My Research

Overview: My research focuses on how civil society becomes healthy and strong and how that affects political and economic spheres. Empirically, I am primarily interested in the positive and negative qualities of civil society and their relation to collective efficacy. I want to understand how civil society becomes either constructive or destructive and to what extent these qualities affect communities’ ability to act collectively to solve problems. I am also interested in how civic communities create innovation and transfer it into economic and political domains. Theoretically, this entails a better understanding of how individual agency is capable of both re-envisioning the world and adopting radical beliefs with and without radical action. Four projects currently constitute this work:

(My sources for these will be elaborated in specific blog posts)

“The Dark Side of Civil Society:” Sociologists are increasingly questioning the Tocquevillian image of civil society as the bulwark of democracy, community self-help, and social capital. Gangs, genocide, and the Klu Klux Klan all demonstrate that civil society is not always the arena of enlightened self-interest, trust, and cooperative inclusion. The first question is what constitutes “the dark side” or “bad” civil society. I argue that the “dark side” should be considered anti-civil society – community organizations that seek to close off or dominate the civic sphere. Once this difference can be operationalized, we can systematically investigate how communities turn against themselves and others. The result should not only be a more balanced understanding of civil society, but also practical tools for identifying, assessing, and addressing anti-civic elements within communities.

A Networks Approach to Civic Organizing and Innovation: Advocacy organizations, professional associations, and social movements in the United States have become increasingly professionalized over the past half century. At the same time, individuals’ social capital (the value they attain through their connections to others) and involvement in civic organizations in general have declined dramatically. How these professionally managed organizations emerged and spread and how this relates to declining civic engagement is a key issue for understanding agenda setting, coalition building, and public political participation in contemporary American Politics. This research utilizes John Padgett’s theory of Autocatalysis and David Stark’s theory of structural folds to investigate how these new forms emerged and their effects on contemporary policy-making and the structure of political power. The result will provide insight on key arenas of innovation in political structures, their connection to public participation, and provide tools for addressing the disconnection between political organizations and the American people.

Social Movements’ Influence without Democracy: A growing body of theory and research investigates how social movements influence non-state organizations. The basic question is how the broader, organized public can gain access to and influence fundamentally undemocratic organizations, in particular, corporations. In my work on the Students Against Sweatshops movement, I argued for one method in which movements create a crisis for their target organizations and position themselves as experts capable of explaining the problem and prioritizing the potential solutions. I am building on this research to include more student campaigns and expect to submit an article for publication.

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