How to Determine What Enables Protest?
by Nathan Wolfson

This essay is derived from my MA Thesis Whence These Rumblings? Towards An Understanding of the Structural Pre-Conditions of Anti-Systemic Mobilization.

This essay consists of two main parts. In the first part of this essay, I present a general overview of some of the main themes that have emerged in the study of social movements during the twentieth century. I attempt to briefly summarize some of the more salient aspects of these general theoretical schools with an emphasis on the extent to which some approaches appear more useful than others.

I look at the "earlier perspectives" (McAdam, et al., 1988: 695) of the collective behavior and the mass society approaches. Then I overview the contemporary scene. Cohen (1985) suggests that there are two general categories into which one can divide contemporary social movement theory-the identity based (new social movement) and the resource mobilization models. Without necessarily subscribing to her conclusions I follow her fairly standard division.

In the second part of this essay I then explore the most germane area of the social movement literature (the examination of opportunity structures) and review this area of social movement literature in depth. I attempt to expand the traditionally limited notion of "opportunity structures" beyond formal political structures to encompass both socio-cultural and economic structures, as well. This expansion is based mostly on a revised treatment of part of McAdam's (1982) "political process model."

An Overview of the Field

Collective Behavior, Mass Society, and Relative Deprivation

In general, these "earlier perspectives" tend to view social movements as responses to grievances born of deprivation, alienation, and inconsistency (e.g., Hoffer 1951, Kornhauser 1959, Smelser 1962). Perhaps the most enduring contribution is Smelser (1962). But it relies upon contentions that-even when refined in the work of, e.g., Eyerman and Jamison (1991)-see mobilization largely as the result of group dynamics and the psychological constitution of participants. Such a perspective does not address the general guiding question of this thesis. I do not seek to elucidate why people protest, nor what constitute internal dynamics of protest. Rather, this thesis seeks to examine the contexts outside of contentious activity that foster insurgency.

Beyond this general inapplicability of the "earlier perspectives" to the present task, the "classical approach" is also prone to the spurious conflation of "social movement organizations" with social movements. McAdam (1982) and Tilly (1994), among others, have demonstrated the problems with this approach. Of course, Smelser (1962) manages to suggest (albeit with at least the limitations noted above) that collective action is a result of structural strain. This is a highly plausible hypothesis insomuch as this strain is understood to create what a sect of resource mobilization theorists have taken to calling macro-structural opportunities. To the extent that one reads Smelser this way, he implies that society produces contention. Such a relationship is consonant with this thesis. Ultimately, however, Smelser (1962) does not prove a major exception to the general tendency of these theories.

These "classical movement theorists" tend to focus on "the characteristic psychological profile of the participant and [on] the presumed psychological functions associated with participation" (Mayer 1991: 60). Indeed, though Turner and Killian (1956, 1972, 1986) are cited by Mayer (1991) as the only exception to micro-psychological explanations of movements among such theorists, they do not move beyond explaining movements by explaining why some people participate in movements.

Such theories (including Smelser's [1962]) have suggested that mobilization is the result of social strain, grievances and/or the relative deprivation of particular groups of actors (who are characterized as "anomic, irrational, and deviant" [Mayer 1991: 62]). While these elements certainly play a role (see, e.g., Walsh 1981, Kerbo 1982, Webb, et al. 1983), they seldom adequately explain mobilization (see, e.g., Useem 1975, Jenkins 1981) and they seldom consider macrostructural contexts in a systematic manner. A final indictment of these approaches takes the form of their empirical failure to explain the movements that occurred in core countries during the 1960s (see, e.g., Jenkins 1983, McAdam 1982, Morris and Herring 1987, Oberschall 1973, Useem 1975, Wilson 1973).

That said, in the context of the present investigation of the contexts that foster mobilization, it is interesting to note that in a general way some of the classical theorists tend to agree with some of the contemporary findings regarding which contexts foster mobilization. For example, Kornhauser (1959) suggests that urbanization and industrialization contribute to movement formation. Where he (and most other classical theorists) differ from many contemporary theorists lies in the manner he connects, e.g., industrialization and contention. Typically for the classical theorists, phenomena such as industrialization causes social strain that produces insurgent individuals. The distinct possibility exists, however, that the significance of industrialization resides in the manner in which it restructures society in such a way that mobilization is structurally encouraged, facilitated, or, at least, not as hindered. There may not be the social-psychological link that the classical theorists suggest though the correlation may well exist.

The difference is subtle but important. For the classical theorist, industrialization causes contention. For theorists studying opportunity structures, industrialization allows contention through the manner that it restructures societies into fostering mobilization. The difference is one based on the distinction between "sufficient" and "necessary" independent variables, respectively. Many classical theorists made a questionable claim regarding the sufficiency of their variables.

A final implication for the divergence between classical theorists and opportunity structure theorists is found in their estimation of the time frame of appropriate analysis:

urbanization and industrialization...are by no means irrelevant to collective violence. It is just that their effects do not work as...[classical] theorists say they should. Instead of a short-run generation of strain, followed by protest, we find a long-run transformation of the structures of power and of collective action (Tilly, et al., 1975: 254).

This final point of difference suggests that many of the conclusions reached by the classical theorists will be of limited utility when investigating the kinds of general structural shifts investigated here.

In conclusion it should be noted that-though without direct implications for the present study-the ideological implications of the classical models of social movements inspired the present work insomuch as they are ethically troubling. The suggestion is that movements that have transformed the modern world (whether the American Revolution or the battle for civil rights) are merely "unintended byproducts of a collective attempt at tension management" (McAdam 1982: 18).

