Slippery as an Old Banana: Pinning Down Explanations for Social Movement Emergence an Momentum

Originally posted on Mobilizing Ideas:

By Deana Rohlinger


Doron Shultziner’s article, “The Social-Psychological Origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” provides an important reminder that relational dynamics matter. Whether studying a particular movement or a campaign rolled out in a specific community, we learn a lot about the emergence and course of social movements by studying the perspectives of different kinds of players, who also have a direct or indirect stake in the political game.

Some students of social movements may not find this welcome news. Studying interactions among groups of actors is messy work.

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Notes from NGOs and Reputation Conference (Oxford University)

Session 1: How do non-profits build reputations and signal trust?

by Deana Rohlinger

Kirsten Grønbjerg: Trust in Nonprofits: What Do Local Government Officials Think and Does It Matter? (Kirsten A. Grønbjerg, Kellie McGiverin-Bohan, Lauren Dula and Angela Gallagher)

The focus of Kirsten’s presentation, based around this work in progress, was on local government officials (LGOs) who are in a strategic position to assess the performance and reputation of non-profit organizations. The central question is: do they trust non-profits to do the right thing? If they do, certain consequences are anticipated: they might rely on them to provide services without extensive monitoring or regulation, include them in collaborative activities, and refrain from imposing policies on them.

The considerable literature on trust in organizations shows it has been declining across the board. This research attempts to isolate the implications of one relationship within organizations, with key questions:

  • How much trust do LGOs have in non-profits?
  • What explains the level of trust?
  • How much is it shaped by personal experiences?

Data is drawn from a survey of Indiana government officials. Hypotheses revolve around the range of interaction; NGO types and range; knowledge of governance structures of NGOs. The final phase of the analysis will be looking at what taxes local government may impose on charity, and what part the above factors play in that.

Evelyn Brody: Federation as a Reputational Mechanism: the US Law of Same-Name Nonprofit Organizations

Evelyn Brody’s presentation examined NGOs from a legal perspective focused on the relationships among federated NGOs and their subunit chapters. She reflected on the inappropriate laws used in relation to NGOs, derived among others from corporate law, franchise law, and the Constitution, and limited disclosure requirements. This both makes questionable legal outcomes – the Boy Scouts of America entitled to exclude homosexuals; branches of the Girl Guides judged by the same rules as Dunkin Doughnuts franchisees – and leaves a reputational risk from the difference between the structures the public assume is in place with NGOs and the reality. In an interesting aside, Evelyn explained that, of the some 186,000 US NGOs required to file the 990 tax form, fewer than 30,000 have any members, and only about 8,000 have chapters, at odds with popular conceptions of the ubiquity of large NGOs with multiple local subunits.

Helen Stride: Reputation and NGOs: Developing Our Understanding of Values as Drivers of Trust and Commitment

In this presentation, Helen Stride explored the need to leverage values to improve reputations among not-for-profits, in an environment where increases in funding, many new players, and increasing distrust, are putting reputations under pressure. But which values are important, and to whom? Research among 600 respondents from UK charities, linking trust and commitment, and recognizing the strong emotional component in shared values, found, tentatively at this stage, that “benevolence” values counted for less than moral values within the organization, and for donors, competence was judged by outcomes for beneficiaries, and qualities that act on outcomes, such as creativity.

Facilitator Comments: Deana Rohlinger

Session 1 took up the issue of how nonprofits build reputations and signal trust. The papers revealed that assessments of Nonprofit/NGO trustworthiness are complicated because they are potentially influenced by a number of factors including:

•    The structural arrangements of an organization, which includes it leadership.
•    The expressed values of the staff and the extent to which they line up with those of the organization.
•    The public relations efforts of the organization and its attentiveness to brand equity and consistency across diverse formats (e.g., traditional and social media).
•    The external assessments by politicians, beneficiaries, and the broader citizenry.
•    The broader political and economic environment which can change suddenly and fundamentally alter what groups are regarded as reputable and the criteria used in such evaluations.

