And yet it moves:  Social movements for/against institutional change

So, the latest symposium is almost here.  The three papers under discussion are –

Schneiberg, M. and Lounsbury, M., 2008, Social movements and institutional analysis, in: Greenwood, R., Oliver, C., Andersen, S.K. and Suddaby, R. (eds.), The Sage Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism, CA: Sage, 650-672

Lounsbury, M., Ventresca, M., and Hirsch, P.M., 2003, ‘Social movements, field frames and industry emergence: A cultural-political perspective on US recycling’, Socio-Economic Review, 1(1): 71-104

Schurman, R., 2004, ‘Fighting ‘frankenfoods’: Industry opportunity structures and the efficacy of the anti-biotech movement in western Europe’, Social Problems, 51, 243-268

Imma take each in turn, and try to say something useful (cough, cough) about each.


Lounsbury et al (2003) look at how recycling became big business twenty plus years after social and environmental activists started doing it.

They’re really good on the “erosion and recombination of the elements in the then standard resource recovery frame” (p 73) – how the arguments about what counted as proper recycling (as opposed to incineration-and-getting-energy (a real concern in the late 70s, given the talk of ‘energy independence’ for the US.

This is a battle for whose stories make the most sense to (enough of) the right people, within what they call ‘field frames’.

‘Field frames emerge as a result of efforts by producers, trade associations, professions and government actors to make sense of practices and define norms of appropriateness. Field frames are forged [what an appropriate word!!] , maintained and eroded through discourse in policy forums such as Congressional hearings as well  as in industry media and events such as trade association annual meetings.”

(Lounsbury et al. 2003: 77)

Their methodology is one I had better pinch – interviews and close attention to trade journals and what does and does not get discussed (you always have to listen for the silences in this game).

The ‘failure’ of ‘many early experiments with non-profit, volunteer recycling’ (p.83) is unsurprising, given the difficulties in maintaining volunteer projects, apathy/loss of momentum and the actions of incumbents. And they could have added that anything that doesn’t go with the grain of capital accumulation (and neoliberalism’s latest needs – see Mirowski et al, 2013) is going to be attacked.

Basically, the industry managed to frame recycling as about solid waste retrieval (p 84-5), in the same way the US auto industry was able to frame car safety as about driver behaviour, roads, and enforcement of rules (rather than their death-trap cars, unsafe at any speed).

And municipal officials are fonder of dealing with Big Business – get all contracts sorted in one go, and might even get a nice non-executive directorship or three once you’ve ‘retired’ – more than those smelly grassroots types will ever be able to offer.  And

As Paul Kelly, administrative director of the Illinois Recycling Association said, ‘my gut feeling is that municipalities don’t want to deal with an advocate as a contractor’. (p 95)

There’s good stuff on what is now called ‘field configuring events’ – (bottom page 88) and on  focussing events (the Mobro 4000 and the EPA’s 1989 publication ‘The Solid Waste Dilemma’)

And the concluding questions are good

Does institutional change merely involve a reconfiguration of elite resources, or do social movements offer any possibilities for altering cultural conceptions of privilege. Another important question that should be investigated has to do with the relationship between contentious and routine politics and the study of social movement outcomes. Do institutional challenges by disenfranchised groups merely dissipate or get co-opted, or do they lead to successful reformist social movement organizations?
(Lounsbury et al. 2003: 97)

The answer to both is surely ‘depends’.  What is clear is that the incumbents are becoming extremely good at defending the neoliberal state from popular pressures.  I mean, really REALLY good at it.

The take home – there is a treadmill of production, and it will eat ecological modernisation for breakfast.  We’re toast.

Surprisingly absent from the bibliography-

Hoffman (1999)  – on the US chemical industry’s responses to environmental activism) and Yoffie (1988) – on how trade associations learn to play the game.

Usefulness for my thesis: The way support for an “existing”/incumbent industry can crowd out the alternative.

Articles I should read

Brulle, R. JL (2000) Agency, Democracy, and Nature, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Campbell, J.L. and Pederson, O.K (2001) The Rise of Neoliberalism and Institutional Analysis, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Davis, G. F. and Thompson, T. 91994) A Social Movement Perspective on Corporate Control Administrative Science Quarterly, 39, 141-173

Davis, G.F. and McAdam, D. (2000) Corporations, Classes and Social Movements after Managerialism Research in Organizational Behaviour 22, 195-238.

DiMaggio, PJ and Powell WW (1983) The Iron Cage Revisited: institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields American Sociological Review, 48, 147-60.

Mohr, J and Duquenne, V. (1997) The Duality of Culture and Practice: Poverty Relief in New York City, 1888-1971 Theory and Society, 26, 305-56.


