Democracy in the Making

Democracy in the MakingHow Activist Group Form

Author: Kathleen M. Blee
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Date of publication: 2012

Publisher: Oxford University Press.

Democracy in the Making offers an innovative and methodologically rigorous analysis of the relationship between grassroots political action and democracy.  By taking a process-centered view of democracy that examines the extent to which more than 60 fledgling grassroots activist groups exercise democracy, including whether and how those groups succeed or fail over a three year period, Blee challenges dominant views of the relationships among democracy, activism and civic engagement.  Rooted in “real-time ethnographic data” (p.9) that includes interviews and semi-structured observations of activists meetings and events, the research captures the sequencing of activities, documents what fails to happen as well as what does happen, collects information on interactions among activists, records the cultural dynamics related to how activist groups engage in sense making, and notes cycles of reflection and re-evaluation.  In so doing, it reveals micro-level dynamics of activism and interactions among activists as they unfold.  This approach uncovers “what activists collectively regard as possible, authorized, and imaginable” (p. 12).

Blee observes that nascent grassroots activist groups function along a path-dependent sequence which, she concludes, has several important implications for scholars and practitioners.  The implications for scholars have the potential to impact how activism is studied, by reorienting our attention to data that are often overlooked.  These include the importance of focusing on the things that do not happen or are not said, the possible significance of seemingly minor events, the complexity of individual and collective human agency, and the merits of studying groups from their inception and over long periods of time.  Scholarship on grassroots activism and democracy will surely benefit from taking these implications into consideration.  Blee also offers hopeful but cautionary words for activists, noting that deliberate action and reflection can guard against undesirable path-dependent outcomes and help ensure the reinvigorating role grassroots activism can have for democracy.

The book will be of interest to a broad range of ARNOVAns – those who study social activism, civic engagement, democracy, and voluntarism as well as practitioners who support or are engaged with emerging activist groups.  It has the potential to substantially shift the way scholars think about social activism and civic engagement, as well as how activists engage with grassroots groups.

– 2012 ARNOVA Book Award Committee

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