Book Notes & Thoughts: The Making of Pro-Life Activists, by Ziad Munson


This book might seem out of my general topic area, but after hearing Hahrie Han speak at the Carnegie Summit last year (in which she mentioned this book) and reading her book about organizing social movements, I wanted to dig a little deeper into how social movements mobilize and sustain their work.

Bryk, Gomez, & Grunow’s 2011 paper Getting Ideas into Action is probably THE foundational piece of my graduate school inquiries (and likely the rest of my career). They describe improvement science in networked improvement communities as sustained, collective action. This is a phrase that I continue to circle and turn over. I like the pragmatic focus of understanding why people to do what they do, particularly things that have collective momentum and/or impact, but I also see how difficult this is. We have such a deeply held belief that “the more you know” will make change, but over and over again, we find that people have their own minds and act in unpredictable ways.

As a side note, I’ll admit to a pattern I have noticed in myself recently, which is that I really enjoy reading the methods sections of books. In fact, this is where I started with this book – in the study methodology appendix. Munson offers that “Any study of individual mobilization into a social movement thus faces a challenge: how does one gather detailed biographical data on those who mobilize that can be separated from the subjective stories of mobilization that activists commonly offer?” (p.198). Munson states that he does long interviews (2 hours or so) to start with the public facing story but eventually delve into what might be considered “the more mundane and less morally adorned information.” His second tactic is to focus on specific events, decisions, and feelings. “By directing interview participants to reconstruct their trajectory into the movement step by step, I allowed for much less interpretation and narrative construction on the part of the participants.” This is not about “gotcha” interviewing – it’s about narrowing the focus to get more accurate information. Munson cites Weiss (1994) and Seidman (1998).

He also outlines how he selected his four cities, Boston, Twin Cities, Oklahoma City, and Charleston, drawing on proxy measures to get at relative levels of pro-life mobilization and religious composition. This resulted in a 2×2 table, with Twin Cities and Oklahoma City as high mobilization, and Boston and Charleston as low mobilization; Twin Cities and Boston have a high proportion of Catholics; Oklahoma City and Charleston have a high proportion of fundamentalist protestants. His findings, that the process of becoming an activist looks the same in these four places, is strengthened by his site selection because it suggests that his model may be generalizable beyond the specific sites (p.204).

Munson begins the book by contrasting two figures, Jerome and Tim. They are similar in beliefs and views but differ in one thing: their level of activism. Tim sits on the board of a pro-life group; Jerome is not actively involved. Why? Munson’s research develops a model for “how people get involved in the pro-life movement,” focusing on the “process by which people become activists” (p. 2). He states his conclusion right away:

Ultimately, the explanation of how Tim’s and Jerome’s stories differ shows how beliefs about social and moral issues are as much the product of social movement participation as they are the impetus for such involvement. The analysis here thus questions our conventional understanding of the relationship between ideas and action, and in doing so builds on and refines what we already know about how people become involved in all kinds of different social and political activities (p.2). (Emphasis added)

Munson distinguishes his research as looking at activist vs. nonactivist, rather than pro-life vs. pro-choice, and at looking at the process, rather than individual characteristics. He draws a parallel with criminology: “No matter how many individual traits are correlate with criminal behavior, there will always be more people who share those traits who are not criminals (Sampson and Laub, 1993)” (p.4). The problem with the logic of trying to tie traits with actions is that this is a fallacy of “affirming the consequent.” Many non-activists will have similar traits, so the traits alone do not provide a strong causal claim for why people become active. I really like how Munson frames his shift from explaining why to understanding how. I hope this is something I can explain in my work.

Munson then examines the relationship between belief and activism, making the statement that past scholarly approaches “share a common assumption that individual beliefs logically and causally precede social movement participation” (p.5). One of the central claims that Munson makes in the book is that pro-life organizations are not just drawing on people who already have pro-life beliefs. Instead, “the pro-life movement draws on people with a remarkably wide range of preexisting ideas about abortion” (p.5) and “their views change during the actual process of becoming activists” (p.6).

The breakdown of who people are in the pro-life movement reminds me of Apple’s (2006) Educating the “Right” Way, in which he breaks down conservative modernization into four groups: neoliberals, neoconservatives, authoritarian populists, and the managerial class. Taking a group that seems homogenous and carving it into different “streams” (p.7) has consequences for understanding the structure of both the abortion movement and “the process by which people become activists and adopt a pro-life view of the world” (p.7).

This book is the product of Munson’s dissertation, and as I write my own dissertation proposal, I am paying attention both how he presents his study and the content of his argument. His writing is impeccably clear and direct, which I like, and makes distinguishing statements like,

my analysis is not organized around the standard perspective of an omniscient analyst, with each chapter building on the one that precedes it, to an ultimate “punch line” in the final chapter. Instead, the book is organized around the trajectory of an ideal-typical activists into the movement…. This activist’s-eye orientation allows me to meld the theoretical arguments of the analysis with the rich empirical data I have drawn from the many interviews with both activists and nonactivists” (p.14-15).

As I am hoping to study a trajectory of improvement, I might keep this model of organizing my argument through this developmental sequence.

Munson develops rich descriptions of people, using life history interview methods, and begins each chapter with quotes. The voices of the people ground his claims in a way that I find compelling. In the third chapter, he gives several tables of activist and nonactivist biographies and the relevant pieces of their story. I can see how this technique for organizing his data aligns from how he conducted interviews (the focus on events, decisions, and feelings) and how it would inform his analysis and explanations.

One final note on the research design:

Several of the hunches I had going into this study proved to be false. The line dividing activists and nonactivists is not located simply between those who are involved and those who are merely sympathetic. The level of mobilization and religious characteristics of different cities were not ultimately useful in answering my key questions. However, the research design I used still provided the means to correct my initial hypotheses and answer a number of important questions about the pro-life movement in particular and about contemporary American social movements more generally. (p.194-195) (Emphasis mine)

Aside from looking at the research design, how will Munson’s conclusion, that beliefs are as much the product of social movement participation as they are the impetus, impact my work?

  1. Improvement science in networked improvement communities is about getting people to learn by doing, so I see Munson’s conclusion as supporting this orientation.
  2. Rather than focusing on convincing people of the “right way” to solve problems, engaging them in the process of solving the problems develops their beliefs about the “right way.”
  3. Individual mobilization is a “dynamic, contingent, and multistage process” (p.188). A focus on the process, though reveals common trajectories.
  4. As I study participation in improvement trajectories, I need to make sure I do not make the “affirming the consequent” fallacy. This would mean not assuming that how people understand their action preceded their participation or that the understanding is static. Participation in the process, “the stream,” shapes their beliefs and future actions.

If the goal of improvement science is to galvanize sustained, collective action toward an educational system that works for all kids, and the pool of potential improvers is wider than we might think.


Articles Referenced

Bryk, A. S., Gomez, L. M., & Grunow, A. (2011). Getting ideas into action: Building networked improvement communities in education. Frontiers in sociology of education. 1, 127-162.


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