New Social Movement Theories

New social movement theory posits a shift of emphasis among contemporary movements towards the growth of potential protest areas through the development of new grievances. D'Anieri, et al., (1990), among others, challenge this assertion insomuch as they demonstrate that the "new" social movements are not so new and may not be so qualitatively different from their precursors as new social movement theoreticians suggest.

In its most extreme form, new social movement theory posits a whole new, unique social theory that-while it appears to revolve around the study of social movements-breaks with the sociological traditions that precede it. Touraine's (1977, 1981, 1988) work is usefully representative of this re-orientation not only of the study of social movements but of the role of sociology itself.

For Touraine, the definition of social action is the ability of society to act upon itself. He suggests that 20th century core countries were living with the legacy of 19th century notions of social progress (derived, it seems, in large measure from the Enlightenment) in the manner in which they and their social movements acted upon themselves. This, however, has changed in his estimation and now the concept of progress is open to question. But Touraine eschews the pursuits of most "post-modernists". Instead he focuses upon social struggles and the ways they shape history.

For Touraine, social struggle involves three general realms. The first is the struggle over the fruits of accumulation. The second is the struggle over the fruits of symbolic exchanges. The third is the struggle over what he calls "historicity." This historicity involves control of the culture beyond the mere manipulation of symbolic exchanges for gain. In essence, historicity is the process of actors within a society creating that society. And it is this "historicity" that Touraine wishes to place at the center of social inquiry.

Touraine's reformulation of social movement study eventually requires that one use his reformulation of sociology. This is troubling on a number of counts, not the least of which involves claims such as "political pressures and economic interests are widely autonomous" (Touraine 1991: 388-9), which are left largely unsubstantiated. But the most troubling aspect of Touraine's approach is his characterization of what social movements are-and of what they do.

Touraine writes that "there is a clear opposition between a sociological analysis which is organized around the notion of society or even social system and a sociology which gives a central role to social movements" (Touraine 1985: 765 [emphasis in original]). But by "social movements" he means "only to refer to conflicts around the social control of the main cultural patterns" (Touraine 1985: 760 [emphasis in original]). That is, if the goal is decreased income disparity, or the implementation of impediments to the unrestrained accumulation of capital (e.g., to reduce the incentives inspiring environmental degradation), the mobilization towards these ends is not, in his estimation, a social movement. Further, Touraine intentionally distinguishes between the action of social movements and action which is "political" (Touraine 1991: 391) whereas the kinds of social movements investigated here inevitably involve some political elements.

Touraine's assertion that "Latin-American guerrillas"-his term-are not part of a social movement (Touraine 1991: 389) is particularly troubling in the context of the present study for at least two reasons. First, many "guerrilla" activities are a part of the generalized basismo movement of which Liberation Theology is a key constituent. Second, "guerrilla" activity is a key example of "non-institutional...political participation" performed by "excluded groups" that forms a cornerstone of the definition of "contention" offered in (the introduction of) the present work.

Touraine states that the reason for this peculiar, radically exclusionary conceptualization of what constitutes a "social movement" is to avoid what he perceives as a common pitfall among those studying movements. The "problem" he seeks to avoid is that "obvious prejudices...so often make discussions about social movements useless because they inform us mainly about social opinions of some limited sectors of academia" (Touraine 1985: 749). The reader will have to judge whether the present work falls prey to such temptations by rejecting Touraine's limiting definition of social movements. In any event, only within the context of Tourainian sociology can one feasibly employ Touraine's definitions of social movements. And this is not an exercise in Tourainian sociology.

Melucci (1989) manages to extract some key nuggets from Touraine's work while still actively engaging the rest of the social scientific community in a conventional manner. Perhaps most interesting is Melucci's general plan or layout of the three primary axes upon which to plan actions of social movement participants. These are the environment, means and goals involved in the movement (Melucci 1989: 26). These can be roughly conceived of as parallel to the triumvirates proposed by both Tilly (1986) and McAdam (1982) to explain mobilization that were introduced at the start of this work, though with a markedly different emphasis.

Melucci's focus is mostly upon the social psychological characteristics of movement participants (hence his being labeled an "identity theorist" [Cohen 1985]). He only delves into investigating the "environment" in which mobilization occurs as it is perceived by movement participants. This is an important aspect of mobilization, but it tends to be more appropriately grouped under "consciousness" than "environment" in the context of the present investigation.

Melucci is correct to point out that tracing all social movement to political factors is rather myopic. This is essentially the view proffered here, with the caveat that the model developed by some of those who have focused exclusively on politics can be revised to include much more than merely the polity. His response, however, is to define "social movement" by referring to the sum-through-interaction of the diverse perceptions and identities of its participants:

Collective action is...the product of purposeful orientations developed within a field of opportunities and constraints... A fundamental implication of this point about the plurality of possible meanings within collective action is that a social movement is not a unified "subject" but always a composite action system, in which widely differing means, ends and forms of solidarity and organization converge in a more or less stable manner (Melucci 1989: 25, 28).

