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Qual Sociol (2008) 31:307331

DOI 10.1007/s11133-008-9100-6

Methods for Measuring Mechanisms of Contention

Doug McAdam & Sidney Tarrow & Charles Tilly

Published online: 1 May 2008

# Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2008

Abstract A substantial intellectual movement has been growing in the social sciences
around the adoption of mechanism- and process-based explanations as complements to
variable-based explanations, or even as substitutes for them. But once we have recognized
the validity and dignity of studying mechanisms and processes, what is the next step?
Recently, both political scientists and sociologists discussions have begun to turn away
from correlation to mechanism-based approaches to causation. But there is still a
widespread assumption that mechanisms are unobservable. We maintain that ways can be
developed to observe the presence or absence of mechanisms either directly or indirectly.
In this paper, by way of example, we put forward four methodstwo direct and two
indirectfor measuring mechanisms of contention.
Keywords Comparative analysis . Contentious politics . Ethnography . Mechanisms .
Quantitative methods

A substantial intellectual movement has been growing in the social sciences around the
adoption of mechanism- and process-based explanations as complements to variable-based
explanations, or even as substitutes for them. In sociology, Arthur Stinchcombe recently

D. McAdam (*)
Department of Sociology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA
e-mail: mcadam@stanford.edu
S. Tarrow
Department of Government, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA
e-mail: sgt2@cornell.edu
C. Tilly
Social Science, Columbia University, 413 Fayerweather Hall, MC 2552, New York 10027-7001, USA
e-mail: ct135@columbia.edu


Qual Sociol (2008) 31:307331

emphasized studying causal mechanisms as part of a larger repertoire of methods of

sociological research (2005). The study of mechanisms has also become more common
in political science under the rubric of process-tracing. The late Alexander George
insisted that an alternative to the correlational method that has come to dominate that
discipline can be found in the practice of structured, focused comparison (George 1979).
By insisting that studying processes has causal validity, George and his collaborators
(George and Bennett 2005) have helped to re-elevate narrative to the same ontological
dignity as correlation. We no longer need to feel that our work will be judged by the same
standard as correlational studies, as earlier scholars argued that it should (King et al.
But once we have recognized the validity and dignity of studying mechanisms and
processes, what is the next step? We agree with George and Bennett that tracing what
follows what in an episode with care will provide a causal story of the entire process
(p. 207). But we also believe that all episodes of politics result from mechanisms: delimited
changes that alter relations among specified sets of elements in identical or closely similar
ways over a variety of situations. We think it is important to identify and measure the causal
mechanisms in a process rather than assume we can best understand processes as x follows
y stories (George and Bennett 2005, p. 207).
More recently, political scientists discussions have begun to turn more to mechanismbased approaches to causation (Bennett 2003; Gross 2006; Kurzman 2004; Mahoney 2001,
2002, in press; Mayntz 2004; Zuckerman et al. 2007). But there is still a widespread
assumption in the literature that mechanisms are unobservable (Mahoney 2001, p. 581).
While we agree that mechanisms are difficult to observe, we nevertheless maintain that
ways can be developed to observe the presence or absence of mechanisms either directly or
indirectly. We hope to advance that discussion in this paper.

Definitions and debates

The study of mechanisms has triggered a debate in both sociology and political
science. For no sooner did scholars begin to recognize the importance of mechanisms
in causal stories than their heterogeneous nature began to be pinpointed. As is always
the case when new movements arise, competing definitions and practical proposals for
the study of mechanisms have proliferated (Brady and Collier 2004; Bunge 1997,
1998; Campbell 2005; Cherkaoui 2005; Elster 1999; George and Bennett 2005; Goodin
and Tilly 2006; Hedstrm 2005; Hedstrm and Swedberg 1998; Little 1991, 1998;
McAdam 2003; Mahoney 2001; Norkus 2005; Pickel 2006; Stern et. al 2002;
Stinchcombe 2005; Tilly 2000, 2001, 2004a). Mahoney provides a glossary of no
less than 24 different definitions of mechanisms from the emerging literature (2001,
p. 580).
The proliferation of research using mechanisms has led to criticisms of conceptual
vagueness, proliferation of mechanisms, and lack of methodological rigor in the production
of mechanism-based analyses. There has also been criticism of mechanism talk, that is,
resort to mechanisms whenever there is the need to explain unexplained variance (Norkus
2005). No conceptual, theoretical, or methodological consensus has so far emerged.
Particularly in our field of contentious politics, where structuralists and culturalists have
been contesting over turf for decades (Goodwin and Jasper 2004), mechanism-based
approaches which attempt to connect structure and agency have met with less than
universal approval (Mobilization 2003).

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We can identify three main problems in inserting mechanisms deliberately in the study
of causal processes:1
A first problem is the difficulty of measuring mechanisms directly. We agree with
Mahoney that mechanisms cannot easily be entered into a correlational analysis as an
empirical state to be measured across cases for its covariation with some outcome
(Mahoney 2001, p. 581). But correlation is not the only route to effective measurement. It is
important not only to recognize that mechanisms connect variables to one another and put
static models into motion but also to find ways of measuring their presence or absence.
A second problem is the relationship between mechanisms and variables. In his recent
Logic of Social Research, Arthur Stinchcombe has lucidly summarized the logic of
variable-based explanations: it is to show that distances among different observations in one
dimension (conceived of as a dependent variable) correspond to distances among different
observations in at least one other dimension (conceived of as an independent variable).
Distance may consist of location within distinct categories falling at various positions along
the dimension, but available statistical techniques make it more desirable to measure
continuous distances along the dimension (Stinchcombe 2005, pp. 1112, 8991). Analysts
ordinarily tell causal stories about relationships between dependent and independent
variables, but in the variable mode the act of explanation itself consists of demonstrating
Mechanistic explanations, however, go well beyond correspondence. They specify what
sort of event produces the correspondence between the presumed cause and the presumed
effect. Stinchcombe himself distinguishes five classes of mechanisms: structural holes,
individual actions, rational choices, situations, and patterns. We prefer to distinguish
environmental, cognitive, and relational mechanisms (Stinchcombe 2005, pp. 170176;
McAdam et al. 2001, pp. 256). In either classification and in others we might devise,
mechanisms consist of transforming events. To be sure, we can derive variables from
mechanisms by measuring the frequency with which certain mechanisms occur; the
frequencies, not the mechanisms, then become variables. But mechanisms themselves are
the events that link effects to causes.
A third problem is specifying the relationship between mechanisms and contexts. Falleti
and Lynch have argued that credible, causal social scientific explanation can occur if and
only if researchers are attentive to the interaction between causal mechanisms and the
context in which they operateno matter whether the methods they employ are small-N,
formal, statistical, or interpretive in nature [emphasis in original] (Falleti and Lynch 2007,
p. 1). As an example, they focus on temporality, pointing out, as others have done
(McAdam and Sewell 2001), that how we specify time is essential for what we can observe
and what we can infer about an episode of change. Similarly, Bthe (2002) argues for more
careful attention to the placement of starting and ending points in research using historical
narratives, a injunction that applies to time-series event histories as well.
This paper will not link mechanisms to variables or examine the relationship between
mechanisms and contexts, nor will it restore unity to the field. Instead, we will concentrate
on repairing a defect of the existing literature: a severe shortage of concrete demonstrations
concerning how to identify coherent mechanisms, with special emphasis on converting
observations into measurements in the general area that we have called contentious

In this context, we leave aside a fourth problem: the relationship between mechanisms and the larger
processes of which they are a part. For our views of this issue, see McAdam et al. (2001), ch. 1 and Tilly and
Tarrow (2007).


