In recent months we have seen clashing imaginaries (the set of values, narratives, and symbols through which people make sense of the social spaces they occupy) at play in the wave of protests for Black lives after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, as part of the ongoing struggle to challenge historic systems of oppression. Turning these clashes into productive action toward justice requires what social movement analysts call “insider-outsider” strategies. These uneasy coalitions combine the disruptive impact of movements outside of the state with attempts to reshape state and non-state institutions in ways that better address social inequalities and support community well-being.
Insider-outsider strategies can be difficult and uncomfortable. They walk a blurry and unstable line between challenge and cooptation, and they require nuanced leadership skills and tactical coordination. Yet they can be important means by which movement demands become institutionalized and sustained over time.
In their classic 1979 study, social movement scholars Piven and Cloward argued that movements of poor and marginalized people only succeed when they generate massive civil disruptions that require responses by local and federal authorities. Innovations such as the New Deal, the National Labor Relations Board, Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, and the War on Poverty were institutional responses to large scale social unrest, from the food riots and wildcat strikes of the 1930s to the sit-ins, freedom rides, de-segregation marches and urban unrest of the 1960s. However, many of these policies were challenged or rolled back over the next decades, as protests subsided, activists were recruited off the streets into program administration, and conservative retrenchment put formal and informal breaks on the deepening of institutional reform.
When activists worry about the dangers of “reformist reforms,” they often have these examples in mind – in addition to other evidence of policing and civil rights reforms that have not had the desired effects in addressing deep rooted inequalities. Many subsequent studies have warned about the danger of cooptation of activist reform efforts that are channeled into organizational frameworks that dilute their impact and keep them from addressing deeper structural issues.
At the same time, social movement research suggests that strong movement infrastructures that sustain mobilization over time can support and deepen policy reforms aimed at addressing inequality. For example, Kenneth Andrews (2001) suggests that post-civil rights era social welfare reforms in Mississippi were more successful in securing funding for local programs in counties in which activist organizations maintained pressure on and dialogue with state institutions. The lesson here is that outsider pressure matters, especially when unruly activism and community demands continue even after reforms are set in motion.
A growing literature on “activists within the state” suggests that professionals who are committed to justice, equality, and social and environmental protections can have a significant effect on reform efforts within state institutions. Sometimes these commitments come from prior experiences with social movements, as Joseph Harris (2017) shows in his study of how professional activists in the rural doctor’s movement in Thailand became the core actors in the country’s surprisingly successful move toward universal health care. Likewise, Lee Ann Banazkiak’s work (2009) shows how networks of activists within the federal government supported the formation of feminist organizations outside the state, while also playing critical roles in policy development in education, foreign policy, and health care.
These and other examples suggest that savvy reformers within the state often need disruptive, pressuring tactics from those outside the state to provide them with leverage to push through reforms in the face of institutional inertia and political opposition. These findings are mirrored in studies showing that social movements are more likely to achieve their goals when they have allies within the state able to do the institutional planning, resource wrangling, and political horse trading needed to turn protester demands into laws and programs. Even if reforms are seen as “not deep enough” or “half measures” from the point of view of more radical activists, they can have real redistributive and protective effects.
These insider/outsider alliances are often unstable, since they involve different time horizons, problem diagnoses, and modes of imagining alternative futures. Disruptive utopian imaginaries – such as those being voiced today by police abolitionists – inspire movement solidarity, interrogate power, and insist on keeping long-term structural change on the short-term horizon. More incremental institutional reform efforts, such as restorative justice projects and legal constraints on abusive police power, require expertise, coordination and planning. These different modes of action need each other, even if they sometimes provoke critique and mutual frustration.
How to move forward? For abolitionists, this means acknowledging the value of the difficult, nuts-and-bolts work that goes into making institutions function in ways that are more just, inclusive, and compassionate. For institutionalists, this requires acknowledging that advocates of the “radical imaginary” are often quite pragmatic and strategic. Abolitionists do not in fact think they are going to transform the system all at once, and they have developed a compelling set of criteria for sorting out “reformist” from “non-reformist” reforms. Trans activist Dean Spade proposes that we consider the following questions:
- Does the reform provide material relief?
- Does it leave out especially marginalized sectors of the affected community?
- Does it legitimize or expand a system we are trying to dismantle?
- Does it mobilize people, especially those most directly impacted, for ongoing struggle?
None of this is easy, and the dangers of cooptation and retrenchment are real. To develop policies that genuinely work toward what John Paul Lederach calls “justpeace,” we need multi-layered political imaginaries that disrupt, envision, coordinate and plan. This means continuing to challenge power and exclusion – including through unruly, confrontational protest – while also building institutions that can support vigorous community engagement and more just distribution of resources, opportunities, and social support.
Ann Mische is associate professor of sociology and peace studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Her research focuses on communication, deliberation, and leadership in social movements and democratic politics. She is the author of Partisan Publics: Communication and Contention Across Brazilian Youth Activists Networks (2009) and numerous articles that have appeared in the American Journal of Sociology, the Annual Review of Sociology, Social Research and other journals.