Qualitative Sociology, Vol. 21, No.

4, 1998

What Do Movements Mean? The Value of Participant-Observation
Paul Lichterman

Participant-observation can teach us much about the everyday meanings of doing social activism. I conceptualize these "implicit meanings" in relation to work in the sociology of culture, and social movement studies, and give examples from activists' everyday interaction. A participant-observer's forays into implicit meanings illuminate three dimensions of activists' experiences: the ways activists practice democratic citizenship in their groups, the ways they build group ties, and the ways they define the meaning of activism itself. By probing these implicit meanings, we can address questions that concern many social movement scholars. We increase our understanding of how movements grow, accomodate conflict, and build alliances, and we can specify which insights are useful in theories of contemporary or "new" social movements.
KEY WORDS: participant-observation; social movements; interaction; culture; meaning.

Participant-observers get to experience the same exhilaration, frustration, and awkwardness as the activists we study. As a participant-observer, I have jumped up and down, screaming, for five minutes; I have gone doorknocking in a neighborhood described as the "wild west" by one resident who was shot by accident; I have sought signatures for a petition while being snubbed and sneered at by mall shoppers who would not extend me the suburban courtesy of studied avoidance. Is participant-observation in social movements worth the trouble? By participant-observation, I mean observing and participating in social action as the action is happening. It is common to treat participant-observation and interviewing as kindred, qualitative methods aimed at similar
Direct correspondence to Paul Lichterman, Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin, 1180 Observatory Drive, Madison, WI 53706; e-mail: lichterm@ssc.wisc.edu.

C 1998 Human Sciences Press, Inc.



goals. Many field workers use both methods together effectively, and we certainly benefit from both. Each of these qualitative methods produces a different kind of evidence, however, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. This paper shows what participant-observation can teach us about the meanings of movements that would be difficult if not impossible to learn through other methods alone. To be sure, no one method can take on all of the questions we ought to ask about the meanings of social movements. And participant-observation studies can address questions differerent from those I will introduce here. As exemplary studies of social and religious movements have shown us,1 though, participant-observation is especially suited for asking questions about everyday, often taken-for-granted meanings of activism.


Activists, as a recent outpouring of scholarship attests, create meanings actively (Johnston and Klandermans 1995; Larana, Johnston, and Gusfield 1994; Morris and Mueller 1992; Mc Adam, McCarthy, and Zald 1996). They strategize ideological frames that will appeal to the public and outsmart organizations with competing agendas. They project identities that make dissenting views both more meaningful to their holders and more visible to the state. They enact rituals of solidarity and conversion that help people over the divide between bystander and participant and sustain them after the jump. In search of an elusive balance, successful social movements re-work pre-existing traditions and ideologies, enough to promote political and cultural change, but not so much that activists become disempoweringly marginal. Movement scholarship has tended to view meaning, then, as an object of strategic action. Frequently, the assumption is that activists create and project their meanings very intentionally, in accordance with interests and structures that scholars conceive as outside of culture (Hart 1996). Participant-observation studies help us understand these explicit meanings with interpretive depth. Students of movements have begun to argue that we can also benefit from attending to what Wuthnow and Witten (1988) have called implicit culture, or what I will call implicit meanings. These are the meanings that activists tend to take for granted as they are innovating explicit ideologies, identities, and rituals. Studies are showing that implicit meanings enable and constrain what activists can do together, or even imagine doing together (Hart 1996; Kane 1997; Emirbayer and Goodwin 1996; Lichterman

