How Activist Commitment is Developed and Sustained*
JAMES DOWNTON, JR. & PAUL WEHR
Department of Sociology, University of Colorado, Boulder
* This study was supported by the Council on Research and
Creative Work, University of Colorado. Some of the points made
in this article are discussed at greater length in Downton & Wehr
(1997). The interview guide used in this research is available
How and why do activists persist in their commitment to a
social movement beyond its initial mobilization phase? How do
they manage their commitments? What role does creativity play in
helping them keep their peace commitment intact over the long
term? These are questions explored in this study. Based on
extensive interviews with thirty persistent peace activists, a
theory of sustained commitment is developed. It encompasses how
people become available for peace activism and how political and
social contexts affect their willingness to join and stay. It
also identifies important social and personal factors that help
to sustain commitment. These include creating an activist
identity, integrating peace work into everyday life, holding
beliefs that sustain activism, feeling bonded to a peace group,
cultivating opportunities for action, sharing a peace vision with
other activists, and managing responsibilities, criticism, and
burnout. Persistent peace activists are rational in selecting
courses of action, but also creative in the way they fashion
their lives, manage their conunitments, avoid burnout, and design
and carry out projects. This creativity is an important factor
contributing to pacifist persistence, yet it is a topic that has
been largely neglected in collective action research. The
authors argue for a stronger emphasis on 'creative action' in
future research about activists and how they sustain their
commitment in the face of many odds.
1. The Peace and Social Justice Movement
In recent decades, the peace and social justice movement has
expanded noticeably, particularly in North and Latin America and
Europe. For example, of 139 peace movement organizations in the
USA surveyed in 1992, 82% had been formed in the 1970s and 1980s
(Colwell & Bond, 1994:17). While some of those organizations
have expired with the Cold War, many continue.
The movement has also changed in character. It has evolved
from one of largely northern and western peace organizations
responding to particular wars and social grievances, into a
global movement of many groups at different levels using
nonviolent action to resist violence and injustice (Wehr et al.,
1994). In some cases, as with SERPAJ in Latin America, the
movement has changed government policy from the outside. In
others, such as the German Green party and the Serbian democracy
movement, it works partly from within. These diverse groups now
form a loose global network of nonviolence organizations working
for change, largely in the Gandhian spirit. One could say that a
permanent peace and justice lobby is now active in most nations.
Certainly, this broadening of peace action is related to both
a proliferation of nongovernmental organizations and a general
surge in post-war social movement activity observed by collective
action researchers. Apart from some studies of prominent leaders
of movements, however, we know relatively little about the
continuing participation of activists once they join. Such
knowledge is essential for developing more effective movements
for social change. This study should expand that knowledge while
it builds on what collective action theory in general has
contributed to our understanding of social movement
2. Collective Action Theory
There are three dominant theoretical perspectives on
participation in social movements. The first view, developed by
collective behavior and social disorganization theorists,
emphasizes the irrational and emotional origins of mass behavior.
It tends to focus on the crowd, millennial movements, behavior in
times of disaster, and explains mass behavior in each case as
arising from generalized beliefs which motivate large numbers of
people to take action. This theoretical approach was heavily
influenced by the efforts of social scientists following World
War 11 to explain fascism and connnunism.
Resource mobilization theory is a second perspective. Its
proponents assume the rational behavior of activists and
characterize challenge movements as rational extensions of
institutional behavior. They have been particularly interested
in how movements recruit members and mobilize resources. Their
emphasis has been on movement organizations and their
mobilization of resources and the rational choice of people to
participate. A related idea is that of political opportunity
structure, the openings and availability of resources within a
political system which might exist for a social movement during a
particular moment in history. As that structure of opportunity
opens, movement organizations will rationally exploit it.
The third and largely European theoretical perspective has
developed around the notion that post-World War 11 movements are
of a different character and membership than earlier ones. They
are seen as a response to the invasion of the personal sphere, or
life world as Husserl and Habermas have termed it, by the state
and the corporation. They are movements of personal and group
identity, of subculture formation, and of ideological conviction
more than material deprivation. This New Social Movements view
emphasizes how these contemporary movements interact with one
another (Klandermans et al., 1988; Katsiaficas, 1997).
Important questions for collective action theorists have been why
people do or do not join a movement and, more recently, once they
join, why some continue while others leave. The three
theoretical perspectives explain joining differently. A major
obstacle for resource mobilization theorists, who see rational
choice as the motivation, is the 'free rider' problem. Most
people who might benefit from a social movement do not get
directly involved in it. Some may not have the time to
participate; others may hold back because of the risks involved.
Still others may be offended by some aspect of a movement's
ideology or method of protest. But the largest group of
nonparticipants are known by collective action theorists as 'free
riders'. They refrain from joining because they quite rationally
anticipate sharing in a movement's rewards without personal
effort or risk (Olson, 1965).
The free rider problem has stumped collective action
theorists by and large although Lichbach's work on the 'Rebel's
Dilemma' has substantially clarified the factors that tend to
cause a beneficiary of a movement either to participate or to
watch from the sidelines. He carefully identifies over thirty
solutions to this dilemma, essentially falling into four sectors:
Market, community, contract, and hierarchy. In the market realm,
for example, a person may choose to participate because of
increased benefits from doing so; in community, participation
may arise from the bandwagon effect; in contract, it may emerge
from the establishment of an activist governing system which sets
rules and sanctions; in hierarchy, it may be encouraged by the
establishment of a monitoring system for identifying slackers.
He argues that each solution to the 'Rebel's Dilemma' is flawed.
