My dissertation, “Iron Fellows: Commitment and Activism in a Poor People’s Movement” focuses on the lives of participants in the Unemployed Worker’s Movement in two Argentinean cities: Buenos Aires and San Salvador de Jujuy. Based on intensive ethnographic fieldwork that spanned three and a half years and included 154 interviews with current and former activists, I seek to explain an empirical puzzle with important theoretical implications. The profile of most recruits to the movement hardly matches the one that, according to the literature, is conducive to long-term activism: almost all of them are destitute, poorly educated, and socially isolated. Moreover, the vast majority join their organization not due to ideological affinity, but instead because it provides a way to obtain material resources needed for survival. Not surprisingly, many of them leave when they obtain a job or when the costs of participating exceed the benefits. However, other members become increasingly attached to their organization, to the point of making sacrifices to remain involved.
Explaining this divergence entails more than just exploring one of Latin America’s most influential instances of collective action. It also holds the potential to enrich our understanding of the processes that allow some people to overcome obstacles to political participation. In other words, my dissertation builds on previous research in order to explore understudied aspects of activism. Although there is a large body of literature on the factors that contribute to a person’s engagement in social movements, most studies focus on the recruitment phase and pay less attention to the trajectories of activists afterwards. Hence, we know much more about the factors that increase the likelihood of participation, than about the processes by which people develop commitment (or not) to the organizations they have joined. In particular, our understanding of activism centers far more on people’s ideologies than on their practices. Even though the relation between individual views and action is far from straightforward, the literature largely conceives of long-term activism as the result of a process of ideological conversion. While not denying the importance of worldviews, I argue that routines are just as important to explain the emergence of sustained activism. That is, we need to center not only on what people think, but also on what they do while mobilized, and draw on other areas of sociology by engaging in a broader debate concerning the sources of social action. Since the mechanisms that make a practice attractive to individuals are not exclusive to contention, it is necessary to push the limits of the field of social movement studies, and conceive of involvement in protest as a particular instance of people participating in a collective enterprise. Thus, I incorporate ideas from scholars outside my specific field to analyze how the interaction between a person’s background and his or her experiences while mobilized generate a deep sense of gratification, which in turn sustains participation. Moreover, just as we can enhance our grasp of mobilization processes with the inclusion of broader perspectives, we can also aim to generate theoretical knowledge that informs phenomena beyond social movement research.
To address these questions I performed intensive fieldwork over the summers of 2011, 2012 and 2013, as well as for all of 2014. I funded this research with grants from different departments at the University of Texas and a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation (Award ID: 1406244). I also developed contacts with scholars in Argentina, and during 2014 I worked as a visiting researcher at the Gino Germani Institute at the University of Buenos Aires.