How do people become activist for causes they care deeply about? Why is it that, although many people with similar backgrounds fervently believe abortion should be illegal, only some join the pro-life movement?
In a new book, The Making of Pro-Life Activists: How Social Movement Mobilization Works, Ziad Munson, associate professor of sociology, explores the lives and beliefs of pro-life activists and non-activists and examines the differences between them. He also offers a new model of how people become activists and provides a deep analysis of the complex relationship between religion, politics and the pro-life movement.
Through extensive interviews and detailed studies of pro-life organizations across the nation, Munson made the startling discovery that many activist join up before they develop strong beliefs about abortion—in fact, some are even pro-choice prior to their mobilization. Munson notes that action often precedes the development of the beliefs that are usually thought to motivating that action in the first place.
“Most people are very surprised to learn that the actual motivations that first bring people into the pro-life movement are pretty banal and ordinary—and are almost never focused on the abortion issue per se,” said Munson. “Of all the activists I spoke to around the country, almost one in four current pro-life activists held pro-choice beliefs at some point in their lives before their mobilization into the movement.”
Munson found that whatever high-minded explanations they gave for their activism, the first spark for a pro-life activist was almost always something much more ordinary. Many, he said, attend rallies or protests with friends, neighbors, roommates, or family members for the first time without really even knowing what the event is about or how they feel about abortion.
“The primary way people are drawn into the movement is through the social networks in which they are embedded,” said Munson. “It is only after this kind of experience and initial contact that people become mobilized and begin to develop the kinds of ideas and beliefs we typically associate with passionate opposition to legalized abortion.”
Upending conventional wisdom about motivation
Munson therefore concludes that commitment to an issue is often a consequence rather than a cause of activism. This model runs counter to long-held beliefs about the motivation for involvement by activist.
“I felt this was an important topic to tackle for several reasons,” said Munson. “There was relatively little research on right-wing, conservative social movements and I felt a big, and important, part of our social and political world was being left out of the existing research agendas. I also believe the link between ideology and action is often mischaracterized in social science research.”
Munson’s research on the pro-life movement is an extension of his work in examining how social movements form and how individuals come to join and identify with them. He has examined the role of religion in society, including religious fundamentalism, religious conversion, secularization, religion in public life, religion in social change, and religious terrorism. He also has focused on movements in the Middle East, civil engagement in America and political violence and terrorism.
“My research and scholarship focuses on understanding collective action and social movements, both in the United States and around the world,” said Munson. “I am interested in developing a better understanding of where social movements form, when people join social movements, and how social movements change (or do not change) the societies around them.”
Munson is pursuing these questions through particular attention to the connection between the ideas, beliefs, and values of people and institutions on the one hand, and the processes by which people create, join, and participate in social movement activity on the other.
Munson was recently tapped for his expertise on pro-life movements by The New York Times in an article titled “Abortion Foes Tell of Their Journey to the Streets” and by Newsweek magazine in an article titled “I Am Zygote, Hear Me Roar.”