social movements and organizational choices

I’m fielding a question from a colleague who is advising a student. Can you provide some pointers to literature on tensions/debates within movements about whether to turn into a formal organization or stay “a movement” i.e. not organize. I know this is a long and ongoing debate and I’m sure with some work I could pull up some references, but I thought I’d see whether the Scatterplot readers can help out with pointers to older or newer literature, or even your own work.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog --Pam Oliver

7 thoughts on “social movements and organizational choices”

  1. I am not surprised that 5 hours has gone by with no response. Assuming we haven’t lost all our audience with our lack of posting, I will stick my neck out to state the obvious: who is going to try to tell OW something about social movements theory that she doesn’t already know? Not me, that is for sure.

    But in terms of my own work, I argue that one of the impacts of the religious right on the lesbian and gay movement is that the religious right pulled the LG movement into arenas (the courts, Washington lobbying) where they needed more formally elaborated organizations to participate. This was not necessarily what they wanted, and it didn’t necessarily create any social change for them, because the Democrats were much less eager to champion lesbian and gay causes than the Republicans were to support the religious right. However, it did create a wider base of donors and a longevity that served the movement in the long run (that is, kept it going in a consistent, funded way).


    1. Thanks, Tina. Um, the problem is that I’ve been doing a lot of prison stuff lately and I’m not carrying the bibliography around in my head, so I was hoping to save myself some work digging and get other people to do the work for me.


  2. I find it interesting that the way you pose the problem is a choice between creating a formal organization versus staying a movement. I’ve never conceived of movements as opposed to organizations or vice versa. I guess I’m too much of a resource mobilization theory believer to think that the two are mutually exclusive. That said, I know there is a long debate about the degrees of formality, bureaucratization, and professionalization that are necessary to sustain a movement. There’s also a debate about the extent to which formal organizations are necessary for the achievement of movement goals (Gamson vs. Piven and Cloward).

    Lis Clemens and Debra Minkoff wrote an interesting essay about this topic for the Blackwell Handbook that came out in 2004. They argue that the past couple of decades of research have challenged us rethink the role of organizations in movements. Here’s a nice summary sentence from the conclusion: “The more widely we define the very object of inquiry (organizations as more or less permeable arenas for the development of practices and identities of activism; organizational practices as a component of strategic action and success; movement fields as sites of cooperation, competition, and creative transformation) the better able we are to move away from the caricatures of organization that have been at once productive and limiting for movement scholarship over the past three decades.”

    Here’s a link to the book chapter.


  3. I think the student would be most helped by empirical cases in which movements debate whether to be a structured organization or stay “a movement.” (That’s what the student’s case apparently is about. As I said initially, it isn’t my student.)

    To move this along, I thought of all the debates spawned by Piven and Cloward’s Poor People’s Movements argument that organizations hurt the power of the poor, the old New Left and Feminist debates about “structurelessness” (iincluding Jo Freeman’s classic critique) as well as the discussions within feminism around femocrats.

    But I’m not coming up with the case literature about groups that argue about staying informal vs. becoming “bureaucratic.” And I think there might be a literature about anarchists or other more recent groups like Occupy that address this issue, but I don’t know it.


  4. I’d suggest the literature on women’s studies.
    Two good places to start:
    1. Wiegman, Robyn. 1999/2000. “Feminism, Institutionalism, and the Idiom of Failure.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 11:107-136.
    2. My own paper on New Knowledge Movements:
    “Thinking Outside the Master’s House: New Knowledge Movements and the Emergence of Academic Disciplines.” Social Movement Studies 8:1, 71-85


  5. This is really interesting stuff, but the debates don’t play out exactly as your student would want. Lynn E. Dwyer had a piece in the very first edition of social movements of the sixties and seventies (Jo Freeman, ed.) which was very optimistic about the decentralized organizational model. And it’s exactly that case.
    Jim Miller’s treatment of the ideas of early SDS (Democracy is in the Streets) laid out grassroots decentralized ethos, and suggests the consequences.
    Suzanne Staggenborg wrote a neat piece in Harvest of the new women’s movement: Can a feminist organization be effective (or something like that) which considered the same issues.
    In the flush of attention to Occupy, Miller and Todd Gitlin got to write op-eds at the NYTimes, and both argued the key issue was to avoid the anti-organization base democracy fetish.


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