Bringing the Crowd Back In: The Nonorganizational Elements of Social Movements

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Bringing the Crowd Back In:

The Nonorganizational Elements of Social Movements*

Pamela E. Oliver
University of Wisconsin

Madison, Wisconsin 53706

608-262-6829 / 262-2921

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* This paper was presented at the 1985 meeting of the American Sociological Association in Washington, D.C. I would like to thank Gary Marx and Ralph Turner for their comments.
NOTE: This is the pre-publication manuscript version of a paper that was published in: Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change, Volume 11, pages 1-30. 1989. Greenwich, Conn., JAI Press. Please cite the published version.

Organizations are very important in social movements, but they are not the whole story. Social movements are exceedingly complex phenomena encompassing the actions of organizations and their members, the actions of nonmembers in activities planned by organizations, and the actions of nonmembers in activities that organizations have nothing to do with, and may even oppose. Crowds and diffuse collectivities are important parts of social movements. This essay sketches an understanding of social movements which integrates organizational and nonorganizational elements of social movements, and the relations among them. Social movements are viewed as large, complex sets of collective events oriented toward some general social change goal. These events are seen not merely as common responses to the same external stimulus, but as affecting each other and accumulating into the dynamic event we call a movement. Actions can affect the likelihood of other actions by creating occasions for action, by altering material conditions, by changing a group's social organization, by altering beliefs, or by adding knowledge. The effects of one action on another are filtered through communication networks and the mass media. Giving attention to the ways in which actions affect other actions will allow us to understand the dynamic processes involved in the growth (or lack of growth) of widespread social movements.

Bringing the Crowd Back In:

The Nonorganizational Elements of Social Movements

Real social movements are complex mixtures of ideological pronouncements by leaders, diverse actions undertaken by crowds and organizations, and shifts in the consciousness and daily actions of people. In real social movements, actions affect other actions: they are not just isolated, independent responses external economic or political conditions. But our theory usually treats social movements as long-lasting single actions or as coherent social groups and fails to capture the ways actions affect each other. Much of our vocabulary is borrowed from the study of organizations. Marx and Wood noted ten years ago a general failure to link the study of social movements with the study of crowds (1975 p. 372, 416). The situation is not much different today. We lack a coherent theoretical account of the place of crowds and consciousness in social movements.