Qual Sociol (2008) 31:307331

Measuring mechanisms of contention

Scholars of contention have, of course, long been interested in the dynamics of change
particularly in the emergence, escalation and demobilization of social movements. But they
have generally sought to get at them by measuring the relationships among static structural
variables rather than specifying the mechanisms that link independent and dependent
variables. For example, social movement scholars have long known that communities
characterized by dense network ties are more likely to experience collective action than
those with sparser ties. And they have demonstrated that recruits into activism tend to have
more ties to those already in the movement than non-activists. But these relationships tell us
nothing about the mechanisms on which recruitment turns. For example, guerilla
movements in mountain communities may be able to recruit members because of village
solidarity and trust; or because of the exercise of informal social control or social
appropriation through village institutions; or through coercion. Since the outcomes for
insurgency may vary according to which of these mechanisms connects the network ties of
the village to collective action, measuring the correlation between these variables is not
sufficient. We need to specify and empirically investigate the mechanisms that connect
them to one another.
We are far from the first scholars of contentious politics to recognize mechanisms and
sets of mechanisms like mobilization and demobilization, escalation and defection, identity
shift and boundary delimitation as important for the dynamics of contention. For example,
an entire class of mechanisms has been specified in the research that has grown up around
the concept of framing, originating in the theoretical work of David Snow and his
collaborators (Snow and Benford 1988). In her sensitive analysis of educational
controversies, Amy Binder has also made excellent use of a mechanism-based approach
(2002). And in her rigorous work on the anti-apartheid movement, Sarah Soule has
effectively traced the mechanism of diffusion (1997).
Citing such different styles of work as that of Snow and Benford, Binder, and Soule
side-by-side leads to our major methodological premise: that a range of methodological
strategies are compatible with a mechanism-based approach to the study of contention.2 In
our joint and individual work, we have tried to put this premise to work (McAdam et al.
2001, 2007; McAdam and Su 2002; Tarrow and McAdam 2005; Tilly 2007a, b; Tilly and
Tarrow 2007). But while we offered sketches of what such an approach might look like, we
never made this topic the central focus of our collaborative work.
This is a tall order. Before that, however, we must demonstrate in principle that
mechanisms can be measured. At a minimum, that means developing crisp criteria for the
presence or absence of specific mechanisms. Beyond that minimum, it calls for procedures
to detect the location, frequency, intensity, and impact of those mechanisms. In this paper,
we will illustrate four approaches to measurement from both our own work and that of
others who have used mechanism-based analyses. Focusing on mechanisms of contention,
we begin with two forms of direct measurement:
1. Mechanisms of contention can be measured directly by using systematic events data to
identify and track the mechanisms that produce episodes of contention; for this purpose

In independent agreement with this premise, the American Political Science Associations Organized
Section on Qualitative Methods, recently changed its name to Organized Section on Qualitative and Multimethod Approaches.

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we examine the general process of scale shift, illustrating it through the specific form
of parliamentarization during a long period of contentious politics in Britain (Tilly
2. Mechanisms can be measured in another direct way: through the use of fieldethnographic methods to study a complex social movement field. Focusing on the
process of coalition formation, we will illustrate this approach through Ann Mische's
(1998, 2008) fieldwork among a wide array of Brazilian student groups;
We then turn to two forms of indirect measurement:
3. Much of social science is based on indirect statistical measures. Such measures are
usually associated with correlational methods, but we will argue that they can also be
used to indicate the presence or absence of particular mechanisms, focusing on the
mechanism of elite defection in the research of Elisabeth Wood on El Salvador and
South Africa (2000, 2003);
4. Field-Ethnographic methods can also be used indirectly to indicate the presence or
absence of mechanisms. Moving outside the field of contentious politics, we will
examine the role of the mechanism we call brokerage from a comparative study of
local elites in Italy and France (Tarrow 1977).
Finally, to illustrate our preference for methodological pluralism, we close with a
proposal for a mixed method approach to the contentious politics of siting decisions for
large U.S. based infrastructure projects.

Direct measurement through systematic event analysis: Scale shift

Scholars of social movements, revolutions, and civil wars have most often focused on the
national level, but most episodes of contention begin locally. If there were no shift in scale
from the local to the supra-local level, then contentious episodes would remain local. The
process of scale shift consists of a significant change in the number of participating units
and/or range of identities in coordinated action across some field of contention. Downward
scale shift reduces the number of participating units and/or the range of identities, for
example as a composite social movement breaks up into its more homogeneous segments.
Upward scale shift, in contrast, increases the number of participating units and/or the range
of identities, as when anti-globalization activists who previously pursued their issues at a
local scale join in the coordination of worldwide claim making such as mass
demonstrations on multiple continents.
Upward scale shift promotes the replacement of locally particular signaling systems with
modular forms of contentious claim making, easily transferable from one place, group,
issue, or circumstance to another (Tarrow 1998, pp. 3741). Precisely because the
expansion of transnational contention in recent decades has fascinated students of
contentious politics, we know much more about upward than downward scale shift
(Tarrow and McAdam 2005). Let us illustrate the impact of upward scale shift through
examination of a momentous political process that has transformed contentious politics in
every democratic and semi-democratic regime. We can call the process parliamentarization.
The name is obscure, the process well known. As representative assemblies become more
powerful within a regime, popular politics reorients toward those assemblies. Although
local assemblies provide a partial exception, in general the reorientation entails upward
scale shift.


