16: McAdam, Tarrow & Tilly’s Dynamics of Contention

Dynamics of Contention is not the easiest to get through (ok, so it made me want to put an ice pick through my head), but it’s a pretty important book in social movement theory, so here goes.

Back in the day (like, before the 1960s), social movement theory was a lot closer to social psychology, or crowd theory, or theories of contagion: basically, scholars knew that social movements could and did form and that they could be really dangerous for the social order (see the French Revolution, for instance), but they blamed them on mob mentality and temporary insanity.  And in the 1960s and 70s, when all that social unrest was going on, social scientists did develop more complex theories, but these were still relatively simple: people join organizations which in turn build a mass following and put enormous pressure on the government and the rest of society.  (So claim the authors of this book, anyway.)

Dynamics of Contention builds on the theories from the 60s and 70s, but it updates them for the Postmodern era in three ways:

  • combines lots of different kinds of uprisings – revolutions, strikes, wars, social movements, and so on – under the more general umbrella of “contentious politics,” so that the things scholars have learned about these different struggles can be pooled together in hopes of finding commonalities among them
  • shifts the thing being studied from organizations and individuals to relationships between different organizations and actors, and looks at these relationships as being unstable, shifting, and “dynamic” rather than fixed
  • systematizes the study of political struggle from holistic histories to systematic analyses and a search for “processes” and “mechanisms” that all political struggles share.

Basically, they make things more complicated, since it’s a lot harder to keep track of a bunch of individual people who are all parts of different political organizations and friends with different people at different times than it is to just talk about, say, battles between SNCC and the Black Panthers.  And a more complicated model means that whatever they come up with with look more like real life, right?

Having made things more like real life, then, they spend the rest of the book poking around in 15 different political struggles from all different points in history and all different parts of the world, and they come up with three – yes, three – processes that most of these struggles share.  These are:

  • Actor constitution, where contentious groups form by developing a shared vision and then doing something unusual to get their demands heard and make their presence known
  • Polarization, where all the moderates head to one or the other of two political or social poles, and the vacuum in the middle keeps the two sides from talking to each other and coming to peaceable conflict resolution
  • Scale shift, where a local contentious group grows into a translocal, national, or international group by linking up with other groups who have similar interests or grievances

Thinking about the development of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, this model makes sense to me.  I’m not a huge fan of giant, transhistorical studies that don’t collect their own data, though, and I’m also a little weirded out by two holes in their model: it doesn’t seem to differentiate between successful and unsuccessful movements, and it only seems to account for the growth of movements, not their functioning or their decline.  But these guys are bigwig sociologists; perhaps these concerns are addressed somewhere else in their work.

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