Who sticks around, who doesn’t? Maps, member-tracing and validity issues

When it comes to “successful” social movements the questions are usually “how big was the demo?”(1) or “how do we get more people along to our next meeting?”  This is of course, wrong-headed. (Some of) the relevant questions are –   “Who drops out?” “Why?” “Who sticks around?” “Why?” “What does “sticking around” even mean, anyway?”

Good questions, obvs, and there are if not actual answers in these papers below, thhen at least there are some conceptual tools and links to other papers I ought to be reading.

Btw, this is the third post about reading I am doing on activists and their histories (see first one and second one). There are probably more to come, and I really need to synthesise this, don’t I?  Sigh.  Seems a bit futile, given how close the apocalypse is.  Still, one must plod on…

Fillieule, O. (2010). Some elements of an interactionist approach to political disengagement. Social Movement Studies, 9(1), 1–15.

Naomi Maynard (2018).  Activism across the lifecourse: Circumstantial, dormant and embedded activisms. Area.  50:205–212.

Sevasti-Melissa Nolas, Christos Varvantakis & Vinnarasan Aruldoss (2017) Political activism across the life course, Contemporary Social Science, 12:1-2, 1-12, DOI:10.1080/21582041.2017.1336566

Peter Millward and Shaminder Takhar (2019). Social Movements, Collective Action and Activism. Sociology, Vol. 53(3) NP1­–NP12.

Johanna Söderström 2020. Life diagrams: a methodological and analytical tool for accessing life histories. Qualitative Research, Vol. 20(1) 3­–21.

Fillieule, O. (2010)  makes a good case for thinking of “activist careers” (though of course for many this can be quite short, not always through their own fault).  There’s lots of good stuff in here, and this is of particular use to climate activists needing to think about divisions of labour etc –

“Beyond selection mechanisms, organizations also do a lot of work in socializing their members, understood as role taking, which allows individuals to identify the different roles they face and correctly fulfil their customary tasks. This secondary socialization can, at times, assume the form of explicit inculcations, the goal of which is to homogenize activists’ categories of thought and their way of acting within and in the name of the organization. Most of the time, know-how and activist wisdom amounts to a ‘practical sense’, what Bourdieu refers to as ‘the anticipated adjustment to the requirements of a field, what the language of sports calls the “sense of the game” (like “sense of place”, “the art of anticipation”, etc.)’, acquired over the course of a ‘long dialectical process, often described as a “vocation”, by which “we make ourselves” according to what is making us and we “choose” that by which we are “chosen”’(Bourdieu, 1980, pp. 111 –112). This process takes place outside of our conscious awareness.”

(Fillieule, 2010: 7)

The filters are no longer as crude as this quote below, but they are still there…

Here, Doug McAdam cites the gendered dimensions of recruitment by the SNCC of white student volunteers for the ‘Freedom Summer’ of 1964 (McAdam, 1992). McAdam demonstrates that applications from women were strongly discouraged due to both racist and sexist stereotypes. Where women nonetheless persisted in their desire to be involved, recruiters almost systematically excluded those who would not limit themselves to tasks considered feminine.

(Fillieule, 2010: 6)


Also, there’s a preliminary answer to that “how to categorise who votes with their feet?” question-

Introvigne (1999, p. 62) distinguishes between defectors, who leave their organization in a negotiated fashion and by agreement; apostates, who become their organization’s professional enemies; and ordinary leave takers, who disappear quietly, and whose disengagement carries no apparent notable cost, for either themselves or the organization (1999, p. 67). Yet this is a rather cursory typology. It needs to be completed by various types of passive defection – withdrawal without leaving an organization – and different scenarios in which disengagement from an organization is followed, and sometimes provoked, by joining another organization or cause.

