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Policy Guide: Studying a Social Movement Organization
Charles S. Green, III, University of Wisconsin at Whitewater

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There are several objectives of this exercise. First, it will sharpen y our ability to understand how social-movement organizations organize themselves to achieve their goals and to cope with their social environments: competitors seeking similar goals; opponents; authorities; media; key opinion makers in and outside the media; and the general public. Second, you will become familiar with field research methods by actually using them. In so doing, you will find out both how difficult it is to apply such methods and how rewarding the results can be. Third, you will learn to empathize with peoples whose goals you might never learn to accept, yet whose dedication and courage might nevertheless be an inspiration. Fourth, the exercise provides you with experience in the arts of democratic citizenship in two ways: 1) you will learn what it takes to build a team as you and your peers organize in order to conduct the research and to report on it; and 2) you will discover how others have sought to make history by seeking to change (or resisting change in) their society.


  1. Selection, entry, and planning

    Choose a contemporary social-movement organization in which your team members are interested.

    Make sure that your choice is one to which all of you can gain convenient and safe entry:
    1. It should have a local branch or chapter, the leaders of which are willing to let you study via the method(s) that you have chosen (for example, interviews with them and the members, attendance at their meetings, and analysis of documents such as brochures and committee minutes).
    2. Its location and tactics should be such that your own health and safety aren't imperiled during the course of your study.
    3. See your instructor for informed-consent procedures.

    Before actually studying the movement organization on site and in person, begin to familiarize yourselves as much as possible with what is already known about it. Plan who will accomplish the following within what time frames:

    1. Check your library or learning center for possible videos/films.
    2. Check your library's card catalog and the Internet to see whether books are available.
    3. Check Sociological Abstracts and the Social Sciences Index (on CD-ROM) and the Web for journal articles.
    4. Check The New York Times index and the Web for stories that might have appeared.
    5. Based on the material gathered via Steps I through iv, prepare a rough-draft literature review (in other words, a summary of what is already known about your movement organization its history, successes and failures, size, resources, public response to it, and so on).

    Your team must also plan to conduct field research on a branch or chapter of your movement organization (interviews with members, observation of meetings, content analysis of movement documents, possibly interviews with movement opponents, the media, authorities, and so on). Ask your instructor about Internet-based interviews. They pose special research problems, both practical and ethical. Each team member is expected to spend at least 6 to 10 hours of out-of-class time doing library and/or field research. In planning your field research, take into account that your research should focus on the following:

    1. Finding out as much as you can about the movement organization's resource-mobilization process.
    2. Finding out as much as you can about the internal debate within the movement organization over its program or ideology (for example, objectives, tactics, and strategies) and the contest for support in which movement organization activists battle with their opponents (and often the media and authorities) over the movement organization's image.

  2. Doing the study

    All team members should keep careful notes on all books and articles read, films seen, interviews conducted, meetings attended, documents gathered and analyzed, and so on.
  3. Duplicate all notes, and keep the original and the copy separate to make sure that information that is crucial to your analysis is not lost. A copy of each student's library and/or field notes must be submitted on the day that your team reports (for example, final-exam day).

  4. Reporting Your Study
  5. See the Worksheet for "Guidelines."


Your instructor will be concerned with both a) substance (how thoroughly and perceptively you analyzed the movement organization; note the guidelines) and b) style (clarity, organization, and so on). Obviously, substance counts much more heavily than style.

Studying a Social Movement Worksheet

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