This "solution," however, merely replaces one myopia with another. Instead of reducing social movements to a particular interaction with the state, Melucci proposes reducing social movements to combinations of perceptions and "identities" and doing away with a concept of "social movement" in general (Melucci 1989: 189).

new social movement theory extends beyond Touraine's and Melucci's work, of course. In general, the field suggests that new social movements occur in post-modern societies in which post-materialist values become their driving force. But as Adam (1990) suggests, "The proposition that the new social movements represent movements of cultural defiance has failed to take into account their ongoing struggles with the state and capital" (Adam 1990: 317). Touraine may attempt to counter such criticisms through statements referring to "class relations through which... orientations become social practices" (Touraine 1981, 25). Either way, it is the constraints on this "becoming"-the structures through which this becoming occurs-that are the focus of the present study.

Offe (1987) probably gets close to bridging the gap between the largely culturalist concerns of much "new social movement" theory and the reality of structured social (especially class) relations. An application of his theorizing suggests that, though its claims are often framed in cultural (e.g., ethical) terms, one of the primary tasks of the environmental movement has been to subvert the unbridled accumulation of capital insomuch as this accumulation has fueled ecological degradation (and must be curtailed to diminish its destruction). This "Offean" strain of "new social movement" theory informs the present focus of social structures.

Among the theorists associated with this school. Eder (1993) demonstrates some of the most useful insights into the kind of movement study engaged in here. His note of the link between the "self-defeating process of modernization" and "the increasing environmental crisis" plainly points to a key link with the U.S. environmental movement (Eder 1993: 119). Though his work deliberately eschews discussin the U.S. environmental movement, many of his insights into movements in general (and into contemporary environmental movements in advanced capitalist societies in particular) are useful.

Key among his insights is that ecological crisis has created a new generalized form of social ("class") conflict. This new conflict takes center stage in social relations and creates a newly radicalized constituency comprised largely of the traditional "middle class." This class, he suggests, grew out of "a distorted form of countercultural traditions" and if moving in a contentious direction again (Eder 1993: 134). This change opens new fields of contention. Eder sees "nature" as the likely primary new field of contention. Habermas draws a similar link between material conditions and their effect upon radical activity in his exploration of the effect of ecological degradation on the life-world (Habermas 1981, 1987). For example, he writes:

What sparks the protest...is the tangible destruction of the urban environment, the destruction of the countryside by bad residential planning, industrialization and pollution, health impairments due to side effects of civilization-destruction... These are developments that visibly attack the organic foundations of the life-world and make one drastically conscious of criterias of livability, of inflexible limits to the deprivation of sensual-aesthetic background needs... The objectives, attitudes, and behavior prevalent in youthful protest groups can at first be grasped as reactions to specific problem situations perceived with great sensitivity: "green" problems. The large industrial intervention in ecological balances, the scarcity of non-renewable natural resources, and the demographic development present industrially developed societies with serious problems. Yet these challenges are largely abstract and require technical and economic solutions that must, in turn, be planned globally and implemented by administrative means (Habermas 1981: 35 [emphases in original]).

Much of new social movement theory, however, is of limited utility in the context of the present study. By emphasizing the "how" rather than the "why," this school of thought probably goes further than any other in explaining how it is that individuals become participants in social movements. But the manner in which societies produce these movements is less satisfactorily addressed. The emphasis on what Touraine names "post-industrial" societies (Touraine 1981) limits the utility of understanding the common elements of movements that occur both within and outside of the societies he investigates. Such an objection is not to dismiss Touraine's pursuits in general but to suggest that they are of limited use for the present investigation.

Finally, in the explicit context of the present investigation, one manner in which the limitations of new social movement theory becomes salient occurs when one looks to this body of work for the explanation of dissimilar movement experiences in otherwise allegedly similar societies. For example, as Kitschelt notes, "What proponents of this approach do not explain is why the various anti-nuclear protests have had such dissimilar careers, in terms of both differential articulation and impact, in otherwise similarly constituted capitalist societies" (Kitschelt 1986: 58-59). In contrast, the present study works towards such explanations.

Resource Mobilization

Resource mobilization theory involved a shift of emphasis away from deprivation (which is seen as ubiquitous) and towards the availability of resources and opportunities to explain the occurrence of movements. There are three major facets to this general area of literature which can be characterized as the "costs and benefits," "groups and organizations," and "opportunity structures" approaches. The latter approach, whose general principles pertain more to the present investigation than the others, will be introduced in this section and then investigated in second half of this essay (The Structural Pre-Conditions of Mobilization). In a sense, the latter approach contradicts many of the suppositions of the first two approaches, however, so the present study refrains from considering itself an investigation of an instance of resource mobilization.

Costs and Benefits

The concept of costs and benefits descends from Olson (1965) and his theory that rational individuals will not participate in collective action unless there are sufficient incentives for them to do so. He explains why some individuals do not participate in movements but does not explain why other people do participate (the "free-rider problem"). Firemand and Gamson (1979), Oberschall (1980), among others, have suggested viable solutions to this perceived problem. Though not typically considered a theorist in this vein, Offe (1985b) has focused on related issues of will involved in the genesis of collective action. He too utilizes a conceptualization of individual perception of "costs of collective action" (Offe 1985b: 183) as a key component in his understanding of mobilization.

But this area of research does not lend itself to explaining the general guiding question of the present investigation insomuch as this portion of resource mobilization does not focus on external, macro social structures that engender movements but, rather, focuses on why particular individuals participate.