Only by combining solutions is social activism assured. What
solutions are chosen will also depend on the structure of
relationships between the activist group and the governing unit's
posture toward it. If the relationship is adversarial, one set
of solutions will be tried; if cooperative, another. In this
sense, how social activists solve the dilemma is part of a
political equation (Lichbach, 1994, 1995). At the heart of this
is a personal calculation: Will the benefits of participation
outweigh the costs for me? The answer to this question, according
to Lichbach, will determine whether someone decides to
participate in a social action, such as a demonstration, or stay
home. In essence, for the free rider, not one of the more than
thirty solutions that Lichbach discusses, by itself, would be an
acceptable rational justification for becoming involved.
Despite the reasons why most do not participate in social
movements, many do and some for long periods. They do so partly
for 'collective goods' such as security, but also because of the
'selective' or personal incentives a movement offers: Material
gain sometimes, nonmaterial rewards such as the opportunity to
publicly express deeply-held beliefs and values, a sense of
solidarity and connection with like-minded others, membership in
an organization working for a desired change, even the
development of useful organizing skills. As Lichbach argues, it
is the combining of solutions to the 'Rebel's Dilemma' that makes
activist participation possible. Thus, examining how people do
that is at the heart of understanding activist persistence, and
this is partially determined by the political environment within
which the social action takes place.
Some partial explanations of how and why people join
movements are worth noting here. McAdam emphasizes how the
availability of participants arises from their freedom from
personal responsibilities and institutional constraints (McAdam,
1988). Snow, Zurcher & Ekland-Olson (1980:787-801) stress the
significance of voluntary associations like civic clubs and
churches as movement recruiting networks.
A second important question for collective action theorists
is why some participants, albeit a relatively few, stay active in
the movement for long periods while most do not. Participants'
staying-power might be explained by their reason for joining.
Some movement joiners are identity-seekers (Glasser, 1972). If
they find what they seek in a movement and its organizations,
they tend to stay. Others join to achieve a particular
short-term goal: To end a war, make a personal statement about
violence, or avoid military conscription. If and when they
achieve the goal, they leave. Still others stay for both
identity and goals. As a movement institutionalizes, for
example, the professionals who run its organizations are
motivated both by identity investment and material goals.
Those who study social movements have only recently begun to
identify the personal attributes that contribute to persistent
activism. McAdam's study of US civil rights activists, for
example, describes how people come to and stay in movement work,
free from economic and other constraints, attitudinally
affiliated with movement goals, and located within networks of
political activism (McAdam, 1988). Sustained activist commitment
is an indispensable part of a movement's formation and survival.
It is a particularly relevant issue for the peace movement, with
its somewhat episodic, yet somehow enduring character. By what
means do long-term peace activists come to peace action, then
develop and manage their commitment to the movement over long
periods despite disappointments and setbacks?
This question of how and why activists persist in their
commitment over the long term seemed to us an important one to
study. Knowledge of what causes participant commitment to
continue is essential information both for peace movement
strategists around the world and for collective action scholars
who want to better understand social movement growth and
3. A Theory of Sustained Commitment
Our theory of sustained commitment as a primary determinant of
persistent activism was developed from our study of 30 Colorado
peace activists. Our methodological approach was qualitative,
using in-depth interviews to collect data. Large-scale
quantitative surveys are used to test hypotheses and to
generalize. In contrast, the goal of qualitative studies is to
achieve depth, in order to reveal hidden aspects of a research
question within the life experiences of people. For example, in
our focused interviews, the objective was to probe deeply into
the lives of activists to uncover the essential factors which
influenced their capacity to persist.
Because of the small number of activists studied, our theory
of pacifist persistence must be viewed as exploratory. Yet, such
theorizing is useful because, as a focused qualitative study, it
identifies key factors in activist persistence from the accounts
of the activists themselves. Some of these factors will be
obvious, but, in theory development, the point is to integrate
what is revealed by respondents, obvious or not. Out of
necessity, our theory will include obvious and more obscure
factors as they work together to produce persistence. It is the
combination of the factors which is a key to understanding what
keeps pacifists active.
We acknowledge the very limited nature of our study. It
concerns local peace action in a limited region in a single
nation. It was not designed for replication in other societies,
although others could perhaps test our model with a culturally-
adjusted subset of our questions. A general model was not our
goal in this study. While a theory derived from such a small
sample can only be tentative, it can nevertheless be important in
stimulating qualitative studies in other countries. It might
also become the basis for a large activist survey leading to
important social scientific generalizations.
3.1 The Study Participants
We studied 30 long-term activists, 20 who had remained active in
the peace movement for at least five years and 10 others who had
earlier either shifted to other movements or left activism
entirely. Comparing the three groups allowed us to explore why
some people maintain their pacifist commitments while others fall
away. Although space constraints prevent a thorough discussion
of the shifters and dropouts here, we found them more likely than
persisters to have weak bonds to their peace organizations; to
feel that peacemaking was less urgent after the end of the Cold
War, which freed them to turn to other life goals; to have
competing responsibilities they could no longer manage and still
meet their commitments as peace activists; or to have had
disillusioning experiences within their peace organizations.'
Study participants were each interviewed for approximately
two hours. They were a diverse group reflecting different
geographical regions, social classes, and types of peace work.
