Social Movement Participation

Much of my research focuses on individual social movement participation, addressing why people participate in social movements and why people commit to social movements. My research also explores how participation in social movements, in turns, impacts participants’ subsequent biographical (political, work, and family) trajectories.

Recent publications related to this research theme include:

Coley, Jonathan. 2018. Gay on God’s Campus: Mobilizing for LGBT Equality at Christian Colleges and Universities: chapters 2, 3, and 5. The University of North Carolina Press. (order)

Several chapters of my new book Gay on God’s Campus address questions related to social movement participation. Chapter two, “Joining an Activist Group,” addresses the question of why students join LGBT activist groups at Christian colleges and universities. Specifically, the chapter describes the pathways to participation for three groups of activists: politicized participants, religious participants, and LGBT participants. Politicized participants – those for whom politics and activism are central parts of their identity – all grew up in families that were highly supportive of LGBT rights and had all been involved in some type of activist organization as early as high school. Thus, they arrived at their Christian colleges and universities with a commitment to social justice and a proclivity toward activism. Conversely, religious participants – those whose religious convictions were most salient in their decisions to join LGBT groups – had all been raised in families that condemned homosexuality, and none had been involved in previous social movements. Only a few of these individuals even supported LGBT rights by the time they joined. Finally, LGBT participants – those who personally identify as LGBT but lack strong political or religious convictions – are the most diverse lot, but they all hold in common their basic support for LGBT rights and an interest in meeting other people like them. The chapter advances sociological theory on micromobilization, illustrating that multiple paths to activist group participation exist and that these paths are linked to activists’ identities.

Chapter three, “Committing to the Cause,” provides an overview of the three kinds of LGBT organizations at Christian college and universities – direct action groups, educational groups, and solidarity groups – and argues that a correspondence between the ethos of these groups and the identities of participants produces activist commitment. LGBT direct action groups protest their schools’ discriminatory policies toward LGBT people. Perhaps not surprisingly, these groups tend to be led by politicized participants. LGBT educational groups tend to fulfill dual functions – first, providing forums for their participants to collectively discuss their beliefs about LGBT issues, and second, organizing lectures, movie showings, and other events to educate the wider student body about LGBT issues. Because they do not presuppose a commitment to the cause of LGBT rights, these groups are often led by more conservative religious participants. Finally, LGBT solidarity groups fulfil two kinds of purposes – first, providing a confidential support group to assist LGBT students in their coming out processes, and second, organizing social events that allow LGBT students to meet each other. Because solidarity groups are focused on personal issues facing LGBT people, individuals who identify as LGBT most often lead them. The chapter contributes to sociological theory on activist commitment by underlining the cultural underpinnings of activist commitment.

Finally, chapter five, “Becoming an Activist,” analyses the post-graduation political, career, and family plans of students who participate in LGBT activist groups at Christian colleges and universities. Graduates of direct action groups are, perhaps not surprisingly, the most likely to pursue future involvement in social movements and political campaigns, as they have gained skills in organizing and mobilizing other people. Graduates of educational groups tend to pursue humanistic careers, especially religious institutions, because they have gained leadership skills useful for creating change within existing institutions. Graduates of solidarity groups most commonly report changes in their future family plans, such as desires to enter into more equitable marital partnerships and raise tolerant and accepting children, because their organizations have provided them opportunities to reflect on their personal lives. Finally, graduates of all types of LGBT activist groups report immediate changes in their existing relationships with family members and friends, stating that they have found the courage to come out as members of the LGBT community and to discuss LGBT rights issues in their everyday conversations. The chapter contributes new insights on the biographical consequences of activist groups. 

Cornfield, Daniel B., Jonathan S. Coley, Larry W. Isaac, and Dennis C. Dickerson. 2018. “Occupational Activism and Racial Desegregation at Work: Activist Careers after the Nonviolent Nashville Civil Rights Movement.” Research in the Sociology of Work 32(1): 217-248. (external link)

Abstract: As a site of contestation among job seekers, workers, and managers, the bureaucratic workplace both reproduces and erodes occupational race segregation and racial status hierarchies. Much sociological research has examined the reproduction of racial inequality at work; however, little research has examined how desegregationist forces, including civil rights movement values, enter and permeate bureaucratic workplaces into the broader polity. Our purpose in this paper is to introduce and typologize what we refer to as “occupational activism,” defined as socially transformative individual and collective action that is conducted and realized through an occupational role or occupational community. We empirically induce and present a typology from our study of the half-century-long, post-mobilization occupational careers of over 60 veterans of the nonviolent Nashville civil rights movement of the early 1960s. The fourfold typology of occupational activism is framed in the “new” sociology of work, which emphasizes the role of worker agency and activism in determining worker life chances, and in the “varieties of activism” perspective, which treats the typology as a coherent regime of activist roles in the dialogical diffusion of civil rights movement values into, within, and out of workplaces. We conclude with a research agenda on how bureaucratic workplaces nurture and stymie occupational activism as a racially desegregationist force at work and in the broader polity.

