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By Jerry Ahern

Booklet through Jerry Ahern

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6 Theorizing Social Movement Strategic Adaptation 29 at the particular stage of the campaign and often without full information (Alinsky 1971). Actions more likely to be successful or those more likely to move activists incrementally toward their goal are those that shift the balance of power between activists and their targets in favor of the activists, at least to some degree. As power theorists (Wrong 1979 [1988]) and some social movement theorists (Jasper 2006; Turner 1970) reveal, power is generally exercised in one of three ways in interactions between movement groups and the authorities they challenge.

To reveal the mechanisms, we need to look more closely at what collective actors do to pursue their goals and the context in which they take these steps. Some researchers consider whether movement groups that build up sizeable memberships or that mobilize large numbers of participants for protest events are more likely to achieve their goals (Gilbert and Howe 1991; Jenkins and Brents 1989; Johnson 2008). Such studies focus explicitly on the scale of mobilization. Lohmann (1993), in one attempt to pinpoint a mechanism linking movement mobilization and political outcomes, argues that political leaders are willing to alter policy once a “critical ­threshold” in the number of moderate activists participating in protest is reached.

Scholars typically draw these conclusions from investigations of business organizations, but Minkoff (1999) makes a similar claim for social movement groups. My argument, however, runs contrary to these claims. I argue that tactically flexible social movement groups are more likely to succeed by winning political reforms. The seeming difference between my findings and those from the organizational ecology perspective can in all likelihood be explained by the fact that gaining political reforms (my outcome) is quite different than organizational dissolution (the organizational ecology outcome).

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