Movement Outcomes

When social movement theorists study the consequences of a social movement, they are predominantly concerned with three types of outcomes:

  • Political: changes in policy, political discourse, political parties, etc.
  • Biographical: effects on the lives of social movement participants, such as career path, attitudes towards subsequent movements and political ideas.
  • Cultural: changes in culture, which could be evident in anything from fashion to media discourse.

This week the class read about how our understanding of these types of outcomes is shifting, how various types of outcomes are related and other categories of outcomes that might exist.

Our discussion began with an example of biographical outcomes: the case of an MIT student, who was heavily involved in campus activism in the late 60s and early 70s, and later became the president of a community college. As a result of their experience with social movements, they became more sympathetic to student concerns on campus, as well as issues in their community.

This raised the question of what happens when social movement participants pursue career paths within the institutions that they once protested and become targets of movements themselves. It is possible, for instance, that their previous movement participation will make them more tolerant of a social movement, even when they are its target. However, if the social movement participant has become disillusioned by their previous experience, it can make them even less tolerant.

Another student commented on the difficulty of retaining activist commitments throughout a lifetime, suggesting that, in Puerto Rico, this does not always seem to be the case. Often people use social movements as a stepping stone to a political career and subsequently lose sympathy for the social movements that they had participated in.

Another student expressed skepticism about our ability to measure movement outcomes. What constitutes evidence for social change, they wondered, and how accurately can it be tied to social movements?

In effort to answer these questions, the class worked as a group to brainstorm the ways in which social movement theorists might attempt to measure outcomes of various types. We came up with lists for possible dependent variables for measuring biographical, cultural, political, mobilization and infrastructural outcomes.

In response, a student raised the question of how to show causality. In other words, they wanted to know how properly controlled studies could be performed in context where a variety of factors could be influencing the dependent variables being measured. Along these lines, they wondered whether the dependent variables being studied actually indicated the outcome being measured. As in the case of Twitter, social movement scholars sometimes make the mistake of assuming that discussion on Twitter is representative of discussion offline.

The class took on the challenge and attempted to design a controlled study to measure personal learning as evidence for a biographical outcome. We determined that interviews and surveys could constitute evidence for skills learned and knowledge gained, but it would be difficult to show causality without conducting surveys both before and after the activism took place.

It was also pointed out that, in the context of social movements, some scholars reject the notion that it is necessary or useful to show causality, since social movements always take place in complex environments under the influence of complex combination of interrelated factors. Other social movement scholars turn instead to studies of new ideas, concepts and theories being generated by social movements, such as feminist activism and its relation to the history of feminist thought.

Our discussion concluded with infrastructural outcomes, on often overlooked consequence of social movements, which merits further study. Examples included how the access to infrastructure is often won as a result of the demands of social movement actors; as well as how online resources, such as mailing lists and software, created for activism can be applied in other contexts.


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