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Parliamentarization in Britain
When a national parliament acquires power, popular political actors begin organizing on a
national scale. That organization has further effects, bringing both rival and compatible
claimants together in the same claim making arena and moving claimants toward forms of
organization and collective action that will actually influence the parliament. Representative
assemblies exercise a peculiar potency in popular contentious politics because (unlike
armies or supreme courts) their members necessarily bridge the gap from local to national
political situations. The French Revolution set the model, with French popular politics
undergoing a massive upward scale shift in the short interval of 1787 to 1792 (Markoff
1996; Woloch 1994). But since then regime after regime has experienced its own version of
that shift (Tilly 2007a).
The mechanisms of bargaining and boundary deactivation figure visibly in parliamentarization's upward scale shift. Short-term bargains between local actors and either
individual representatives or the assembly as a whole incrementally create new ties, shared
understandings, and emergent practices linking local with national affairs. The same
process deactivates the previously sharp boundary between local communities and national
political networks; they begin to interpenetrate. As a by-product of both mechanisms,
modular political performances such as the demonstration, the poll, the public meeting, and
the formation of special-interest associations start to prevail in public politics.
Everyone who writes about democratization over the long run inevitably takes account
of parliamentarization, usually without employing the term (see e.g. Bermeo and Nord
2000; Caramani 2004; Clemens 1997; Engelstad and sterud 2004; Garrard 2002;
Rueschemeyer et al. 1992). The most detailed documentation of its actual operation and
its impact on popular politics, however, comes from Great Britain between the 1750s and
the 1830s (Tilly 1995, 1997; Tilly and Wood 2003). There, crucial evidence comes from a
large catalog of contentious gatherings: occasions on which ten or more people assembled
in a publicly accessible place and made collective claims on at least one person outside of
their own number, claims that if realized would alter the interests of the participants. The
data we examine here concern contentious gatherings (CGs) in the London region (counties
Kent, Middlesex, Surrey, and Sussex) for 13 scattered years from 1758 to 1820 and all
7 years from 1828 through 1834.
The machine-readable description of a CG identifies each distinguishable action taken
by any of the participants and places it in chronological order within the episode. Among
other features, the action description includes a verb (usually taken directly from the source
of the account) characterizing the action, the name of the action's performer(s), and (in the
roughly half of all verbs that have objects) the name of the action's target. The
transcriptions involve 1,584 different verbs. Tilly regrouped those varied verbs into 46
major categories and for some purposes into 8 very large categories: attack, bargain,
control, end, meet, move, support, and other. He also regrouped individual names of actors
from the sources of events into 62 categories, designed both to identify the most frequent
actors (e.g. groups of local inhabitants, weavers, or police) and to group together less
frequent actors by their occupation of similar positions within British public politics (e.g.
electoral supporters, workers, or local officials).
With varying directness, the verbs serve as indicators for mechanisms of contention. In a
given paired relationship, for example, an increase in the frequency of attack verbs indicates
that polarization is occurring, while an increase in the frequency of support verbs indicates
that coordinated action is gaining ground. Increase in combinations of bargaining and
support verbs generally indicate that boundary deactivation is underway. Combined with

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characteristics of claimants and objects of claims, their distributions greatly clarify which
contentious mechanisms are doing what work. In a moment we will show that analysis of
the bargaining verb cluster reveals deep changes in British dynamics of contention between
1758 and 1834.
The data lend themselves to a wide variety of combinations and analyses. For the
purpose of analyzing scale shift in parliamentarization, two applications of the data deserve
particular attention: (1) evidence on who made what sorts of claims on whom, and how that
changed over the long run of 17581834; 2) evidence on which kinds of actions clustered
together in the same CGs, and which rarely co-occurred. This is not the place for a
comprehensive treatment of these two problems. Let us settle for an overall characterization
of the long-term trend and a look at how bargaining worked. Figures 1, 2 and 3 report some
relatively simple analyses of the data, based on the 14,380 verbs with objects in the London
region's 4,271 CGs from 1758 to 1834.
Figure 1 shows how frequently either Parliament (that is, Parliament, the House of
Commons, and the House of Lords) or a member of Parliament figured as object of at least
one claim within CGs over single years from 1758 to 1834. A sensational rise in the
centrality of Parliament to British claim making occurred: from under 10% of all CGs
during the 1750s and 1760s to well over 40% during the 1830s. (In 1801, the major
deviation from the overall trend, a combination of subsistence crisis with intensified
governmental repression damped both public meetings and appeals to Parliament.) In this
regard, at least, parliamentarization was clearly taking place.
Two qualitative changes in claims on Parliament deserve special attention with regard to
scale shift. First, local people moved away from asking dignitaries such as landowners and
magistrates to intervene with Parliament on their behalf toward making direct claims on
both their MPs and Parliament as a whole. In that regard, momentous boundary
deactivation reduced the salience of the distinction between humble locals and powerwielding nationals.







1758 1759 1768 1769 1780 1781 1789 1795 1801 1807 1811 1819 1820 1828 1829 1830 1831 1832 1833 1834


Parliament, House-Commons, and House-Lords

Fig. 1 Parliament as object of claims, London region, 17581834 (% of all CGs)


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Indoor (low) -Outdoor (high)

























Agreement (high) - Disagreement (low)

Fig. 2 Location of verbs in two-factor space for London region CGs, 17581834

Second, the decorous public meeting in which participants passed resolutions and
adopted petitions became by far the standard means of addressing claims to Parliament.
Year to year fluctuations in the frequency of public meetings as the settings for CGs
correlate closely with the curve of parliamentary claim making shown in Fig. 2. Moreover,
meetings took up a wide range of issues, groups, and claims. By the 1830s, a modular claim
making performancethe single-issue formal public meeting announced in advancehad
emerged in Great Britain. During the 1830s, it dominated the making of contentious claims.
It signified that the mode and effect of bargaining between locals and public authorities had
altered substantially. How did the configuration of contentious verbs change? First, we need
a sense of the verbs overall distribution for all 20 years.
Figure 2 displays results of a factor analysis conducted on the London region data by
Takeshi Wada (Wada 2007). It takes the study's standard 46-category classification of verbs,
selects the 31 most prominent, and maps their relationships to each other. Proximity and
distance depend on the frequency with which a given verb co-appears in the same sorts of
events as another given verb. For example, the tight cluster of verbs at the diagram's bottom
all kept company in public meetings, but rarely appeared along with the attack, attempt,
block, control, fight, and resist that often co-occurred in struggles between poachers and
gamekeepers. The space maps coherently into two dimensions, indooroutdoor, and
In the figure, verbs that appear frequently in indoor settingsespecially public meetings
cluster toward the bottom, while the top contains many more verbs recurring in out-of-doors
episodes. On the left we find verbs associated with disagreement including violent

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Fig. 3 Frequent subjectobject pairs for bargaining in London region, 17581811 and 18321834 (Frequent=
1% + of all subjectobject pairs)

disagreement, on the right verbs associated with agreement. That leaves a central area full of
verbs describing the collective taking of positions whether indoors or outdoors and whether
leading to agreement or disagreement. The graph provides a dramatic description of the space
within which Britains performances and repertoires operated.
Notice the clustering of verbs within the space. On the left center, closely packed, we see
control, resist, attack, block, attempt, and fight. The packing results from the verbs
appearing together in various forms of physical struggle. On the right we observe a
somewhat looser cluster of address, receive, cheer, and support; they belong especially to
occasions on which a delegation or a crowd addressed supplications or expressions of
support to some dignitary. At the diagram's bottom we notice the large cluster of petition,
hear petition, resolve, meet, adjourn, thank, chair, and vote, all of which belong particularly
to public meetings. Vote stands at a certain distance from the other public meeting verbs. It
does so because although voting did happen within meetings, it also occurred in contested
elections where the polling took place out of doors, often in the company of processions
and of extensive interplay among candidates, electors, supporters, and spectators. Indirectly,
the factor space provides a map of variation in the sorts of mechanisms that came into play
on different kinds of political occasions.
The space also offers another way of thinking about Britains experience with
parliamentarization. At the start of the period under study, a high proportion of all CGs
took place in the upper left quadrant of disagreement and outdoor activitythe area
containing attack, fight, move, gather, negotiate, and disperse. By the 1830s, a massive
shift of CGs had occurred toward the diagrams lower right-hand quadrant, the indoor/
agreement territory of meet, resolve, vote, address, and cheer. This did not mean that
Britons lost their combative spirit, but that they channeled it into lower-violence forms of


