Although litigation plays a central role in the strategies of many contemporary social movements, surprisingly little is known about the conditions under which social movement actors adopt litigation strategies or how litigation shapes a movement's substantive agenda. Existing research has shown that litigation attracts enormous publicity and political attention, increasing the visibility and standing of movement actors who use it. However, litigation may simultaneously detract attention from movement actors who use extra-legal strategies, marginalizing their perspectives and claims. This research project investigates what factors cause social movement actors to pursue litigation over other tactics (e.g., legislative lobbying, service provision, or protest) and how litigation, as a social movement tactic, shapes movements' priorities and their substantive goals. The project is theoretically situated in the recent law and social movement literature. The research plan involves coding of organizational, institutional and government documents as well as interview with social movement actors.

The data generated through this project will expand knowledge regarding strategic choice in social movements. Furthermore, by examining how litigation comes to dominate other strategies for social change, this research is poised to illumine larger theoretical questions about how social movement actors can reinforce existing legal institutions, even as they deploy litigation as a strategy of resistance.

Project Report

This research project investigates what factors cause social movement actors to pursue litigation over other tactics (e.g., legislative lobbying, service provision, or protest) and how litigation, as a social movement tactic, shapes movements’ dominant political messages, strategies, and substantive goals. These questions are examined through a case study of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) movement, which involves (1) a content analysis of news media coverage of LGBT politics designed to determine which movement strategies receive the most media attention; (2) a statistical analysis of LGBT organizations designed to determine the factors driving large-scale patterns in movement organizing and strategy over time; (3) a qualitative analysis of a subset of those organizations designed to examine agenda formation and power dynamics within the movement. Contrary to the popular perception that protest strategies, which tend to be dramatic and confrontational, receive high levels of news coverage, the media coverage content analysis found that LGBT litigation and lobbying received significantly more media coverage than any protest. In addition, compared to protest, articles on litigation or lobbying were more likely to include in-depth coverage of movement goals and to personalize the story by quoting an LGBT activist. These findings suggest that media coverage is a symbolic resource more readily available to LGBT movement organizations that use institutionalized legal tactics than it is to organizations that use protest. The statistical analysis of LGBT organizations showed that the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas, which declared state sodomy laws unconstitutional, increased the use of litigation among LGBT movement organizations. This finding suggests that a positive, high-profile court decision can cause activists to perceive litigation as a legitimate tool for social change. The statistical analysis also found that the LBGT movement organizations that used litigation tended to be the longest-lived movement organizations, suggesting that litigation may generate vital organization-sustaining resources. A preliminary analysis of the qualitative data indicates that LGBT movement organizations that use predominantly non-legal tactics like protest or service provision are less able than the litigating groups to control the types of issues that they confront. For example, protest groups tend to be much more reactive to media coverage and current events in formulating their political strategies than litigation groups, which instead formulate strategy through internal strategizing sessions or coalition work with other litigating groups. In addition, because litigating LGBT organizations are more likely than other types of LGBT movement organizations to generate media coverage, they may often end up inadvertently controlling the issues to which protest groups respond, as well as the issues that politicians emphasize in their appeals to LGBT voters and allies. These preliminary findings suggest that in at least two dimensions of agenda-setting—deciding what issues to prioritize and shaping public perceptions of LGBT politics and identities—litigating organizations may have been influential in shaping the very definition of LGBT politics. This study will make significant contributions to the sociological and socio-legal research on social movements, to the sociological research on organizations, and to the development of a theoretical model linking these bodies of work. It will provide the most comprehensive analysis to date of the effect of litigation on a social movement, both in terms of the number and variety of organizations observed within a single social movement and in the length of the time period observed (1985-2008). This study will significantly expand upon previous research by exploring the conditions under which legal strategies for social change come to dominate other strategies for change, and as a corollary, the degree to which legal organizations come to dominate other organizations within a social movement. Furthermore, analyzing how social movement actors using litigation may inadvertently dominate movement actors using protest strategies will allow for more informed judicial decisions with respect to public interest litigation and will help policymakers provide more effective representation of marginalized communities.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Susan Sterett
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University of California Berkeley
United States
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