My scholarship integrates the study of social movements, constitutional law, public policy, and the environment. I am driven by a personal commitment to building democracy as a means of resolving otherwise intractable social, economic, and ecological problems and achieving durable systemic change. This commitment has inspired projects concerning constitutionalism and democracy movements, movement building and activist praxis, corporate power, and strategic approaches for 21st century democratization.
My work begins by considering democracy as a 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. In centering agency in constitutionalism, this approach helps balance to top-down institutional accounts of law and democracy. In bringing constitutionalism further into the purview of social movement studies, this research bridges the social movement theory traditions of contention, identification, and praxis.
My book, The Constitutional Revolution, under contract with Routledge for publication in 2021, is motivated by the emergence of campaigns to democratize the Constitution of the United States to secure equal rights, protect voting rights, abolish the Electoral College, and end inequitable constitutional protections for corporations and the wealthy 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.
The book is largely based on my doctoral dissertation, The Constitutional Revolution: Strategies of Movement and Powers of Structure in the Global Pursuit of Democracy. This research relies on fuzzy set comparative analysis of an original dataset of the 11 major countries that engaged in formal constitutionalization between 1974 and 2001: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Iran, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain, and Turkey. My analysis identifies the configurations of democracy movement strategies and constitutionalization conditions that produce different positive or negative outcomes for democracy. I find greater democratization when democracy activists articulate and advance a more comprehensive and specific agenda for constitutional reform; when democracy movements operate at a mass scale and are engaged in a process of systemic transformation; when the formal constitutionalization process is more participatory; and when democrats participate in constitutional struggles over a longer period. Individually and in combination, these are necessary conditions for both formal and substantive constitutional democratization. Furthermore, the absence of these conditions accounts for most cases of democratic failure.
Taking lessons from both social movement studies and constitutional studies, I argue that when a democracy movement involves large numbers of people in the construction and articulation of a constitutional agenda, it deploys a constitutional master frame that redefines the political situation, the constitutional process, and the society’s historical trajectory, as well as the movement’s own collective identity. My research contributes to the work of an emerging global community of scholars that challenges top-down institutional accounts of law and democracy by developing a social movement-centered approach to explaining constitutional change and democratization. In treating activist strategies and choices as potentially necessary and/or sufficient conditions among various contingencies, my work directly addresses the relationship between collective agency and social structure, a central concern of Sociology since the early years of the field. This work also has practical relevance in a period when constitutional crises and demands for structural reform are widespread.
My book also relies on a crossnational time series 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 suggesting a democratizing force tends to operate within the structure of formal constitutional change. Furthermore, my book makes use of a series of qualitative studies using data from scores of ongoing 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 political economic analysis leading to a sense of strategic necessity.
I have presented various iterations of all three studies – qualitative comparative, crossnational time series, and ethnographic – as well as related legal historical and theoretical analyses, at meetings of the Law & Society Association, American Sociological Association, International Sociological Association, Critical Realism Network, West Coast Law & Society Association, and elsewhere, and published aspects of this research in Socialism & Democracy, Berkeley Journal of Sociology, and in chapters published in 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.
A second major project investigates activist cognition, knowledge, and strategies. This work began as a case study of the Wisconsin Uprising, in which I show 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.
My analysis of the Wisconsin Uprising led me to rethink 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 have presented as papers at Mobilization’s conference on Social Movements and Nonviolent Resistance, and meetings of the Pacific Sociological Association, International Sociological Association, and the American Sociological Association. Three papers for publication resulting directly from this work include my introduction of a method of “movement building analysis” in “Methodological Approaches to Movement Waves and the Making of History,” a chapter of the The Palgrave Handbook on Social Movements, Revolution, and Social Transformation, edited by Berch Berberoglu (2019), as well an empirical analysis of the Wisconsin Uprising and a new account of contemporary social movement theories in light of the systemic movements of the 21st century.
My work on activist knowledge and movement building also led me into a series of collaborations with scholars concerned with questions of “movement relevance” in social movement studies. Working with Gregory Maney and Charlotte Ryan, I organized a session on these topics at the 2016 American Sociological Association meeting in Seattle, as well as a larger “off-broadway” social movement scholar-activist dialogue at the King County Labor Temple. In 2017 and 2018, I worked with Maria Martinez to organize formal sessions on social movement ontologies at the Beyond Positivism Conference in Montreal and the World Congress of Sociology in Toronto. In 2019 I worked with John Krinsky to organize an invited session on movement relevance and activist knowledge at the American Sociological Association meeting in Manhattan.
Finally, a focus on identifying strategies for building democracy in relation to entrenched corporate power has contributed to other, closely related publications. In our introduction to a recent “Symposium on Corporate Power and Local Democracy,” which I edited for the Journal of World-Systems Research, I and Jackie Smith identify key dynamics and terrains of struggle of local communities and corporations in the 21st century. In a recent issue of Law & Critique, Sarah Manski and I study the implications of blockchain technologies for corporate power and popular sovereignty. And in a special issue of Socialism and Democracy, I and Hillary Lazar introduce “Seattle+20: Movements at the Millennium,” a collection of empirical studies and personal accounts that explore the continuing relevance of the 1999 Seattle WTO uprising and the 1990s-2010s period to today’s movements. Works in progress include an accepted chapter with Simone Pulver on “Corporations and the Environment” in the forthcoming Springer Handbook of Environmental Sociology, a series of papers with John Foran on the construction of a new politics of “climate democracy,” an analysis of the U.S. Greens for the Heinrich Boell Foundation, and a Next System Project white paper on “next constitution” proposals for the United States. I am also a collaborator with Mary Collins, Simone Pulver, and Dustin Hill in several forthcoming studies of superpolluters and disproportionalities in toxic pollution.