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«Subverting Our Stories of Subversion Maureen A. Scully and W.E. Douglas Creed May 2002 Paper prepared for presentation at the Social Movements in ...»

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Subverting Our Stories of Subversion

Maureen A. Scully and W.E. Douglas Creed

May 2002

Paper prepared for presentation at the Social Movements in Organizations conference,

University of Michigan, May 10-11, 2002.

Subverting our Stories of Subversion

Page 1 of 35

Subverting Our Stories of Subversion

Extended Abstract

Three theoretical moves or themes have gained attention in the emerging literature at

the intersection of social movements, institutions, and organizations. We have contributed to each of these three themes, showing them to be inter-related, in our previous work that

draws on the case of the adoption of gay-friendly policies by organizations:

i.) The construction of social identities as the basis for social movement mobilization by active agents. (We found that everyday encounters in which agents share and thereby mold both the distinct and prosaic elements of an identity help to legitimate that identity (Creed and Scully, 2000).) ii.) The creation – and we would add, diffusion – of repertoires of action by these agents. (We found that not only did domestic partner benefits partially diffuse among organizations in a field, but the activists’ tactics, such as “stealth legitimation,” diffused as well, enabling some organizations to be deeply involved in the issues even if they were not yet adopters; the adoption / non-adoption distinction becomes a less crucial outcome than the mobilization of ready agents and tactics (Scully, Creed, and Ventresca, 1999).) iii.) The appreciation of symbolic resources (e.g., discourse, framing) as tools for action. (We found frames from the political realm are in some ways adopted wholesale and in some ways translated and manipulated by agents pursuing change in local workplace settings (Creed, Scully, and Austin, forthcoming).) Together, these three themes begin to build a new narrative of how social movements are carried forward by grassroots organizational members. In this chapter, we push on these concepts, examining both their explanatory usefulness – with particular attention to what is left out or obscured – as well as their implications for the prospects for success of social movements. Pushing harder on our own work is in the spirit of what Hirschman (1995:1) calls “the propensity to self-subversion,” which he describes as “questioning, modifying, qualifying, and in general complicating some of my earlier propositions about social change and development.” We find it fitting that theorizing about subversion of the status quo – even about the fairly subtle subversions of activists in the workplace – should take this reflexively subversive approach (Scully, 2002).

We revisit each of the three themes and find dilemmas in how we have posed each of them. Regarding the first theme, the creation, legitimation, and celebration of strong identities can mobilize activists. But the dilemma is that these strong identities can also be Subverting our Stories of Subversion Page 2 of 35 enacted through the drawing of narrow boundaries around a group identity. These narrow boundaries may have several problems: they may diminish the prospects for cross-group understanding if activists are too busy proclaiming to listen, they may thereby diminish the prospects for alliance-building among likely allies with shared concerns who get divided into narrow identity silos, and they may make it difficult for people whose identities span or do not fit these groups to find a place for their claims.

Regarding the second theme, the creation and diffusion of repertoires of action reveals the important role that pro-active (not merely scripted or reactive) agents play in social change programs. This perspective corrects earlier tendencies in institutional theory to posit a naï ve agent with nearly automatic responses. However, the pendulum can swing too far toward an account of agents making completely new repertoires. A close look at the strategies of change agents who seek to enhance diversity in the workplace reveals that they are patterned across settings, and specifically, they are strongly influenced by the repertoires of action that govern business: they hold meetings, use flip charts, create an email distribution list, write up a mission statement, pursue sub-goals, form subcommittees, prepare power point presentations with bullet points, court senior allies, etc. The insights of institutional theory, combined with a power-oriented perspective on the dominance of the business way of doing things, are helpful here for assessing the hallmark elements of micromobilization.

Regarding the third theme, symbolic resources such as discourse are important inputs into social movement mobilization. Sometimes they are outcomes as well; for example, new language enhances the sense of inclusion of formerly marginalized groups.

But the dilemma is that other, more material outcomes, such as the redistribution of wealth, should not be overlooked. Symbolic resources have previously tended to be under-estimated. They have the special property – that Hirschman ascribes to “moral resources” – that they are increased through use, rather than depleted through use (and in fact, they are depleted when not used – such as, for example, social capital or civic involvement). We have argued for the importance of considering symbolic resources.





That said, it can become temptingly easy to place the focus on symbolic resources. The literature and practice of social movements, in its shift toward identity politics, may be losing sight of interests and of the hard-boiled economic resources that pose distributive dilemmas (resources that are, by way of contrast, what Elster calls non-partitive, scarce, etc). In the shift away from class, labor, or economically based politics toward identity politics, redistributive issues can be lost. There seems to be less willingness in social identity based politics to tackle the redistributive issues that are often at the heart of social justice and the most difficult public policy debates. A focus on social identity often seeks to enhance inclusion and belonging – moral resources that are not finite and that can be expansively applied to all in a way that enriches social life for all. But where is the concern about the growing wage gap? about poverty? Identity politics will have more power when more of the marginalized identity groups that might be mobilized– e.g., former welfare recipients who have lost jobs – are enabled, by naming and speaking their identity, to advance material interests, not just to be heard and accepted. A true study of subversion should not shy away from thorny issues of redistribution.

