Movement structure

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
(Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken… or can we take both roads?)
To discuss movement structure, we focused primarily on two readings:
Staggenborg, S. 1988. “The consequences of professionalization and formalization in the pro-choice movement.” American Sociological Review 53(4):585–605. 


Here are some notes on the discussions we had.

The Tyranny of Structurelessness
About the text:
  • Context: it’s coming out of the women’s movement in the 1970s, Second Wave. It’s been very influential, it’s read very widely. 
  • The insights apply to social movements but, really, any context where you have people trying to make decisions together.
  • “For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit” is the tweet-length summary of this article.
  • It’s not just a take down of these dynamics; she actively proposes ways to address them in her principles of democratic structure.
  • Interesting responses: The tyranny of tyranny by Cathy Levine (“this all may be true, but does it mean we should abandon the ideal of creating horizontal spaces?”)
  • We know that the creative innovations that have ignited the most successful movements in history, and they didn’t come from formal structures…
  • The emergence of charismatic leaders.
    • Rhodes: media assigning leadership roles externally; meme pages aren’t transparent about their organization.
  • Engaging in online action: does it make it easier/harder to understand an organization’s structure?
    • Use of tactics to circumvent surveillance, like social steganography (d. boyd)
  • Layers of invisible creation of leadership (resources: money, time, education, network, cultural capital).
    • How social media amplifies this: Occupy Wall Street tried to come up with tactics to overcome this.
The consequences of professionalization and formalization in the pro-choice movement
About the text:
  • In relation to the last text, it is a “yes, and…”
  • This paper is a counter to resource mobilization theory which was big at this time.
  • Bottom-up, emergent volunteer processes ignite the movements that then become professionalized over time (and which learn how to sustain the work).
  • Who were the professionalized and the ad-hoc stakeholders in the movements you are studying?
  • Social movement theory as a way out of despair.





Book report: Social change and creative activism in the 21st century


The Yes Men, one of the dozens of examples of creative activism mentioned in the book (source: Shadow Distribution)

Presentation link

In this book, Silas Harrebye explores the field of creative activism today by studying its definition; characterizing the roles played by creative activists; discussing the ways social movement theory has accounted for it; and ultimately proposing a theoretical framework that distinguishes creative activism from other creative endeavors outside activism, and from other forms of activism that don’t rely on creative tactics.

He tentatively defines creative activism as “civic, project-driven, and nonviolent forms of democratic participation where critical perspectives on a societal issue or a political system are communicated when, where, and in ways that no one else can or will. They do so in creative ways through temporal interventions such as strategic happenings, transformative events, and manufactured spectacles characterized by a cynical approach, an ironic attitude and/or [a utopian] quest in order to provoke reflection in the individual spectator and the public sphere at large.” This definition encompasses the dimensions he explores throughout the book: critique, cynicism, irony, utopia and participation.

He starts out by tracing the relationship between activism and creativity by appealing to the idea of the political theater, the performance; he expands on the definition by listing practices that serve as examples:
– pranks and protests
– happenings,
– street art,
– tactical media,
– social utopian experiments,
– viral campaigns,
– flash mobs,
– subvertisement,
the-emperor-has-no-clothes disruptions,
invisible theater,
minor additions or twists to the already known traditional repertoire of demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes, barricades, lobbyism, information campaigns, boycotts, mass petitions, the urban insurrection, etc.

He also defines 21st century creative activism in terms of the old vs the new. Creative work in organizing is not new; what is new, he argues, are “the changed conditions for the immanent and potentially emancipatory critique at the heart of this type of engagement”. These new conditions imply the crisis of representative democracy, the rise of inequality; in terms of media, they imply “new forms of cognitive capitalism”.

He argues that the roles played by creative activists too can shed light on the question. He poses them as facilitators, people who “make it easier for a group of people to do what they want to do together”, a practice rooted in deliberative democracy; he also poses them as mediators/translators “in the cacophony of critical voices”.

Before proposing his own framework, Harrebye provides an overview of the theories of social movements that have in accounted for different aspects of creative activism: questions on formal membership, brief or sustained engagement, Rochon’s ‘critical communities’, specific vs global theories, repertoires, causes, dialectic dynamics, identity formation and framing and dynamics of contention.

To understand creative activism and its role in promoting critique and democratic participation, Harrebye proposes an analytical framework that relies on three core elements: cynicism, irony and utopia.

– Critical preaching, scandalous behavior, and provocative dialogue, the three qualities of praxis associated with cynical philosophers, can be used to understand some of today’s creative activism. In quoting Andy Bichlbaum from The Yes Men, “We are not just making fun of people. We are laughing with a purpose.”

