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Research Statement

Ben Manski

· Constitutionalism,Social Movements,Democracy,Ecology

My work considers democracy as a social movement and popular constitutionalism as an articulation of democracy. Such an approach asks how ordinary people articulate societal goals, build democratic power, engage in struggles over the constitution of society, and make constitutions. In centering agency in the constitution of society, this approach provides balance to certain top-down institutional accounts of law and democracy. And in bringing constitutionalism into the purview of social movement studies, this research is intended to provide a “new” terrain on which theories of contention, identity, and praxis converge.

My first book, The Constitutional Revolution, forthcoming and under contract with Routledge, is motivated by the recent emergence of campaigns to democratize the Constitution of the United States to secure equal rights, protect voting rights, abolish the Electoral College, and end constitutional protections for corporations and the rich via the Equal Rights Amendment, Voting Rights Amendment, Popular Vote Amendment, and We the People Amendment, respectively. This book brings together multiple stages of completed, in-process, and planned research operating at multiple levels and using a variety of methods.

Completed research for The Constitutional Revolution includes a crossnational longitudinal statistical analysis of constitutional change and democratization in which constitutional amendments are shown to be associated with significant improvements in democratic vitality. This global analysis, involving 244 countries over 66 years, provides a top-level view indicating that there may be a democratizing force that tends to operate within the structure of formal constitutional change. Completed research also involves a series of qualitative studies using data from 28 interviews with democracy movement activists in the U.S., as well as archival research. These studies, intended to explore the motivations, understandings, and strategies employed by democracy activists, find that their decision to engage in the long-term and relatively difficult kinds of mobilization characteristic of constitutionalist campaigns is rooted in a sense of what I call “strategic necessity,” or as per Tolstoy, “What Then Must We Do?”

I have presented various iterations of both sets of studies, as well as related legal historical and theoretical work, at meetings of the Law & Society Association, American Sociological Association, Critical Realism Network, West Coast Law & Society Association, and elsewhere, and published aspects of this research in the peer-reviewed political science journal Socialism & Democracy, in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology, and in chapters published in two recent books: Charles Derber’s, Welcome to the Revolution: Universalizing Resistance for Social Justice and Democracy in Perilous Times, and Keri Iyall Smith, Louis Esparza, and Judith Blau’s Human Rights of, for, and by the People: How to Critique and Change the U.S. Constitution.

In-process research for The Constitutional Revolution is primarily taking place through my doctoral dissertation. Here I seek to identify the various configurations of processes, conditions, and movement strategies of engaging in constitutional change that have proven necessary or sufficient to bring about substantive democratization. I conduct a qualitative comparative analysis (fsQCA) of constitutional processes that produced new constitutions in 84 countries between 1986 and 2000 in order to get at a research object that is usually missing from studies of constitutional change: the strategies and actions of democracy activists attempting to constitutionalize democratic reforms. In treating activist strategies and choices as potentially necessary and/or sufficient conditions among various contingencies, my dissertation research is intended to inform a sense of the possibilities for popular constitutionalism in the United States.

Planned future research for The Constitutional Revolution includes a comparative analysis of three cases of new constitutions adopted in the late 20th century - those of Canada (1982), Russia (1993), and South Africa (1993, 1996), selected for the lessons they may offer regarding the relative success and failure of democracy movements engaged in radically different processes of constitutionalization. This analysis will be undertaken in dialogue with a two-step comparative analysis of constitutional reform movements in U.S. history. As with my global study, my comparative historical U.S. study will begin with a qualitative comparative approach to identifying configurations of conditions necessary and/or sufficient for movement success. This will be followed with a more in-depth comparison of cases, specifically, the popular constitutionalism of the American Revolution period (1766-1792), Abolition (1820-1872), Women's Liberation (First Wave, 1842-1920), and Progressive Populism (1886-1938).

Besides The Constitutional Revolution project, I am engaged in a series of related projects intended to address strategic problems facing democracy advocates and to, in the process, open new possibilities for democratization. A study of the Wisconsin Uprising shows that the mass mobilization that launched the 2011 protest wave in the U.S. was anything but spontaneous. Instead, primary elements of what became the Wisconsin Uprising were built out of a series of earlier mobilizations operating on particular terrains of struggle. This study began as my MA thesis, has been accepted for journal publication pending revisions, and is soon to be resubmitted. This continued work on the Wisconsin Uprising has taken me into a much deeper engagement with social movement theory, conceptualizing movement waves, the movement building process, goals and grievances, and movement forms, and situating contention and identity theories alongside an emergent theoretical tradition of movement praxis. These concepts I’ve presented as papers at Mobilization’s recent conference on Social Movements and Nonviolent Resistance, the Beyond Positivism Conference, and ASA 2017. This work trajectory has led to organizing a session on social movement ontologies with Maria Martinez at the upcoming World Congress of Sociology.

Along the way I have also become engaged in efforts to formalize and strengthen the existing network of scholars engaged in movement relevant research. Working with Gregory Maney and Charlotte Ryan, I organized a session on this topic at the 2016 ASA meeting in Seattle, as well as a larger “off-broadway” social movement scholar-activist dialogue at the King County Labor Temple. Down the road, I propose to launch a large panel study of activists intended to address “what activists know” by asking participants to make predictions and evaluating their answers against later events.

Other current projects are centered in environmental sociology. In two studies Dustin Hill and I are working with Simone Pulver and Mary Collins as part of their multi-year NSF grant investigating egregious polluters and disproportionality in toxic release. Out of this project I co-authored a paper presented at the 2017 ASA meeting, and several articles are pending. In the future, and separately, I plan research on the rights of corporations and the rights of nature as well as on a theorization of climate democracy – both of these subjects I took up in law school and which I have since developed into articles published in the popular press.

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