Actions Become Beliefs, Participation and Class Bias in #OccupyWallStreet Debates.

I want to draw out an implication in this quick rant by Sarah Jaffe, the class implications of “know your history.”  Jaffe:

It’s been bothering me lately, in regards to Occupy Wall Street.  The critiques—so many of them are well-meaning, and so many of them are calling for the protesters to have read this or that pet theorist, to have studied the history of protest movements, to have been connected to organizers on the ground.

And the thing is: we live in a society that is structured specifically so that “the 99%,” most of us, DON’T do that….but most people…haven’t spent the last six years reading feminist blogs and all the theory and history they could get their hands on. They are struggling to get by.  Most people are not connected to community organizers on the ground because there are no community organizers on the ground in most neighborhoods…

Which plays into the question of why the protesters call for mainstream media coverage…I had a conversation with the cab driver who picked me up yesterday—yes, I’m going into Thomas Friedman territory I KNOW LEAVE ME ALONE—about Occupy Wall Street. Why? Because it was on the AM news radio station he listens to…So many times the left would rather be pure than win battles…But right now, Occupy Wall Street is getting in people’s heads….it’s attracting people beyond the usual suspects, and it’s creating a space where you can learn. Because most people? They get radicalized when something happens to them.

What comes first, belief or action?  Do people join causes because they believe in the cause, or do they believe in the cause because they joined the action?

Your mind will instinctively believe the first – why else would you act unless you were acting on a want, a desire or a preference?  And indeed a lot of meta-commentary about activism and OWS follows this instrumental arrow – how do we get all the people with the right beliefs together?  Now that we have people who roughly have the same beliefs all together, how do we turn those beliefs into actionable demands?

But what if that is backwards?  What if participation structures beliefs?  What if people start to get a version of what Occupy Wall Street is about – in all its forms, ranging from progressive economics to direct democracy to deep concerns about financialization and political corruption – because they stop by and check it out, or participate for a little bit?  What if the things Jaffe describes – from the cab driver listening to it on the radio, to someone who could use some free food stopping by, to a formerly disinterested person staying to listen to a teach-in in a park –  in turn structure the beliefs that then in turn call for more engaged action?

This dynamic Jaffe describes was found in the sociologist’s Ziad Munson’s excellent ethnography The Making of Pro-Life Activists: How Social Movement Mobilization Works.  From the book (my bold):

The link between beliefs and action must be turned on its head: real action often precedes meaningful beliefs about an issue. Demographic and attitudinal differences between activists and nonactivists cannot explain why some people join the pro-life movement and others do not. Instead, mobilization occurs when people are drawn into activism through organizational and relational ties, not when they form strong beliefs about abortion. Beliefs about abortion are often underdeveloped, incoherent, and inconsistent until individuals become actively engaged with the movement. The “process of conviction” (Maxwell 2002) is the result of mobilization, not a necessary prerequisite for it (pg. 20).

Here’s a summary.  From the copy: “Munson makes the startling discovery that many activists join up before they develop strong beliefs about abortion—in fact, some are even pro-choice prior to their mobilization. Therefore, Munson concludes, commitment to an issue is often a consequence rather than a cause of activism.”

I liked that book but am not engaged in the literature.  How many sociologists and others who would critically engage this literature are in the audience?  What’s your take on this book and this argument?  I like it because it makes sense, especially to a now-atrophied  part of my brain that used to be pretty good at using phrases like “dialectical” and “habitus” correctly.

And I’d say that the OWS movement should consider this a major goal and major wins – education and bringing people in, or turning the “Belief->Action” arrow backwards.

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12 Responses to Actions Become Beliefs, Participation and Class Bias in #OccupyWallStreet Debates.

  1. Pingback: Occupy Wall Street Blog Round-Up, and a Thought on Climate Change « A (Budding) Sociologist’s Commonplace Book

  2. Nick says:

    Mike,
    Long-time reader, first-time commenter here. When I read this post I was put in mind of the essay “Discipleship as Craft, Church as Disciplined Community” by the theologian Stanley Hauerwas.

    http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=110

    In it, Hauerwas makes a related set of arguments around practice being an important precursor to conviction. Running counter to the “accepted direction of the arrow,” it definitely invokes a certain amount of unease, but I have found it to ring true in many ways.

  3. Pingback: Some quick Occupy Wall Street links « zunguzungu

  4. Jaime Omar Yassin says:

    I hope you’re right.

    I’ve been very critical of OWS, while supportive, in that the movement doesn’t really represent the people most affected by the economic situation in this country. But its not like that’s their fault. There’s institutional obstacles to the poor and working class representing themselves in general. But the fact that with the vast number of unemployed, and chronically unemployed people in NYC, a more diverse group hasn’t yet coalesced is worrisome to me. There are literally thousands of people in NYC with nothing better to do right now. I think its important that we recognize that as of this time, the group is working to symbolically represent those they claim can’t represent themselves. I think that’s an effective idea that can lead to education and actualization at some point in the future. But I think its dangerous to claim that they’re representative, or that the group represents those with the most to lose [as you did elsewhere. That's crazy, by the way]. Just because the worst off people can’t [or maybe won't-can't] right now, doesn’t mean that we need to use ventriloquism to imitate it.

