Thursday, August 28, 2014

Edwin Amenta and Drew Halfmann on Social Movement Influence

A couple of weeks ago, I moderated a panel discussion on social movement influence at the American Sociological Association meetings.  It was organized by Edwin Amenta and included Andy Andrews, Leann Banaszak and Tony Chen.  Our discussion was based on an essay that Ed published in Critical Mass Bulletin and responses by myself and Andy.  I've reprinted my essay below.

Drew Halfmann, Critical Mass Bulletin, Spring 2014

As Edwin Amenta notes in his recent Critical Mass essay, scholarly attention to the effects of social movements on social institutions (e.g. policies, the media, corporations) has increased dramatically and with exciting results since William Gamson first published The Strategy of Social Protest in 1975. Scholars such as Amenta, Marco Giugni, Doug McAdam, David Snow, Daniel Cress and Kenneth Andrews have steadily improved on Gamson’s work, and in the process, what began as a trickle of books and articles has now become a steady stream.

Amenta identifies three main approaches in this work: 1) The movement-centered approach focuses on the ways in which the internal characteristics of movements such as their organizational forms, resources, frames, and tactics increase their influence. 2) The political mediation approach focuses on the impact of “strategies in contexts,” examining, for example, the effects of assertive or less-assertive tactics in friendly or hostile legislative or bureaucratic environments. 3) The policy-centered approach attempts to explain particular social outcomes (usually policy outcomes) while keeping an eye on the role of social movements, examining, for example, the role of the abortion rights movement in the formation of abortion policies.

Amenta notes that each of these approaches has its strengths and weaknesses. Studies from the movement-centered approach often pay inadequate attention to contexts, overreach theoretically, and fail to specify appropriate scope conditions. Studies from the policy-centered approach often pay inadequate attention to movement resources, strategies and frames, underreach theoretically, and fail to apply insights from their own case to other similar cases. Finally, the political mediation approach is best suited to studying movements that have contended over long periods, using various strategies in various contexts and to varying effect.

These strengths and weaknesses suggest several best practices: scholars of particular movements or policy outcomes should ask themselves “What is this a case of?”; they should explicitly specify scope conditions; and they should avoid losing sight of either movement contexts or the internal characteristics of movements.

These strengths and weaknesses also suggest that it may be useful to seek hybrids of two or more approaches in order to maximize the strengths (and hopefully not the weaknesses) of each. Amenta locates recent work by Kenneth Andrews and Holly McCammon in the movement-centered approach, but I would argue that it is actually a hybrid of the movement-centered and political mediation approaches. As Amenta rightly notes, Andrews’ and McCammon’s work focuses on the internal characteristics of movements, but unlike earlier work in the movement-centered approach, it asks: which movement characteristics help movements to effectively match strategies to contexts? It thus draws strongly on the political mediation approach. For Andrews, strategic adaptability flows from strong infrastructure (based on leadership, organizational structure, and resources), and for McCammon, it comes from continuous activism, intra-movement tension, and a diverse constituency.

Another hybrid approach might combine the policy-centered (institutional) approach and the political mediation approach. It would ask: Which contexts best promote strategic adaptation by movements? Perhaps, polities and policy areas that are more democratic, more transparent, and more visible would provide movement activists with better signals and information that could aid attempts to adapt strategies to contexts. Such contexts might also provide a broader choice of strategies and tactics. In addition, polities or policy areas with large numbers of elite or movement allies might provide more information for strategic adaptation.  And finally, polities or policy areas with a diverse and vibrant movement sector might provide information for strategic adaptation as well as examples of new frames and tactics.

Finally, another opportunity for hybridity is suggested by Amenta’s observation that most studies of movement effects are case studies. Amenta urges comparative work, but also notes that reliance on case studies is not the end of the world, and even offers some benefits. He argues that the large and growing number of case studies should make it ever more possible for scholars to explicitly locate their own findings and theoretical arguments within a broad set of similar cases, and that to do so is highly desirable. At the same time, case studies allow scholars to attend to mutual causality, sequences, processes and mechanisms that are not readily amenable to regression analyses. I second this point and look forward to discussing the future of the exciting work on social movement effects at the special CBSM session at the ASA meetings in August.

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