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forthcoming, 1997, 1996, 1995b). These studies use a variety of different culture concepts, and a variety of research methods, to find and interpret these implicit meanings.2 Recent research points out the importance of a particular kind of implicit meaning, one that participant-observation is well-suited to tapping. This research argues that we will understand more about not only social movements but volunteer groups and a variety of informal public groups if we attend closely to what it means to be a member, what it means to be publicly involved (Eliasoph 1998, 1996; Eliasoph and Lichterman 1997; Lichterman forthcoming, 1996,1995a, 1995b). By observing and participating in action as the action is happening, we can discover the meaning of group life itself, which activist groups as much as other groups must take for granted most of the time in order to keep working together. We might conceive these meanings as "practices," (Bourdieu 1990,1977), "civic practices" (Eliasoph 1998, 1996; Eliasoph and Lichterman 1997), "cultures of commitment" (Lichterman 1996), or "perspectives" (Becker 1961), among other ways. The conceptual differences between these approaches constitute an important and separate topic, and get elaboration elsewhere (Eliasoph and Lichterman 1997; Eliasoph 1996). For present purposes, these concepts all call our attention to the mostly taken-for-granted assumptions about the purpose of group life that are embedded in everyday interaction. My purpose here is to highlight the value of participant-observation in studying these kinds of implicit meanings. I will develop this theme in relation to social movement studies only, and draw examples from activist groups explored in my book on political commitment (Lichterman 1996), a project on sexual identity politics (Lichterman forthcoming), and a coauthored paper on styles of civic life (Eliasoph and Lichterman 1997). Below I present three areas of inquiry that can benefit from a participant-observer's forays into implicit meanings: the ways activists practice citizenship through participating in movements, the ways they build group ties, and the ways they define being an activist. I show how participant-observers can discover these implicit meanings by paying special attention to group tensions, and the ways activists place themselves in the wider society. Movements as Forums for Active Citizenship We think of activists as storming barricades, lying down in roads, confronting police. But just as frequently, activists discuss. Activists draw up position statements, argue about public issues, and occasionally argue about what they should be discussing. Sometimes these discussions are strategy sessions in which activists are figuring out which definition of the issue will



get the broadest following or the widest press coverage. Sometimes activists are discussing because they want to figure out their opinions as members of society, as citizens. Strategy sessions and mutual learning sessions may coincide; in any event, discussion may mean more than strategizing alone (cf. McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald 1996; Hart 1996). Theorists of democracy point to grassroots movements as places in which people practice and deepen citizenship as an end in itself (Fraser 1992; Mouffe 1993; Cohen and Arato 1992). Throughout U.S. history, grassroots movements have been crucial sites for Americans to discuss new opinions and new identities even apart from strategizing for power or resources (Goodwyn 1978; Flacks 1988; Fraser 1992; Boyte 1992; Cohen and Arato 1992). Participant-observation can help us learn to what degree a movement acts as a workshop of democracy. I have argued that we should study activist groups in their capacity as forums for citizenly, self-critical discussion of opinions (Lichterman forthcoming). Movement groups contain a "forum" to the extent they allow interactional space for critically reflective discussion apart from strategic concerns. The ways groups balance or blend strategic and forum-like discussion is an empirical question that the forum concept enables us to ask. "Forum" denotes a level of analysis, a way of seeing. To use the forum lens, we probe conversation amongst activists in natural settings to see how much and what kind of open-ended exchange the group or setting allows. Do they assume that the purpose of talking is to decide the most strategic way to present interests that they presume don't need exploring, or do they talk in order to figure out what their interests and opinions are? These assumptions are important elements of implicit culture. Viewing the U.S. Green movement through the forum lens, for example, I found that Green meetings entertained a lot of free-flowing discussion during meetings, about a range of issues from county supervisors' candidacies to regional ecosystems, to the fate of Green parties around the world. Groups affiliated with the U.S. Green movement organized entire meetings devoted to discussing local political issues—sometimes by breaking into small groups so that veteran members and new visitors alike could discuss an issue intensively and then re-group to decide a Green movement position on the issue. Green movement groups also sponsored a variety of public speaker series and panels on topics ranging from economic decentralization to alternative spiritualities, to multicultural movement-building. Active audiences helped make these events into forums for opinion, not simply exercises in polite, public comportment. These publicly advertised events also made money for the groups, but that does not detract from their importance as sites of active citizenship. Another grassroots environ-

What Do Movements Mean?