(Fillieule, 2010: 30). The reference is Introvigne, M. (1999) Defectors, ordinary leavetakers and apostates: a quantitative study of former members of New Acropolis in France, Nova Religio, The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, 3(1), pp. 83 –99.)

and you know, there is the rhetoric of “openness” but that isn’t the lived experience of “newbies” –

“Many accounts show how, faced with the arrival of new members, long-time activists may, through various voluntary and involuntary means, ‘close ranks’ and make it difficult for newcomers to integrate. In research on internal decision-making procedures in American social movements, Polletta (2002) provides a number of examples of this. She especially shows how the women’s liberation movement, based on an internal structure stressing sisterhood and rejecting explicit internal hierarchy, placed numerous barriers to the entry of women anxious to join the group, to such an extent that generational renewal was rendered almost impossible (Polletta, 2002, pp. 151, 154; see also Whittier (1995) on the feminist movement in Columbus).”

(Fillieule, 2010:11)



Naomi Maynard (2018)   argues “for the importance of conceptualising activism as a dynamic temporal, as well as spatial, process.”  Translation – time matters. She talks to former yoof activists and proposes three states of activism… circumstantial, dormant and embedded. And then there is also “implicit activism”(Horton and Kraftl 2009), about which I am less sure… (but that may well be my privilege showing).

Sevasti-Melissa Nolas, Christos Varvantakis & Vinnarasan Aruldoss (2017)  are with Maynard on the time question –

“How does a life course approach to political activism expand the ways in which political activism might be defined? How might political activism across the life course be studied? We argue that bringing questions of people’s personal and social relationships to time into conversation with political activism challenges commonly held beliefs and practices about political participation.”

(Nolas et al., 2017: 2)

There’s also a SUPER useful pointer in the direction of work that problematises the “citizen” label, of who gets to be one  (odd how they almost always tend to be educated white prosperous older heterosexual men, and if they’re not, they’re somehow thought of as interlopers/termagants/uppity)

“A useful way to start to answer this question is by looking at a key term for thinking about political participation: ‘the citizen’ (Dalton, 2009; Norris, 2009). There is a long debate in the social sciences about the many exclusions embedded in this term including exclusions on the grounds of age (see below), gender (Lister, 2003; McAfee, 2000; Roseneil, 2013), racial, ethnic (Hall, 1993) and sexual (Plummer, 2003) identities. Such exclusions are closely linked with disciplinary power dynamics and the central role that psychology and psychoanalysis have played in the modern invention of the self (Rose, 1998; Steedman, 1998).”

(Nolas et al., 2017: 4)

There’s also this: “Carolyn Pedwell, drawing on the work of Jane Bennett, calls this ‘the mind-body-environment assemblage’ (quoted in Pedwell, 2017, p. 95).”


Peter Millward and Shaminder Takhar (2019) : this is an overview piece of the last 50 years of appearance of thinking/articles about social movements and collective action in the journal Sociology. So probably a bit niche for your average activist… but nice factoids and stuff to read –


Johanna Söderström (2020).  Oh, this is good stuff, which we can try to use with the rest of the interviews we do.  Basically, get folks to do a ‘map’ that they and you can check against the life history interview, which is gonna wander around in many ways anyways.

She argues for

“the utility of life diagrams as a methodological and analytical tool across various life history projects. Using research on post-war political mobilization among former combatants (in Colombia, Namibia and the United States), the article demonstrates how a life diagram can modify the interview and become a useful analytical tool.”

(Söderström, 2020: 3)

Also, the point that depending when you interview someone is going to influence the answers they give is well explained, with a super-reflexive quote from one of the interviewees:

“If the interview is carried out at a time when the person is very active in politics and sees a future with even more engagement (if they have drawn a line that continues into the future), this position is likely to color how they see earlier spells of life where they chose to withdraw from politics, in contrast with a person who is currently inactive as well. One of the former M-19 guerillas commented on how the timing of the interview matter for how she answers:

So I always ask them to give me the interview afterwards […]… Because sometimes I see questions that were done to me a while ago and how I answered them, and then I say, hey, how did I answer this differently. Not different in terms of content, but the development of how I answered again in another moment after living other things, the same question… How we have changed… a different life… (Alba).