Isaac, Larry W., Jonathan S. Coley, Daniel B. Cornfield, and Dennis C. Dickerson. 2016. “Preparation Pathways and Movement Participation: Insurgent Schooling and Nonviolent Direct Action in the Nashville Civil Rights Movement.” Mobilization 21(2): 155-176. (external link)


Abstract: Employing a unique sample of participants in the early Nashville civil rights movement, we extend the micro-mobilization literature by conceptualizing “preparation pathways” (“schooling” channels) through which activists acquire insurgent consciousness and capital so crucial for committed, effective, high-risk activism. We identify two key pathways in which activists were “schooled” in nonviolent praxis—experience in nonviolent direct action prior to the Nashville movement and training through intensive, highly-organized, and disciplined workshops on nonviolence praxis. Evidence suggests that both pathways prove especially efficacious in accounting for intensity and persistence of movement direct action participation. The implications of our findings extend to high-risk movement activism more generally, and also illuminate an important chapter in the southern civil rights movement. Activists are not a homogeneous lot. Instead they move through multiple paths accumulating diverse cultural and relational endowments that they bring into movements. Once there, these endowments can shape the intensity level and persistence of participation in struggle.

Isaac, Larry W., Daniel B. Cornfield, Dennis C. Dickerson, James M. Lawson, and Jonathan S. Coley. 2012. “‘Movement Schools’ and Dialogical Diffusion of Nonviolent Praxis: Nashville Workshops in the Southern Civil Rights Movement.”Research in Social Movements, Conflicts, and Change 34(1): 155-184. (download) (external link)


Abstract: While it is generally well-known that nonviolent collective action was widely deployed in the U.S. southern civil rights movement, there is still much that we do not know about how that came to be. Drawing on primary data that consist of detailed semi-structured interviews with members of the Nashville nonviolent movement during the late 1950s and 1960s, we contribute unique insights about how the nonviolent repertoire was diffused into one movement current that became integral to moving the wider southern movement. Innovating with the concept of serially-linked movement schools—-locations where the deeply intense work took place, the didactic and dialogical labor of analyzing, experimenting, creatively translating, and re-socializing human agents in preparation for dangerous performance—we follow the biographical paths of carriers of the nonviolent Gandhian repertoire as it was learned, debated, transformed, and carried from India to the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and Howard University to Nashville (TN) and then into multiple movement campaigns across the South. Members of the Nashville movement core cadre—products of the Nashville movement workshop schools—were especially important because they served as bridging leaders by serially-linking schools and collective action campaigns. In this way they played critical roles in bridging structural holes (places where movement had yet to be successfully established) and were central to diffusing the movement throughout the South. Our theoretical and empirical approach contributes to the development of the dialogical perspective on movement diffusion generally and to knowledge about how the nonviolent repertoire became integral to the U.S. civil rights movement in particular.

Working papers related to this research theme include:

Coley, Jonathan, Dan Cornfield, Larry Isaac, and Dennis Dickerson. Working Paper. “Social Movements as Preparation Paths to Careers: Career Consequences of the Nashville Civil Rights Movement.”

Abstract: Studies show that social movements impact the subsequent careers of their participants, with social movement participants pursuing more humanistic lines of work compared to non-participants. However, we still know little about why social movements produce such career impacts and how career choices might vary between participants within-movement. Through a qualitative comparative analysis of the careers of 24 student participants in the 1960s Nashville civil rights movement, we find that participants pursue careers as organizers, policymakers, social service workers, and businesspeople. We further show that students who followed high-intensity preparation paths into the movement – by participating in prior social movements and nonviolence workshops – and who were members of the core cadre of the Nashville civil rights movement – itself a kind of high-intensity preparation path into a career – tended to pursue organizing and policymaking careers. In contrast, students who follow lower-intensity preparation paths, both into the movement and into their work lives, tended to pursue careers as social service workers or businesspeople. The paper extends previous conceptualizations of preparation paths in social movements and suggests future research directions at the intersection of social movement studies and the sociology of work.

Isaac, Larry, Jonathan Coley, Dan Cornfield, and Dennis Dickerson. Working Paper. “Pathways to Modes of Movement Participation: Micromobilization in the Early Nashville Civil Rights Movement.”

Abstract: We employ a unique sample of early Nashville civil rights movement participants to examine within-movement micromobilization processes.  Rather than assuming movement micromobilization and participation are internally homogeneous, we extend the literature by identifying distinct types of pathways (entry and preparation) and distinct types (or modes) of movement participation. Pathways into the Nashville movement are largely structured a priori by racial biography and by several distinct points of entry—politically pulled, directly recruited, or professionally pushed. Participation falls into a distinct division of movement labor characterized by several major modes of participation—core cadre, soldiers, and supporters.  We demonstrate that pathways and modes of participation are systematically linked and that qualitatively distinct pathways contribute to understanding qualitative forms or modes of movement participation. Our evidence suggests that highly-organized, disciplined, and intense workshop training proves to be integral in becoming a member of the core cadre, but not so for those playing soldier or supporter roles. Micromobilization occurs through multiple pathways into movement, and participants perform a variety of qualitatively distinct roles once there. We conclude that social movement studies would do well to pay more attention to variability in structured pathways to, preparation for, as well as qualitative dimensions of movement participation. These dimensions are critical to further understanding the way movements and their participants move and add insights regarding an important chapter in the Southern civil rights movement.  The implications of our findings extend to modes of movement activism more generally.