Motivating Collective Action


Motivating Collection Action

Kobena Amoah

At noon on Friday, January 20, 2017, it was official that America had a new president. Donald J. Trump had been inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. In hindsight, it was obvious President Trump’s tenure was marked with a background of contentious divide within the nation. Yet, the development of growing discontent could not be limited to developments immediate to the election. Discontent had always been a general theme of American politics. However, the fact is there was a change in American politics that year. It was not that more people suddenly became aggrieved. It was that more aggrieved people started to express their grievances. And so a question naturally arises, why did social movements become commonplace?

In certain respects, it would be fitting to answer the above question by looking directly at specific grievances and consequently participation as means of addressing those issues. However, that approach would be misguided least because it dismisses the psychological factors that underlie a movement. In fact, it could be more useful to answer the question specifically through the lens of framing, identity and emotion, themes that would characterize this piece.

The framing perspective builds upon movement participation as an evaluation of costs and benefits. It is a given that people are aggrieved, and as such reduces participation to whether an individual can instigate change in their political environment at an affordable cost. This view gives a sufficient explanation for why people do not participate in collective action by arguing that people would “free-ride” if there are no costs in failing to participate.

However, this view fails to explain why people do participate in collective action. In this respect, this framework reducible to concerning incentives is flawed. Collective action and participation, as was seen since 2017, was not concerned with the issue of incentives but more than that.

The issue of participation extending beyond the bounds of incentives diverges into a discussion of identity. Of course, a consideration of identity would necessitate discussions of the personal versus collective. In some sense, these two classifications need not be mutually exclusive but rather overlapping. Personal identity as its basic level, is a collection of collective identities. This implication is important because it suggests the importance of identification within a category. And it is from this identification participation arises. Put simply, if people identify with a group, they are more likely to participate in collective political action on behalf of that group.

The third motive – emotion – could be described as concerning the idea people participate in movements to express their views. In this manner, changing some societal aspect is not the only goal of collective action but also inclusive of gaining dignity. However, emotions also serve some external purposes as well. Its mutuality and reciprocity may end up reinforcing the movement itself.

Combined these three views provide interesting conclusions about participation in movements. The first – framing – provides the conclusion that incentives matter and these determine why a person concerned about some grievance need not necessarily participate in a movement.

The second – identity – provides the conclusion that identification with a group provides an attractive reason to take part in a movement. The third –emotion – provides the conclusion that having similar experiences, and the ability to tell stories and share emotions reinforces participation.

Indeed, these three influences might provide an explanation for the upsurge in collective action since 2017. As noted, people did not necessarily become more incensed. Perhaps, what did change was that framing, identity and emotion became significant.