Eighteen were female and twelve were male, ranging in age from 24
to 86, though most were between 40 and 60. Twenty held advanced
college degrees, but without correspondingly high incomes. Their
modest incomes, set against high educational achievement,
reflected the conscious decision of many of them to live a
materially simple life as the core of their peace careers. The
diverse occupational profile of these activists includes
countercultural and conventional worlds of work, low paying jobs
within peace movement organizations, and regular nine-to-five
employment, sometimes pursued only part-time to be free for peace
action. Some earned a meager income from canvassing
neighborhoods, leading nonviolence trainings, organizing
protests, and providing mediation services. What Oberschall
(1973:152) calls the 'free professions' were found among our
participants: Lawyers, university faculty, and writers. The
helping professions were also well represented: Social worker,
physician, health worker, and medical secretary. Even the IBM
systems engineer and the university administrator were there.
Alongside these professionals were the tea taster, the migrant
labor coordinator, and the professional herbalist.
Our activists averaged 20 years in the movement, altogether
representing 524 years of peace action. While they were members
of about 30 peace movement organizations, their peace action was
largely concentrated in the four organizations through which we
contacted them: The American Friends Service Committee (a Quaker
service organization), Peace Action (formerly SANE FREEZE), the
Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Rocky
Mountain Peace Center.
In this article, we focus on what we learned about sustained
commitment from the 20 persisters. From their experiences, a
theory of sustained commitment is developed, one that might be
tested in similar studies in other societies.
3.2 The Theoretical Framework
Our theory of persistent pacifism is nested within a broader
framework of commitment dynamics: How people become available
for peace activism as their commitment develops, how context
affects their inclination to join and stay, and how their
commitment is sustained by the interaction of crucial social and
Persisters come to the movement through availability, which
is determined in two ways. First, they are attitudinally
predisposed to engage in peace action because of pacifist beliefs
they hold with deep conviction. They have developed those
beliefs in certain life settings and time periods, and from their
experiences. Family and religious life during childhood exert
particularly strong influences.
Second, their adult life situations permit them to become
available. Often, early adulthood is a time when persisters,
relatively free of other responsibilities and constraints, first
come to the movement. Initially, situational availability may be
largely determined by chance but, increasingly, persisters
consciously shape their lives in order to stay active.
Persistent peace activists both join the movement and do its
work within contexts which directly influence how long they will
stay active. The widest of these are the national and global
settings where goverru-nent policies, media attention and
interaction within peace action networks impact local activists.
There are also the immediate contexts in which the persisters
work: Their local peace groups, communities and social networks.
Peace activist persistence depends on features and events in both
the larger and local contexts: The permanent presence of local
targets of resistance such as military installations, the level
of international tension, the density of peace organizations and
Finally, there are a number of commitment-sustaining factors
which influence the depth of persisters' involvement and their
ability to stay active over the long term. A number of these
factors can be cultivated by peace and justice organizations to
draw new people into commitment and to reinforce their activists'
persistence and effectiveness.
In the next section, we reveal the pathway by which
persisters joined the movement--their beliefs and values, their
life patterns. In subsequent sections, we will examine the
contexts of their action and why they stayed.
4. Why Persisters Join: Availability
Our persisters came to the movement because they were 'available'
to do so. The concept of availability refers to how inclined and
able one is to pursue a particular course of action, which will
affect one's willingness to join a movement or to stay involved
in it.' Two aspects of availability are especially important:
Attitude and life situation.
Attitude is crucial, where availability arises from a
person's beliefs, life experiences and depth of conviction.
One's social situation is equally important, where the freedom to
act hinges on the pattern of everyday life constraints. Thus,
people become available for collective action when they have been
soci@ed to move in that direction (attitudinal availability) and
when their life circumstances provide the time, money, and energy
for their commitment to activism (situational availability).
4.1 Attitudinal Availability: Beliefs
Attitudinal availability is the propensity to pursue peace action
because one's beliefs are in harmony with the movement's goals
and means. Those beliefs must be maintained if peace activism is
to continue. Our persisters had been socialized--some early in
life and others much later--to hold pacifist beliefs such as the
importance of helping others; the need to shape public policy to
reflect peace and social justice principles; the utility of
nonviolent direct action for producing change; the importance of
personal responsibility; and the need for peace action in
realizing global peace and social justice. Persisters were,
then, ethically prepared to assume the activist role and they
deepened their beliefs through involvement with kindred spirits
in the peace community.
4.2 Socialization to Pacifist Beliefs
Perhaps no concept is more important for understanding commitment
and its continuity than belief. Beliefs are ideas we are
socialized to think are true and it is their meaning as 'truth'
which gives them the power to shape our perception of social
reality and to affect our behavior.
Beliefs begin to form during early socialization and become
the foundation of our social constructions of reality (Berger &
Luckman, 1966). As children, we are exposed to the beliefs of
our parents and significant others. We internalize them so
gradually that we are unaware that our perceptions of others and
the world are based on the social constructions of our families,
churches, and schools. We do not know we have been socialized.
Unaware of how we acquired our beliefs, we naturally regard them
as the 'truth'. It is our confidence in their validity,
especially ethical convictions prescribing moral behavior, which
gives them such a powerful influence on our action. Peace
activists, like everyone else, are socialized in this way. From
influential people in their lives they adopted a belief system
built around the goals of peace and social justice and then
embraced the appropriate ethical and political behavior to
achieve them. Through the teachings and example of significant
others, they embraced several peace-supportive principles.
Learning to help others. Persisters in our study learned
that helping others was a moral duty. They were taught at home
and in church to 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto
you'. They learned to identify with the poor, to understand the
social causes of poverty, racism, and sexism, and to feel a
comradeship with the oppressed.
Learning to be critical of social institutions. Their family
and school experiences taught some persisters to question the
legitimacy of certain institutions, an inclination toward social
criticism furthered by movements of the 1960s--for civil rights,
for peace in Vietnam, and for women's liberation. This critical
attitude toward social institutions and authority, especially in
colleges and universities, made our persisters angry with the
political system, preparing them for enduring peace activism.