– Irony “is critically directed towards those who cannot see and share this existential insight”, and political action is enabled by humor that can take a critical stance and “speak truth to power” in ways that other discourse can’t.

– Utopia addresses the widespread political demand for alternatives as a price to pay for criticism. “But to a number of [creative] critics, being taken seriously is not seen as a goal nor a quality in and by itself – quite the opposite, it sometimes seems”. The critical exercise may aim to revitalize our political imagination, above all, by rethinking the world we want.

This last feature of creative activism points at the idea of mirroring, the practice of creating alternative reflections as a way to carry critique. “Instead of having a clear idea about what the good life is and let that form the basis of a critique, which eventually might lead to reflection, the logic is reversed in more experimental practices”, argues Harrebye.

“Critique does not only become ironic, cynical, and question utopian attitudes and strategies, it becomes a reflexive act when it is negotiated with and within the system that it is an inherent part of”; this system is capitalism, and Harrebye aims to circumvent it by building on Nancy Fraser’s theory of framing for social justice (redistribution – economics, recognition – culture, and representation – politics) that responds to the seeming inescapability of the framings of capitalism.

What, then, are the pragmatic consequences if we take this theoretical framework of creative activism at heart? Harrebye addresses future dilemmas and impact evaluation. He focuses on dilemmas around the limits of participation, innovation and implications of different funding models for creative activism; the evaluation culture and considerations around causality and cultural change; and makes recommendations on experimental design for impact assessment.

Finally, he explores the implications this all has in our theories of change: “We must renounce the wish for an administrative politics of ‘truth’ and ‘necessity’, and foster forms of action that dare to celebrate the vacuum it leaves and the possibilities that follow in relation to how we conduct ourselves as political subjects – in praise of an elusive but valuable revolutionary ethics of political imagination”


Silas Harrebye is an Assistant Professor at the Institute for Society and Globalisation, Roskilde University, and serves as a board member for the Centre for Artistic Activism. His background is in international studies and philosophy, and he describes his methodological approach as interdisciplinary, using academic literature reviews, interviews and an impressive collection of examples from the field, as well as quantitative data from European Union sources.


Harrebye, Silas F. Social Change and Creative Activism in the 21St Century : The Mirror Effect. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire : Palgrave Macmillan, 2016., 2016. EBSCOhost,



I don’t know you, but we need each other to make a new world \\ We need a new world — stencil by Rexiste

Hello, everyone – my name is Mariel, I’m a graduate student at the Comparative Media Studies program, and a research assistant at the Center for Civic Media. My research is in the field of participatory approaches for technological capacity building, focused on the right to privacy and youth organizations. Before joining MIT, I worked for SocialTIC in Mexico, for UNICEF and as an independent consultant doing instructional design and strategic communications.

I am from and my heart is in Mexico City, where at least one major road is shut down around once a week because of a street protest. Outside activist circles, marching is condemned for the mayhem it adds to an already chaotic city; inside them, for being part of a boring old narrative that has not brought new people to the movements, nor (or so it goes) proven to be particularly effective. And yet, for good and bad, marching is a substantial part of what organizing in Mexico aims for.

The most inspiring marches that I witnessed and in which I participated when I was in Mexico took place in protest of the forced disappearance of 43 students in 2014. For at least a month and a half, the central district of Mexico City shut down with some of the largest protests it ever witnessed, bringing around 70,000 people for one weekday evening every week –– people who came wearing their hospital coats or ties as they came straight from work, students who left early because they had to study for exams.

These marches inspired me not just because of their populations, but also because of the fresh air they brought to an old practice of taking the streets. Street art collectives filming with drones, music school students coming together to play solemn music, intergenerational coexistence with and without Twitter and Facebook –rare sightings for protests in Mexico– inspired creative acts of protest beyond the streets and fed a movement that reached global attention, and an institutional strategy.

Two and a half years later, we still don’t know where those 43 students are. The institutional strategy seems to have crumbled, the street actions don’t attract the same interest, and forced disappearances continue to take place. It can easily be said that the Acción Global por Ayotzinapa movement was unsuccessful. That we won’t live to see empathy, creativity and collaboration sustained into a long-term process that addresses the big picture through effective local actions.

Two and a half years later, however, that ending does not resonate with me. Every time the De vuelta a casa tracks come up on my music player, or that I see famous TV-producer Epigmenio Ibarra religiously tweet his roll call at 10 pm every night, I am reminded that most people are silent about it today, but they, too, believe that another world is possible. By studying this and other networked social movements, I hope that we’ll get closer to making that world together.