The Problem with Research on Activism

Mobilizing Ideas

By Dana R. Fisher

Social movement scholars have a problem: since the 1970s, when collective behavior and social movements emerged as a growing sub-field of sociology, research has focused on a very limited definition of activism. In many ways, this definition was constructed as a response to the psychologically driven work on collective behavior, which tended to focus on what McPhail called the myth of the maddening crowd.

Even today, however, the well-incorporated notion of contentious politics continues to focus its attention on actors that target the political system, with the majority coming from outside the political system. This predisposition in the field was on clear on display at last week’s CBSM Workshop on Protesters and their Targets (which was extremely informative and interesting by the way). But, as a result of the limitations of the ways we conceive of activism, the object of inquiry in much of the…

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