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contention that were more likely to produce compromise between ordinary people and
authorities. Through bargaining and boundary deactivation, a modicum of democratization accompanied Great Britain's scale shift. In order to provide sufficient detail on
measurement, we concentrate here on bargaining, and only mention boundary deactivation
in passing.
Figure 3 shows the bargaining cluster of verbs at work. Bargaining includes verb
categories at the center of Fig. 1: communicate, decry, deliberate, negotiate, oppose, and
request. As their position in the diagram indicates, they occurred both indoors and out of
doors as they mediated between agreement and disagreement. Figure 3 lumps together all
11 years from 1758 through 1811 and compares them with the three years from 1832 to
1834 in order to have roughly equal numbers of CGs for comparison. The period 1758
1811 took Great Britain from the Seven Years War to the Napoleonic Wars. As the claims
on Parliament in Fig. 1 indicate, it also took the regime through a first phase of
parliamentarization. The second period falls mostly after passage of the Reform Act (June
1832), and shows the effects of the unprecedented Parliament-centered mobilizations of
1830 to 1832.
The diagram records the more frequent subject-object pairs in bargaining claims over the
two periods. (Most frequent means they accounted for 1 percent or more of all such
claims during the period.) The two panels describe very different systems of claim making.
During the earlier period, actors the sources identified as local inhabitants or merely crowds
did make claims on royalty and MPs, mostly by making demands when one or the other
appeared in public, for example in a procession to Parliament. But in the years from 1758 to
1811, two separate bargaining networks operated. One centered on local public business,
with inhabitants regularly making claims on churchwardens, local officials, aldermen, and
the common council while the mayor, the sheriff, and freeholders also figured in public life.
The second network involved more street politics, as actors the sources called weavers,
someone, or a mob frequently bargained with troops, while mobs also made claims on
judges and on persons, persons made claims on named individuals, and named
individuals made claims on each other. Overall, the first panel describes a very parochial
version of bargaining.
By 18321834, scale shift and its constituent mechanisms had visibly done their work.
True, crowds, mobs, named individuals, and judges were still bargaining among
themselves, with members of trades and the poor joining them. The cluster of inhabitants,
local officials, churchwardens, aldermen, and freeholders still existed as well. But a very
large share of all bargaining contention now aimed at the national scale, with MPs,
Parliament, and government ministers emerging as objects of claims. (Note that royalty lost
its earlier prominence as Parliament gained centrality and power.) As a practical matter, by
then Britons who had a claim to make on national centers of power routinely called public
meetings, debated the issues, and broadcast their claims in the form of resolutions, petitions,
deputations, and public statements.
These simple analyses truncate the fascinating process by which the scale shift of
parliamentarization transformed the quality of British public politics between the 1750s and
the 1830s. But even these simplified analyses suffice to make the two points that are crucial
for the present paper. First, it is perfectly feasible, if demanding, to devise direct measures
of contentious mechanisms and their effects. Second, a mechanism/process approach to
explanation takes us well beyond the correlations between the initial conditions of
collective action and its outcomes. It takes us into the dynamics of contention. For a
complementary approach to the dynamics of contention, we turn to the process of coalition
formation and to its specification through ethnographic analysis.

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Direct measurement by field-ethnographic means: Coalition formation

Twenty years ago McAdam et al. (1988, p. 729) ended their review of the study of social
movements with the question:
How do macro and micro propensities get translated into specific mobilization
attempts? What are the actual dynamics by which movement activists reach decisions
regarding goals and tactics?.. To answer these questions, what is needed is more
systematic, qualitative fieldwork into the dynamics of collective action at the meso
level. We remain convinced that it is the level at which most movement action occurs
and of which we know the least (emphasis in the original).
Not much has changed in 20 years. True, sociologists like Javier Auyero (2003) and Paul
Lichterman (1996) have carried out ethnographic analyses, respectively, of the contentious
lives of women in Argentina and community activists in California. Ethnographers like
Beth Roy (1994), Roseanne Rutten (1996), and Vincent Boudreau (2004) have gone to
ground to investigate the dynamics of riots in South and Southeast Asia. Political scientists
like Anna Peterson (1997) and Elisabeth Wood (2003), whose work we cite below, have
used similar methods in Central America. But compared to other techniques, scholars have
made relatively little use of ethnographic methods to systematically interrogate the
dynamics of contention, despite the fact that the strength of the method is its attentiveness
to process. In this sense, ethnographic fieldwork is the method perhaps best suited to the
demands of a mechanism-based approach to the study of contention.
In this section, we explore the ethnographic possibilities for studying the process of coalition
formation, common to contentious, no less than to conventional politics. As before, we do so
by means of a single study. The research in question is Ann Mische's study of student groups
in the Brazilian impeachment movement of the early 1990s (1998, 2003, 2008). The research
involved Mische's 2 years of ethnographic fieldwork as a participant observer in these groups.
Coalition formation in Brazil
While most ethnographic research aims to produce a rich, descriptive account of social
processes, Mische uses ethnography to single out the mechanisms that drive coalition
formation among the student groups she studied. To quote her (2003, p. 278):
Another important challenge is the question of measurement. While the research
proposed here stresses contingency and context, it still makes a claim to move beyond
thick description to find pattern in complexity in the search for... generalizable
mechanisms. To that end, ethnographic or textual analysis must often be complemented by data reduction techniques of various kinds.
Arguing that coalition formation depends as much on network connections between
groups as it does on the content of the interactions out of which coalitions are forged,
Mische devised techniques to measure both. She used a specific form of network analysis
Galois latticesto examine conjunctures of activists, organizations, and/or their projects
as these come together at public events (p. 268; emphasis in original). Public events, for
Mische, represent the key settings within which coalitions are forged through interactive
conversation. Mapping the shifting patterns of participation in these events allows Mische
to understanding the shifting structural/network basis for coalition formation in the fluid
field of movement groups she is studying.