To set the stage for theorizing, we must begin with what we know empirically about social movements. Consider the Black Movement of the 1950s and 1960s,1 not because it was typical or average -- it certainly was not -- but because it was very large and complex and it encompassed in one movement many of the disparate features of social movements. What was this movement like? First, even during the period of NAACP hegemony, it was never coterminous with any single organization, and as the movement exploded, many movement organizations played important roles, organizations such as SNCC, CORE, SCLC, and the Black Panthers. These organizations (and their leaders or members) engaged in collective activities such as filing lawsuits, organizing sit-ins and boycotts, and making speeches. Organizations which were not movement organizations, notably black churches, often mobilized mass support for these activities. Morris (1984) stresses the importance of indigenous black organizations and describes a complex decentralized upheaval in which locally organized "movement centers" planned campaigns in their own cities. Even though there is a lively scholarly debate about the relative importance of various preexisting and movement organizations, it is clear that both kinds of organizations were important.
Important as these organizations were, and as complex as the organizational structure was, there was much more to the Black Movement than the actions of organizations. To begin with, people who were not members of movement organizations often participated in mass events such as boycotts, marches, rallies, demonstrations, and sit-ins. (In resource mobilization terms, they are the "transitory teams" mobilized by the activist cadre.) Although empirical research indicates that organizational ties -- especially through churches, black colleges, and civic organizations -- were very important channels for mobilization and block recruitment, so were other social network ties, especially kinship, friendship, and common residence.
Even this does not capture the full complexity of the movement, for widespread crowd events added to the turmoil. Some crowd events were derived from organizational events. Many sit-ins, lie-ins, kneel-ins, and swim-ins were conducted by ad hoc groups strongly influenced by but not necessarily organizationally linked to the movement organizations. Sometimes rioting or brawling would erupt in a city experiencing a sustained nonviolent campaign.
Then there were the riots in Northern cities. They were certainly not planned or even encouraged by Black Movement organizations. In fact, they were universally opposed by existing civil rights organizations and their leaders. Organizations never started and never controlled the riots. Nevertheless, these classic crowd actions were an integral part of what many called the black "revolution" of the 1960s (Killian 1975). They were clearly sparked by the climate of protest created by the civil rights demonstrations, and they in turn altered the course of the organized parts of the movement. More militant leaders and organizations were created or rose in prominence as a consequence of the riots, and existing organizations altered their rhetoric and moved their bases of operations north to address the issues raised by the riots. Riots were viewed by whites as more frightening, perhaps, but as the same general class of behavior as a demonstration,2 and generally conceded social benefits in response to the riots.
Finally, the movement raised the pride and consciousness of the mass of nonactivist blacks in important and enduring ways. Not only did the majority of blacks feel proud of the movement, their collective sense of culture and group pride rose. This shift in consciousness began with the period of black protests during World War II and continued with the postwar anticolonial struggles in Africa, but was accelerated by the movement activities of the 1950s and 1960s. Rising consciousness led millions of blacks to change the ways they dealt with whites in interpersonal encounters, a change that had a big effect on the perceptions and behavior of many whites.
All these different kinds of actions affected each other, and it was these interactions that created the social movement. Collective actions occur all the time. Blacks have petitioned, sued, and lobbied on their own behalf throughout American history, and from time to time before the 1950s they had rioted, sat in, marched, rallied, and boycotted. But something else happened in the 1950s and 1960s. The pace of action accelerated and exploded. Although external social and political conditions were important, they were not the whole story. Actions caused other actions. The NAACP's litigation strategy produced the 1954 Supreme Court decision which raised blacks expectations and caused conflicts over school integration. Whites' refusal to obey the law led blacks to seek extralegal strategies. The 1953 Baton Rouge bus boycott was an example for the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-6, which was largely planned although its specific precipitating incident was not (Morris 1984, pp. 51-3). This boycott in turn provided an example for Tallahassee's Florida A and M students who started a boycott after an entirely spontaneous precipitating incident, a boycott which was taken up soon after by the local NAACP and indigenous black leadership (Killian 1984). In 1960, the sit-ins sparked other sit-ins and the Freedom Rides, which provoked violent responses and fueled the conflict further. In the early 1960s, centrally planned campaigns and demonstrations set the example for countless smaller skirmishes, many of them spontaneous in their origins. These civil rights protests influenced the beliefs of poor urban blacks and fed into the riots and their interpretation. The early riots and responses to them served as examples for later riots.3 Riots led existing organizations and leaders to shift their focus, and sparked the creation of new leaders and new organizations.
It is this sequence of action/reaction, this chain reaction that makes a social movement a social movement. These chains of action and reaction were outside the control or direction of any person or organization. If we accept this view of what a massive social movement is really like, and my reading of the literature is that most sociologists would, then it follows that it is misleading to equate a social movement with any kind of single collective decision-making entity, no matter how loosely structured. Whole social movements are not at all like armies at war with hierarchical command and centralized leadership. They are not like organizations, not even very informal ones. They are more like networks. They are made up of lots of smaller collective units, each acting autonomously in accord with their own internal logic. Different parts of a movement influence each other, but do not control them.
If we are to theorize sensibly about whole social movements, we must be able to speak about these shifting relations among very different kinds of collective entities experiencing very different kinds of events. We cannot do this with an organizational vocabulary and organizational metaphors. But all too often we speak of movement strategy, tactics, leadership, membership, recruitment, division of labor, success and failure -- terms which strictly apply only to coherent decision-making entities (i.e. organizations or groups), not to crowds, collectivities, or whole social movements.
It can be a useful simplifying assumption to ignore the inner workings of a social movement when discussing the interactions between a movement and its opposition or environment. Metaphorical use of an organizational vocabulary in this case can be quite useful, as long as we understand that it is metaphorical. But there are dangers if this kind of language is the only language we use for social movements.
First, it is all too easy to forget the metaphor and to attribute intentions to the movement as a whole, or to collective entities which cannot support them. Discussions of movement strategy all too often are couched in the language of lessons to be learned, as if a movement could choose its strategy. But of course it cannot. Movements are shaped by the complex interactions of collective entities whose intentions are often quite divergent. Movement histories may provide object lessons for the leaders of movement organizations, but one of those lessons must be their fundamental inability to control much of what happens in a social movement.
Secondly, the use of organizational language diverts our attention from the very interesting problem of what goes on inside a social movement, from the question of how diverse kinds of actions actually do influence each other. Why do riots occur in waves? To say that there is imitation is to give a label to the phenomenon, not to explain it. How did demonstrations in the South spark riots in the North? What was the mechanism? What is the nature of the relationship between crowds and organizations? How do shifts in mass consciousness occur? When are these shifts enduring, and when are they volatile? Does consciousness really matter for anything except itself? These questions are worthy of research, and are obscured by organizational language.
This essay develops a different way of talking about social movements, a language that accords the same theoretical status to crowds, consciousness, and organizations, so that propositions about their interrelations can be articulated. I have sketchily reviewed a variety of literatures about crowds and consciousness, seeking to show how collectivities which are not organizations may still be treated as collective actors. This review does not purport to be definitive. Rather, I try to show how existing knowledge can be incorporated into a different framework. I say very little about organizations, not because they are unimportant, but because our scholarship lately has been mostly about organizations.