Groups and Organizations

The organization of protest groups has been asserted to play a key role in facilitating the participation of individuals within those groups (e.g., Lofland 1985, Morris 1984, Oberschall 1980). These groups have been conflated with movements as a whole. Thus organizational dynamics of groups have been considered a "resource" that contributes to mobilization. As Tilly (1994) notes, there are valid analytical reasons for eschewing such investigatory stances as they have been historically applied:

Immense confusion has arisen in sociological treatments of social movements because of two mistaken presumptions grounded in the phenomenon itself. The first presumption is that the social movement is a group, albeit a group of a particular sort, rather than a cluster of performances. The second is that social movements have continuous life histories such that one can think of them as forming, flourishing, evolving, and dying in sequences that recur from movement to movement because of their intrinsic internal dynamics (Tilly 1994: 3).

Melucci (1989) among others describes how movements often rely up already existing groups. But this is different from suggesting that mobilization is a group activity that can largely be explained with reference to internal group dynamics and through collective behavior. The Sierra Club is not the environmental movement. Understanding why people become members of the Sierra Club is a worthy pursuit but it does not explain environmentalism and it is not the goal of this investigation.

The present work avoids the resurgent (during the climate of the 1980s) micro-interactionist approach (e.g., Gamson 1990) and related social movement theories (e.g., Touraine 1981) because it does not seek to answer the general question, "Why do individuals participate in anti-systemic activity?" nor, even, "What are the internal dynamics of movements that propel mobilization?" Rather, the present investigation seeks to answer a fundamentally different sort of question, namely, "Why does mobilization occur in some places at some times and not at other places at other times?" with reference to the societies and global structures within which the movements occur rather than with reference to the individuals (and their surmised motivations) within the movements. In light of this predisposition, issues raised by Cohen (1985) that Gamson (1992) draws upon, and adds to, that focus on individual psychology-collective identity, solidarity, consciousness and micromobilization-will not answer the questions being posed here.

The Goldstone, Gamson, et al. exchange in two separate issues of the American Journal of Sociology may shed a final bit of light of these matters (Goldstone 1980a, 1980b; Gamson 1980; Foley and Steedly 1980). In introducing the debate in the second edition of his central work, The Strategy of Social Protest, Gamson (1990) suggests that the final method of arbitration among the disparate claims may be ultimately elusive. "These exchanges go beyond the substantive arguments in Strategy to show contrasting approaches to general issues of sociological theory, methods, and practice" (Gamson 1990: 181). That may be, but the present work finds Goldstone's conclusions the more persuasive:

It is interesting to note that recent theories of revolutions have held that the organization of revolutionary movements contributes less to successful revolutions than do large structural aspects of societies, including political and social crises (see Skocpol 1979; Goldstone 1980[c]). I venture the same may apply to social protest movements in general [Goldstone 1980b: 1432n].

Goldstone speaks of "success" rather than the issue of "genesis" investigated here, but the implications for the general models of understanding contention are the same.

Opportunity Structures

Structural factors external to movements of protest--the macro-contexts in which mobilization occurs--play a key role in the genesis of contention. The decisive role of structural (typically, political) opportunities has been noted by, e.g., Eisinger (1973), Kitschelt (1986), Kriesi, et al,. (1992), McAdam (1982), Meyer and Imig (1993), Piven and Cloward (1977), Tarrow (1994), and Tilly (1978).

Social crises and structural change have been increasingly cited as important pre-conditions of mobilization. In his discussions of the various types of legitimation crises, Habermas (1973, 1976) echoes the notion that regime crises provide the opportunity for social change. A set of such factors--the large structural aspects of the society in which contention occurs--appears to be crucial, as well, for the most extreme kind of movement, the social revolution (Skocpol 1979, Goldstone 1980c).

It is the investigation of these general opportunity structures--the structural pre-conditions of mobilization--that this thesis focuses on. The second half of this essay is a detailed investigation of this area of work. Here it is important to point out that this (alleged) branch of resource mobilization theory side-steps many of the failings of the rest of that "approach" and might be more correctly considered a response to resource mobilization theory (e.g., McAdam's [1982] formulation of his "political process model").

The other two branches of resource mobilization typically fall prey to conflating social movement organizations with the movements themselves. McAdam summarizes some of the problems with this approach for the movements being investigated here.

In regard to such groups [The Citizens' Board of Inquiry into Hunger and Malnutrition in the United States, the National Council of Senior Citizens for Health Care through Social Security, Common Cause, and the various organizational offshoots of Ralph Nader's consumer-rights campaign], theMcCarthy-Zald [1973] version of the resource mobilization model affords a useful framework for analysis. The real question is whether it is defensible to call such groups social movements in the first place... In particular, proponents of the model offer descriptions of (a) the relationship of elite groups to social movements, (b) the insurgent capabilities of excluded groups, (c) resources, and (d) the role of discontent in the generation of social insurgency that are regarded here as problematic when applied to the broad class of movements subsumed under the definition proposed (McAdam 1982: 24-25).

Further, in light of the focus of the present investigation, the way most resource mobilization theorists have treated mobilization contexts is particularly deficient. They tend to assume that the background conditions in which mobilization occurs are composed of an ahistorical, pluralistic society in which "if the group is well organized, it can get its share" (Mayer 1991: 94). Alternately, they sometimes accept the notion that societies are run by elites-but then suggest that such a state is inevitable insomuch as "excluded groups...are seem as functionally powerless in the face of the enormous power wielded by the elite" (McAdam 1982: 37). And most resource mobilization theorists tend to assume that success can be measured through tangible gains for movement participants. Further:

What is ignored, but crucially important for the development of social movements, are the formal and informal social control and repression processes the state may bring to bear on the movements, and, even, prior to that, the effects of structured socio-economic relations such as unemployment or economic variables (Mayer 1991: 95).