Without such political disaffection and criticism of conditions
and policies, people are unlikely to persist as agents of social
Learning to see activism as problem-solving. While some
persisters avoided radical politics and worked in more moderate
ways to reform the system, most felt that sweeping political
changes were necessary and were achievable by determined
nonviolent action. This belief that peace action was a solution
moved them to embrace it as a way to change the political system.
They knew that, given the seriousness of the crisis they
perceived, extraordinary means were necessary.
Learning to be socially responsible. The worldview of
persisters included a strong sense of personal responsibility to
work for peace. Being socially responsible defined who they were
and became a part of their identities. Failure to act on behalf
of peace and social justice would have made them feel guilty. In
fact, most could not imagine a life without such activism.
Learning that peace action is urgent. Persisters felt a
sense of urgency about peace action, a belief that remained
strong over time. Before joining, many developed the belief that
peace work was urgent as a result of the Vietnam War and the
threat of nuclear holocaust as a deadly consequence of superpower
In any particular persister's experience, some of these
teachings would be more influential than others, but all seemed
essential for the formation and durability of their commitment.
Socialized to embrace such beliefs and values, persisters
were especially sensitive to problems such as the threat of war
and other forms of state violence, and the presence of glaring
class, racial, ethnic and gender inequalities. Those issues have
been the stimulus for the movement's formation and the reason
activists participate, sometimes at considerable personal risk.
Persisters in our study became involved in social activism
because they felt those issues were significant and the need for
a new social and political order was pressing. They hoped a
nonviolent and egalitarian society would eventually emerge.
4.3 Situational Availability: Life Pattern
The ethical readiness to pursue activism (attitudinal
availability) must coincide with the practical ability to act
(situational availability), if a strong commitment is to form and
be sustained. Situational availability is determined by a
person's daily life pattern and how it either facilitates
activism or inhibits it. People who are working full-time,
married with young children, in debt, or in poor health would
normally be less free to undertake peace action, even if they
were ethically predisposed to do so. By comparison, people who
are in careers with more flexible time schedules or who live
communally would likely have more time and social support to be
active because of their life situation. So might a healthy
person who is unmarried and has no children.
Activists can control situational availability to some
extent. In fact, persisters were creative in designing their
lives so they could be available. Some worked part time or
developed careers which gave them time for peace action. Others
had retired or were homemakers with spare time for community
work. Some postponed marriage and having children. Most
developed simple life styles which required only moderate
incomes. A few created or joined peace communes where making
money and raising children were shared, freeing them for movement
work. In various ways, these activists mapped out their lives so
they could remain involved.
Attitudinal and situational availability are important
interlocking concepts for understanding how and why peace
commitments form and continue. Either, by itself, cannot ensure
the continuation of a peace commitment. For long-term peace
careers to develop, attitudinal and situational availability must
be continually cultivated by the activists themselves. This
effort can be aided by the movement community, to the extent that
it reinforces members' fundamental beliefs and helps them arrange
their lives so movement work is possible.
5. Contexts for Action
We learned from our persisters that the intensity and duration of
their commitment varied with the opportunities for and conditions
motivating activism. Thus, the continuity of activism will be
explained to a degree by the contexts where it develops and
Both the activists' initial engagement and their persistence
in the movement develop in the local settings where they live and
do their movement work: Peace groups, churches, workplaces,
friendship networks, schools, food cooperatives, parenting
groups. Those are primary locations for recruitment and
participation in social movements, what in collective action
theory are known as 'micromobilization contexts'. Our study of
persistence gave primary attention to those micromobilization
Although activist commitment takes shape and matures in those
smaller contexts, the larger macromobilization arena exerts
strong influences upon local activism. National and
international political forces and events shape local projects
and opportunities. For example, national economic expansion and
political liberalization will significantly influence local
activism and commitment. Political opportunities for peace
action improved during the 1980s in the USA. The government's
willingness to tolerate nonviolent protest had been increasing
steadily, as it learned to respond to demonstrations without
using police violence. The movement's imaginative use of
nonviolent action earned it much public credibility, which its
leaders learned to exploit as political opportunity shifted
between local and national levels (Miller, 1994:393-406). The
development of such 'structures of political opportunity' would
increase persistent activism, as it would open new channels for
movement pressure. The concept of opportunity structure is used
by Tarrow and others to analyze points of public access to
policy-making, for example, changes in government presenting new
openings for political influence through collective action. We
extend the concept here to describe opportunities for such action
at the level of the individual activist (Tarrow, 1989). Also,
the more open a society is to structural change, the more
activists are likely to believe such change is possible, and thus
to persist in movement work. Where they exist together,
opportunity and hope can help to keep activists involved over the
long term. But threat, such as that of nuclear war, can also be
a crucial determinant of activist commitment.
The levels of anxiety and frustration were very high among
Europeans and North Americans who were concerned about peace in
the 1980s. Cold War rivalry had taken several menacing forms:
Euromissile deployment in Europe; low intensity warfare in Latin
America; anticipation of Star Wars and Nuclear Winter around the
In Colorado, local nuclear war installations were a constant
and visible reminder of the threat and were highly influential in
sustaining activist commitment over long periods. Such dangerous
and politically provocative facilities as the Rocky Flats nuclear
weapons plant near Denver stimulated protests for two decades,
drawing thousands of people from throughout North America.