mental group that I studied sold candy to make money; financial needs alone do not dictate the ways groups organize to meet them. Many post-1960s movements have been characterized as "identity movements" because of the work that they do to affirm difference along sexual, gender, racial or ethnic lines. In contrast with some of the familiar images of identity politics as shrill, selfishly self-affirming, or fragmenting for public discussion (Hughes 1993; Gitlin 1995), participant-observation reveals that identity-based activist groups may also host forums for critical discussion that crosses identity lines and promotes a sense of public-spiritedness. Beginning a research project on sexual identity politics, I first attended a "queer" activist group meeting expecting to hear angry rants against straights, and separatist bravado. I was surprised to see that the group not only devoted time to mulling over current events and exchanging news stories in civil tones, but it held evening "cafe" events with speak-out sessions, and workshops on local politics. In the group slogan's own terms, queers could be "people of all sexual orientations" who support lesbian and gay rights, but who also insist on speaking with an eye for multiple sources of injustice or privilege, rather than promoting a singularly gayfocussed agenda. To be "queer," in fact, meant discussing the relations between sexual minority and varied other identity groups—African Americans, single mothers, welfare recipients. Queer activists valued talking for more than affirming one's own group identity. Of course other methods can inform us, too, about the kind of forum a movement group can sustain. Historical researchers or discourse analysts can read group newsletters, for instance, to get a sense of how ideologically elaborate, or public-spirited, or strategically-minded a group's discussion has tended to be. A benefit of participant-observation is that it reveals the limits of acceptable discussion, showing us what kinds of topics strain members' tolerance—topics that may not make it into print. The forum of a suburban citizens' environmental group provides an illustration. Airdale Citizens for Environmental Sanity (ACES) faced special challenges in making its own group, let alone its rallies and "town meetings," a forum for developing opinion. In ACES's local suburban milieu, polite people did not question public authorities the way ACES sometimes did by challenging the waste disposal practices of a large local firm, Microtech. Good citizens in Airdale were "concerned about our families" and not "radical anarchists," in the narrowly dichotomous terms of one member. Influenced by the privatism of Airdale, ACES members were not comfortable, even inside their own meetings, with someone who advocated strongly for a particular ideological position. The implicit meanings behind the forum in ACES made such discussion taboo.



ACES achieved a tenuous balance between suburban civility and critical citizenship by welcoming members to question Microtech's policies as a form of "personal empowerment." Within the group's implicit meanings, breaking through the privatism by "expressing oneself" was acceptable as long as one shared a respect for other members' privacy. Anyone had a right to sincere self-expression as long as it did not unduly infringe on someone else's. In this way, ACES members upheld the suburban, civic privatism of Airdale even as they found ways to puncture it. The group agreed that its leader was effective because she gave people space to be individuals and contribute only as much as they wanted to, without compelling anyone to affirm any particular ideology or political tradition. ACES activists did break through the suburban privatism, by discussing the morality and politics of Microtech at some length in their meetings. They talked, too, about toxics battles in faraway locales, and reached out to related environmental issues not immediately part of their original struggle. ACES held town meetings intended to encourage Airdalers to develop opinions about Microtech and speak them publicly. The group became known, in fact, as a comfortable forum for trying out dissenting opinions about Microtech—comfortable enough for people wary of activism in general, like Liz. Liz had recently put together that Microtech's handling of toxic waste years before may have precipitated her son's chronic health problems; the realization made her angry. Yet, I saw none of the anger while petitioning with Liz against Microtech's proposed toxic waste incinerator. Standing with my petition board next to Liz in Airdale's sun-baked, treeless, shopping mall parking lots, I heard nothing but unfailing politeness. One day I asked Liz why she was so circumspect with passing shoppers and so accomodating of wary store managers. Liz explained that "Microtech had not been confrontational," so she didn't want to be confrontational either. Even if Microtech's practices risked Airdalers' health, it was not excuse enough for Liz to risk making a scene. ACES's occasional tensions around John, the one ideologically outspoken member of ACES, brought the implicit meaning of the group's forum into high relief for a participant-observer. While I heard other members puzzling over whether or not they were "really" activists because none of them had ever been arrested, septuagenarian John declared matter-of-factly that he was perfectly ready to go to jail for the cause of challenging Microtech. While even the ACES leader, Laura, was taken aback by the strident style of the group's Greenpeace liaison, observing after a meeting one night that "my mother taught me to be polite!", John in contrast bellowed from his seat at a public hearing that Microtech was a "greedy capitalist institution." I felt members' own discomforts just from watching them endure John: They sustained awkward silences, fingered

