery bus boycott, voter registration drives in rural Mississippi, 1960 (link) -- would give the reader of McAdam's book a much more substantial understanding of the mechanisms and processes through which activism and insurgency worked out through ordinary people and local institutions. But there is very little of this kind of detail in McAdam's treatment of the Civil Rights movement. For all its emphasis on the need for accounts of the specific mechanisms through which mobilization, coordination, and protest occurred, not very much concrete detail is provided in the study. The level of aggregation at which McAdam's analysis proceeds is "the South"; whereas we might imagine that the real nuts and bolts of the movement took place in places as diverse as Selma, Little Rock, Montgomery, and the cotton fields and hamlets of Lowndes County.

This really is the point of the discussion here. McAdam's book functions largely to lay out "theories of the middle range" about the factors that facilitate or inhibit mobilization around shared grievances, and he illustrates these theories with examples from the history of civil rights activism in the South during the time period. The central interest of the book is theoretical and explanatory, and it is illuminating. But we can imagine a different kind of study that would incorporate much more attention to the specifics of the processes and events of mobilization in various places across the South. Such a study would result in a book consisting of a handful of moderately detailed case studies, along with sociological commentary on the events and processes that are uncovered in these various episodes. 

It is suggestive that Dynamics of Contention, co-authored in 2001 by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly, takes just such an approach -- sociological theorizing embedded within detailed exposition of important case studies of contention. And given the emphasis that McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly give in the 2001 book on contingency and variation across cases, we might argue that McAdam's study of the Civil Rights movement is couched at too high a level of generalization after all. It would be more instructive if it provided a more granular account of a number of episodes of mobilization, including successes and failures. (This is the reason for returning to Alain Touraine's research on the Polish Solidarity movement (post): Touraine's team did in fact engage in a granular and disaggregated study of the many strands of organization and activism that contributed ultimately to the national Solidarity movement.)

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