In the 1980s, opportunity, hope, and strain created a
macrocontextual climate conducive to sustained peace commitment
in North America and Europe. In the USA, the seriousness of the
problems and an expanded structure of political opportunity
stimulated hope among activists, who were thereby encouraged to
build their lives around the movement. Conditions within its
micromobilization contexts helped build and sustain their
conunitinent and prepared them to join when the political moment
was ripe and demanded action--the accessibility of local targets
of protest, bonding to and within their peace organizations, and
personal aspects of their lives, such as local support
communities of like-minded people.
For each person who is attitudinally and situationally available
to participate in the movement, a concrete set of opportunities
must be present in order to transform readiness into action. For
example, where people live is important. Someone living in a
small town in a large country may be attitudinally and
situationally available for peace action but be so far from its
physical targets such as military installations or from peace
movement organizations that he or she does nothing. Our study
participants, living in metropolitan Denver with numerous
military installations nearby, had opportunities for action
within easy reach. Many peace organizations in the area were
directing nonviolent action at targets such as Rocky Flats.
There were large numbers of citizens ready to be mobilized for
peace, first into consensus communities, as Klandermans would
call them, then into direct action (Klandermans, 1988:173-196).
There was also a dense network of peace and envirom-nental
organizations, whose interests often converged around goals like
the closing of Rocky Flats, which were ready to mobilize that
consensus and readiness for action. In short, people who were
available to the movement did not lack the opportunity to take
Opportunity refers to the possibilities for action
exploitable by peace organizations or by activists initiating
their own projects. When such opportunities are easily
accessible to those who have the proper ethical inclination,
their step into peace action is likely, if they are available and
believe peace action is urgent.
Going to a rally, attending a meeting, distributing
literature--these are individual steps toward deeper involvement.
Taking action, however small, can be a turning point, because by
establishing contact with other activists, their organizations
and connnunities, our persisters became engaged in the work.
Peace commitments begin because people decide to act rather than
merely contemplate action. They are available in attitude and
life situation, the opportunity presents itself, the moment is
right, and they approach the peace conununity and become
Joining a peace group can dramatically change one's way of
life as priorities are shifted to make time for activism. It can
represent an ethical turning point for a person. Wars and social
movements present a moral dilemma for the potential activist--do
nothing and play it safe or do something to stop the killing and
social injustice, take a risk, and perhaps make a difference. As
issues of war and violence polarize attitudes, pressure mounts on
the individual to resolve the dilemma by taking a stand on the
ethical issues. If the decision to participate in the movement
is based on one's greater need or desire to live on 'higher moral
ground', that ethical shift may become the basis of persistent
peace activism. Our study participants related how, directly
confronted with violence and social injustice, they were forced
to struggle with the moral issues, take a stand, then take part
in protests at the risk of public ridicule, even physical harm.
Once the act of joining the movement occurs, however, our
persisters' sustained conunitment evolved gradually. There was
no 'identity crisis' leading to a sudden conversion, a point
Hannon (1990:217-232) emphasizes in his life course view of peace
commitment. The evolution appeared to be a gradual convergence
of socialization influences, social affiliations, the uniqueness
of the historical moment, social criticism, and opportunities for
Hannon's findings, from his study of activists in the Pledge
of Resistance against US military involvement in Central America,
confirm our own. He emphasizes the influence of several
conditions in the formation of committed activists: Early
religious socialization, with its utopian vision of society,
countercultural ethic, and communitarian experience; the college
experience as a radicalizing influence, bringing awareness of
social injustice; role models mentoring them along radical lines;
and political involvement with others of similar conviction.
6. Why Persisters Stay: Commitment-Sustaining Factors
Certainly, the beliefs and life patterns bringing our persisters
to the movement also work to keep them there, as do the contexts
within which they live and work. But we learned of other factors
which act more directly to support a persister's conunitinent.
Some of those influences, such as bonding and vision sharing, are
located primarily in the activist's membership in groups,
organizations, and networks where they live and do their movement
work. Other factors, like management skills, personal growth and
satisfaction, and creativity issue more from the activist's
learning and development. We will look, in turn, at each of
these--membership, management, personal benefit, and creativity.
6.1 The Persister as Member
Our persisters' commitment to peace action depended heavily on
how closely they were connected with the movement communities in
which they lived and worked. We evaluated two dimensions of that
connection, bonding and visioning.
The strength of a commitment can best be determined by
observing how consistently a person pursues a particular course
of action.' Asking people how committed they are is, of course, a
less reliable measure than watching what they do. While we could
not observe the everyday activity of our study participants, we
could roughly determine the strength of their commitment by
learning how strongly they were bonded to their peace
organizations and how those ties reinforced it.' Kendrick's
research has shown the significance of such ties in the
movement's recruitment and retention of activists (Kendrick,
Bonding to the peace group's principles. The more closely
aligned an activist's beliefs with the principles of the peace
group they join, the greater the likelihood that a personal bond
will form to its ideology. There was a strong correspondence
between our respondents' beliefs and their organization's
principles, especially regarding the use of consensus in making
decisions, the emphasis on nonviolence, the linking of peace with
social justice, and the strong undercurrent of environmental
concerns. This ideological compatibility helped connect these
activists to the broader peace movement and sustained their
commitment over the long term.
Bonding to the organization. The way people evaluate the
performance of their peace organization is an important indicator
of how attached to it they feel. Activists who bond to the
organization are likely to express support for its goals and to
show appreciation for its ways of working and how it handles
internal conflict and external crises. The way a peace
organization functions bears directly on its ability to preserve
the commitments of its members. Participants must feel good
about their organization: For the opportunities it provides for
creativity, for the support it gives to individual efforts, for
the positive working atmosphere it creates, and for the
effectiveness of its operating style and democratic structures
and procedures. As a group, persisters reported positive
feelings about how their peace groups were organized and run,
despite some frustration with the length of time required to make
decisions by consensus.