To acknowledge the complexity and fluidity of social movements is not to give up on rigorous research about them, nor is it to require that each research project encompass the totality of a movement. Each event in a social movement is like throwing a rock into a pond, creating ripples which eventually damp out and become imperceptible. We cannot possibly follow out all the direct and indirect effects of every action. But we do not have to be able to find the end of the ripples: we do not have to draw boundaries around social movements to study them (Turner 1981, and Marwell and Oliver 1984, make this point.) Instead, each research project focuses on a few key features or processes while ignoring others. We should expect to have research and theory on movement organizations, or crowds in movements, or the role of mass media in movements, and so forth.

But we do need some overarching theoretical structure that allows us to link these different processes together and generate propositions about the relations among them. Such a structure requires a vocabulary which does not automatically invoke images of unitary groups or organizations. After reviewing and analyzing dozens of published definitions of the concept of a social movement, Marwell and Oliver (1984) propose to define a social movement as a large, complex set of collective events oriented toward some general social change goal. The most important feature of this definition is its sharp distinction between any single collective action oriented toward some specific social change goal, and a social movement which, by definition, encompasses many different actions. In this view, a social movement generally encompasses a wide variety of different types of actions oriented toward a variety of specific goals, employing a variety of ideological interpretations, and undertaken by a variety of different kinds of actors.

Marwell and Oliver also propose the term "collective campaign" to describe sets of actions which are smaller, less complex, and oriented toward more specific social change goals. This concept allows us to avoid the discomfort of having to call a series of protests by dormitory students a social movement for lack of a better term. It is also useful for discussing the activities of a single collective actor over time. Social movements are usually made up of a number of collective campaigns by a number of different collective actors.4
If social movements are viewed as complex sets of collective actions and campaigns, then the organizational structure of a whole social movement would in general include several organizations and their organizational relations; a variety of informal groups who get involved in movement activities; episodic crowds; mass changes in individual beliefs and actions and shifts in public opinion; and the interactions among these elements.
Of course, the actions in a social movement interact with those on the other side of an issue, and thus not part of the social movement as it is defined here. I don't think anything will be gained by trying to use the term social movement for all related actions, regardless of which side of an issue they are on, even though many of the relations among actions discussed below hold for actions inside and outside the movement. Existing social movements literature defines several kinds of collective actors outside the social movement but relevant to it. Some movements face opponents, i.e. sets of actors who oppose the social change goal the movement supports, while other movements face only targets, whose inertia or indifference needs to be overcome. Movement opposition may be either entrenched elites or power blocks (i.e. government, the ruling class) or another social movement (i.e. a countermovement). These opponents, particularly when they are countermovements, may themselves be complex sets of interrelated actions, rather than coherent decision-making organizations capable of pursuing rational strategies. Targets may be relatively coherent organizations, or unorganized masses or publics. In some cases, third party audiences are important. For example, it is often argued that confrontations between Civil Rights protestors and white supremacist local governments were played before an audience of northern whites, whose eventual repugnance for the tactics of white southerners was a significant factor in the struggle.
Although I believe the particular definition given by Marwell and Oliver is the clearest and most precise, this view of social movements is quite consistent with much of the literature. Almost everyone who has written theoretically about social movements has addressed in one way or another the complexity of large movements. Gusfield (1981) critiques what he calls the "linear" conception of social movements, although he stresses meanings and understandings, rather than actions. Oberschall has often written about actions within a movement affecting other actions (for example, 1980; 1973, p. 298) and has stated that social movements could be viewed as "a social interaction field with zones of varying organizational density" (1978, p. 267). McAdam (1982, pp. 52-3) explicitly includes feedback from the movement back into the movement as part of his model. The populational analyses that Tilly and his colleagues perform fit readily into this conception, as do their discussions of the interplay between crowds and organizations in the development of national democratic states (see Tilly 1978 and Tilly, Tilly, and Tilly 1975). Turner and Killian, separately and in their joint work, often speak of the fluidity and complexity of movements, and address specific issues about crowds and consciousness (Turner and Killian 19725; Turner 1981; Killian 1975). Smelser's (1962, pp. 109-110) definition of movements in terms of their generalized beliefs is entirely compatible with a vision of movements as diffuse and complex, although his own work and that of those in his theoretical tradition rarely addresses movement complexity in much detail (Marx and Wood 1975, pp. 407-8). It is widely recognized that collective violence occurs in waves (e.g. Lofland 1981, p. 435; Pitcher, Hamblin and Miller 1978). The black riots in the 1960s were seen by the general public (Turner 1969) and by sociologists as protests which were somehow related to the black movement (Morgan and Clark 1973; Spilerman 1970, 1976; Rossi and Berk 1970; Lang and Lang 1970).


