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Creating Movements People Want to Join

As we are seeing in the mass protests against police brutality across all 50 states and in many countries around the world, advocacy movements are driven by people’s willingness to take part in a cause, even, at times, at great personal sacrifice. To explore that aspect of advocacy, 50CAN CEO Marc Porter Magee spoke with Marcos Pérez, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Washington and Lee University, whose research looks at what causes people to join social movements.

Porter Magee: How has the study of social movements changed over the years? Are we asking different questions now?

Pérez: The field of social movement studies has exploded in the past 50 years. Before the 1960s, the best we had were general theories that, while useful, did not look deeply into the lives of social movement participants. Scholars since then changed that with their research, putting a particular emphasis on the political context of social movements and the strategic choices of organizations.

Some of the biggest questions we are tackling now are about participation. Why do people get involved in politics? Why do people get involved in social movements? It’s an exciting time in the field because we are challenging a lot of assumptions people hold about how politics and advocacy work.

What are some of the assumptions that might not be supported by this new evidence?

For instance, we have probably overstated the connection between ideology and mobilization. We tend to assume that people join movements because they have a deep connection to the ideas that movement supports. But my research suggests that people can join social movements they don’t agree with, which seems very counterintuitive.

We know that talk is cheap and what people say they believe doesn’t always match their behavior. So why should we expect a clear-cut connection between ideology and political behavior? The answer is: We shouldn’t. Does this mean that people are stupid? No. Does this mean that people have been deceived or fooled into joining a movement? No, those are very poor explanations for these empirical phenomena.

People have a complex mix of motivations, and this complexity is expressed through both their stated beliefs and their actions. We need to look at what they actually do, not just what they say, to really understand them.

It seems like the context in which a movement is operating is essential to understand this complexity.

That’s right. I live in the United States but I’m originally from Argentina, where I do most of my field work on social movements. And these are very different places.

Politics in the United States is very structured. There are more than 200 years of institutional traditions that shape how to get stuff done in this country. Argentina has been a democracy for only 40 years and has a completely different political history. When you are an advocate in a social movement in Argentina and you want to get attention, you have different options. For instance, a common tactic is to block a road. You block a road, you stay there, and you wait until the cops come. They arrive and may tell you that they're going to beat the shit out of you, but you know they probably won't. So you stand your ground and then the negotiation begins. That's the way advocacy happens in Argentina. In most parts of the United States, if you block a road, you're going to be in jail in five minutes and you don’t get much attention for your issue. It's a completely different context.

If we really want to understand social movements, we need to understand the environment in which they take place and all the institutions and rules of the specific political culture that affects the behavior and the tactics of the people involved. A tactic that works in Argentina might not work in Brazil. Whatever will get attention in Jackson, Mississippi, will be very different than the attention that you would get in Portland, Maine. Context matters.

Why is mass participation so important?

Most of the problems we have as a society could be more easily solved if more people got involved. If more people were involved, we would have a political system that would be more attuned to the concerns of people. We would have more equality in political representation. Groups that are today more or less excluded would actually have more of a voice in policymaking. So figuring out how to get more people involved is crucial to these different ways of improving our society.

How do we get people more involved in advocacy and politics?

It starts with asking broader questions. So, for instance, why do people enjoy political participation? From a strictly rational perspective, political participation should not be enjoyable. Political participation and social movement participation are super costly because they take a lot of time and effort. There is often a big personal sacrifice and success is rarely guaranteed. Social movements fail. Political campaigns fail. And, yet, some people can't get enough of them.

For a long time, the answer was that people were driven by ideology. My own research and that of others points to another possible answer: It can also be about enjoying yourself and expressing yourself. If you really want people to join your campaign or your social movement, you need to focus on making the experience meaningful for participants. The fact that advocating for something can be gratifying, or even fun, does not mean that the cause is frivolous. 

So with the future of democracy on the line, it sounds like we can’t afford to take our eye off the ball of how to encourage people to become participants, and how to help them stay participants, in politics and advocacy.  

We have known for a long time that democracies fail when people cease to believe in them and to participate in them. Yes, it's more complicated than that. Yes, there are some bad actors here and there, but ultimately democracies are strong when most people are active participants in them.

So, if democracy rests on participation, one of the most important things we can do is to try to make it more likely that people will want to get involved. The research says one of the ways to do so is to make sure they actually enjoy the experience. That is what the best advocacy leaders do. It not just about enjoyment, but that’s a really important factor.