Bonding to leaders. Expressions of appreciation and support
for a peace organization's leaders indicate the presence of a
bond to leadership. This attachment is likely to strengthen a
member's commitment. Our persisters felt that the leaders of
their groups were performing well, even regarding some as model
peace activists. Yet, of the four types of bonding examined,
personal attachment to leaders appeared to be the least important
because of the peace movement's collective leadership ethic.
With its emphasis on equality, participatory democracy, and
shared responsibility, the movement places less importance on
individual leaders. In fact, there is a pronounced concern that
such leaders not be elevated above the conununity.
Consequently, bonding to leaders seemed less important in
determining how conunitment was sustained than other factors.
More influential was their perception of how democratically and
effectively their organizations operated, and how they felt about
the people with whom they worked. Yet, most judged the leaders
of their organizations to be good and effective people,
suggesting some loyalty to them as well.
Bonding to the peace community. Positive feelings toward co-
workers and close friendships with them indicate the presence of
bonding to the peace community. If such relationships exist, we
can assume that a member's commitment will be strengthened and
thus be more likely to survive. Close relationships within the
movement, mutual respect, and common experience draw members
together into a community of caring and hope. These ties can
compensate for weaker bonds they might have with the organization
or its leaders.
Social networks foster the formation of group identity and
commitment as other research has noted. For example, Melucci
(1988:329-348) shows how collective identity develops among
movement members within their social networks. His findings
confirm the observations of Gerlach and Hine (1970) about the
positive influence of social networks on participation and
commitment generally. Likewise, the significance of
countercultural networks for drawing people into movement
activity is illustrated in Kriesi's (1988:41-82) work on Dutch
Since no bond by itself is likely to preserve a commitment,
our activists' entire bonding pattern was examined. We needed to
know how many bonds existed: Was there attachment to the peace
group's principles, to its organizational structure, to its
leaders, and to the community? Also, what was the strength of
each of those connections? For most of our persisters, all four
bonds were present and, while intensity varied across them, they
were solid enough to help sustain a commitment over time.
Sharing the Peace Vision. Beliefs held in common with
coworkers appear to reinforce the persistence of peace activism.
Our persisters shared a vision of a peaceful world, agreed that
eliminating war, violence, and social injustice was the means to
its realization and committed themselves to a life of peace
activism. This vision was part of a shared reality continually
reinforced within and outside their organizations through
frequent communication with one another. This shared perception
of a preferred future and the means to achieve it integrated
persisters into the community and provided them with a common
world view. It also defined the problems to be solved,
established a course of action and offered a rationale for
continuing movement work, as well as providing a common discourse
to give it meaning and coherence.
The social reality shared by persisters differed in an
important respect from the perceptions of those we studied who
stayed active only for a while. Persisters saw themselves as a
small, dedicated group distinct from the thousands who dropped
out of activism after a short time or who entered the movement at
intervals in response to major crises. In short, persisters know
they are persisters, keeping at it while others come and go.
Sharing a perception of their unique persister role keeps them
conunitted over the long term and creates a cohesiveness among
them. This 'staying power', combined with their vision of a
peaceful world emerging sometime in the future, gives them the
tenacity and confidence to continue their movement work.
6.2 The Persister as Manager
An activist commitment must be managed if it is to endure, so
activists must be clever in shaping their lives for prolonged
Managing support and criticism. An enduring peace commitment
needs wholehearted backing from those close to the activist. Our
persisters were encouraged by spouses, children, parents and
friends. Often those supporters made significant sacrifices so
the activist's work could continue. Strong encouragement also
came from fellow movement members. Such support encouraged
persisters to keep with the work, helped them deal with
discouragement, and provided time and other resources so they
could pursue their peace action with consistency. They were
especially sensitive to this need for dependable support and they
shaped their social lives so they could receive it.
Persistent activists cannot escape criticism from members of
their extended family or others whose ideological leanings differ
from their own. Our activists commonly used three responses to
such criticisms: They discounted them, knowing they were based on
irreconcilable differences of belief; they insulated themselves
by Iiiniting their contact with the critics; and they employed
humor to remove the sting from harsh words. These methods worked
in part because activists had compensating support from more
significant family members and close friends.
Managing competing responsibilities. An activist's
commitment is set within a larger constellation of obligations to
family, job, and friends. Persisters balanced movement and
nomnovement demands creatively. Many chose to live a materially
simple life to reduce income pressures on their movement work.
Some took or created employment with flexible time schedules so
they could more easily integrate peace action into their lives.
Others found lowpaying jobs in their peace groups, especially
valued opportunities for earning a modest living from peace
Our observation that persisters manage their commitment by
using effective organizing skills is supported by Nepstad and
Smith (1996) in their study of recruitment to high-risk activism.
They found the ability of activists to balance family and
professional career responsibilities to be an influential
determinant of their willingness to act on their intention to
participate in peace actions when risks were high. Activist
persistence, according to their study and ours, depends more on
how skillful activists are at organizing multiple life
responsibilities, than on being free of such demands, as had been
suggested by previous research.
Such creative management of responsibilities by our activists
was possible in part because their family and friends were
willing to 'take up the slack' so movement work could receive
their fuller attention. Thus, commitment is not merely an act of
individual will: It also has a deeply social character.
Husbands, wives, children, and friends may all share the burden,
such as assuming responsibilities the peace activist must neglect
at home or work. At the very least, supporters must be willing
to tolerate being neglected as the activist attends meetings,
plans and carries out demonstrations, then retreats into solitude
for renewal. Persisters managed the competing demands on their
time in a climate where others offered support, helping their
peace commitments survive.
