social change

San Jose State: another place to turn knowledge into action. Photo by David Sawyer, Flickr CC.
San Jose State: another place to turn knowledge into action. Photo by David Sawyer, Flickr CC.


Many are familiar with the long history of student activism at University of California at Berkeley, but fewer have heard of the difference-makers at San Jose State University. “San Jose State is in the shadow of UC Berkeley when it comes to student activism,” sociology Professor Scott Myers-Lipton told The Nation. “But we’ve got this history as a working-class university that most people don’t know about.”

Starting in 2011, students in Myers-Lipton’s Social Action sociology class started thinking about ways they could bring change to their own community. San Jose houses big-name companies like Adobe, eBay, and Cisco Systems, but it’s the sixth most expensive city in the country. Many residents barely eke out a living. Student and after-school worker Marisela Castro, whose parents worked the California farm fields, pitched the idea of working toward raising the minimum wage. (Myers-Lipton estimates that 80% of his students work over 30 hours per week on top of being students.)

Working with South Bay Labor Council leader Cindy Chavez, Myers-Lipton’s students raised $6,000 to hire a polling agency and make thousands of phone calls to see if increasing minimum wage was an issue that voters would support. When over 70% of respondents said they favored minimum wage increase, Chavez went to the board of the Labor Council. Unions pledged over $120,000 to help the cause by the end of the meeting. After collecting 20,000 signatures, the students took their proposal to the Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce. The vast network of supporters (including Catholic Charities, United Way, churches, and non-profits) alarmed the Chamber, which raised $400,000 to defeat the measure.

The student activists were not defeated, however. They continued, keeping their message simple. Instead of getting into statistical debates, they touted the importance of economic fairness. On November 6th, San Jose became the fifth and largest city to raise its minimum wage, increasing the income for minimum wage workers by $4,000 per year. What started as a student brainstorming activity in a sociology class brought thousands in San Jose closer to economic sustainability.

Photo by Art$uper$tar via
Photo by Art$uper$tar via

When we get nostalgic, we tend to overlook bad times and focus on good memories. It’s like how Green Day’s “Good Riddance” ended up promoted under its subtitle, “Time of Your Life”… and then became the go-to ballad for every late 90s graduation, flashback, and farewell television episode.

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, historian and Council on Contemporary Families co-chair Stephanie Coontz reminds us that a little personal nostalgia may be fine, but we should be wary when everyone starts longing for the “good old days”:

In personal life, the warm glow of nostalgia amplifies good memories and minimizes bad ones about experiences and relationships, encouraging us to revisit and renew our ties… In society at large, however, nostalgia can distort our understanding of the world in dangerous ways, making us needlessly negative about our current situation.

This nostalgia doesn’t just make the present look worse. It can make it harder to see some pretty spectacular screw-ups:

I have interviewed many white people who have fond memories of their lives in the 1950s and early 1960s. The ones who never cross-examined those memories to get at the complexities were the ones most hostile to the civil rights and the women’s movements, which they saw as destroying the harmonious world they remembered.

But others could see that their own good experiences were in some ways dependent on unjust social arrangements, or on bad experiences for others… These people didn’t repudiate, regret, or feel guilty about their good memories. But because they also dug for the exceptions and sacrifices that lurked behind their one-dimensional view of the past, they were able to adapt to change.

Trading in rose-colored glasses for 3D might let us accept a fuller version of the past and more possibilities for the future.

A Forgery of the 95 Theses
A forgery of the 95 Theses in the Penn Libraries Collection

We often hear how Facebook, Twitter, and other social media contribute to protests and demonstrations by allowing activists to express their views or coordinate their actions. Social media were a big part of Arab Spring, but they were also a large part of the Reformation, says an article from The Economist. Nearly 500 years ago, Martin Luther went viral by circulating pamphlets, woodcuts, and other social media of that day in order to spread the message of religious reform.