Scheiber and Lounsbury (2008) do one of those incredibly useful overview-y things, which you probably need to read three or four times during the course of your (early) career to fully ‘get’.

The “chapter focuses on how engaging collective mobilization and social movement theory has inspired new work in institutional analysis.” (Schneiberg and Lounsbury, 2008:649)

The writing is academic (doh!  This is an academic publication), but imho clear nonetheless –

This bit is on how change happens – from top down or bottom up.

Consider two canonical formulations in neo-institutional analysis. In the two-stage model of institutionalization, the emergence of new paths or fields is a ‘bottom up’ phenomenon: (1) organizations or states adopt structures or policies in response to local problems, politics or characteristics, which then spark (2) processes of mimesis, theorization and diffusion, eventually crystallizing a broader community of practice around a core set of principles or models…..

Both models shed light on key institutional processes: (1) mutual monitoring, mimesis and the diffusion or transposition of practices across organizations; (2) theorization, codification or the endorsement of best practices by professional associations; and (3) interventions by states to ratify, redraw or reject field boundaries and emerging solutions (e.g., Strang & Meyer 1993). Yet both tend to neglect the origins of new ideas and practices as well as the sources of disruption, leaving key players and processes unanalyzed. However, in many canonical cases featuring isomorphism, the instigating shocks or motivations for adoption were the direct and deliberate results of social movements – municipal reformers and progressives fighting corruption in city government, civil rights activists demanding state intervention to end discrimination, and agrarian populists contesting corporate consolidation.

(Schneiberg and Lounsbury, 2008:651)

The story of consumer watchdoggery is similar to the previous story of recycling – of radical notions of citizenship and workers’ control being watered down –

 Rao (1998) shows how the consumer watchdog agencies and product rating schemes that are now taken-for-granted in the US were the product of consumer mobilization and contestation over whether scientific testing and the power of informed consumers should be blended with the role of labor, unionization and concerns about products. At first, consumer groups fought for two different logics of market reform, one that blended consumer advocacy with unionism and one that focused more narrowly on the consumer. But broader political dynamics eliminated the more comprehensive radical change frame from the path, segregating ‘consumer’ and ‘worker,’ and ensuring the dominance of a consumer-only impartial testing logic.
(Schneiberg and Lounsbury, 2008:652)

In a bit that reminded me very much of Octavia Butler’s extraordinary novel “Dawn”, the authors write

Research by Morrill, Creed, Scully and colleagues, and Moore on the institutionalization of alternative dispute resolution, domestic partner benefits, and public science likewise document how movements operate as forces within mainstream institutions, de-emphasizing confrontational tactics in favor of their role as mobilizers of multiple logics and as agents or vehicles for recombination, assembly, translation and diffusion.
(Schneiberg and Lounsbury, 2008:656)

Texas is trying to ban local bans on fracking.  That’s what states (and industries) do-

But the more peripheral, agrarian states proved more open to populist pressures, enabling agrarian and independent producers to assert statist regulatory measures in the insurance field, disrupt markets, and organize mutuals. Insurers tried to close off access entirely by suing in state and federal courts to void states’ rights to regulate insurance prices. Yet, that strategy backfired when advocates of regulation found an unexpected ally in the US Supreme Court, which opened the door for further intervention in states by ruling that insurance was ‘affected with a public interest’ and thus subject to the states’ authority.
(Schneiberg and Lounsbury, 2008:660)

And THIS looks fascinating, as a piece of clever proxying –

Ingram and Rao (2004) also think in terms of movements and counter-movements, but elaborate a different research strategy, analyzing the passage and then the repeal of legislation banning chain stores as indicies of populist mobilization and chain store countermobilization over the rise of new market forms. In this way also, the capacities of movements to promote change or new path creation rests not just on size, resources or movement strength, but also on the structure and dynamics of the political and institutional context.
(Schneiberg and Lounsbury, 2008:660)

They then turn to “measuring and modelling movements” which is extremely difficult of course.  Nice to see a distinction between movement strength and activity (p. 661) which needs further exploration.

They’re not practitioners though, and I think they underestimate the morale and stamina needed for social movements to stay ‘in the game’, and just how easily exhausted, diverted and co-opted they are.