As described below, this is the area of inquiry directly addressed by the present study.

The Structural Pre-Conditions of Mobilization

This discussion consists of two main sections. In the first I discuss the traditional study of political opportunity structures. Hitherto these constitute the most systematic examination of the effect of context on mobilization. I delve into some general themes of this area of study (e.g., its focus on regime strength) and explore some of the oversights and limitations of this approach. In the second section of this discussion I attempt to transcend some of the limitations inherent in the study of contexts of mobilization engendered by the traditional focus on the polity. This is undertaken through the introduction of other kinds of mobilization contexts. I discuss surpra-national political, economic and socio-cultural processes--the global context--and local contexts involving economic, demographic and socio-cultural variables (in addition to local political factors).

The Study Of Political Opportunity Structures

The examination of the structural pre-conditions of mobilization is often grouped within the "resource mobilization" rubric. It differs radically from the other strains of resource mobilization, however, in some important manners. The birth of the study of opportunity structures and their effect on incidences of mobilization is typically traced to Peter Eisinger's "The Conditions of Protest Behavior in American Cities" (Eisinger 1973). In this article he writes:

In short, elements in the environment impose certain constraints on political activity or open avenues for it. The manner in which individuals and groups in the political system behave, then, is not simply a function of the resources they command [which most resource mobilization theorists emphasize] but of openings, weak spots, barriers, and resources of the political system itself (Eisinger 1973: 11-12).

The emphasis of the present study is an investigation of this second set of factors in the genesis of contentious activity which, in the sense of the contrast Eisinger draws, is a diametrically different focus from most resource mobilization research.

The difference between much resource mobilization theorizing and that which falls under the heading "the investigation of opportunity structures" is illustrated by McCarthy and Zald (1977). They assume a generic "modern American context" for their theory and, thus, do not consider variations in structural opportunities (McCarthy and Zald 1977: 1236). In contrast, the present discussion seeks to describe the role played by variations in structural opportunities.

It is important to note that while Eisinger is writing as a political scientist and often frames his analyses with reference to "the political system," "political opportunities," and so on, the general predispositions of his investigatory stance can be applied to a broader range of phenomena than the explicitly, conventionally political. Eisinger, too, recognizes that the context in which protest develops is not merely one constituted of traditional political structures: "Political environment is a generic term used variously in the literature of political science to refer to, among other things, aspects of formal political structure, the climate of governmental responsiveness, social structure, and social stability" (Eisinger 1973: 11).

The present study wishes to de-emphasize the historical emphasis among political scientists on the study of formal political structures in the investigation of the effects of opportunity on mobilization. Eisinger demonstrates this bias among political scientists when recounting some exemplary accounts in the social scientific literature of "examination[s] of the extent to which specific configurations of environmental variables and distinctive patterns of local politics occur together" (Eisinger 1973: 11). The studies he cites--Alford and Lee 1968, Sherbenou 1961, Hawley 1963, Lieberson and Silverman 1965--all utilize traditional political structures as their "independent variables": reformed municipal institutions, reform government, centralization of local power, and less representative councilmanic [sic] institutions, respectively.

Certainly political opportunity structures are an important part of the environment that affects the likelihood of mobilization. But it is not the only element worth considering. It may not even be the most important aspect of the conditions for mobilization. Economic and socio-cultural independent variables may prove to have had stronger links to incidents of contention than has the state of formal political structures. Certainly the extent to which economic and socio-cultural factors play some sort of role is worthy of investigation.

The reasons for the oversights of some political scientists when examining contention--for ignoring factors outside of the formal political realm--are probably numerous. Some may be institutional. For example, grant monies may be proffered by municipal governments in search of political preventative measures in the face of possible mobilizations of their populations. But Eisinger's treatment of what he perceives as the difference between "political protest" and "ghetto violence" lends another clue.

By studying only the formal political context in which mobilization occurs--by largely ignoring economic and socio-cultural contexts--Eisinger is able to suggest that "protest against local government targets and collective ghetto violence are two forms of political expression which may be distinguished conceptually and empirically" (Eisinger 1973: 13). In what becomes a prejudicial attempt at distinction (which tends to patently legitimate polite protest while implicitly disparaging insurrection), Eisinger reports that "protest against local government targets is likely to be related to the nature of local politics, while ghetto violence is not." One is left to ponder the possible, alternate conclusions had the studies he draws his findings from emphasized socio-cultural and economic factors to the extent that they examined formal political contexts. Would a picture of mobilization have emerged in which polite and violent protest were distinguishable as, e.g., the recourses of the relatively privileged and of the disadvantaged, respectively?

Eisinger's emphasis upon the political system and on political processes tends to indict the contentious, often violent, anti-systemic activities of the disenfranchised (who are less likely to have effective avenues of formal protest available). His "conceptual" discrimination between "protest" and "violence" (that the former involves violence implicitly while the latter does so explicitly) opens the possibility of such prejudice. Through a de-emphasis on such potentially biased distinctions, the present study seeks to avoid such a stark contrast. Additionally, the sociological literature on movement somewhat undermines Eisinger's rigid distinctions (e.g., Tilly 1978).