The start of the Reformation is generally explained as a three-step process: 1. Martin Luther gets fed up with members of the Catholic Church asking for money to free souls, 2. Luther pins a list of 95 Theses (in Latin) to the Church door, and 3. The Reformation has begun. But, a closer look reveals Martin Luther spent more time thinking about social media:

The unintentional but rapid spread of the “95 Theses” alerted Luther to the way in which media passed from one person to another could quickly reach a wide audience. “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation,” he wrote in March 1518 to a publisher in Nuremberg who had published a German translation of the theses. But writing in scholarly Latin and then translating it into German was not the best way to address the wider public. Luther wrote that he “should have spoken far differently and more distinctly had I known what was going to happen.” For the publication later that month of his “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, he switched to German, avoiding regional vocabulary to ensure that his words were intelligible from the Rhineland to Saxony. The pamphlet, an instant hit, is regarded by many as the true starting point of the Reformation.

While it sounds pretty different (imagine communicating through woodcuts!), the media environment Luther circulated in shared some similarities with today. It was a decentralized system in which participants distributed messages through sharing—Luther passed the text of a pamphlet to a friendly printer, who could print the small text in a day or two.  Copies of this first edition, which cost about the same as a chicken, spread through the town they were printed in, being picked up by traveling merchants, preachers, or traders, and spread across the country. Local printers would then reprint their own editions, much like Facebook “shares” or Twitter “retweets.”

And, as with collective action in the 21st century, social media could  be dangerous during the Reformation:

In the early years of the Reformation expressing support for Luther’s views, through preaching, recommending a pamphlet or singing a news ballad directed at the pope, was dangerous. By stamping out isolated outbreaks of opposition swiftly, autocratic regimes discourage their opponents from speaking out and linking up. A collective-action problem thus arises when people are dissatisfied, but are unsure how widely their dissatisfaction is shared, as Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, has observed in connection with the Arab spring. The dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia, she argues, survived for as long as they did because although many people deeply disliked those regimes, they could not be sure others felt the same way. Amid the outbreaks of unrest in early 2011, however, social-media websites enabled lots of people to signal their preferences en masse to their peers very quickly, in an “informational cascade” that created momentum for further action.

Something very similar happened in the Reformation. A1523-24 surge in reform-pamphlet popularity (including those written by Luther and many others) served as a collective signaling mechanism of Luther’s support. Luther had been declared a heretic, but, because of his supporters, he was able to escape execution, and the Reformation became established in much of Germany. The power of social media is anything but new.


Many people put off talking about immigration reform until “America regains control of its borders.”  But, according to Douglas Massey’s recent CNN article, that moment has arrived. He says:

According to estimates from the Mexican Migration Project, which I co-direct, the rate of new undocumented migration from Mexico dropped to zero in 2008 for the first time in 50 years. This remarkable event partly reflects the drop in labor demand in the context of a deep economic recession, but it also stems from a massive increase in border enforcement.  Since 1990, the size of the Border Patrol has increased by a factor of five and its budget by a factor of 13.

While this increased enforcement surely contributed to decreased immigration, it also likely decreased the outflow of immigrants who were already here.

At present, therefore, new undocumented migrants are not heading northward; former undocumented migrants are coming back in very small numbers; and settled undocumented residents are staying put.  As a result of these trends, the population of undocumented U.S. residents peaked at 12.6 million persons in 2008 and fell to 10.8 million in 2009, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  Net undocumented migration is now slightly negative.

Many immigrants are also employed as guest workers; in fact, from 1990 to 2008, the number of Mexicans admitted with temporary work visas grew from 17,000 to 361,000 per year.  Many other migrants are becoming citizens.  For example, the number of legal Mexican immigrants attaining U.S. citizenship went from 18,000 in 1990 to 232,000 in 2008.

In sum, of the four principal components of comprehensive immigration reform, three have already been substantially achieved.   The border is now under control and net-undocumented migration has fallen below zero; a guest worker program has been created to bring in more than 360,000 temporary Mexican migrants per year; and legal immigrants have increasingly taken it upon themselves to “expand” the quotas by naturalizing and sponsoring the entry of immediate relatives outside of the numerical quotas.

According to Massey, one main accomplishment remains: the creation of a pathway to legalization for long-term, undocumented residents of the United States.

Somewhere around three million of these people entered the country as minors.  They did not make the decision to violate U.S. immigration law and should not be held responsibilities for choices made by their parents.  In the absence of a criminal record or other disqualifying circumstances, those who entered as minors should be given an immediate and unconditional amnesty and be allowed to proceed with their lives in the only country that most of them know.