  5. ripley says:

    NOt to skew this towards further discussion of dreaded “anarchists/insurrectionists” who are masterminding everything or else totally irrelevant –or both (kinda like peasants are discussed as dumb and stagnant, yet cunning and malicious) – but the key recent reading here would be “the coming insurrection” on the power of action.

    The connection to the pro-life movement is interesting also because many people describe a “conversion” moment with actions quite similar to religious conversion. I say this not at all to denigrate. Actually I think it may be very important, that sense of being connected to something bigger than you. Americans don’t usually get that much outside of sports and church…

  6. Pingback: Six Demands the Wall Street Protesters Should Make « Revolution Without Border

  7. Jeff V says:

    Good morning Mike,
    Thank you for this post. Have you read Robert Cialdini’s “Influence”? One of the six prinicples of influence is “Commitment and Consistancy”, and I believe he talks about how, when people commit to an opinion or action, they will usually be consistent and honor the commitment. In other words, a small commitment to an idea like Occupy Wall Street can build a stronger commitment over time.
    Some of the other priniples of Influence may be involved as well. Reciprocity, for example; free food in exchange for small, minor participation.

  8. Hey all. Great conversation. Someone’s comment about practice being an enforcer of conviction reminds me of the little I’ve read about Zen meditation, in which, in certain views, “right practice” literally _is_ zen and enlightenment. Just doing the practice. It’s a provoking concept.

    I came here via the zunguzungu blog, which has a little link collection up right now on OWS. Here’s a good one which touches somewhat on these ideas in a slightly political-theory based context, i.e. creating the space for the desired change to occur, rather than articulating change, process focused stuff, etc. Many of you have probably read it, but for those who haven’t here it is:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/post/youre-creating-a-vision-of-the-sort-of-society-you-want-to-have-in-miniature/2011/08/25/gIQAXVg7HL_blog.html

  9. Peter Frase says:

    I’m not a social movements scholar, so I can’t really speak to the literature, but this rings obviously true to me based on my experience as an activist and an organizer. As it turns out, I sort of followed the belief–>action path, reading books about socialism and then seeking out representative organizations in the world; but as the Jaffe extract points out, that probably has something to do with my class background (and also the fact that I’m a huge nerd). Much more commonly, what I saw was that people would be attracted to activism out of some intuitive moral sense of injustice or outrage, and then develop their politics through the process of acting together and “struggling with” their comrades, as my Communist friends used to say. And it’s not like my politics haven’t been changed and deepened too, through my contact with living political movements.

    If I wanted to be snarky about it, I could say that the people demanding that OWS protestors take up coherent ideological viewpoints that aren’t beholden to bourgeois individualism are themselves being bourgeois individualists: their implicit model of politics is one in which everyone somehow comes to hold correct beliefs, and only then do they come together for collective action.

  10. dr says:

    I can’t speak to the literature, but I have extensive on the ground experience in social movement building and that thesis accords well with my experience. What works for ideological persuasion are face to face conversations where you listen actively to the person you are trying to persuade and guide them in coming up with their own reasons to act. But even though those reasons do, if you’ve done things correctly, legitimately emanate from the subject, it is probably more honest to say that the person’s belief in those reasons is more like entertaining an idea than being committed to it. What really gets people committed, in my experience, is going out and trying to persuade others. Part of this is just that the dynamics of the conversation push you to identify with the side that you take, but another very important part comes from hearing other people repeatedly articulate reasons for your position.

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  12. KevinP says:

    I like the post and it is a very intriguing question, but I must disagree. Belief must be present before action to occur. I agree with your argument in that people don’t have to concretely “believe” in a movement before participating in it, but your argument promotes a simplistic, individualized view of the issue. What makes people attend movements?

    If you’re interested in the message of the movement and your friend (who happens to be invested in the movement) takes you, you are actively participating in your friend’s belief structure, and then in the ideology of the movement itself. It acknowledges that his/her conviction could be a possible reality, a “correct way” to view the world. Developing beliefs about a movement after joining it does not mean that belief was secondary to action at all. It just means that one’s personal beliefs developed as a cumulative effect of the belief/convictions/ideologies and actions of others and then the self.

    The critique is that someone obviously had to “start” the movement, had to “start” the belief. I would say that it arises out of the present social conditions. One doesn’t have to read a whole lot of literature to know that people are getting screwed, that things are worse now than they were twenty years ago. This logical assertion, in and of itself, is a belief that is waiting to be co-opted by larger social movements from individual sentiments.

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