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pencils nervously, or froze their expressions in polite attention when he launched into one of his short tirades against capitalism. Clearly, John stretched the implicit meaning of discussion in ACES. He compromised other members' personal space by pushing a particular ideological stance. If ACES members felt uncomfortable hearing strongly ideological rationales for criticizing Microtech even among themselves, then those kinds of ideological discourse would not be available when forum-like discussions became more purely strategic framing discussions. Protesters from a metropolitan center visited Airdale on occasion, bringing a radical environmentalist critique with them. ACES may have produced more fruitful links with these activists had it adopted a more ideologically elaborate opposition, instead of contenting itself with calmly enumerating Microtech's environmental risks at public hearings. But the cultural taken-forgranteds of Airdale limited the kind of ideological discussion this group would engage, and that in turn made some kinds of frames off limits from the start. As these scenarios suggest, implicit meanings are not necessarily difficult to discern. But activists may not discuss them readily in an interview. The Greens' and queer activists' zest for critical discussion made it clear to a participant-observer that the forum was a central feature of their groups. They wanted to exercise active citizenship as an end in itself. ACES members, too, valued their group as a place to try out opinions, within limits; for them, discussing the moral issues behind toxic risks in Airdale was not simply a distraction from "real business." Differences in implicit meanings made the forum characteristics of ACES somewhat different from those of the Green or queer groups. And these different meanings are related to the different kinds of ties activists create between leaders, other members, and movement networks. Group ties and organizational structure, too, get created through implicit meanings. The Meaning of Group Ties and Organization I was surprised: I thought I knew what "consensus process" meant. Having done grassroots politics and having studied other environmentalists, I assumed that an accurate picture of "consensus" had to include intensive discussion, a queue of people waiting to take their turn to speak, sudden crescendos of unanimity or polarization, high-minded sophistry and petty wrangling. When Laura of ACES said during our first phone chat that the group "made decisions by consensus," I was intrigued at the prospect of stucco ranch-style homes with sunken living rooms ringing with intense, lengthy, dramatic, uneven discussion. And I had it wrong.



The "consensus" that ACES practiced was little like the anti-hierarchical yet elaborate, self-disciplining process that many activists learned from the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and 80s. At ACES meetings the leader did a majority of the talking. She introduced the great bulk of agenda items, suggested new projects, and gingerly coaxed other members through what she called the "baby steps" that would give them more enfranchisement in the group. Echoing other members, one longtime member of ACES said in an interview that the consensus process worked because ACES had a good leader. Other grassroots activists I'd studied would have puzzled over this seeming contradiction in terms; consensus decision-making was supposed to give everyone leader-like voice in a thoroughly egalitarian group. I would not have encountered this little surprise at all had I simply gone by the description of the group's organizational arrangements on paper: "We use a process called consensus and we strive for a non-sexist, non-racist, non-hierarchical structure." Participant-observation gives us a window on the implicit meanings that make organization in the abstract—"non-hierarchical structure" or "grassroots movement" for instance—mean very different things in different contexts. ACES members called theirs a grassroots movement with a non-hierarchical structure, but they saw no inconsistency between this designation and the fact that their group had a long-term leader who carved out most of the group's agenda most of the time. Though they listened actively and volunteered readily, members rarely questioned or amended their leader's initiatives. Yet, in other environmental groups more consonant with the research literature's descriptions (Melucci 1989, 1988; Epstein 1991; Tarrow 1994; Larana, Johnston, and Gusfield 1994), a "grassroots", consensus-driven group would not willingly sustain a single leader with wide-ranging responsibility for the group as a whole. In the U.S. Green movement groups I studied, the word "grassroots" itself meant intensive, personalized participation by individuals, rather than active support for a leader who could speak for community members, as in ACES. Research literature on peace, anti-nuclear, and environmental groups run by consensus shows us heated debates, rifts and blow-ups precipitated by activists who failed to follow "good process" (Epstein 1991; Vogel 1980; Barkan 1979). Yet ACES members used the words "informal" and "loose" to describe the consensus process in their own group. Behind these different meanings of grassroots and consensus are different, implicit meanings of group ties. By observing new members learning group routines, and by watching groups endure tense moments, we can discover the implicit meanings of organizational structure that activists— and often scholars—take for granted and subsume under general terms like

What Do Movements Mean?


