ACTIVISM (Social Science)

Activism refers to action by an individual or group with the intent to bring about social, political, economic, or even ideological change. This change could be directed at something as simple as a community organization or institution or as complex as the federal government or the public at large. In most cases, but not all, the action is directed toward the support or opposition of a controversial issue. Such issues range from basic human rights (see Blau and Moncada 2005) to the rights of gay men and lesbians (see Hunter et al. 1992) to antiwar or prowar sentiments over the Iraq War.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of the people to "petition the government for a redress of grievances." While earlier drafts of the First Amendment simply addressed the needs of the people to assemble and petition, later drafts included the rights of free speech, freedom of the press, and religion. However, the right to these freedoms is a matter of debate. Laws such as the Patriot Act, passed shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., expand the authority of U.S. law enforcement agencies under the rhetoric of terrorism and limit the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens. In addition, rights to assembly are often viewed by law enforcement agencies and government organizations as a political threat. As a result, there are countless cases in U.S. history where altercations between law enforcement and organizing groups, even peaceful assemblies, have resulted in violence. For instance, a rally in Los Angeles over immigration rights on May 6, 2007, was disrupted when police officers fired rubber bullets into the crowd and pummeled television crews and other journalists with batons (Kahn 2007).

Activism can take many forms, including such actions as civil disobedience, rioting, striking by unions, government or institutional lobbying, verbal or physical confrontation, various forms of terrorism, and the use of music and the media to draw attention to particular issues. The rise of the Internet has allowed new forms of activism to emerge and has also allowed many small, local issues to gain a wider audience and in some cases worldwide attention. Activism is a necessary vehicle for progressive and social change (see Bonilla-Silva 2006). Major movements such as the civil rights movement represent examples of what large-scale activism can accomplish given the right historical conditions and group collectivities.

In addition to individual or group-level activism, there are centers and organizations whose sole purpose is to promote social change through awareness and the bridging of theory and practice. Examples of such organizations include Loyola University—Chicago’s Center for Urban Research and Learning, a public sociology center that promotes research addressing community needs and that involves community organizers at all levels of its research process. Similarly, Project South, a leadership-development organization located in the southern United States, works with communities in bottom-up activism over issues pertaining to social, racial, and economic justice.

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