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  • Writer's pictureJames Ron

How do Social Movements Recruit Members?

All social movements need sympathizers, part-time supporters, and committed activists; they need people. Recruiting new members, however, as well as retaining existing ones, is a recurring challenge. Barring the kind of political and social passions this country experienced recently around racially biased police violence - or that Iran is currently experiencing around the “morality police” and its draconian dress code - most movements struggle to mobilize, retain, and motivate members and sympathizers.

Recruitment is difficult because participation in movement activities typically require investments of scarce time and energy, obliging activists to forego other valued activities. This is especially true among resource-deprived populations, where the struggle for survival occupies most energy and time, but it’s also true among wealthier or more privileged groups; when the time comes to march, debate, strike, or speak out, most people have something else they would rather be doing. Participation in social movements can also be emotionally burdensome, as new members venture outside their comfort zones and engage in new activities. In some cases, moreover, participation may be physically taxing or personally risky.

The “free rider problem,” as social scientists term the phenomena, is such that potential members are routinely tempted to let others shoulder the burden of organizing and acting for change, reaping the rewards of that action later without having invested their own scarce time and efforts.[1]

Social movements address this recruitment challenge in multiple ways, depending on the resources and opportunities available to them. In some cases, the core of a nascent movement – “movement entrepreneurs” – may begin by persuading a small number of new members to participate for ideological reasons. When some of these new recruits are members in good standing of other social networks or communities, they can persuade those other groups to also join up, recruiting blocks of new supporters en masse. The US civil rights movement is a classic example of this process, in which an early cadre of ideologically committed activists recruited new supporters through pre-existing networks, the most important of which were African-American churches.[2] Many successful large-scale social movements have grown via such “mobilizing structures,” which can be organizations, social networks, or a combination of both.

Education is another key recruitment method, albeit one with a longer time horizon. Consider the Jewish national movement (Zionism): for over 100 years, ideologically committed Jewish activists have provided young people from their community with nationally-themed educational programs, youth camps, and teen bonding experiences that boost participants’ commitment to the cause.[3] Over time, older activists recruit new supporters and participants from these pools of Zionist-educated youth.

In some cases, movement leaders can also use the lure of money or other material rewards to recruit new members. The Renamo guerilla movement in Mozambique, for example, initially used South African government money to pay new members’ salaries.[4] When those funds later dried up, Renamo turned to more coercive techniques, as the group had not built reservoirs of sympathizers and potential new recruits through youth educational programs or other mobilization efforts. Other African national movements did not benefit from similar start-up funds, engaging instead in the more painstaking, long-term recruitment efforts of education and outreach to family and ethnic networks. Over time, however, these labor-intensive methods proved more stable than those of Renamo, as they were not reliant on the interests and whims of foreign funders.

Successful movements must overcome the free rider problem, and each does it in their own unique ways. A few can eliminate the problem altogether by educating, persuading, and converting groups and individuals to the cause, and in these instances, support for the movement is no longer viewed as a sacrifice. There is no trade-off between spending time on the movement and other activities. More frequently, however, movements have to offer new and existing members some kind of special benefits – what social scientists term “selective incentives” - that non-participants cannot access. These can be material, as in the case of Renamo. Often, however, these special benefits are psychological, social, or spiritual. Participation in a social movement can be enormously gratifying when members benefit from a renewed sense of efficacy, social solidarity, ethical purpose, social status, or spiritual fulfillment.

Over time, participation in social movements can develop into a way of life. In such instances, “career activists” begin with one particular social movement, and then continue a life of activism with other movements as they grow older. As one study demonstrates, for example, many of the young men and women who engaged early on in high-risk civil rights activism in the US South developed a taste for social change efforts that persisted for decades. Their intense, early experiences had marked them for life, motivating a series of later engagements with new social justice efforts.[5]

[1] Mancur Olson, Jr. (1965). The Logic of Collective Action, Harvard University Press. [2] Aldon D. Morris (1986). The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. Free Press. [3] In the US, groups such as Young Judea or Birthright provide Jewish-American youth with educational opportunities, camps, trips, and other forms of experiential learning to generate a personal commitment to Zionism. See, for example, [4] Jeremy M. Weinstein (2007). Inside Rebellion: The Politics of Insurgent Violence. Cambridge University Press. [5] Doug McAdam (1990), Freedom Summer, Oxford University Press.

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