Managing burnout. To persevere, an activist must deal with
burnout. Persisters were normally able to avoid it: They
balanced action with reflection, diversified their activities,
used creative outlets to relieve tension, withdrew into solitude
or nature to regain their energy, found kindred spirits for
mutual support, and developed long-term views of change in order
to maintain their motivation. They refrained from working to the
point of exhaustion, cared for personal needs as well as movement
demands, and took time to play and create. Such efforts balanced
the stresses and disappointments of peace work with activities
that renewed their energy and spirit. Through this balancing
act, burnout was avoided and their commitment was sustained.
6.3 The Persister as Beneficiary
There is no selfless activism. Personal benefits from activism,
some material and others not, help sustain an activist's
commitment. Some of the same rewards motivating society beyond
the movement operate within it as well: success, personal growth,
Success. Moral conviction and the pressing nature of a
problem can keep peace activists going, even in the face of
serious setbacks. Yet, there must be some personal rewards for
persistence as well; at the very least, a perception that their
action has made a difference. Perception of modest success is an
important reward of social activism. For example, persisters
could point to shifts in local public concern with nuclear war
and radiation pollution as indicators of the modest success of
Rocky Flats protest activity.
Personal growth. While their small victories are important
for keeping activists involved, they do find other rewards: The
gratification of living in harmony with their nonviolence values;
the appreciation of other movement members and supporters;
observing other activists living the ethics of nonviolence among
themselves and with opponents in the connnunity; watching the
members of their peace group successfully arrive at a consensus
and preserve a feeling of community; learning how to better
communicate and organize; and experiencing a more meaningful
Such intangible rewards seemed to fulfill the personal
ambition of most persisters, guided as they were by a broader
view of change: Of becoming more peaceful and effective people
who were living an integrated, nonviolent life while contributing
to the creation of a more just and peaceful world. Seen in this
light, persistent activists may join social movements in order to
change society or solve global problems but, in the process, they
may also change themselves, thereby creating the possibility for
a new kind of community.
Our results concur with those of Knudson-Ptacek (1990:233-245).
She learned that peace activists found fulfillment and
success through their relationships to others and saw their
personal development evolve as their orientation shifted from
selfish interests toward the welfare of the collective. Their
growing sense of interdependence reinforced their belief that
they were in part responsible for causing global problems and for
solving them together. That activist interdependence had four
bases: The spiritual, a unified view of life offering meaning and
direction; the political, an understanding of political
processes; the relational, friendship patterns providing bonding
and personal commitment to others; and the defensive, banding
together for protection. The testimony of our persisters
supports this line of thinking. They spoke about these four
connections in relation to their commitment to serving the world
community, which they felt was their larger obligation.
Careers. Many of our persisters developed 'ethical careers'.
Yet, while they were entrepreneurial in the sense that many
created work for themselves in the movement, that work was rarely
remunerative. A few had modestly paid positions with peace
organizations, but most persisted not because they could make a
living from peace activism, but out of a sense of mission.
Our persisters resembled in some respects veterans of the
1964 Freedom Summer campaign for southern black voter
registration (McAdam, 1989). Several had begun their activism in
the civil rights movement. Many were working in education and
the helping professions, with incomes lower than their high
educational achievement would lead one to predict. Support from
their extended social networks appeared to be more substantial
than support they received from their movement organizations.
Many moved from their initial step into activism as a moral
stand, to peace work as a vocation within a growing web of
personal and organizational supports.
Career activism involved more profound life change for some
of our persisters than for others. There were two broadly-
defined groups: Those who reshaped their lives around their
activism and those for whom movement work involved no major life
change. These two paths illustrate Travisaro's distinction
between conversion and alternation in social movement
participation. Some participants' lives are transformed by total
commitment to the cause. They become completely absorbed in the
movement. Others are able to 'commute' between the movement
world and their conventional lives (Travisaro, 1981:237-248).
6.4 The Persister as Creator
The activists we have come to know through our study persist in
large part because they are creative in their activism. They
have learned entrepreneurship, to innovate, to do their work with
many fewer resources than are available in the conventional world
of work. Living 'life on the edge', integrating personal and
movement life, devising workable strategy and tactics for keeping
ahead of the opponent, seeing and exploiting a personal
opportunity structure--all have required that the persister
become an imaginative and inventive person. The history of
nonviolent action would support the argument that, lacking the
capacity or willingness to resist violence and militarism by
physical force, activists must be infinitely more creative than
their adversaries (Ackerman & Kruegler, 1994; Powers & Vogele,
Our research suggests that persistent activists are not only
rational in selecting a course of action, as resource
mobilization theorists claim, but they are also imaginative in
identifying, mobilizing and combining their resources to pursue
it. Their creativity is reflected in the daily decisions they
make in fashioning their lives, preventing burnout, designing and
implementing projects, and even crafting their performance in
court after civil disobedience actions. Awareness of this
activist creativity is essential for understanding how their
commitments develop and survive. This 'creative action' is a
resource mobilized by the activist and collective action
researchers should give it more attention.
Creativity is related to rationality, but it has unique
features: It is the process of rationally exploring options
beyond conventional ways of thinking and organizing. It draws on
imagination and thrives on novelty and risk-taking. It is
characterized by innovation, a process where people deal with
changing conditions, develop new opportunities, and invent novel
programs. This creativity is at the heart of persistent
7. Factors that Sustain Commitment
Persisters' commitment was sustained to the extent that they:
- Preserved their activist identity and a strong sense of
personal responsibility to work for peace and social justice
in the world.
- Cultivated personal opportunities for peace action.
