Resistance (1): An Economic Perspective

An analytically sound assessment of Niger Delta politics would take not only the oil state and law into account, but the vast body of literature on resistance as well.  Initially, social movements were largely regarded as being unpredictable mobs of emotional rioters, which has clearly proved not to be the case. In 1965, Mancur Olson brought economic rationality to the subject by arguing that individuals are self-maximizers who will mobilize once the potential benefits outweighs the high costs, in other words, when there are enough “selective incentives.” Although his account failed to explain how large groups with a higher mobilization costs than small groups still manage to organize, and failed to solve the “free-rider” problem, his seminal work inspired subsequent social movement theory by posing important questions about the conditions that determine both the degree of groups’ mobilization and how individuals decide to join.


In the following decade, Resource Mobilization Theory was first ushered in by Mayer Zald and John McCarthy who agreed with Olson’s economic view but focused on the rational nature of organizations rather than individuals.  Social movement organizations (SMOs) were described as business firms that utilized political and financial resources in competition with other SMOs (Zald & McCarthy 1979, Introduction). These scholars, joined by Charles Tilly, Jo Freeman, and Gary Marx, stressed the importance of movements seizing political openings provided by the state or elites. They all argued that the best way to understand collective behavior is to study how social movement organizations acquire and use resources, and that most of these resources comes from elite “sponsors,” e.g. churches, labor unions, NGOs, etc. In this model, there is little emphasis on the individual participants and long-term actions are not accounted for. There is also not a clear definition of “resources” and there is an obfuscation of the concept of grievances. There is difference between objective social conditions and their subjective perception, and this difference is not clarified (McAdam 1999, Introduction).

Political Process Theory first emerged in the 1970s to focus on the interaction between mobilizers and the state, while emphasizing the foremost role of political opportunities in explaining and when and how a social movement operates. Doug McAdam and Sidney Tarrow (a student of Charles Tilly) continued to adhere to rationalist interpretations of social movements, but saw movements as part of normal politics. In this model, it was not just the movement against the state, but the movement being influenced by and responding to the state. Three factors were seen as crucial to the generation of social resistance: level of organization within the aggrieved population (“organizational readiness”), collective assessment of the prospects for success (“insurgent consciousness”), and the political alignment of groups within the larger political environment (“opportunity structure”). Contrary to the previous school of thought, advocates of PPT saw that some resources can be detrimental to a movement and they de-emphasized the importance of elites (McAdam 1999, Introduction). This was better than previous paradigms for analyzing long-run political contexts over time as well as demographic or migratory shifts in mobilization. However, Goodwin and Jasper charge that the theory has been stretched too thin to cover too many cases, and has thus lost analytic potency.  Plus, it suffers from selection bias in choice of cases and ignores the fact that social ties may constrain as well as encourage activism (Goodwin & Jasper 1999).

Tarrow's Power in Movement

Tarrow’s Power in Movement

Several publications that include work on “framing” demonstrate that the economic explanations, namely Resource Mobilization Theory and Political Process Theory are still strong but not necessarily dominant. In 1996, McAdam, McCarthy and Zald published a compilation of comparative essays with three sections. The first two, on political opportunities and mobilizing structures, the nuts and bolts of their perspective, are unsurprising topics of study for them. However, the third section on framing demonstrates that rationalists had to contend with the scholarship on the newer cultural and emotive accounts of social movements. Sidney Tarrow’s Power in Movement argued that contention is more closely dependent on the POS than by the persistent social or economic factors that people experience. These opportunities, he wrote, depend on state strength, prevailing strategies, and repressive capacity. However, he too included work on framing. Then in 2001, McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly, traditional structuralists, engaged in a theoretical reorientation of their past work and even pointed out its inadequacies (McAdam, Tarrow, & Tilly 2001). They admitted that political opportunities, master frames, and structures offer a static view of movements that are unable to deal with the transforming and contingent nature of variables. Their newer emphasis in this comparative study was on mechanisms and processes.


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