"decentralized movement." Many grassroots political groups work on members' shared assumption that people can and ought to participate as individually empowered agents of political change (Lichterman 1996). These groups practice "personalized politics." They cohere on the basis of personalized ties that give individuals both a lot of room for initiative—to start new projects, for instance—and a lot of responsibility for the group's direction as a whole; each individual member fashions a personalized connection to the group. But some "decentralized movements," especially those in the community-organizing tradition, assume that a grassroots group is one in which "the community" speaks as one, preferably in the voice of one or two articulate leaders. These groups cohere on the basis of ties that people create as fellow members of a sharply defined, often local, community, rather than as individual agents of political change. On the basis of these ties, activists assign responsibility and legitimacy differently than they do on the basis of personalized ties. The different meanings matter. Decentralized movement groups that define organizational legitimacy in terms of "the community" will face tough challenges if they discover that members of the community construct their interests differently. This was the case with a largely African-American anti-toxics group I studied. Expecting seamless support from the community, group leaders were dismayed when an African-American woman spoke up at a public hearing in favor of a company charged with gross negligence—and environmental racism. The woman pointed out that the company had offered jobs to local youths. The fact of its Spanish-speaking ownership further complicated any easy division between "the community" and the company. Group ties themselves, defined in local communitarian terms, made it difficult for members to understand let alone strategize around people like the woman at the hearing. And groups that define organizational legitimacy in terms of empowered individuals will have different challenges—among them, the challenge of maintaining a stable enough presence to make the group a viable coalition partner for other groups with more conventional structures. Activists, in sum, do not inhabit organizational structure in the abstract. They create and sustain structure through shared, implicit meanings of group ties. These meanings result in very different strengths and weaknesses for groups. The Meaning of Being an Activist Not surprisingly, many studies of social movements focus on how movements define issues and develop visions of social change. Fewer stud-



ies analyze what activism itself means to activists, what it means to go public. By hearing how activists talk about their own activism in everyday settings, participant-observers can bring some new insights to old questions about the motives for activism. Recent sociological work on narrative forms points toward new ways to ask why people become activists.3 Sociologists of culture have increasingly heeded C. Wright Mills' directive that sociologists study motives by plumbing people's vocabularies rather than their psyches: Explaining people's motives, on this view, means listening for the ways people explain or justify what they do, rather than treating motives as reflections of psychological needs or social-structural interests that exist outside the world of symbols and meaning. Studies of activists' and volunteers' moral reasoning reveal that Americans draw on a relatively small repertoire of moral discourses to make their efforts meaningful in words (Wuthnow 1991; Bellah et al. 1985; Tipton 1982). Movement scholars too are examining how activists talk about why they got active, and why others should do so (Ginsburg 1989; Andrews 1991; Benford 1993). Often, the evidence for these patterned vocabularies of motive comes from stories elicited in interviews. Such interviews enlighten us a great deal about the broader cultural repertoire available to activists. Through participant-observation, we can supplement these elicited stories with everyday stories—the self-characterizations and rules of thumb that people communicate in order to orient themselves to each other as they are doing activism. Participant-observers can find out what traditions, symbols and stories make activism meaningful as it is happening in everyday life. Field work can clarify how culture precipitates the move from private to public life, and it can clarify which specific meanings are doing the work in specific settings. An example will illustrate the point: When I interviewed ACES member Barb, I asked how she knew her activism was the right thing to do. Barb tried out several answers, none of them entirely satisfying to her. I took the persona of gentle socratic interlocutor, assisting her arrival at true knowledge of her own motives. Barb spoke first of her experience as a nurse, her quiet horror at seeing the ravages of cancer. She connected her knowledge as a nurse with her skepticism about Microtech's operations, implying that she was an activist because she felt it was all too likely that Microtech's dangerous wastes would produce more health disasters and hospital visits. When I observed that not all nurses with her experience joined anti-toxics groups, Barb tried out a more general principle: Knowing there is a problem and not doing anything about it can make one feel bad. People who keep themselves from thinking there is a problem will not feel bad, and hence do not have

