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U.S. Department of Labor Futurework
  Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century
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Passion with an Umbrella:
Grassroots Activism in the Workplace

Maureen Scully and Amy Segal

Sloan School of Management
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Task Force Working Paper #WP13

Prepared for the May 25-26, 1999, conference “Symposium on Changing Employment Relations and New Institutions of Representation”

September 1, 1999


This paper explores how societal change agendas are advanced in workplace settings. We explore how change that is radical, in the sense of posing a challenge to power relations, can occur inside a business organization through bottom-up grassroots resistance and political activism. Mainstream work on change in organizations has focused on changes that do not fundamentally alter power relations or that are driven strategically from the top down or by outside influences. Critical approaches to organizational change largely explain the many forces that are arrayed to prevent radical change. Studies designed to explain variance in individuals' political activism relegate the few activists in organizations to the role of outliers from the central tendency of political passivity. While grassroots efforts and resistance may be most striking for their rarity in organizations, nonetheless small committed bands of employees do take actions to resist and change inequalities they face in their everyday working lives. We caution against the tendency of theories of change to ignore, critique or make trivial the piecemeal and modest activism of employees, lest researchers and activists alike lose a sense of the possibilities present in fragmented and local actions. In this paper, we take a social movements approach to activism in organizations to understand how organizational activists pursue question power relations, draw links to broader societal issues, sustain their collective efforts over cycles of involvement, manage risks to their careers and their mission, and accomplish their goals. A social movements approach to organizational change helps us to understand neglected aspects of change in organizations, and at the same time, organizational settings suggest new elements for social movements research.

While Zald and Berger (1978) argued provocatively for applying the metaphor of social movements to corporate hierarchical organizations, very little empirical work has taken up their challenge and examined what a social movement might look like within an organization. Our research develops and analyzes a picture of what political activism looks like within an organization. We focus on the process of change and the mixed set of interim changes that can be captured while a change effort is ongoing. In paying attention to small and ongoing efforts, our approach is different from most accounts of revolutions, which focus retrospectively on grand and seemingly completed change projects. The social movements literature has developed in large part by studying movements that history remembers for their success, from the French Revolution to the United States civil rights movement. Comparative historical sociologists caution against concluding too much from history's successes without reference to similarly situated failures (e.g., Skocpol, 1979), but nonetheless certain salient movements dominate theory. We feel we can learn different lessons by talking with contemporary activists about how they navigate paths of resistance, make sense of their collective activism, and assess the scope and efficacy of their change efforts before the textbooks relegate them, perhaps too simplistically, to the categories of successful or failed movements.

We open with an overview of what the social movements literature can offer to studies of organizational change, followed by an overview of what organizational settings may reveal for the social movements literature. We then draw from research on social movements to develop a set of questions that guide the exploration of activism in organizations. Our method section describes why we chose diversity issues for studying activism and how we located activists inside an organization. Our results probe each question about social movements inside organizations with qualitative data based on a set of interviews with activists. We discuss findings that offer directions for further research and conclude by posing the need for a theory of piecemeal change efforts.

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