Sunday, March 4, 2012

Kathleen M. Blee's "Democracy in the Making"

Kathleen M. Blee is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. A renowned scholar of activism in the U.S., from the left to the far-right, her work on racist movements is published in the award-winning books, Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement and Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Democracy in the Making: How Activist Groups Form, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Democracy in the Making includes this section:
When I talked to founders of activist groups, they often mentioned that they wanted to create a space in which people could learn together, not unlike Paul Lichterman’s idea of a “forum” with “critically reflective discussion [where ...] members converse and learn together as an end in itself.” Almost without exception, grassroots activists said they wanted their groups to be like this.

It is striking, therefore, that few emerging grassroots groups actually took time for such “critically reflective discussion.” Indeed, they rarely gave more than perfunctory attention to collective learning, at least after the first couple of meetings. Even those who saw part of their mission as educating themselves on political issues tended not to do so for long. Among the 60-plus groups in this study, only one continued to include “news of the day” in its agenda over time; a couple of others sent occasional informational e-mails to their members. Some openly worried that they lacked enough knowledge to act, like a civil liberties group that wanted more information about the attitudes of Arab Americans, Muslims, and recent immigrants, but even these groups rarely tried to acquire the missing data.
Why do activists say they want to learn together, but fail to do so? My study of 60+ activist groups in Pittsburgh shows that this fits a larger pattern. Grassroots groups – from conservative to progressive — have trouble maintaining the political vision that brought them together. Almost from the beginning, groups working for animal rights, an end to the drug trade in their neighbourhood, same-sex marriage, global peace, and other causes act in ways that are self-reinforcing. New recruits tend to be similar to current members, information is sought from familiar sources, members interact as they are accustomed to doing. Such settled ways of being create a group character, a predictability that allows a group to continue and to act collectively. But these ways of being also quash the possibility of other ideas and ways of acting, even those – like the desire for collective learning – that members desire.

Democracy in the Making shows that grassroots activism can provide an alternative to civic disengagement and a forum for envisioning how the world can be transformed. But it isn’t a matter only of creating activist groups and getting people to participate. Activists also need to take steps to ensure that their groups fulfill their democratic potential. My study finds that grassroots activism can only strengthen democracy when it nurtures a broad sense of possibility.
Learn more about Democracy in the Making at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue