Even though Occupy emerged and faded almost two years ago, the scholarship of Occupy continues. Occupy publications in the last year include a paper that explores the values, attitudes, and beliefs of occupiers as they relate to their use of technology and another that looks at changes in participant engagement, interests, and social connectivity on Twitter. Another paper looks at the implication of the occupations for public space.
In the British Journal of Sociology, the American sociologist Craig Calhoun wishes to evaluate Occupy, but clarifies that he does not wish to critique it too harshly. “[T]here is no shame in being more moment than movement,” he writes. “It is no denigration of Occupy Wall Street (or the Occupy movement(s) more generally) to say it may not have a future as such.”
Yet if an activist mobilization doesn’t “have a future,” that certainly isn’t a good thing. Why not say so? Why this hedging (which is not particular to Calhoun)? The great challenge of analyzing activism success is that the people who analyze activism outcomes as intellectuals also care about activism outcomes as emotional beings.
The danger here is that we as scholars find ourselves looking for effects rather than measuring effects. The former is a result of post-facto analysis, Monday morning quarter-backing. There is always some outcome to be found which can be construed as successful (“changing the discourse,” for example). The latter method seeks to record what a campaign was initially trying to achieve and be willing to say that it did not succeed in that attempt.
When we as scholars care about changing the world – and most scholars of activism do – there is a great danger of the former type approach, in which emotion clouds empiricism. And there is often too little of the latter approach, in which unsentimental empiricism leads to recognition of a disappointing reality.
As a scholar who wants activists to succeed I know that I run the risk of producing the former type of analysis, and I am trying very hard to produce the latter. This means remembering that activism campaigns are trying to change the state of the world in some way, and the extent to which they do or do not bring about this change must be the primary criteria for evaluating success.
This is the logic being the variables I’m currently creating. I know this will frustrate some people, because I am missing the lesser effects of (failed) campaigns. But I think it is the right way to go. If we want to make activists more effective we need to be rigorous and unsentimental. Calling a failure a success may make us feel better, but it’s unlikely to lead to better activism and real change.