Whatever his other questionable stances, Eisinger represents a fairly archetypal shortcoming in the study of opportunity structures: the focus on formal political processes to the diminution of economic and socio-cultural variables. This predisposition is shared by Kitschelt (1986) and his investigation of the effects of political opportunity structures on the anti-nuclear movement in four core countries during the 1970s. So while his findings that in states where political structures were both open to the influence of movements and forceful/strong in their implementation of public policy, mobilization was most likely to be effective is worth noting. This is especially insomuch as it enlarges the scope of investigation beyond allegedly isolated municipalities (the range of Eisinger 1973) to the size of nation-states. Still, Kitschelt (1986) ultimately falls short of being of great assistance in the present study in two important ways.

First, he addresses movement success rather than movement genesis. Though the two are probably related, he does not investigate--nor hypothesize--as to how. Second, he fails to look beyond the structures of political participation and governance. In particular, he ignores the political-economics of the nuclear power industry and the socio-cultural trends within the greater societies (and, for that matter, within the peace and ecological movements) that spawned the anti-nuclear movement. Kitschelt calls this a "regime centered" theory, which it certainly is. Unfortunately, regime centered variables were the only type introduced so the paper was almost predestined to produce one of two conclusions. Either state structures would determine movement trajectory or the study would have been a description of a failed attempt to find such a suggestive correlation. A third, possibly more persuasive conclusion--namely that political structures play an important role but that so do other social structures--was never a possibility because it was not systematically evaluated. This thesis attempts to create a method to redress this weakness.

Kriesi, et al., (1992) build upon the same tradition that informs Kitschelt (1986) and that is typically traced to Eisinger (1973). They fall prey to some of the same shortfalls, especially with regard to their inattention to non-political structural factors involved in the genesis of mobilization. They make at least three important advances, however.

First, Kriesi, et al., (1992) at least acknowledge that--though they focus on political contexts--there are other factors involved in the creation of political realities. By opening their reductivism (which sees all social realities related to social movements through the lens of regime configurations) to recognize the fact that "general setting" plays a role in the occurrence of contention, they introduce the possibility of addressing non-political contexts (at least to the extent that these create political contexts). They do not, however, pursue this set of possibilities.

Second, they move beyond the prejudicial decoupling of non-violent and violent protest presented by Eisinger (1973). "The actions [of protest events] included range from petitions and demonstrations, through boycotts, disturbances and occupations to violent attacks against persons" (Kreisi, et al., 1992: 222). This brings the notion of protest as treated in the literature of political opportunity structures closer to the generalized conceptualization of anti-systemic activity presented in the present discussion of opportunity structures.

Third, they note the increasing importance of supra-national (albeit political) structures affecting movements. This falls short of the conceptualization presented below under "the global contexts of mobilization" discussion, but still highlights the extent to which they perceive other avenues of investigation.

In sum, the findings of Kitschelt (1986) and Kriesi, et al., (1992) tend to support the hypothesis that institutional setting (in this case state-centered or regime-centered in the tradition of Badie and Birnbaum [1983] and Zysman [1983]) greatly affects social movements. In particular, a distinction is made between weak, unstable or changing states and strong, relatively static states. But, more importantly, two defining characteristics are introduced: how susceptible the state is to the influence of social movements and how able the state is to impose its policies. While a weak state is defined as lacking in both of these categories, the success of a movement relies of a balancing of characteristics.

Movements get furthest, this line of research suggests, when states are open to external influences (an attribute of a "weak state") but then experience little opposition to the impositions of their policies (an attribute of a "strong state") which have been influenced by movements. But since the present discussion is focused upon movement formation rather than success, the former political context (that of a weak state which may be easily influenced) is the most relevant. So the extent to which states are responsive to (open to, susceptible to) contention will become one of the variables investigated in the present work.

Tarrow (1989) draws on the authors discussed above as well as on a number of other studies that (sometimes just tangentially) discuss political opportunity structures (e.g., Hobsbawm 1974, Jenkins and Perrow 1977, Katzenstein and Mueller 1987, Leeds and Leeds 1976, Piven and Cloward 1977, Portes 1979, Walton 1979). He then summarizes what he sees as the four general areas in which one can measure political opportunity:

  1. the degree of openness or closure of the polity;
  2. the stability or instability of political alignments;
  3. the presence or absence of allies and support groups;
  4. divisions within the elite and its tolerance or intolerance of protest (Tarrow 1989: 34).

In this study, I will employ a generalized conceptualization that seeks to encompass these general areas of political opportunity: the openness and receptivity of the polity and of the elites to the anti-systemic insurgent claims and actions to which they are subjected. Additionally, this study operationalizes "political context" via methods derived partly from Everett (1991).

The most sophisticated refinement of this political opportunity structures approach to the study of social movements occurs in McAdam's (1982) investigation of the US black civil rights movement. This "openness and receptivity" criteria I derive from Tarrow (1989) has been characterized by McAdam (1982) as occurring in two differing configurations. The first he calls "generalized political instability" (McAdam 1982: 42). This refers to a situation encompassing the polity and the generalized societal elites. In such situations, a broad array of insurgency is fostered (e.g., 1968 in France as discussed by Shorter and Tilly [1974], the Southern Farmers Alliance in the ante-bellum US South [Schwartz, 1976]).

The second kind of "openness and receptivity" McAdam (1982) differentiates as conducive to mobilization by only a particular subdivision of the mass of potentially contentious parties within a social system. For example, Jenkins and Perrow (1977) suggest that farm workers of the 1960s were facilitated in their struggles not by generalized political instability but by "the altered political environment within which the challenge operated" (Jenkins and Perrow, 1977: 263).