It is one thing to say that social movements are complex aggregates of actions, and quite another to develop theory which can address this complexity in a useful way. We need to understand the mechanisms through which disparate kinds of actions by widely separated groups of individuals can affect each other and accumulate and have a kind of unified effect. To this end, we may organize what we already know about the factors which lead people to act in a way that will permit a disciplined search for the important relationships among actions.


As a starting point, consider the model in Figure 1. We use the term "collectivity" to refer to any collective entity, be it an organization, an informal group, a crowd, or a public. In this simple model, one collectivity does something and its action has some consequences. A communication process generates information about the event and its consequences. This information is taken in by a second collectivity which interprets it. This interpreted information may alter the second collectivity's prospects for subsequent collective action. We may discuss this model in two ways. First, we briefly consider the "black box" in the middle, identifying some important features of the communication process and the process of interpreting and deciding. Secondly, we ignore the black box, and inventory the ways in which information about the first action influences the prospects for a second action.

Communication Processes

Communication links are never perfect: they never carry all possible information, and they never provide links between all possible collective entities. Thus, processes that determine exactly what information gets transmitted (and what does not) and exactly to whom it is transmitted are crucial features of social movements. There has been much discussion of the effects of the mass media on social movements, arguing that the media provide a mode of communication among unconnected individuals, and that media reports of movement events are often very distorted (see, for example, Molotch 1974, 1979; Molotch and Lester 1975; Gitlin 1980; Jenkins 1983, p. 546; Oberschall 1978). I have seen no treatments of movement-controlled mass media, even though these clearly exist and are important. In 1964, 78% of surveyed blacks read at least one black newspaper (calculated from Marx 1967, p. 73).

There has also been a great deal of research in the collective behavior tradition about the personal transmission of rumor within collectivities (for comprehensive treatments see Shibutani 1966; Turner and Killian 1972, pp. 30ff). Personal communication is also important between collectivities. Crowd behavior in the past is regularly found to have spread across time from a single point of origin along major transportation routes (Rude 1964, p. 25; Shibutani 1966, pp. 103-6). In the 20th century, the telephone now permits rapid diffusion of information through personal networks: Morris (1982, 1984) tells how activists called acquaintances in other cities to urge them to have sit-ins of their own.
Both mass communication and personal communication are important in all social movements. The mass media can provide communication bridges that jump geographic and social barriers and, with today's technology, can do it very quickly. But they are highly selective in what information they transmit. Conversely, personal communications can be about almost anything, but they must be made between people who are in immediate physical proximity to one another, or who have some preexisting social relationship. The two forms of communication are used together. People discuss and evaluate the news they hear from the mass media, and they use the mass media to check the news they hear through personal sources (Shibutani 1966, pp. 31-62; Lang and Lang 1981; Turner and Killian 1972, pp. 112-118, 199-243).

The Process of Interpreting and Deciding
Although whole social movements cannot make decisions, decisions are made in social movements. They are made by different kinds of collective entities: organizations, informal groups, crowds, and local collectivities.6 Each kind of collective entity has its distinctive patterns of decision-making, but some general principles apply to all. In all cases, it is ultimately individuals who make choices about their actions, but these choices are made in interaction with others, and in this sense, collective entities may be said to act. People normally go about the routines of life without making collective decisions, but under certain circumstances, people begin to think about the possibility of some kind of collective action, and then they enter a calculation mode wherein they decide what to do (Collins 1981). In all cases the fundamental process of a collective decision is the same: people talk to each other about what to do, some individuals start to act in particular ways (which in the case of organizations may automatically determine resource allocations), then other individuals decide whether to cooperate with those action, do something else, or do nothing. It is this process which produces a collective decision. The rules mapping individual choices into collective decisions differ depending on the type of collective entity, and different types of entities are capable of supporting different levels of coordination among actions. The important thing about a social movement is that these collective decisions by one collective entity are influenced by the collective decisions of other collective entities.

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