(Söderström, 2020: 8-9)

But wait, there’s more! There’s also a typology of pathways-

“Three typical political life paths were identified in the work with these former combatants: the Resilient, the Remobilizers and the Removed. The Resilient experienced a sustained or increasing political mobilization post-disarmament. In the life courses of these individuals, they were resilient to all of these events (A and B). The Remobilizers or the Remobilized experienced decreased political participation at some point after dis-armament followed by a re-mobilization in politics, sometimes multiple times. The Removed experienced a decrease in political mobilization sometime after disarmament lasting until today.”

(Söderström, 2020:13)

And the nice warning – ‘stories are simulations of participants’ meaning, and not the meaning itself’ (Polkinghorne, 2007: 482)


So, all up, useful articles. Question is now to implement what I have learnt, because otherwise, I’ll just forget it (quickly) and stuff it up/have false sense of knowledge…


Useful methodological tools  (see “interviews methodological page”)

  • Life course diagrams
  • “Member checking” (with provisos)

Useful conceptual tools

  • Types of activism  -intermittent, Jones (2017)
  • ‘resonant sites of activism’ (Rosen, 2017)
  • “Habit of responding” – Andrews (2017) suggests that maintaining political commitment depends on cultivating a ‘habit of responding’.

Papers and, gasp, books,  I clearly need to read

Da Silva, R. (2017). Narrative resources and political violence: The life stories of former clandestine militants in Portugal. Contemporary Social Science, 12(1–2). doi:10.1080/21582041.2017.1335878

Edwards G (2008) ‘The Lifeworld’ as a resource for social movement participation and the consequences of its colonization. Sociology 42(2): 299–316.

Grasso, M. T., Farrall, S., Gray, E., Hay, C., & Jennings, W. (2017, January 26). Thatcher’s children, Blair’s babies, political socialization and trickle-down value change: An age, period and cohort analysis. British Journal of Political Science. Advanced online publication. doi:10.1017/S0007123416000375

Horton, J., & Kraftl, P. (2009). Small acts, kind words and ‘not too much fuss’: Implicit activisms. Emotion Space and Society, 2, 14–23.

Jones, A. (2017). Housing choices in later life as unclaimed forms of housing activism. Contemporary Social Science, 12(1–2). doi:10.1080/21582041.2017.1334127

King DS (2006) Activists and emotional reflexivity: Toward Touraine’s subject as social movement. Sociology 40(5): 873–891.

McAdam, D. (1992) Gender as a mediator of the activist experience: the case of Freedom Summer, American Journal of Sociology, 97(5), pp. 1211–1240.

Marwick, A. E., & boyd, d. (2011). I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience. New Media & Society, 13(1), 114–133.

McPherson, J. M. (1983) An ecology of affiliation, American Sociological Review, 48(4), pp. 519 –532.

Passy F and Giugni M (2000) Life-spheres, networks, and sustained participation in social movements: a phenomenological approach to political commitment. Sociological Forum 15(1): 117–144.

Pedwell, C. (2017). Transforming habit: Revolution, routine and social change. Cultural Studies, 31(1), 93–120.

Polkinghorne DE (2007) Validity issues in narrative research. Qualitative Inquiry 13(4): 471–486.

Popielarz, P. & McPherson, M. (1995) On the edge or in between: niche position, niche overlap and the duration of voluntary association memberships, American Journal of Sociology, 101(3), pp. 698–720.

Rosen, R. (2017). Play as activism? Early childhood and (inter)generational politics. Contemporary Social Science, 12(1–2). doi:10.1080/21582041.2017.1324174

Whittier, N. (1997) Political generations, micro cohorts and the transformation of social movements, American Sociological Review, 62(5), pp. 760 –778.

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