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to do anything. She concluded, not quite convinced herself, that "it just feels right" so she does it. Armed with a knowledge of moral vocabularies, one might have deduced that Barb got into activism on the basis of expressive individualism, a moral standpoint that says good acts are ones that make us feel good, or enable us to express our own feelings and intuitions. One might conclude, then, that to Barb, activism meant "expressing my feelings." We might expect Barb to remain an activist only as long as activism felt good. The trouble is that Barb had been an ACES member for over six years, had offered the group indispensible technical skills, and rarely if ever talked about her participation in terms of feelings or self-expression. While the group as a whole shared a respect for individual opinions and did indeed encourage people to "express themselves" as I noted earlier, this also meant that someone like Barb was not compelled to talk about her personal feelings in the group. She could "express herself" in some other individual way. Barb expressed herself by taking on quiet, behind-thescenes responsibilities; no one delegated these to her just because her own skills made them appropriate for her. The relatively few times she talked about activism itself, she made it sound like a responsibility, not an exercise in personal development. The point, then, is that Barb's interview talk might mislead us if we assume there is a straightforward connection between a moral vocabulary elicited during an interview, and an activist's everyday group life. Like most other members of ACES, Barb rarely mentioned explicitly any specific political or moral traditions behind her activism. I did discover from a survey response that Barb considered herself a "mildly Catholic" person, and I knew she had married in a Catholic ceremony towards the close of my study. But a search for potential ties between religious motives articulated in one context and activism enacted in other contexts might miss, or distort, the everyday, lived meaning of activism for Barb. Outside of ACES meetings and events, the meaning of activism may well have taken on a faith-based inflection for Barb. But if we take discourses and traditions articulated in interviews or surveys to represent the complete meaning of activism for activists, we miss the proximate, implicit meanings that may be at work in everday settings of activism itself. For this reason, I have made a point of listening for the ways that activists talk about activism during their own everyday rounds. In my study of grassroots environmentalists, for instance, I recorded in field notes the self-descriptions, sayings, cautionary tales, or stories of consciousness-raising that people articulated in everyday settings such as meetings and conversations over lunch. I listened for the traditions, ide-



ologies, or cultural identities that activists brought up on their own when they talked about being activists. I proceeded on the notion that these sayings, stories, traditions, or identities are reference points that help activists map themselves in a public world of groups, institutions, and cultural authorities that is always open to more than one mapping. In ACES, John had the habit of expounding on a kind of populist socialism; that was an important reference point for him. Liz had the habit of presenting herself as an upstanding citizen, and told people repeatedly, "I'm not ready to get arrested yet." And most ACES members shared a crucial set of reference points: Many of their cautionary tales, rules-of-thumb, and consciousness-raising stories highlighted the difficulties of breaking through Airdale's suburban privatism. "Being an activist," for ACES members, meant being an activist in ambivalent relation to their own locale. These everyday reference points, at least as much as ones elicited during interviews, are what enabled the activists to make sense to each other, work together, day to day. In all, I discovered in everyday interaction what John Hewitt has termed social identity—the part of our identity that we define "in relation to community and culture" (Hewitt 1989:172). Social identity is relational. We maintain it in relation to reference points like those I listened for in activist settings. And social identity is processual. The stories, teachings, and self-characterizations that activists impart to each other keep the process of identity going. Why, we might ask, would a sensitive interview not reveal the same traditions, stories, or identities we hear in everyday settings? The answer is that from a participant-observer's point of view, the interview is an interactional event as much as any other setting (Mischler 1986; Briggs 1986). Interview settings carry their own norms of interaction and elicit certain kinds of talk. When asked to explain their motives, Americans in the cultural mainstream will often tell a story of psychological development, of "personal growth" (Carbaugh 1990; see also Bellah et al. 1985). In many circles, it sounds educated or "enlightened" to use a psychological imagination, to talk of motives in terms of feelings or early family relationships. But the one-to-one interview setting cannot replicate the settings of meetings, rallies, panels, or speak-outs, where other discourses and reference points than those of therapeutic individualism will come into play. In some activist groups, people learn standard storylines that they can use to convince others, as well as themselves, that activism is a meaningful thing to do (Benford 1993). Such stories may well work alongside less intentionally crafted, implicit culture that comes in the form of everyday reference points.