The present study, by looking at widespread local political (and non-political)--as well as global--contexts, does not seek to differentiate between these two types of structures. Rather, the two are seen as interrelated to the point of inseparability. They will be addressed in tandem, often without distinction. As McAdam himself notes:

Regardless of whether the broad social processes productive of such shifts serve to undermine the structural basis of the entire political system or simply to enhance the strategic position of a single challenger, the result is the same: a net increase in the political leverage exercised by insurgent groups (McAdam 1982: 43).

That is to say, in both types of contexts, mobilization is fostered.

Though McAdam's (1982) "political process model" extends beyond mobilization contexts, he hastens to note:

The strategic constraints confronting excluded groups should not be underestimated... [T]he force of environmental constraints is usually sufficient to inhibit mass action. But this force is not constant over time... The suggestion is that neither environmental factors nor factors internal to the movement are sufficient to account for the generation and development of social insurgency (McAdam 1982: 39).

This study's emphasis, in striving to determine the necessary contexts in which mobilization can occur (rather than the sufficient conditions that necessarily produce insurgent activity), then, draws on this aspect of McAdam's reformulation of political opportunity structures literature.

While acknowledging Eisinger (1973) in his treatment of the political opportunity structures aspect of his "political process" model's presentation on the generation of insurgency, McAdam (1982) draws out some of the latent ideas I allude to above. He writes:

The point is that any event or broad social process that serves to undermine the calculations and assumptions on which the political establishment is structured occasions a shift in political opportunities. Among the events and processes likely to prove disruptive of the political status quo are wars, industrialization, international political realignments, prolonged unemployment, and widespread demographically changes (McAdam 1982: 41).
Other Opportunity Structures

What areas of investigation can be most appropriately added to the study of the polity when investigating the genesis of mobilization? Ideally, one would introduce all the data about each case being utilized that area specialists (in each of the case areas) have synthesized. Realistically, this thesis relies on a few illustrative types of contexts (and a corresponding set of representative variables) to indicate the relative social, political and economic environments in which contention has coalesced. The selection of these contexts is based on both social movement and political-economic theory and research. For a discussion of a more thorough approach to the expansion of the investigation of mobilization contexts, refer to "Avenues for Further Investigation" (in Chapter Six of my MA thesis).

In his investigation of largely local, non-political contexts, Brand (1990) sees three general episodes of cultural criticism--what he calls Zivilisationskritik--during the past two centuries. The first occurred during the 1830s and 1840s (roughly). This already "romantic" period combined the tensions produced by the conflicting agendas of the emerging bourgeois, industrial social order and the receding aristocratic, agrarian world, with the insecurities engendered by the ensuing transformation's social ills. The result was a period particularly notable for social criticism, utopianism, revolt (labor-based and otherwise), and escapism (in the form of alternative lifestyle and community construction emphasizing simple-living and egalitarianism).

The second episode of Zivilizationskritik occurred around the turn of the century. Growing anti-urbanism, the rejection of Victorian prudery and artificiality, an increasing fascination with the occult and a growing awareness of the "ugly side of industrialization, of the mass misery in the slum quarters of the cities, of the social, moral and psychological costs of progress" began to define the age. (To be sure, however, the backlash was nearly as notable at times as was the criticism.)

The most recent episode of widespread criticism noted by Brand (1990) transpired during the 1960s and 1970s, when the public-interest, student activist, civil rights and anti-war movements were followed by the women's, environmental, and anti-nuclear movements.

Brand concludes that there are common attributes among these periods of mobilization. To investigate which aspects of the waves may be most closely linked to contention, some of the specific social settings that Brand cites as indicative of Zivilizationskritik should be investigated.

One of the key components in the shift from older forms of contention to more modern forms of contention (such as those investigated here) was the result of wider-spread literacy among potential rebels. Tarrow (1994) describes the nature of the transition from older forms of collective action (such as grain seizures) to modern collective action (such as labor strikes). Perhaps foremost in this transition was the spread of printed matter and the general rise in literacy-which combined to not only widely disperse information of a political nature but also to create an arena in which both masses and elites were treated with a common vocabulary and in a common forum. (new forms of association led to greater solidarity among prospective movements participants and greater diffusion of the conditions for movement created broader, more effective coalitions are also noted as important factors.)

Major shifts in the international (sometimes global) political-economic order may well affect the occurrence of contention. As Silver (1992) notes, "the processes of world-scale labor unrest over the last century can be illuminated by studying their inter-relationship with processes of global political change--i.e., cycles of hegemony/rivalry" (Silver 1992: 153). She finds a strong positive correlation between periods of rivalry and periods of particularly explosive labor unrest (Silver 1992: 179).

One of the primary contributions of the world-system perspective has been the exploration and expansion of the notions of dependency theorists (e.g., Cordosa and Faletto 1979 [orig. 1971], Frank 1969a & 1969b) into a full-fledged exploration of the ways in which global (or, at least, international/supranational) phenomena structure local realities. Wallerstein (1984, 1974), among others, notes that a locale's position within the world-system has a decisive influence over the internal workings of the locale. For example, Paige (1975) notes that involvement in international commercial agriculture played a significant role in agrarian revolutions in the underdeveloped world.

