McDonnell, King & Soule: A Dynamic Process Model of Contentious Politics – Activist Targeting and Corporate Receptivity to Social Challenges

From the Introduction:

Social movements frequently target firms as they seek to gain greater access to conventional channels of corporate decision-making (e.g., Soule, 2009; Reid and Toffel 200; King and Pearce, 2010). Social movements are outsiders to corporate decision-making and corporations have few “conventional access channels” that allow external input (Weber et al. 2009: 122; Walker et al. 2008; King 2011). Like social movements operating in the state context, therefore, these movements usually have limited access and muted influence over the institutional politics of their targets. Still, despite these limitations, recent research has demonstrated that activists are sometimes able to successfully alter corporate behavior, ranging from curbing harmful toxic emissions to granting same-sex domestic partnership benefits to employees (e.g., Maxwell et al. 2000; Raeburn 2004; Lee and Lounsbury 2012; Van Wijk et al. 2013; Soule et al. 2013).

Social movement theory has long emphasized that political opportunities, or the character of the political context in which movements operate, influence “the degree to which groups are likely to be able to gain access to power and to manipulate the political system” (Eisinger, 1973: 25; Tilly, 1978; McAdam, 1982; Kitschelt, 1986; Tarrow, 1994; Kriesi, Koopmans, Duyvendak & Giugni, 1992; Meyer & Minkoff, 2004; Della Porta, Kreisi, & Rucht, 1999; Tarrow, 1988). Like social movements operating in the context of the state, opportunity structures likely shape the outcomes of corporate-centered activism, yet because most corporations lack the democratic procedures of formal political systems, the mechanisms by which activists gain access to powerful decision-making centers are less apparent in the corporate context. Given the relatively closed nature of corporations, what explains the differences in corporate opportunity structures that allow activists to gain access to these organizations? And to what extent are activists’ decisions to target particular companies shaped by these opportunity structures?


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