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Co-presence at these events may be necessary for coalition formation, but it is hardly
sufficient. Mapping co-presence can only tell us who is at risk for involvement in a
coalition, but it reveals nothing about the interactive dynamics by which those coalitions are
forged. For that, Mische turned to a more micro-level analysis of conversational
mechanisms as they play out within and across particular movement contexts (p. 268).
Mische's efforts to understand the social/ideational dynamics of coalition formation
involved the traditional descriptive/interpretive techniques of ethnography rather than
quantitative analyses of conversational data.
Space constraints preclude anything like a complete accounting of the form of
conversational analysis Mische used in her study. We can, however, illustrate the general
approach she took by briefly describing four conversational mechanisms she came to see as
central to successful coalition formation. To understand the significance of these
mechanisms, it is worth quoting Mische at length on the challenging context in which
Brazilian student groups were attempting to forge these coalitions. As she explains:
In my research, I encountered a context in which diverse organizational and
interpersonal networks were superimposed in a highly complex and interwoven set
of social movement communities. Most of the Brazilian activists I studied
belonged to more than one organization at once: nearly all of the student activists
also belonged to political parties and/or factions; many had previous or continuing
experience in church, community, or professional organizations; many of them
had also accumulated multiple positions in internal coordinating bodies nested
within these distinct movement sectors. Young people often knew each other from
several of these forums; they may have had different relative positions in each
(2003, p. 268).
The key function of the conversational mechanisms that Mische identified and sought to
measure was their ability to either highlight specific aspects of group identity (while
intentionally downplaying others) or to obscure differences between groups by framing
issues in the most general of ways.
In the first instance, groups are encouraged to join a coalition by appeals to a specific
shared identity (and, by implication, conscious efforts to downplay differences). Mische
calls these conversational techniques compartmentalizing mechanisms. She goes on to
identify two such mechanisms: identity qualifying and temporal cueing. Identity qualifying
involves a conscious effort to forge connections to other groups based on appeals to a
specific, narrow identity (e.g. student, Catholic, etc.). In temporal cueing, what is being
highlighted is not a specific identity so much as a narrow time frame within which coalition
is being encouraged. By narrowly defining the time frame, movement actors hope to
encourage coalition by reassuring potential partners that they are not locking themselves
into a constraining long-term arrangement.
Mische uses the term conflation mechanisms to describe the second set of
conversational techniques she studied. By conflation mechanisms she means efforts to
fuse diverse dimensions of projects and identities in order to heighten the multivocality of
discourse... (2003, p. 269). Perhaps the simpler way to say this is to stress the frequent
need in coalition formation to find common ground or a lowest common denominator
on which potential partners can agree. Again Mische differentiates between two specific
conflation mechanisms.
Generality Shifting: In this technique, speakers seek to frame inclusive appeals to
coalition by using the most generalor perhaps even ambiguousof identity markers

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(e.g. youth, progressives, etc.). The intent is to establish the broadest possible base for
joint action by playing up the salience of very commonif sometimes thinidentities.
Multiple Targeting: In multiple targeting speakers consciously address multiple
audiences at the same time. To create or sustain a coalition multiple targeting involves
choosing language that highlights agreed upon ideational elements, while downplaying
differences. You would tend to hear this technique used at large public events at which
all coalition partners were present.
Attuned to these (and other) conversational mechanisms, Mische sought through
systematic observation, field notes, and informal interviews with movement participants, to
establish their causal importance in the creation and sustenance of coalitions among
movement groups. Regarding her research as exploratory, Mische eschewed quantitative
conversational analysis in favor of these more qualitative techniques. But as we consider
different ways of measuring mechanisms, Mische's further thoughts on what other data
reduction techniques might be possible in such settings are worth noting. She writes that:
Many of these mechanisms also appear in written texts... which would make the
analysis of discursive relation formation possible for historical researchers as well....
These data could then be crossed with network data on different kinds of ties or
affiliations, or on the relational composition of social settings, in order to locate the
network conditions under which these mechanisms come into play (p. 273).
Would the various combinations of network and discursive analyses envisioned by Mische
be easy to design and carry out? Probably not. But do they present insuperable difficulties?
We think not. Regardless of what specific technique one deploys, we remain convinced that,
as a general class of methods, ethnography is particularly powerful when it is used in a
comparative framework, which takes us to our third, and final way of measuring mechanisms.

Indirect measurement through statistical indicators: Elite defection

As we have argued elsewhere (McAdam, Tarrow et al. 2001), we think a powerful way of
understanding causation is to compare similar or different combinations of mechanisms in
major processeslike democratization, nationalist episodes, revolutionary mobilization
and to look within them to see if they are present. For example, in our work in Dynamics of
Contention, we found many similarities between the Nicaraguan revolution and the (near)
revolution in China. When it came to understanding why insurgency succeeded in
Nicaragua but failed in China, we noted a mechanism present in the first case that seemed
to us almost entirely missing in the second: elite defection (McAdam et al. 2001, pp. 199
201, 221222).
We made no claim in Dynamics to have actually measured elite defection in either
country, but the comparison led us to dig more deeply into a cognate literaturethe new
research on civil wars that has emerged since the pathbreaking studies of Paul Collier and
his associates at the World Bank (Collier and Hoeffler 2001) and others (Fearon and Laitin
2003; Kalyvas 2006; Sambanis 2003; Weinstein 2006; for a review see Tarrow 2007).
There we found a crucial comparative study on insurgencies in El Salvador and South
Africa that specified two different routes to elite defection, and, through this mechanism, to
negotiated transitions to democracy. This was Elisabeth Woods Forging Democracy From
Below (2000) and Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador (2003).


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Elite defection in two democratizing states

South Africa and El Salvador, albeit both repressive states, were profoundly different
countries in the 1980s: in the bases of their economies (industrial/extractive vs agricultural
export); in the major cleavages in their societies (economic class conflict vs a racially based
class structure); and in the nature of their political systems (a patrimonial autocracy vs a
racially-based democracy (Forging Democracy, chs. 2 and 5). Both, however, were plunged
into civil war or near-civil war insurgencies during this decade, from which both emerged
through negotiated settlements into democratic transitions (chs. 4 and 7).
Although both countries experienced the same general path from sustained insurgency
by lower class actors to negotiated settlements, these outcomes did not result from
identically-constituted processes. On the contrary, a profoundly different pathway drove the
process in each country. In El Salvador, Wood writes,
Prolonged rebellion together with counterinsurgency measures taken to undercut
mobilization reshaped the political economy, transforming economic interests (as well
as elites' perceptions of their core interests) and thereby inducing hitherto recalcitrant
elites to negotiate a democratic compromise with the insurgents (2003, p. 14).
In South Africa, there was a growth in the technical complexity of the mining sector
which increased the need for skilled labor. This replaced the labor-repressive system of
migrant labor with a skilled labor force which gained real economic power, putting pressure
on the mine owners from below, just as a squeeze on private investment was pressuring
them from above.
Both groups of elites suffered economic reverses as the result of the insurgencies they
faced. In El Salvador, the transformation of the Salvadoran economy from agrarian
dominance to commercial development saw profits from farm exports decline as insurgency
and counterinsurgency devastated the countryside, as immigrant remittances and U.S.
foreign aid fuelled the urban economy, and as the commercial sector boomed (ch. 3). As a
result, a new political party reflecting changing elite economic interests took power, a major
faction of the eliteno longer dependent on repressive agriculture, moved towards
compromise with the insurgents, and regime elites abandoned their agrarian capitalist base
for a negotiated political settlement. Wood uses indirect methods to show why elites
defected from support for the regime in El Salvador. Figure 4, from Wood's book, traces the
Fig. 4 Sectoral composition of
GDP in El Salvador, 19701993


