Social Networks, Identification and Participation in an Environmental Movement: Low-Medium Cost Activism within the British Columbia Wilderness Preservation Movement *

Article excerpt

SOCIAL MOVEMENTS ARE COLLECTIVITIES OF PEOPLE who are engaged in trying to create or resist social change. Social movement organizations (SMOs)--organizations which are dedicated to fostering social change, and which may vary in the degree to which they are formalized and institutionalized--are key actors in contemporary social movements (McCarthy and Zald, 1977). While there is a variety of different types of social movements, social movement organizations, and social movement strategies, the success of social movement organizations is related to the extent to which individuals and groups mobilize to support them.

The participation of individuals and groups is important for a variety of reasons. First of all, SMOs need a critical mass of resources in order to continue to exist and operate. Second, in order for SMOs to be effective in liberal democracies, governments and other key actors have to be convinced that a substantial proportion of the population supports the beliefs and goals of the SMO. SMOs can foster the perception of widespread support in a variety of ways, including getting members and supporters to attend demonstration rallies, to write letters to the editor, to sign petitions, to attend community-based meetings, etc.

Among contemporary social movements in Canada, one of the most visible and effective has been the environmental movement. This paper provides an explanation for the participation of individuals in a particular segment of the B.C. environmental movement by focussing on the role of social networks.

This study alms to address several gaps in the social movement literature, namely: 1) to identify and measure some of the key network-based processes--such as level of movement identification--that mediate the relationship between personal (ego) network structure and the participation of individuals in social movements; 2) to examine social movement participation as a continuous variable; and 3) in contrast to much recent research in this area, to focus on the relationship between personal network structure and low-medium cost activism.

With regard to the first objective, researchers have examined the relationship of structural variables (e.g., class location, existence of a social movement organization network contact, prior organizational affiliation) to attribute variables (e.g., education, age, level of ideological support for the movement), and how both of these are related to recruitment (e.g., McAdam, 1986; Klandermans and Oegema, 1987). Scholars who have conducted empirical research on the relationship between social networks and the participation of individuals in social movements (e.g., McAdam, 1986; Kitts, 1999) have not measured the processes that intervene between network structure and movement participation, but rather have made conjectures (based on the theoretical literature) and inferred underlying mechanisms from the observed relationships between structure and participation. (1) I endeavour to advance our understanding of the relationship between personal networks and movement participation by examining the role that is pl ayed by network-based processes (e.g., frequency of communication, level of identification) in mediating the relationship between personal network structure and social movement participation amongst individuals.

With regard to the second objective listed above, I argue that participation/non-participation is not a simple dichotomous variable. Researchers who have studied the participation of individuals in social movements have tended to focus upon recruitment as the central dependent variable of interest (Diani, 1995: 82). In so doing, they have generally conceived of (and measured) recruitment as a discrete decision about whether or not to join a particular movement organization, or participate in a particular campaign or demonstration (e.g., see McAdam, 1986; Klandermans and Oegema, 1987;--Wiltfang and McAdam, 1991; and Diani, 1995 mark several exceptions to this pattern). …