A Comparative Anatomy of Urban Social Conflict

Article excerpt

This study explores local government's roles in "culture wars"-i.e., morals-based controversies such as those involving abortion clinic protest, anti-pornography crusades, debates over the extension of civil rights protections to gays, and regulation of hate group activities. Three particular roles are highlighted for analysis: hyperactive responsiveness, entrepreneurial instigation, and repression. Both deductive and inductive approaches are used to develop a viable set of hypotheses linking the appearance of those roles to variation in local governing institutions. The rational choice approach to the new institutionalism provides an analytical framework which, when coupled with insights from the study of social movements and local political entrepreneurs, allows for the derivation of hypotheses. Comparative analysis of cases of culture war controversy are used as plausibility probes to ground and further refine the hypotheses.

In addition to the important tasks and policies that are a part of economic development and routine service delivery, urban governments are responsible for social conflict management and order maintenance-a straightforward observation that is never far from the consciousness of local officials. However, urbanists within political science have exhibited a relative neglect of this topic, even though local governments have increasingly been engulfed in especially volatile social conflicts surrounding such phenomena as abortion clinic protest, debates over the extension of civil rights protections to gays, anti-pornography crusades, and the control of hate groups. These are examples of the social conflicts that Hunter (1991) calls "culture wars." They are characterized by intense social conflict centered on fundamental issues of morality and social justice, and they have raised special concerns because of the potential for violence that often accompanies such conflicts (Hunter 1994).

Even though they are episodic, these culture-war-style controversies are significant problems for urban governance, whether from the perspective of the normative questions that are involved or the lives and property that can be damaged and destroyed if they explode into violence or the effects of media-covered strident controversy on community image or the consequences for the electoral fortunes of local officials or for urban leaders' capacity to tackle other policy issues. Initial research, based upon secondary analysis of a variety of cases of culture wars (see Appendix A for a summary of the cases), suggests a number of interesting roles that local governments play in such controversies (Sharp 1996). Three of those roles-hyperactive responsiveness, repression, and entrepreneurial instigation-are the focus of analysis in this article.1Repression involves action taken by authorities to "either depress collective action or raise the cost of its two main preconditions-the organization and mobilization of opinion. . ." (Tarrow 1994: 95). Hyperactive responsiveness, a newly developed concept derived from analysis of several of the cases, involves aggressive action in support of challengers of the status quo and is characterized by precipitous decision making, the bypassing of normal procedures, disregard of legal or constitutional issues, or some combination of the above (Sharp 1996: 749). Finally, entrepreneurial instigation is action by local officials, acting as agenda-setters, deliberately to mobilize the community on a culture-war issue. The task of this article is to explore how variation in the institutions of local government shapes the choices of local officials and hence the adoption of these roles.


Inquiry concerning these culture wars is problematic for urbanists within political science for several reasons, the most important of which is the difficulty of fitting them into the theoretical frameworks that have been so important in other aspects of urban politics. …


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