Percentage of GDP




Export Agriculture






Qual Sociol (2008) 31:307331


changing sectoral composition of GDP in El Salvador during these years to indirectly

indicate the material basis for elite defection in that country.
South Africa arrived at a roughly similar outcomean insurgent mobilization leading to
a negotiated settlement. Here the economy did not shift its bases, but intensifying
international sanctions led to a precipitous decline in long-term and short-term capital flows
into the country, an outflow of domestic capital and skills, and a sharp decline of the
effective exchange rate (ch. 6). By the early 1990s, in response to the insurgency and to the
failure of reforms in apartheid, Key members of the South African economic elite
eventually turned to negotiations with the ANC (p. 169). In parallel to her work in El
Salvador, Wood uses indirect methods to demonstrate the material basis for elite defection
in South Africa. Figure 5, also from Wood's book, traces capital investment in South Africa
from the 1970s through the 1990s.
Wood never claimed to have directly measured elite defection, but the two economic
changes she did observea shift from export agriculture to commerce in El Salvador; a
drying-up of private investment in South Africaconverged on the same political
mechanismelite defectionone that we had identified earlier as critical in the Nicaraguan
revolution. Although sustained unrest challenged the interests of economic elites in
distinct ways in the two cases, writes Wood, in both countries the alliance between
economic and regime elites unraveled as insurgency forced a wedge between those
economic elites who saw a way of retaining their privileges in a liberal environment and
hard-line regime elites who had more to lose (2000, pp. 199, 200). Wood might have gone
on to directly examine elite defection; instead she chose to focus on a different set of
mechanisms in El Salvador that produced mass insurgency.

Indirect measurement from field-ethnographic research: Center-periphery brokerage

In the 1970s, many scholars, following the inspiration of Stein Rokkan (1970), became
interested in center-periphery cleavages. But the actual mechanisms that connect peripheral
political agents to their ruling centers remained implied in much of this work. We were
learning from organizational sociology that, in practice, the relations among agents of

Percentage of Capital Stock







Fig. 5 Private investment in South Africa, 19621990


Business cycle average





Qual Sociol (2008) 31:307331

government seldom resemble the formal relations prescribed by organizational charts

(Crozier 1966); the question was how to capture complex chains of center-local relations
through empirical research.
Consider brokerage, a mechanism that we have encountered repeatedly in our work.
Others have called it bridging (Fox and Brown 1998) or translation (Merry 2006). The
spread of emergent collective action often owes to successful efforts at brokerage, defined
simply as the forging of social connections between previously unlinked persons or sites
(Burt 2005). Brokerage alters relations between specifiable persons or sites, allowing
collective action to spread along the newly created network pathway. In its absence, short of
nearly perfect structural equivalence among sites, it is difficult for contention to diffuse
from its origin to other sites. Long-term informal links often develop around brokerage
relations that begin among previously unlinked persons or sites.
One of the present authors tried to measure the incidence of brokerage between center
and periphery in Italy and France by studying the political roles of small town mayors in
four regions of each country (Tarrow 1977). But the immediate question arose: how could
brokerage be measured through the examination of research subjects who were observed at
only one end of prospective brokerage relations? Such measurement could be indirect:
through the attitudes of the mayors towards their interlocutors and to higher levels of
government; through their reported contacts with these actors; and through the exchange of
resources that could be measured through central government grants to their communities.
Policy brokers in provincial Italy and France
Finding himself in a village in Provence not long after the Events of May 1968, Tarrow
was surprised to find that the local mayor in his village tended to distance himself from
partisan politics. Moi, je ne fais pas de politique! (Me, I have nothing to do with politics!)
he claimed. At first skeptical that someone who had run for mayor in a competitive election
could be so removed from politics, Tarrow moved outside his village to a neighboring
one in which the mayor had a very different political tendency than the first one. But this
mayor too claimed to have nothing to do with politics. This was really a puzzle, because
this mayor, unlike the first one, was a Communist!
In a previous research project, Tarrow had carried out research with local and provincial
communist party leaders in Italy (1967). There, the politicians he met were certified
political activists who were embedded within the provincial organizations of their political
parties. The French mayors, in contrast, were presenting themselves as apolitical
administrators with little or no ties to political parties. Yet the formal powers of the mayor
and his/her formal constraints were similar in the two countries.
This was a puzzle that made the idea of a comparison between French and Italian mayors
enticing; what made it feasible for a paired comparison was that both countries had
centralized territorial administrations in which the mayors were, at one and the same time,
agents of the central administration and elected representatives of their populations. Their
elections provided them with democratic legitimacy while their ties to provincial
prefectures and to state field agencies both regulated their activities and provided resources
for their communities.
What kind of resources? Turning from his ethnographic work to statistical profiles of all
French and Italian local governments, Tarrow discovered that both groups of mayors were
heavily dependent on loans and grants in aid from the central government. But when he
compared the relationship between demographic characteristicslike the size, density and
growth rate of the communitieswith the amount of state aid per capita that their local

Qual Sociol (2008) 31:307331


governments received, he found a fundamental difference. In France, where the major

central policy was towards a policy of state-led urbanization and planning, state aid was
heavily concentrated on larger, denser and more rapidly growing communities; whereas in
Italy, the correlations between population size, density and growth were all negative
(Tarrow 1977, p. 96). Not only that: in France state aid was tilted towards communities in
which nonagricultural employment was growing (0.32; Italy0.14).
Tarrow might have been tempted to turn these initial structural relationships into a
correlational study, but he was more interested in the linkages between center and periphery
that produced what looked to him like a productive coalitional model in France and a
populist coalitional model in Italy (p. 103). And that led him back to the local elites he
had encountered on the ground. Would a more systematic field study replicate his initial
impressions from soaking and poking in the neighborhood?
To find out, Tarrow and a team of interviewers carried out interviews in 250 small and
medium-sized municipalities in France and Italy, roughly matched for levels of
development and political coloration. The interviews touched on many aspects of local
politics and asked mayors to talk about their own political biographies. But at the core of
the research was the question of how the mayors reached up through the tangled web of
territorial politics in each country to capture resources for their communities from the
distant central state.
The findings of Tarrow's research can be easily summarized. First, he found that, as
one would expect in highly centralized systems, the local mayors in both countries were
oriented towards the central state from which the bulk of their resources came. But rather
than apolitical administrators or local notables chosen for their community prestige or
economic performance, they were policy brokers with the skills, the contacts, and the
orientations designed to extract resources from the state for their communities (1977,
ch. 4). The role of policy brokerage emerged from many of Tarrow interviews. For
example, when the mayors were asked to describe the most important aspect of their jobs,
43% in Italy and 54% in France saw it as seeking projects and program support for their
communities (pp. 1289). But the conduits of mayoral influence were not uniform; some
in both countries were fashioned through associational and personal contacts; others
operated through the party system; and still others passed directly through the state


In Italy the majority of mayors were party members, a large proportion were party
activists, and most of them claimed to work through the party system to seek resources
from the state. Few were administrative activists and almost none were satisfied with
their contacts with the administration (ch. 6);
In France, the majority of mayors lacked party ties and few were party activists. Most of
them claimed to work through the state administrationthe prefecture and the
ministerial field agencies; and the majority declared themselves satisfied with their
administrative contacts (ch. 5).