Given that there is so much beyond the control of Nonprofits/NGOs, how can groups signal trust? Our conversation revealed some promising insights.

•    Organizations would do well to keep the target audience in mind. A group may very well need to send different signals to different kinds of audiences in order to build a reputation as a trustworthy organization. Thus, a nonprofit/NGO would be wise to forego a “one-size-fits-all” strategy, understand that trustworthiness is an outcome of a relational process, and think through what criteria different targets use to assess organizational legitimacy.
•    Being an “old” organization does not make it a trustworthy organization. Nonprofits/NGOs must leverage their names whenever possible, but understand adaptability wins the day. For example, groups that can meaningfully insert themselves into national politics can benefit from an international reputation while showing that it is not too big or too old to take on news causes.
•    Being a “big” organization does not make it a trustworthy organization. Again, international nonprofits/NGOs may have an initial advantage over new ones since they have established some level of international credibility. However, groups that are regarded as trustworthy connect with supporters in a meaningful way on the issues the community sees as most relevant.

Finally, I urged scholars and practitioners alike to think through their terminology carefully because some factors are more easily controlled by nonprofit/NGO than others. Organizations, for example, have a great deal of control over their brand. Groups can determine what values to highlight and connect them to a broad political project. Reputation, however, is determined relationally with different publics (politicians, beneficiaries, and supporters). This is a distinction worth remembering since slippage will only conflate these very different products and processes.

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NRA’s Public Relations Misstep

All social movements have a radical fringe. There is always a group of people who feel so passionately about a cause that they will go to what most individuals consider the extremes to make a point.

 Here are just a few examples:

  • Abortion: Army of God
  • Animal Rights: Animal Liberation Movement
  • Civil Rights: Black Panthers
  • Conservatism: John Birch Society
  • Environment: Earth Liberation Front
  • Anti-Immigration Movement: The Minutemen

These radical groups have something in common. Their more moderate allies universally distanced themselves from the fiery rhetoric and over-the-top tactics. Until this week, I would have said that this is a truism of social movements. Moderate groups always distinguish themselves from the radical groups pushing for change under a shared banner.

 The National Rifle Association, however, is rewriting what we know about the relationship between moderate and radical groups by first criticizing radicals and, then, retracting its criticism.

Over the weekend, the members of the group Open Carry Texas made a statement about gun rights by taking their assault-style rifles into stores and restaurants. While the NRA did not criticize the group by name, it labeled the demonstrations as extreme, “weird,” and “downright scary.”  In a statement, the NRA noted:

Recently, demonstrators have been showing up in various public places, including coffee shops and fast food restaurants, openly toting a variety of tactical long guns. Unlicensed open carry of handguns is legal in about half the U.S. states, and it is relatively common and uncontroversial in some places.

Yet while unlicensed open carry of long guns is also typically legal in most places, it is a rare sight to see someone sidle up next to you in line for lunch with a 7.62 rifle slung across his chest, much less a whole gaggle of folks descending on the same public venue with similar arms.

Let’s not mince words, not only is it rare, it’s downright weird and certainly not a practical way to go normally about your business while being prepared to defend yourself. To those who are not acquainted with the dubious practice of using public displays of firearms as a means to draw attention to oneself or one’s cause, it can be downright scary. It makes folks who might normally be perfectly open-minded about firearms feel uncomfortable and question the motives of pro-gun advocates.

The statement also noted:  

Using guns merely to draw attention to yourself in public not only defies common sense, it shows a lack of consideration and manners. That’s not the Texas way. And that’s certainly not the NRA way.

By Tuesday, the NRA had retracted its statement, describing it as a mistake.

While this public apology may have appease NRA’s radical allies in the short term, it will likely cause the organization public relations problems in the future. Savvy radical groups will interpret NRA’s retraction as support for in-your-face gun ownership and likely up the ante by engaging in more public demonstrations. Worse for the NRA, in order to attract widespread attention again, radical groups will use more extreme tactics. What will the NRA do then?  

