Mobilizing a Movement: A Pro-Life Case Study

I heard a statistic last week which blew my mind: half of all pro-life advocates start as neutral or even pro-choice. Brought into the movement through social networks, these people eventually convert their view points and become pro-life activists.

In a classic case of the backfire effect, I simply refused to believe the speaker. Pro-choice supporters don’t become pro-life advocates to fit in with a different social group. That’s crazy talk.

So I looked into it a little more.

In The Making of Pro-life Activists: How Social Movement Mobilization WorksZiad W. Munson documents the mobilization efforts of pro-life activists around the country. His initial goal was to understand the difference between mobilized activists and unmobilized supporters. But as he studied mobilization he found this question didn’t make sense: activists were mobilized from a broader pool than simply unmobilized supporters. As Munson explains:

One of the central arguments of this book is that individuals get involved in pro-life activism before they develop solid beliefs or firm ideas about abortion. Individuals mobilized into the pro-life movement in fact begin the mobilization process with a surprisingly diverse range of ideas about the issue. A quarter of those who are now activists were more sympathetic to the movement’s opponents when they first became involved, expressing beliefs that abortion should be a woman’s right or that abortion is (at least sometimes) morally acceptable. Only after they participated in pro-life movement activities did their views begin to change. Another quarter of all activists first became mobilized with an ambivalent attitude towards the issue. They saw valid arguments on both sides of the controversy and admit that they could have been persuaded either way about abortion.

…This argument does not claim that individuals have no ideas about abortion before they get involved in the movement, nor that everyone is equally likely to become mobilized regardless of his or her preexisting beliefs. Some individuals, because of their person biographies and beliefs, are more likely to know others who are involved in the movement and thus are more likely to come into personal contact with the movement – a key condition in the mobilization process. And although fully a quarter of the activists once held pro-choice views, none of them were strongly invested in this position or were active on the other side of the debate. The point is not that people are completely empty vessels, waiting to be filled with ideas from social movements, but only that our view of social movement activity as expressive behavior that presupposes commitment misses the mark.

That made me feel much better about the initial statistic – which had sounded like liberal activists suddenly become conservative ones. The number started to make a lot more sense: when people with generally ambivalent views become engaged in the work, they develop stronger views.

Munson adds that the half of pro-life activists who started with pro-life beliefs held only “thin beliefs” on the topic: their views were “poorly thought out, often contradictory, and seldom related to a larger moral vision.”

This way of understanding social movement mobilization raises important questions about socialization and group interactions. It emphasizes the importance of social and collaborative relationships, of engaging together in working to make change. And it highlights the importance of dissension, of creating spaces where all ideas are robustly considered.

And perhaps most fundamentally, it demonstrates the critical role of civic education: people can form their views on issues later, but we need to educate them to think coherently and critically, to learn from others but to form their own opinions, to be skeptical of popular opinions. And we need to teach them to explore all sides of an issue as they begin to get involved, to seek out ideas and opinions which differ from the ones the are forming.

Otherwise…they may just find themselves as activists on the wrong side of an issue!


2 thoughts on “Mobilizing a Movement: A Pro-Life Case Study

  1. Brandy Brooks

    “And we need to teach them to explore all sides of an issue as they begin to get involved, to seek out ideas and opinions which differ from the ones the are forming.

    Otherwise…they may just find themselves as activists on the wrong side of an issue!”

    Huh. I was surprised at this ending to your post. Did you mean to imply that people who had chosen to be pro-life activists had done so because they did not do enough critical thinking or considering other views as they became more involved in the movement? That seemed like an odd conclusion to draw based on the material you referenced.

    1. sshugars Post author

      Ah, no, that’s not what I meant, though in retrospect, I see that it reads that way. My apologies for any offense!

      While pro-life was the focus due to the data available, I meant my comments at the end to be more general – for any of us on any issue. I am generally very skeptical of our ability to identify our own motivations and reasons, and if our social network has the ability to drive our values, I think we have to actively work to put our own agency into that.

      Truth be told, your question is a good example of what I’m thinking about. I didn’t *mean* to mean that pro-life activists aren’t critical thinkers, but I would by lying to myself if I pretended that I’m not primarily socially rooted in a pro-choice world. It’s entirely possible that’s what I meant at the time I wrote it, and now I’m re-rationalizing to myself now that I realize that it might be offensive to people I respect. So your comment made me realize that I need to do more self-reflecting and critical analysis to better understand my own thinking…as we, on all issues, ought to do.


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