Both sets of mayors exhibited the characteristics of policy brokerage that Tarrow had
expected to find. But the mayors in France were administrative activists in a dirigiste
system of center-periphery ties who sometimes had partisan connections; the mayors in
Italy were political entrepreneurs in a clientelistic system of center-periphery ties who were
forced to work in an administrative system that could noton its ownproduce the
resources they needed for their communities. Table 1 summarizes the findings of Tarrow's


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Table 1 Political and administrative profiles of French and Italian Mayors; Local Elite Study, 19681972
Political property
Political involvements
Percent party members
Percent party activists
Percent recruited through party ties
Percent with high political contacts
Administrative involvements
Percent administrative activists
Percent with high admin. contacts
Percent with good prefectoral contacts
Percent with good field agency contacts
Percent satisfied with administration

French mayors

Italian mayors





As the statistical comparisons in Table 1 show, enthography need not be limited to

soaking and poking; hypotheses that emerge from sniffing around in village stewpots can
be ultimately specified and verified through multiple methods. And this takes us to our final
argument: the measurement of mechanisms through triangulation.

Measuring mechanisms by triangulation: Social appropriation and attribution

of opportunity and threat
To this point we have used examples drawn from past work to illustrate how single
methodsdirect and indirect, systematic and ethnographiccan be used to reveal the role
of mechanisms in contention. But single methods are often inadequate to reveal the
workings of hard-to-detect mechanisms of contention. We believe that triangulating
methods on a single research site or episode of contention can produce more robust results
than even the most intense exploitation of any single method (Tarrow 2004). Here we
draw on this ecumenical persuasion to describe a study in progress that seeks, through
multiple methods, to account for variation in the role of social appropriation and political
attribution in community-level mobilization in response to siting decisions.
It has become part of the received wisdom among social movement scholars that initial
mobilization almost always occurs within established social settings. Besides the classic
studies that helped establish this fact (Freeman 1973; Tilly et al. 1975; Margadant 1979;
Evans 1980; Aminzade 1981; Morris 1984; McAdam 1999 [1982], a host of more recent
works have served to confirm it. In his research on the 1989 Chinese student movement,
Zhao (1998) shows how the dense ecological concentration of college campuses in a single
district in Beijing served to facilitate initial mobilization. Glenn (2001), among others,
documents the role that a network of independent theatre companies played in the origins of
Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia. Osas research (1997, 2003) highlights the critical role that
the Catholic Church played in nurturing Solidarity and the broader dissident movement in
Poland in the 1980s.
Consistent with these studies, proponents of the political process model have long
emphasized the role of indigenous organizations or associational networks in the emergence
of a movement. Absent any extant mobilizing structure, incipient movements are held to
lack the capacity to act, even when they are afforded the opportunity to do so. However, the

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mobilizing structure concept has too often been treated as an objective structural
facilitator of protest, rather than a contested site of interaction that can give rise to different
lines of action. But existing groups or networks are far more likely to discourage
contentious action than to stimulate it and it is not indigenous organization per se that
enables protest, but rather the interactive dynamics and specific group level mechanisms
that take place in these settings that, on rare occasions, give rise to the new understandings
and identities that legitimate and catalyze emergent contentious action.
This discussion brings us back to the limits of the dominant structural perspective on
social movements/contention. By starting from the accomplished fact of contentious action,
and then working back in time to note that movements tend to arise in established social
settings, structural analysts exaggerated the link between organization and action. And by
selecting on the dependent variablein this case, successful collective actionanalysts
inevitably focus on the exceptional cases in which existing groups produce movements, and
elide the more numerous examples in which groups constrain action. In searching for causal
mechanisms that produce collective action, we should be as interested in cases where
nothing much happens as in those in which widespread action ensues. In order to do so, it
makes sense to examine fields of decision making(rather than social movements) that
may produce emergent collective action, but need not do so.
Siting decisions
A study in progress on local siting decisions of technological facilities in the U.S. that
may or may not induce controversy takes this approach. By siting decisions we mean the
announcement by project and government officials of their intention to locate some
substantial infrastructure project or facility in a given locale. But having adopted this
broader definition of the phenomenon of interest, on what concrete, interactive dynamics
should we focus? What are the specific mechanisms that appear to key the transformation
of an established social setting into a site of emergent mobilization? In previous work
(McAdam 1999 [1982], McAdam, Tarrow et al. 2001), we have stressed two linked
mechanisms as the keys to mobilization: social appropriation and the attribution of
opportunity or threat.
Few potential actors will engage in collective action in the absence of either the
opportunity to mobilize, a threat to their interests or values, or a combination of the two
(Goldstone and Tilly 2001). But an emerging group-level account of threat or opportunity is
hardly sufficient to ensure a movement. For collective attributions of threat or opportunity
to produce emergent action the actors must command sufficient resources and numbers to
provide a social/organizational base for mobilization. When this is the case, the ideational
challenge inherent in fashioning an account of threat/opportunity is joined to a more
narrowly organizational one. As a prerequisite for action, would-be insurgents must either
create an organizational vehicle and its supporting collective identity or, more likely
appropriate an existing organization in the service of the emerging movement. In either
case, for mobilization to take place, a shared account of threat or opportunity must become
the animating frame for an organizationally able collective. Social appropriation refers to
the process by which group members successfully redefine the central aims of the group to
include sustained contentious action.
There is collateral evidence for the importance of social appropriation in previous work
on siting decisions. In his Cornell doctoral dissertation, Daniel Sherman used statistical
series, content analysis of local newspapers, personal interviews, quantitative analysis and
comparison to show how community reactions to the siting of low level radioactive


Qual Sociol (2008) 31:307331

material disposal was mobilized in some American communities but not in others (2004). In
trying to apply the classical social movement canon to determine which communities would
resist and which would accept these sites, Sherman found little to differentiate them, for
none of the communities agreed to accept the presence of radioactive waste, and their states
eventually gave up the struggle. But Sherman did find two factors that helped to distinguish
the length and character of resistance: first, the prominence of an injustice frame in local
newspaper editorials discussing the controversy (as opposed to mere not-in-my-backyard
arguments); and, second, the important role of local governments in supporting opponents'
campaigns against the proposed facilities.
In the forthcoming study, three different methods will be employed to see whether a
shared sense of threat and/or opportunity develops in the wake of a given siting decision.