What Do Movements Mean?



Whether or not we are interested in studying meanings per se, a participant-observer's focus on implicit meanings helps us address questions that have concerned many social movement scholars, and some activists too. I want to conclude by showing how a participant-observer's view of group ties, to take just one example of implicit meanings, can advance two areas of inquiry in the field. One long-standing area of inquiry concerns how movements grow and form alliances with other movements. Key works in this line of research find that a group's organizational form will influence its fortunes in alliance-building (Morris 1984; Staggenborg 1988). Even amongst movement groups that share the same general goals, differences between groups in their degree of formalization or bureaucratization can affect the chances for an enduring, amicable alliance. The implicit meaning of group ties is one important source of difference in organizational form. This kind of difference cross-cuts contemporary movements in the U.S. Sometimes it stands in the way of the sincerest alliance-building efforts. I found, for instance, that U.S. Green activists and African-American anti-toxics activists both criticized a kind of "environmental racism" that they blamed for a disproportionate number of toxic sites in minority neighborhoods. Yet, these activists found it difficult to connect with one another. One reason is that the differences between the personalized ties of the Greens and the local community-based ties of the anti-toxics activists added up to miscommunication, and missed connections, as each practiced group-building differently, and defined group membership differently (Lichterman 1995b, 1996). When social movement scholars have discussed "cultural" differences in movements, we have tended to locate these differences in the realm of group ideologies, or ways of defining group identity. We have found, for instance, that differences between liberal, socialist, and radical feminist agendas created divisions in the contemporary women's movement (Freeman 1975; Ferree and Hess 1994). And different definitions of identity amongst lesbians, or between gay activists and "queer" activists who reject simple dichotomies of sexual identity, have divided lesbian and gay movements (Gamson 1995; Stein 1994; Taylor and Whittier 1992). Participantobservation makes evident that culture inheres not only in the ideas and identities that movements promote, but also in group-building or community-building styles that activists share at an implicit as much as explicit level. Differences in these styles should be especially important, for both movement scholars and activists, when we consider the repeated, often frus-



trating attempts at alliance-building between largely white, middle-class activists and activists of color since the 1960s (Breines 1982; Anzaldua and Moraga 1982; Gregory 1984; Lichterman forthcoming). Participant-observation work can address long-standing questions about how movements grow, and newer questions about multicultural movement-building, when we take into account what activists take for granted about the nature of a good organization, instead of colluding in their assumptions. I want to treat one other area of inquiry at somewhat greater length; it concerns the much-debated thesis that movements of women, youth, environmentalists, people of color, or regional separatists in the past few decades belong in a theoretical category of "new social movements" (NSMs) because their aims and means differ from those of the long-established labor movement. Lively debates about this theoretical category have generated a great deal of conceptual innovation. But they have also generated confusion over what constitutes "newness" (Gamson 1991; Calhoun 1993; Melucci 1994, 1989). Without reviewing4 the extensive writings on new social movements (NSMs) it will be helpful simply to note that according to proponents of the category, movements during and after the 1960s have tended to emphasize lifestyle or moral concerns over material ones, favor loose, decentralized, and/or participatory organizational styles over older, hierarchical models of authority, and make a search for individual and group identity a prominent part of their raison d'etre. Critics of the category have observed that nineteenth-century (not "new") American movements—women's temperance advocates and religious communalists, for instance—also promoted lifestyle and moral visions. And nineteenth century American labor movements, as well as commune settlements, evinced a search for identity, too, sometimes in very decentralized organizations (Calhoun 1993; Tarrow 1988). Viewing movements through participant-observation leads to the suggestion that we modify, though not reject entirely, some of the claims of NSM theorists. On the one hand, some grassroots environmental movements that should "count" as NSMs do not look like movements described by NSM theorists. To give just one example, a largely African-American anti-toxics group I studied had a group style marked by deference to leaders and limited participation. Members identified themselves with well-established traditions of black struggle and Christian charity; identity was much more a given than a quest. In short, the NSM category would not greatly illuminate this group—nor others within the American community organizing tradition—even though the group pursued environmentalism, a central NSM issue according to proponents of the category. On the other hand, some grassroots environmental groups do fit the NSM category, even if participant-observation reveals the category's limits