Silver (1992) addresses such implications and suggests there is a correlation between movements and economic cycles in the context of antisystemic labor mobilization. Brand (1990), however, disputes the economistic determinant as the primary factor in mobilization. Tarrow (1989) concludes that cycles of protest do not coincide with economic cycles. Frank and Fuentes (1990) touch upon this issue and seem to imply--though they do not state--that the impending introduction of B-phases sometimes suggestively correspond with the genesis of antisystemic mobilization. But they suggest that "the question of the relation between social movements and economic or other cycles remains in doubt pending further research" (Frank and Fuentes 1990: 144).

These issues can become murky in the sense that there often appears to be an intertwined relationship among the various variables. For example, while Silver (1992) disputes a narrowly economistic determinism based on K-cycles, she finds a strong correlation between hegemonic shifts (that is, periods of rivalry) and labor unrest. And as the Research Working Group on Cyclical Rhythms and Secular Trends (1979) notes, there appears to be a correlation between hegemonic shifts and clusters of K-cycles. Hence the desirability of as thorough as possible an examination of the contexts of the cases under investigation, without relying on existing material devoted to examining K-cycles.

It is important to note that breaking down the areas of investigation into categories is not intended as a reflection of a belief that phenomena in the real world can be neatly thus divided. On the contrary, occurrences most readily placed in any one category are intimately--nay, inseparably--related to occurrences in other categories. For example, as Weber (1981) and Namenworth and Weber (1987) have noted (criticisms such as Giervyn's [1990] not withstanding), international (global) economic cycles are related to national (local) political cycles. And as Habermas (1981) has noted (in the context of contemporary contentions surrounding ecology), global material incursions affect the types of actions one's local lifeworld engenders--and yet must be responded to on a macro-political level. To re-iterate:

What sparks the protest...is the tangible destruction of the urban environment, the destruction of the countryside by bad residential planning, industrialization and pollution, health impairments due to side effects of civilization-destruction... These are developments that visibly attack the organic foundations of the life-world and make one drastically conscious of criterias of livability, of inflexible limits to the deprivation of sensual-aesthetic background needs... The objectives, attitudes, and behavior prevalent in youthful protest groups can at first be grasped as reactions to specific problem situations perceived with great sensitivity: "green" problems. The large industrial intervention in ecological balances, the scarcity of non-renewable natural resources, and the demographic development present industrially developed societies with serious problems. Yet these challenges are largely abstract and require technical and economic solutions that must, in turn, be planned globally and implemented by administrative means (Habermas 1981: 35 [emphases in original]).

While recognizing how local and global, material and cultural conditions are often inextricably entwined, the need to systematically address as much relevant data as is possible compels one to devise some general plan of organization for the collection, presentation and analysis of empirical observations. Through devising two general categories of investigation as presented here, some sort of standardized format for the presentation and evaluation of cases can be established (without unduly prejudicing the presentation of data by lending primacy to any one set of facts).

The general outline for the data sets, then, is divided into "global" and "local" sections. Especially with regard to the "local," as much as is reasonable, the nation-state as a unit of analysis is ideally eschewed. As Melucci has noted:

As a unitary agent of intervention and action, the state has dissolved. It has been replaced, from above, by a tightly inter-dependent system of transnational relationships, as well as sub-divided, from below, into a multiplicity of partial governments, which are defined by their own systems of representation and decision-making (Melucci 1994: 187).

And while Melucci is primarily speaking of contemporary, "advanced societies," Wallerstein (1974), among others, have traced such supra-national structures back to circa 1500 AD--which suggests that the "modern world-system" (cf. the "nation-state") has been the most illuminating unit of analysis for the time-period under discussion here.

Another important aspect of Wallerstein's conceptualizations has been the conflict between localities (not necessarily nation-states) and the world-economy (e.g., Wallerstein 1991a, 1991b) during the same time period. Bergesen (1994), in his discussion encompassing both Wallerstein's conceptualization of the modern world-system and those conceptualizations that seek to elucidate a much more enduring world system (e.g., Abu-Lughod 1989; Gills and Frank 1990, 1991; Chase-Dunn and Hall 1991) discusses such conceptualizations as a striving towards a meaningful, new discipline. In his estimation, this "globology" eschews sub-global structures more than even the more radical world system inquirers have so far (in his estimation) managed. He writes, "the world collectivity has an existence of its own, independent of its societal parts" (Bergesen 1994: 85).

However, for the sake of utility-and in light of the tentative nature of globological foundationalist assertions-the present work is not only compelled to incorporate data collected and presented at the nation-state level (albeit in a manner that is both sub- and supra-national and that considers the insights of the relatively nascent globological perspective). Any investigation must also allow for the possibility that the "local" factors examined, while inarguably linked to world-history, may be more readily recognizable than world-systemic trends as determinants in the formation of anti-systemic mobilization.

This synthesis of the systemic examination of both local and global factors (both conceived of in a manner similar to that employed here) has been proposed before--though typically without the breadth of comparison. Kick (1980), Walton (1984), Eckstein (1989), Walton and Ragin (1990), Boswell and Dixon (1990), Robinson and London (1991), and Jenkins and Schock (1992) have all at least tangentially touched upon this coupling of the analysis of domestic political processes and global international relations. Most notably, Frank and Fuentes (1990), following Brand (1990), have demonstrated cross-national similarities in the timing and intensity of contention activity for at least the 1800s and the 1900s. Their work suggests that international factors influence movement activity/formation.

 


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This page was last updated in Spring 2001.
This document is © copyrighted 1995-2001 by Nathan Wolfson (nathan underscore wolfson at yahoo dot com) and is derived from my MA thesis in Sociology. This essay contains the most interesting parts of that work.

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