P3 Student Spotlight: Avi McClelland-Cohen, PhD Student, Department of  Communications, UCSB

P3 Student Avi McClelland-Cohen explores how social movement organizations become formalized and professionalized.  She has been studying Indivisible, a nationwide, grassroots organization that emerged as part of the Trump resistance.  Her work underscores the implications of various organizing practices and structures for organization- and movement-level goals.  


Guest Post by Avi McClelland-Cohen, PhD Student, Department of Communications, UCSB:

Scholars have long recognized that social movements and social movement organizations develop formal, professionalized organizational structures over time. These structures enable social movement organizers to work more efficiently, coordinating activity across broad networks. However, professionalized structures also have the potential to co-opt more radical impulses at the grassroots level and shift organizers’ focus toward organizational maintenance and away from movement-level goals.

I argue that social movement formalization represents a Goldilocks problem that can be better understood by examining the in situ organizing practices of social movement leaders and grassroots organizers. While too little structure results in chaos and an inability to maintain capacity through periods of challenge or abeyance, too much structure can lead to a shift away from movement-level to organization-level goals. I use a constitutive approach to organizational communication, seeing organizations as (re)produced through interaction among members and between members and external actors. In my dissertation, I aim to explore the communicative practices that constitute formal professionalized social movement organizations and elucidate the implications of these various practices for organization-level and movement-level outcomes.

My research traces the emergence of Indivisible, a nationwide grassroots organization born in the aftermath of the 2016 election. Indivisible has developed in just two years from an online publication to a 6,000-group network to a formal, semi-bureaucratic enterprise. I have traced this development in detail through fieldwork, interviews, and surveys. Bridging the fields of communication, sociology, and political science, my dissertation will examine the practices involved in structuring Indivisible as an organization.

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