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Collective Action in Fiction: Dive Into Dsytopian World of Wool

Trying to get back into blogging mode. I have been busy finishing up my new book, “Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America.” It will be out in December with Cambridge University Press. 

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Laying it on Thicke


Last Week an Auckland University student group’s video “Defined Lines,” a parody of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” went viral. The video, which was created by Adelaide Dunn, Olivia Lubbock and Zoe Ellwood for a revue show, was briefly removed from youtube for indecency. While youtube corrected its error fairly quickly, its action made the video an instant, international success.

If, like me, you largely live under a rock when it comes to music, Thicke’s song was this summer’s anthem despite the fact that the “blurred line” involves sexual consent. The lyrics charmingly refer to women as animals who require domestication and “want it.” The video, which consists of women either parading around topless (in the unrated version), grinding on everything from a singer to a bike, and making suggestive faces, reinforces the idea that women really do want sex, regardless of what they say.

The “Defined Lines” parody directly challenges Thicke’s message. So what do we learn from this?

  1. Rape culture is deeply entwined in American popular culture. What made the parody “offensive” were its references to “emasculation” and “castration.” If you read comments across the blogosphere, much of the criticism revolves these terms and how men’s bodies are used. If you still are not convinced that there is such a thing as rape culture or that we are profoundly uncomfortable when confronted by it, check out this parody of “Blurred Lines.” Rather than challenge the message of Thicke’s song directly, they reverse the roles and make fun of men who are considered socially unattractive. You know that an idea is entrenched in a society when challenging it creates a thunderstorm of criticism.
  2. No really, rape culture is deeply entwined in American popular culture. Thicke’s music is made for a mass public. He is in the for-profit, music business. The “Defined Lines” parody was made for a law revue show – which is a very small audience. Yet, look at the conversation their video started. Thicke’s song lyrics, on the other hand, are so commonplace in American pop music that they received little discussion.


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Fixing the Price of Protest — New Math?

A quick follow up on my post yesterday (Putting a Price on Protest: ).

During the course of an interview, I discussed the framing of the “cost of protest” with a reporter. The reporter told me that the the Governor’s Office has been highlighting the costs associated with the Dream Defender sit-in for two weeks. The reporter also indicated that the figure of $100,000+ masked the fact that most of the FDLE overtime costs were not associated with the protests at the capital building – only around $33,000 are due to the additional units. 

Regardless of one’s opinion on the protest, this is an important reminder that numbers rarely are what they seem. 

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Putting A Price Tag on Protest: What this Means for the Dream Defenders

On my way the office this morning, the local NPR station ( reported that the Dream Defender had cost the state of Florida $103,000 in extra law enforcement. According to the report (which is not yet posted on the site), these costs are primarily a result of Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) Officials working overtime. The story made two points very clear. First, the FDLE had only about  $130,000 dollars in overtime last year. Second, that this current total was “worrisome” since the fiscal year has just begun. The story, in short, put a price on protest.

It was a smart move on the part of the state. The Governor doesn’t want to deal with the Dream Defenders, but he needs to tread lightly since he is an unpopular politician seeking reelection. Circulating the cost of allowing citizens to protest (particularly young liberals) may reignite state Tea Partiers to dust of their signs and come stage a protest of their own. The Dream Defenders, themselves, may have helped light the fuse for a showdown with Tea Partiers. According to the report, the Dream Defenders said that they “were not concerned with the cost [associated with their protest] because that would put a dollar amount on a human life.” While I agree with the sentiment, this particular response may not work in their favor. It is very likely that some Floridians will consider the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death as now a distinct issue from the current protests and its cost to the taxpayers. If this is the case, the Dream Defenders may find themselves on the defensive and discussing issues unrelated to their cause.

UPDATE: Similar stories were repeated on local news. On CBS, the anchor asked “How much are the protestors costing you?”

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