« The Death of Coretta Scott King | Main | Questioning Methods of Studying Social Movements »

Social Movement Leadership

How is it we are defining leadership in social movments? Stewart, Smith and Denton provide characteristics that leaders must posses (contagious curiosity, irreverence, imagination, a sense of humor, and an organized personality (108)). For me, these characteristics narow the scope of who can be considered a leader to an unfortunate level. If we accept the characteristics outlined by the authors of our text, we seem to negate the role of those individuals who do not serve as figure-heads within a movement.

In addition to those who deliver addresses, lead protests, and become a point around which others rally, there are those who work in the shadows of these individuals to shape both the message and actions of the movement. To focus solely on those figures who publicly deliver the message of the movement because their training, natural ability, social position, etc. makes them a better candidate for the position than others, removes an entire area focus from social movement scholarship. For example, while particular names are escaping me at the moment, within scholarship on the women's rights movement there is suggestion that individuals, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, did not write the entirety of their addresses, that in fact others (such as Susan B. Antony) sometimes crafted Stanton's message. In this example, Susan B. Antony is an acknowledged figure in her own right, but what of movements where this is not the case.

I am most concerned with Stewart, Smith, and Denton's claim that a leader must possess an organized personality. In practice it seems as though the organization of a movement does not rely solely on the recognized leader, but occurs instead outside of the public view and often at the hands of an individual whose face is not a symbol of the message.

I recognize that studying individuals who lead from behind the scenes presents an intereting challenge to those who are interested in the subject. Does this seem like an important area of study or an area that should at least be acknowledge in scoail movement scholarship? Or does a narrow defintion of leader as presented in our text serve the purpose of those interested in these kind of studies? If this is an area scholars should acknowledge, how would one go about studying the role of "behind-the-scene" leaders?


Good point Jess! Lots of folks who study "leadership" would be dismayed at the narrow scope of how Stewart et al are defining leadership. To their credit, Stewart and Co. do indicate that their characteristics of leadership are not all needed or that different traits are better for certain instances. However, leadership theory has progressed much farther than mere "trait" theory (as Stewart et al stick with), and we lose a lot of perspective with how "leadership" (as in the process of moving a group towards a task) is MUCH DIFFERENT from someone who is just seen as a "leader" (in a position of authority) in a movement.

I also want to echo your sentiments. Another thing in the leadership chapter that bothered me is the statement on p. 108 is the idea that "an organizer must have curiousity that become contagious" is two fold. First, how does this label deal with movements based in the resistance to organic oppression. Its not as if people catch the "gay movement fever" or "the Indian flu" as if it were an infection or getting swept away with some pop culture trend. Many movements against institutionalized oppression are based in the outgrowth of a growing class or collective identity consciousness that social change is required for improvements in material living conditions or just mere survival. This seems to simplify organizers and leaders as simply demagogues (which, btw, the book denegrates earlier). I agree with Jess' assement!