Life Beyond the Farm

Rethinking Social Movement Participation: Dispositions, Organizations and Networks in Activism

Doug McAdam, Professor of Sociology; Priya Fielding-Singh, Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology; Jennifer Hill, Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology

Among the oldest questions animating the study of social movements is: who participates and why? Why do some individuals come to participate in civic, political, and activist engagements, while others do not?

While a rich body of literature has shown the influence of social networks and organizations on such participation, it has been harder to assess the interactive effects of structure and disposition on why people get involved. Our project seeks to more fully capture the myriad pathways to civic and political participation by examining how predispositions – or the socially acquired attitudes, values, and identities that dispose someone toward involvement – interact with structural factors to facilitate engagement.

We do so by using a novel data set amassed from a longitudinal study of an undergraduate college cohort. We began, back in 2013, by surveying an incoming college class prior to their arrival on campus. Over the course of their college careers, we surveyed them 5 more times and conducted interviews with select students. Overall, we collected six waves of survey data on our subjects and conducted depth interviews with 28 of them at the end of their sophomore year and senior years of college. Central to our interests was the issue of variation in student political and civic engagement.  Which members of the class participated in some level of engagement and why?  That is, what mix of factors predict variation in participation among these students?

We are able to answer these questions because our data offer us a uniquely rich over-time portrait of students’ participation in various political, civic, and activist engagements. We are currently writing a book (under contract with Cambridge University Press) on our findings in an effort to contribute a much fuller, richer and temporally nuanced account of differential recruitment to activism.