Still and all, it’s all very very messy, and they are big enough to admit this –

Overall, the approach to movements and institutions that we advocate celebrates the heterogeneity of actors, multiple logics and practice variation. A focus on such multiplicity revises the isomorphic imagery of the canonical two-stage diffusion and punctuated equilibrium models (e.g., Tolbert & Zucker 1983). Such a perspective concentrates less on the contagion of unitary practices or a singular rationality, but rather on multiple forms of rationality that inform the decision making of actors in fields (Bourdieu 1984), and provide foundations for ongoing struggle and contestation. This conceptualization of institutionalization and fields as multiple, fragmented and contested (Schneiberg & Soule 2005; Washington & Ventresca 2004;Lounsbury 2007) is a crucial ontological starting point for a new wave and generation of institutional scholars.
(Schneiberg and Lounsbury, 2008:665)

There are a ridiculous number of articles in the bibliography that merit closer attention.  Here’s some

Frank, D.B., A. Hironaka and E. Schofer. 2000. Environmentalism as a Global Institution. American Sociological Review, 65: 122–127.

Ingram, P. & Rao, H. 2004. Store wars. American Journal of Sociology, 110: 446–487.

Minkoff, D.C. 1993. The organization of survival: Women’s and racial-ethnic voluntarist and activist organizations, 1955–1985. Social Forces, 71: 887–908.

Moore, Kelly. 1996. Organizing integrity: American science and the creation of public interest organizations, 1955–1975. American Journal of Sociology, 101: 1592–1627

Schneiberg, M. & Clemens, E.S. 2006. The typical tools for the job: Research strategies in institutional analysis. Sociological Theory, 3: 195–227.

Schofer, E. & A. Hironaka. 2005. The effects of world society on environmental protection outcomes. Social Forces, 84: 25–47.

Stryker, R. 2000. Legitimacy processes as institutional politics: Implications for theory and research in the sociology of organizations. Research in the Sociology of Organizations, 17: 179–223.

Zald, M.N. & Berger, M.A. 1978. Social movements in organizations: Coup d’etat, insurgency, and mass movements. American Journal of Sociology, 83: 823–861.


Final paper is about something I sorta lived through – the successful-ish attempt to beat back GM food from Europe.
Shurman sets out her theoretical contribution as

This article analyses  how a new social movement against genetic engineering in agriculture managed to turn a major industry upside down. While the social movements literature has long recognized the importance of external context for the success of social movements, it has paid little attention to the institutional logic and features of targets other than the state. Here I argue that an undertheorized aspect of external context, namely, industry structures , is a primary factor explaining why the anti-biotech movement in Western Europe was so effective. As conceptualized here, industry structures are composed of economic, organizational, and cultural features, and function to enhance or constrain social movements’ efforts to change industry behavior. Bringing these structures into our purview and recognizing their significance for activist struggles can significantly advance our understanding of social movement efficacy in this age of globalization and increased corporate power.
(Shurman, 2004:243)

She identifies ‘four key elements of the industry/corporate environment that social movements face’ (p. 245)

These are;

  • The economic and competitive behavior of firms in an industry
  • The relationships among actors in an industry’s larger “organizational field” or system.

[Where fields are – In Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell’s classic formulation, an organizational field refers to “those organizations that, in the aggregate, constitute a recognized area of institutional life: key suppliers, resource and product consumers, regulatory agencies, and other organizations that produce similar services or products” (DiMaggio and Powell 1983).]

  • Corporate cultures
  • The nature of the goods and/or services that an industry produces

Basically she says Monsanto basically stuck a big ‘kick me’ sign on itself, and the NGOs obliged.

an executive from the British biotech company Zeneca, Simon Best, flew to Saint Louis to meet with Monsanto CEO, Robert Shapiro. Drawing on his own experience introducing the first GM product into the British market (a genetically modified tomato paste), Best urged Shapiro to label RoundUp Ready soy before he shipped it to Europe, and to advise consumers it would be coming. At harvest time, however, Monsanto and U.S. grain processors ignored Best’s advice, combined the GM soy with conventional soy, and sent it to Europe unannounced and unlabelled (Charles 2001). According to one anti-biotech organizer, the activist community was outraged and interpreted Monsanto’s decision as purposely flouting Europeans’ desires to know what they were eating (Schweiger 2001).
(Shurman, 2004: 252-3)

I think she undersells the fact that we (the UK NVDA crew) seemed to have the wind at our backs, having just fought the roads industry to a standstill in the UK, and climate change hadn’t yet emerged as the big screaming buzzkill that it now is.  And we weren’t too busy summit-hopping yet to do some crop decontaminations.

Usefulness for my thesis:  Lots of rich pickings about the sorts of pressures companies do and do not come under (especially the consumer-facing links in the chain)

Usefulness for my ‘activism’: Arrogant American companies eh, donchajustlovethem (Monsanto, Peabody etc).  The difference is, everyone has an opinion on food and food quality, few people care how the electrons get to their fridge/plasma screen TV.  Food is personal in the way that the Keeling Curve isn’t. Hohum.

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