Community surveys will be conducted immediately before and three months after the
announced siting decision to see if an emerging sense of threat and/or opportunity
develops in the community in response to the decision.
All local newspaper editorials on the decision will be coded to assess the link between
the community and media responses to the issue.
Organizational fieldwork, interviews, and data collection will be employed to
systematically assess the shared sense of threat/opportunity that developed within key
community organizations (e.g. City Council, Chamber of Commerce, local environmental groups) in response to the decision.

This same mix of methods will be used to systematically search for evidence of social
appropriation in each of the 30 siting decisions included in the study. The goal is to use the
minutes of meetings and other organizational documents, supplemented by direct
observation and interviews with organizational leaders, to monitor efforts within key
community groups to mobilize the resources of the group in support of, or opposition to,
the siting decision.
Space constraints prevent us from providing any more detail on the research design for
this study, but we hope we have conveyed a sense of how mixed methods can be employed
to tease out the mechanisms that produce (or fail to produce) contentious responses to siting
decisions in some places and not in others. Needless to say, this is an ambitious research
design, but not, we think, an untenable one. Indeed, only by investing in a mixed methods
approach and looking at unsuccessful as well as successful instances of mobilization can we
hope to realize at least some of the potential of a mechanistic approach to the study of

Scale shift in Great Britain; coalition formation among Brazilian youth; transitions to
democracy in El Salvador and South Africa; center-periphery exchange in Italy and France;
siting decisions in the U.S.: we have tried to show how various methods can be used to
unpack these broad processes into their constituent mechanisms. Now we ask how they
might be extended.
In Great Britain, we re-analyzed a large-scale, long-term dataset to show how bargaining
helped to produce a shift in scale in British politics to the parliamentary level. But those
results, which emerged from the first parliamentary system in history, might have been
unique. Scholars now have sufficient grasp of the technical side of collecting and analyzing

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large-scale events data to replicate the methods Tilly used to transform verbs into
mechanisms in Great Britain. Only a comparative analysis of the shift in scale of contention
in other polities would demonstrate the reachor the limitationsof the British findings.
In Brazil Mische showed how ethnographic analysis could be used to reveal four key
mechanisms of coalition formation among youth groups. Would the mechanisms uncovered
by Mische through ethnographic analysis be replicated using other methodsfor example,
more formal network analysisor in other democratizing countries? Only comparative
analyses will indicate which of her mechanisms were robust and which might have been
idiosyncratic to Brazil in the period when she did her field research.
In El Salvador and South Africa Wood showed how negotiated democratizations grew
out of both insurgent mobilization and elite defection. Wood was careful to distinguish the
insurgent path she studied from three other paths to democratizationdefeat in war,
liberalization from within authoritarian regimes, and cross-class mobilization and coalition
building (2000, pp. 1011). But elite defection, which emerged as a key juncture in both her
cases, was also important in other types of democratizationsuch as Russia's territorial
breakdown, the Philippines' people power revolution, and Poland's electoral transition to
Solidarity: extending her comparison to democratization in these countries, or others like
them, would tell us how central elite defection is to successful democratization.
In Italy and France, Tarrow investigated center-periphery links through ethnographic
soaking and poking in local French villages, complemented by statistical analysis of the
correlates of state financial aid and elite interviews in small samples of French and Italian
municipalities. The research showed the correlative at the local level of two different forms
of policy brokerage: administrative activism in France; political entrepreneurship in Italy. In
the interim, thirty years of administrative reform have radically changed the face of local
and regional politics in the two countries; have these institutional changes produced
symmetrical change in the postures of local elites? Only a replication of Tarrow's original
study would show whether his two forms of brokerage were robust to institutional reform.
Finally, while the study of siting decisions is still in progress, one could seek to apply the
underlying logic of the research to other at risk communities. Communities subject to
siting decisions represent just one such venue. What about college campuses subject to
sharp tuition increases, or plants in the wake of significant layoffs, or farm communities in
which genetically modified seeds have been used on neighboring farms? An ambitious
researcher could seek to compare both the rates and dynamics of mobilization across a
range of at risk settings.
In each of these accounts, we emphasized the particular combination of methods that can
be used to isolate and measure key mechanisms. But the alert reader will have observed that
the authors whose work we have surveyed (including our own) did not rely on any single
method: each of them complemented their predominant method with others: In Popular
Contention in Great Britain, Tilly buttressed his large-scale time-series dataset with
conventional historical accounts, spatial analysis of the sites of contention, and network
analysis (Tilly and Wood 2003). In her work on Brazil, Mische combined her ethnographic
investigations with political analysis, discourse analysis and network analysis; in her books,
Wood undergirded her comparative work with ethnographic analysis, semi-structured
interviews, surveys and statistical series. And our fourth example grew out of Tarrow's
soaking and poking in an ethnographic mode into small scale statistical analysis. The siting
controversy study is even more deliberately based on multiple methods.
Once on the road to unpacking episodes of contention into their constituent mechanisms
and designing ways of measuring them, there is no limit to our ability to understand
contentious politics. We lack both the time and the expertise to carry out all these research


Qual Sociol (2008) 31:307331

efforts on our own; others are already at work using mechanism-and-process approaches to
study contentious politics using the methods we have surveyed and others as well. Our goal
is to encourage these efforts to complement, and perhaps refine the structural approaches
and correlational methods that dominate the study of contentious politics. Let a hundred
(well, not quite) methods bloom!
Acknowledgments We are grateful to Elisabeth Wood for allowing us to reproduce two of the graphics
from her book, Forging Democracy From Below and for useful comments on a draft of this paper. We also
are grateful to Tulia Falleti, David Laitin, Julia Lynch, Jim Mahoney, Ann Mische, Dan Sherman and Libby
Wood for valuable comments on an earlier version of this paper.

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Doug McAdam is Professor of Sociology at Stanford University. He is the author or co-author of eight
books and more than 60 articles in the area of political sociology, with a special emphasis on the study of
social movements and revolutions. His best known works include Political Process and the Development of
Black Insurgency, 19301970, Freedom Summer and Dynamics of Contention (with Sid Tarrow and Charles
Tilly). He was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003.

Sidney Tarrow teaches Government and Sociology at Cornell University. His most recent books are Power
in Movement (Cambridge, 1998), The New Transnational Activism (Cambridge, 2005) and (with Charles
Tilly), Contentious Politics (Paradigm, 2006). He is currently interested in activism on behalf of human
rights in times of war.

Charles Tilly taught social sciences at Columbia University until his death on April 29, 2009. His most
recent books are Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2007), Explaining Social Processes (Paradigm
Publishers, 2008), and Credit and Blame (Princeton University Press, 2008). For tributes and annotated links
to Charles Tilly resources, see http://www.ssrc.org/essays/tilly/