When Do Opportunities Become Trade-Offs for Social Movement Organizations? Assessing Media Impact in the Global Human Rights Movement

Article excerpt

[There is] a deep awareness in the movement, that our capacity to deliver an internal environment that is consistent with our external principles needs constant nourishment, and the possibility of slipping into conflict with our own values is quite marked when you become a very large employer with a very large budget with many more complex functions being performed requiring the engagement of many more competencies than when we started. (Amnesty informant #2, Female, September 14, 2003)

In the sociological investigation of collective behaviour, scholars have paid considerable attention to the potential trade-offs faced by social movement organizations (SMOs) seeking funding (Jenkins 1989; O'Connor 1999; Minkoff 2002; Ostrander 2004). For instance, a central concern has been on the extent to which funding imperatives have moderating, or "channeling," effects on movements as they attempt to meet the demands and expectations of elite patrons (Haines 1984; Jenkins 1989; Bartley 2007). This dynamic, the argument follows, may diffuse dissent in favour of more traditional forms of organizing and political engagement. However, formal funding bodies constitute only one set of institutional actors that social movement organizations encounter in their pursuit of resources; organizations must also adjust their behaviour in response to a wide variety of key institutional actors. In this article I examine the dynamics that arose as human rights organizations responded to constraints put forth by the global media, an increasingly key institutional actor in the 1990s. Responding to Minkoff and McCarthy's (2005:289) call to make "activist labor [a] central focus of analysis," I examine how the specific institutional trade-off I outline here shaped the organizational ideals and practices of the human rights organizations as workplaces. That is, in the same way that attempts to garner funding shape organizations, to what extent do institutional constraints transform the internal dynamics of SMOs and the experiences of their "activist employees"?

Based on eighty-two interviews with current and former human rights practitioners at Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (Amnesty), and reviews of internal organizational documents at both organizations, news coverage, and other documents, I reflect on three closely related aspects of the process of transformation. First, I study the growing attention of the international media on human rights and human rights advocacy. During the early 1990s, as global interest in human rights took off, the two organizations began to grow and experience increased media interest in both human rights and nongovernmental organizations more broadly. Following this, I examine the degree to which this media focus influenced the organizational strategies of both organizations. This new reality created an opening with the promise of greater exposure and influence. It also created a perception that they needed to transform their strategic operations to reflect the demands that accompanied this media interest. Finally, I show that while both organizations clearly identified the need to transform their strategy, there were important differences in the responses of the two organizations: the activist employees of HRW were under increasing pressure to change their work to adapt to this "mediatization," the activist employees at Amnesty experienced this less. I conclude that while the growing media attention transformed the advocacy of these important human rights actors, explicit organizational values mediated the effects of these changes on the internal dynamics of each organization. Thus, using qualitative data and employing organizational, social movement, and institutional theories, I seek to explain the processes whereby ideologically driven organizations do or do not conform to institutional expectations. In addition, I use this approach to demonstrate the possible effects of organizational change on the experience of employees within social movements. …


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