For their part, undocumented migrants who entered as adults should be offered a temporary legalization that confers the right to live and work in the United States for some extended period, during which they would be able to accumulate points ultimately to qualify them for legal permanent residence.  Points would be awarded for socially desirable behaviors such as paying taxes, learning English, studying civics, holding a steady job, owning a home, parenting U.S. citizen children and generally staying out of trouble.  Once a certain minimum threshold of points is achieved, migrants would be allowed to pay a fine as restitution for violating the law and then, having paid their debt to society, get on with their lives as legal permanent residents of the United States.  We are much closer to the ultimate goals of immigration reform than most people realize.


Protesting Scott Walker
In an op-ed published in the Raleigh-based paper, the Newsobserver, sociology Ph.D student Amanda Gengler provides insight into what is at stake in the current political struggle in Wisconsin. To do so Gengler draws upon her experience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she earned her master’s degree.

As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison 10 years ago, every month a few dollars of my stipend went to pay dues to the TAA; a unique union that represents and protects graduate employees working in the UW-System. In return, I worked under a contract that ensured full health care benefits and basic dental care (with no out-of-pocket premiums), and tuition remission (without which my education would not have been possible) as well as other fair labor protections.

Now, even after each subsequent renegotiation of the rights for Wisconsin’s graduate employees has resulted in more and more concessions, current Gov. Scott Walker is proposing to remove the TAA’s collective bargaining rights altogether. This would make it impossible to fight for any of these protections, all of which could be immediately revoked.

Graduate students are not alone in seeing this as an attack on the education system.

Under the rallying cry “Hands off our Teachers,” undergraduates have taken to the streets in recent days alongside their graduate student instructors.

Gengler cautions us to not see this as an isolated threat directed at the University system.

Wisconsin’s 3,000 graduate student workers are but one of the many constituencies that will be directly harmed by the state government’s attack on unions and workers’ rights. As Wisconsin’s unions offer up economic concessions in terms of pay and premiums, only to be completely rebuffed by state lawmakers, it is clear that this issue is not about the budget: it is about ending workers’ collective bargaining rights.

The op-ed serves as a call for all workers and unions to pay close attention to what is occurring in Wisconsin. While the situation appears bleak, Gengler leaves us with a statement of resolve:

Those of us who have been fortunate enough to have those rights know what they are worth, and the thousands who continue to flood Madison’s streets make it clear that the right to fight is one thing they will not concede.


Arab News recently covered the two books that sociologist Asef Bayat published this year.  In them, he uses social movement theory to explain how everyday actions create change in the Middle East.

While many believe radical Islam expresses the interests of the poor, Bayat has observed that the urban poor are generally reluctant to support any kind of political movement. The poor cannot afford to be ideological, but they are interested in organizations and associations that can help them and answer their needs. Their political opinion is not linked to political Islam, but in a poor people’s “nonmovement,” which is the main form of activism in the Muslim Middle East.

Instead of organized politics, everyday life turns into “street politics.”

The concept of “street politics” is closely tied to the economic situation prevalent in the Middle East. Bayat rightly points out that the streets of Cairo, Tehran or Jakarta are jam-packed with people “compelled by the poverty or dispossession” to work, socialize and spend their day in the public spaces. Streets allow people to come into contact with each other and share their problems and this can turn a small manifestation into a massive demonstration. Revolutions and protest movements originate on the streets. Therefore, authorities are often weary of the potential danger of street politics, which often reflect the feelings and opinions of a nation.

The organizations and associations that work to meet the needs of the poor people’s “nonmovement” are also covered by Bayat.

Bayat rightfully highlights the positive role played by Muslim movements who provided health care, education and financial aid. This is the case of the Rifah Party in Turkey, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria and how Hezbollah filled the vacuum triggered by the total absence of the state in Lebanon. The growing number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) confirms the vital role they play especially in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Sudan. Social Islam and NGOization “despite their flaws, appear to have become the dominant forms of activism that now contribute to improving some aspects of people’s lives in Middle Eastern countries,” writes Bayat.