Incubating a Political Conscience

Collective action theory and why an adolescent marches in her first protest.

Posted Feb 01, 2017

Jorge Elias/CC BY 2.0
Source: Jorge Elias/CC BY 2.0

Who chooses to be an activist, to organize, protest and demonstrate? The answer may seem obvious: the people who care about an issue. But as Mancur Olson outlined in his seminal 1965 book, The Logic of Collective Action, taking action is a big step up from simply desiring something. Protesting takes time and energy, and sometimes protesters incur a risk of arrest or injury. If the policy victory will accrue equally to protesters and “free-riders,” then watching a ball game or reading a book might be a better use of one’s day. Why not let other people demonstrate for voting rights, or health care, or withdrawal from an unpopular war? I can reap the benefits without wasting my precious time.

Social scientists have spent decades trying to explain what makes citizens decide to shift from water-cooler complaining to activism. The answers are heavily debated (like all topics in social science) in terms of how different variables are weighted, but most models agree on the key variables. How great is the level of frustration? What is the likelihood of success? Is my participation important to the overall success of the activity? What are the costs (e.g., time, expense, risk, discomfort from bad weather) of participating? And what are the selective incentives to participate? Selective incentives include such considerations as acquiring a bigger part of the success, recognition from peers, and assuaging one’s feelings of guilt over not doing “my part.” Another selective incentive, one of the most critical in my estimation, is the role social identity plays in pushing people toward activism. Most people’s sense of who they are is based largely on their group memberships—friendship and family networks, hobbies, the workplace, etc. As ignoble as it may seem, most people who participate in collective action, especially the first time, are motivated in part by a desire to be with their social group or to gain access to a social group. People reason, “I’ll go if my friends go,” or “I’ll go if there’s a chance I might get a date out of it,” or “I want to get to know these people.” We might want to believe our participation in collective action is only motivated by principle, but most of us are more likely to protest on a sunny, warm day with a group who made signs together than on a cold, rainy day when the likelihood of forming or cementing relationships is nil.

I was thinking about Mancur Olson when my daughters and I returned from the Chicago Women’s March. Sam, my autistic daughter who loves to march and chant for almost any cause, painted our signs and rallied enthusiastically. In fact, her only complaint was that people kept asking her later if she had “enjoyed” the march. “What was there to enjoy?” she demanded. “These are important issues. They are not something to have fun about!” Sam insisted that she would have been just as content protesting in a cohort of one, herself. Autism always throws a wrench in social behavior research!

Challenging the theory from the other end, no social scientist has run a regression on the selective incentive “Mom made me go.” Kelly complained that she couldn’t sleep in on a Saturday morning. She participated because I made her join our group. As the day unfolded, analyzing her turned out to be just as interesting as analyzing the march itself. Behold the struggle for social identity in a neurotypical early adolescent.

By the time we arrived home, Kelly was ready to activate her thumbs. She started to share pictures of herself on social media as soon as she realized, through social media, that dozens of her classmates had marched. Photos, political commentary and “likes” were flying through the ether, and it seemed that the adolescent engagement built as the march dissipated. Kelly enjoyed the march, but she enjoyed it more when she realized it was the "in" place to be.

Later that evening, with everyone settling down from the exhilaration and exhaustion, the explosion came. One second Kelly was happily thumbing her phone, and the next she was face down in a pillow, bawling. Here, slightly edited, is the explanation she choked and sobbed her way through: “All day my friends have been posting pictures and writing things about why they marched. And everybody has been ‘liking’ their posts! So I just posted a picture of Sam and me at the march to [a group of kids from around the U.S. she had met at an activity last summer]. Then this boy wrote back, this boy I don’t think I ever spoke to except maybe once, and he said I shouldn’t assume that everyone agrees with me! He said that some of us have a very different opinion about the march and the new president! All of my friends from school posted, and they only got “likes” and a lot of support! (Parents reading this will well understand the drama that necessitates so many exclamation points.) I post and someone writes something totally disagreeing! Maybe I could text someone right now and ask them to post that they totally agree with me. Then their post would appear above this boy’s comment. No one reads past the first comment anyway.” And then the zinger: “If I had known someone was going to disagree with me, I would never have posted!”

How does a parent respond to this outburst? My first instinct is to pull out an electoral map and ask Kelly how she could possibly believe everybody agrees with her. Even in her own family the political divisions are loud and painful. But I know this lecture will not address her turmoil. My next instinct is to give a lecture about social media. I can’t help myself from surrendering to this impulse, albeit briefly, but it too is beside the point. The point is that she is trying to figure out what she believes, and just as important, she is trying to figure out whether and when her principles should outweigh her desire to be agreeable. By the ripe old age of fourteen some children are confidently political. Most, however, are busy trying on different personae and discovering which one brings them closest to the group they embrace. Deciding what role political convictions will eventually play in their lives takes time. Figuring out when asserting yourself reflects courage and when it reflects imprudence takes, for many of us, a lifetime. Kelly is at an age when being accepted as part of a group matters more than anything. She is not yet willing to stick her neck out for politics. Swimming, homework, and dollar-day milkshakes after school occupy her now. Still, I think the camaraderie of the march, as well as the disagreement she had with the boy on social media (civil, thankfully), both planted the seeds of questions she will need to answer for herself. Activist or free rider? Outspoken or reticent? I have no idea what her political beliefs will end up being, though I do hope she reflects on her world and eventually finds some issues to champion. The incubation process has begun!

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