What Do Movements Mean?


as a sensitizing concept. U.S. Greens, for instance, have built a decentralized movement of participatory groups that raise broad lifestyle and moral issues, from vegetarianism to the nature of humans' obligations to the earth, as well as issues conventionally defined as political. The movement has promoted members' self-expression within its local groups. Yet a closer look reveals that even a movement seemingly well-suited to the NSM category complicates the received terms of discussion. Greens may well promote selfexpression within their groups, but not because personal growth is simply an end in itself. Rather, for many Greens, "expressing oneself" means finding a personalized way to contribute to the greater group good, and the public good that the movement advocates. Public commitment, for them, is personally fulfilling. Participant-observation helps us discern what it means to "search for identity," whether that means self-absorption or, rather, self-realization in a public-spirited commmunity. Participant-observers have an opportunity to refashion and perhaps replace some of the terms of debate about NSMs, rather than rejecting NSM concepts altogether, by starting with the lived, implicit meanings we find in the field. "Decentralized" or "participatory" organization may have meant something quite different in the cultural universe of nineteenth century communalists, or even that of pacifists of the 1950s, than it does for many contemporary activists like the U.S. Greens; the possibility is worth more research. In a highly differentiated, religiously diverse U.S. with few shared understandings of what constitutes "the Left," the cultural and political polestars of contemporary activists may be different from those of earlier activists who could share a less ambivalent allegiance to socialist or Christian traditions. The meaning of group ties for some contemporary activists, then, may be relatively "new" as compared with their nineteenthand earlier twentieth-century antecedents, because that meaning develops in relation to a different context; NSM theorist Melucci (1994) has suggested just this kind of focus on meanings. My participant-observation work turns up at least three different kinds of group bonds that are prominent within contemporary movements tagged as NSMs: These are "personalized" bonds, "local communitarian" bonds, or "community of interest" bonds. Each type comes out of different, larger traditions, and each enables and constrains activists in different ways. Personalized bonds, like those of the Greens described above, tie activists to one another on the principle of deeply individualized responsibility to the group and to social change in general. This individually empowered mode resembles activism characterized as typical of NSMs (Larana, Johnston, and Gusfield 1994); the two other kinds of bonds figure much less frequently in descriptions of NSMs, and have a longer history in American social movements. With a participant-observer's perspective, then, we can retain



and specify some of the insights of NSM theories, even as we remain attuned to their social and historical limits. In all, is participant-observation amongst activists worth the trouble? On scholarly grounds alone, it is very much worth what we can learn about the meaning of movements.

1. A review of social movement studies based primarily on field research is beyond my intentions here. A very partial list illustrating these studies' range of subject-matter and style would include Lofland (1966), Hall (1978), Tipton (1982), Fantasia (1988), Ginsburg (1989). The large, growing literature in the sociology of culture hosts many schools of thought, and many debates about how to conceptualize culture. For a recent introduction to the variety of approaches, see Smith (1998). For an extensive review and bibliography, see Somers and Gibson (1994). Three extensive reviews of these works are available in Larana, Johnston, and Gusfield (1994), Pichardo (1997), and Tarrow (1988).

2. 3. 4.

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