–  –  –

In the evolving literature exploring the intersection of social movements, institutions, and organizations, the question of agency or institutional entrepreneurship has figured prominently. The emergent depiction of agency suggests that agency entails reinterpreting and applying established cultural schemas across contexts in order to mobilize both people and cultural resources in new and different ways (Emirbayer and Mische, 1998; Seo and Creed, 2002). Closer examination of this simple depiction reveals

three theoretical themes or theoretical moves that are underway:

1. Social identities – constructed through the meaning making activities of active institutional entrepreneurs – are linked to the mobilization of collective action.

2. New repertoires of action undergo theorization – that is, these repertoires are created through the reinterpretation of existing institutional logics and linked as Subverting our Stories of Subversion Page 4 of 35 appropriate courses of action to the identities of potential adopters –and are then

–  –  –

3. Symbolic resources (e.g., discourse, frames, logics of action) – transposed and deployed across settings – appear as critical tools for the maintenance or change of institutional arrangements.

In previous work drawing on the case of the adoption of gay-friendly policies by organizations, we have contributed to the understanding of these three theoretical moves, showing them to be inter-related. Regarding social identities, we found that everyday encounters in which gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) workplace activists share and thereby mold both the distinct and prosaic elements of an identity help to legitimate that identity and advance their efforts to create equitable and safe workplaces (Creed and Scully, 2000). Regarding repertoires of action, we found that not only did domestic partner benefits partially diffuse among organizations in a field, but the activists’ tactics, such as “stealth legitimation,” diffused as well, enabling some organizations to be deeply involved in the issues even if they were not yet adopters of particular inclusive human resource policies. This diffusion of tactics indicates that the adoption/non-adoption distinction becomes a less crucial theoretical outcome than the mobilization of ready agents, discourses, and advocacy tactics (Scully, Creed, and Ventresca, 1999). Regarding symbolic resources, we found that frames from the political realm are in some ways adopted wholesale and in some ways translated and manipulated by agents pursuing change in local workplace settings (Creed, Scully, and Austin, forthcoming.) And, tying Subverting our Stories of Subversion Page 5 of 35 the third theme back to the first, in that translation of frames, contesting parties construct identities to legitimate their right to use culturally potent symbolic resources, such as the discourse of civil rights. So, the theoretical argument—the story—that threads through our work goes something like this: Agents deploy symbolic resources to legitimate new social arrangements – and also to legitimate the players and tactics involved. In other words, in the process of advancing change, these institutional entrepreneurs construct the social identities and the logics of action for those populating the social arena—the protagonists, antagonists, and the potential participants in the collective action designed to change the social order. Together, these three themes begin to build a new narrative of how social movements are carried forward by grassroots organizational members.

In this chapter, we bring together in one place some of our findings and arguments so we can push harder on our own theorizing and empirical work in the spirit of what Hirschman (1995:1) endorses as “self-subversion,” which he describes as “questioning, modifying, qualifying, and in general complicating some of [our] earlier propositions about social change” and agency. Hirschman’s model of self-subversion is fitting; theorizing about subversion of the status quo—even about the fairly subtle subversions of activists in the workplace—should take this reflexively subversive approach (Scully, 2002). For example, without this reflexive and critical move we might risk misusing the concept of a social movement as merely a metaphor for the mobilization of collective action rather than as the process driving fundamental social change. Dick Scott said it best when, as discussant at an Academy of Management symposium entitled “To the Barricades”— which had papers applying concepts from social movement theory to the spread of workplace diversity activism, recycling, shareholder activism and Nouvelle Cuisine—he quipped, “To the barricades! We have nothing to lose but our sauces.” Scott was both Subverting our Stories of Subversion Page 6 of 35 warning against the trivializing of the social movement framing and issuing a call to live up to the “to the barricades” imagery and the history of bold social activism that it invokes.

His call points to the important distinction between “collective action” – people working concertedly toward some goal, which could include French chefs overturning traditional cuisine – and social movements, a term that should be reserved for radical mobilizations that fundamentally contest the distribution of resources and power (Scully, 2001).

So our goal here, first, is to return to the data and experiences of social activists we studied, posing three specific dilemmas in an effort to subvert the three moves/themes described above and advanced in our own work. Below we lay out the three dilemmas — 1) “But Enough About Me….:” The Pitfalls of Identity as the Basis for Mobilization; 2) Let’s Have a Meeting: What Really Needs to Happen During Micromobilization; and 3) Back to the Barricades: The Tough Issues of the Redistribution of Power and Resources — discussing what probing each dilemma means for the theoretical moves/themes in the literature.

Regarding the first dilemma – the pitfalls of identity as the basis for mobilization – the creation, legitimation, and celebration of strong identities can mobilize activists, but such strong identities can lead to the drawing of narrow boundaries around a group identity. These narrow boundaries may pose serious problems: i) they may diminish the prospects for cross-group understanding if activists are too busy proclaiming to listen, and ii) they may thereby diminish the prospects for alliance-building among likely allies with shared concerns who get divided into narrow identity silos that make it difficult for people whose identities span or do not fit these groups to find a place for their claims.

Subverting our Stories of Subversion Page 7 of 35 The second dilemma problematizes what really happens during micromobilization organizations. The creation and diffusion of repertoires of action reveals the important role that pro-active agents play in social change programs, but a close look at the their efforts and presentations of self are embedded in hegemonic business logics and practices. The insights of institutional theory, combined with a power-oriented perspective hallmark elements of micromobilization.

Regarding the third theme, we agree that we must consider the importance of

–  –  –

become temptingly easy to place the focus on symbolic resources. The literature and interests and of the hard-boiled economic resources that pose distributive dilemmas.



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