- Perceived the urgency and effectiveness of peace action.
_ Remained bonded to peace movement principles, and to
their movement organizations, leaders, and communities.
_ Managed support and criticism from inside and outside the
_ Effectively managed their competing responsibilities.
_ Successfully integrated peace action into their everyday
_ Developed a strategy for managing burnout.
_ Received the rewards of activism in the form of new
skills and personal growth.
_ Shared the peace vision with other activists, including a
long-term view of change.
Although each of these factors made its unique contribution
to activist persistence, a few seemed crucial: Having an activist
identity, including a strong sense of personal responsibility to
work for peace and social justice; believing that peace work was
urgent; feeling bonded to the peace movement; managing competing
responsibilities; integrating peace work into daily life; and
developing a strategy for managing burnout. This shows, in line
with Lichbach's ideas about the mix of solutions to the Rebel's
Dilemma, how different social factors combine to ensure longterm
We have brought together the many elements of our activists'
accounts into a model of sustained commitment (Figure 1). This
model reveals the various socialization influences on the
formation of beliefs which make people more attitudinally
available for activism. It also identifies life pattern as the
primary determinant of their situational availability, giving
them the time and energy to act on their beliefs. Once available
to the movement, their joining is contingent on opportunity.
When peace groups and action targets are nearby and plentiful,
one who is fully available will be more likely to become
Once activists are in the movement, a number of influences
sustain their commitment. Some of these our preliminary research
had prepared us to find: The belief in the urgency and
effectiveness of peace action, which gives it meaning; the
development of an activist identity rooted in the ethic of
helping others and feeling personally responsible to act for
change; bonding to a peace group's ideology, organization,
leadership and community; continually clarifying the movement's
vision and its long-term view of change.
We had not anticipated other influences, however. Those had
to do with the persister as manager and creator. Much of their
persistence appeared to flow from their ability to manage their
commitment to the movement. They gained support from significant
others and handled criticism in creative ways; balanced their
competing responsibilities so activism was possible; integrated
peace work into their daily lives; cultivated opportunity so they
could be involved in actions that mattered to them; developed
creative strategies for managing burnout; and received rewards
from their activism in the form of personal growth which also
kept them involved. Persisters appeared to be consummate
managers of their lives in support of their continued activism.
The activist's role as creator seemed equally influential in
sustaining commitment. The persister's 'creative urge', one
might call it, and the ability to fulfill it through activism
seemed particularly salient. Opportunity for action, for
instance, must be continually cultivated by activists, either by
responding to projects of others or by creating their own. Their
full exploitation of this 'action opportunity structure' permits
them to meet this need for creative engagement. Likewise, the
challenge of creating a personal life that integrates their peace
values and work with the requirements of everyday living is an
act of creation that sustains commitment. Finally, growing
personally is recreating oneself from movement work through new
skills and a more nonviolent temperament.
Our persisters also demonstrated their creative attention to
the care and reinvention of their organizations. For example,
persisters at the Rocky Mountain Peace Center replaced an
ineffective board-staff structure for making decisions with an
imaginative 'spokescouncil' to better apply their core peace
values in making and h-nplementing decisions. The same
organization arranged its program more rationally around issue-
based communities. The absence of such creative efforts by
activists to maintain organizational vitality was a major reason
for the rapid decline of the Nuclear Freeze movement in the 1980s
Just as important as imagination in personal and
organizational life is the persister's pursuit of creative and
flexible strategies against the targets of the movement. Without
innovative strategies, opponents quickly learn to anticipate the
activists' actions and preempt or neutralize them, thus
eliminating the modest successes our persisters have said were
important for sustaining their commitment. Outwitting one's
opponent, especially locating the chinks in the armor of the
state, is a direct challenge to the persister's creative urge.'
We saw how important this was in the 1997 strategic and tactical
inventiveness of the Serbian democracy movement actions in
Belgrade and elsewhere.
Within our model, microcontextual processes--the bonding, the
sense of urgency and common vision, the personal growth, the
management, the creativity--seem to increase the likelihood of a
sustained activist commitment. They operate within and in turn
influence the macromobilization context where larger political
events and policies help set the local activist agenda.
8.1 Study Contributions
The results of our study have theoretical and practical value.
They partially validate and expand each of the three major
theories of social movement development. They clarify the
significant influence of belief that collective behavior
theorists have identified as the key stimulus of participation in
social movements. They strengthen the argument of New Social
Movements theorists that culture, context, collective identity
and social networks are instrumental in the formation and
preservation of social movements. Finally, the accounts of our
persisters offer support for the resource mobilization view of
social movements as the rational pursuit of solutions to public
grievances that have been neglected by institutional politics.
What our study revealed about pacifist persisters from the
1970s and 1980s serves to illuminate what researchers learned
about peace movement changes in the USA during that period: The
movement's surge and slump dynamics with the lasting effect of
expansion; its institutionalization in some sectors that made it
less episodic; the broadening of its goals that brought it into
common cause with other nonviolent movements.' These movement
developments supported pacifist persistence and, in turn, were
reinforced by persisters who were creative in managing their
commitments and determined to live with integrity from their
pacifist beliefs. It is such hardcore persisters who foster and
maintain the vigor and effectiveness of the movement. Thus,
activist persistence seems important for peace scholars to study.
On the practical side, knowledge of what leads to that
persistence could increase the movement's effectiveness and
Our findings revealed two types of activist capacities that
are important for peace movement organizations: Life management
skills and creativity. Since these qualities are essential for
success in all human endeavors, we should not be surprised to
discover their importance for sustaining activism. Creativity is
especially important because that quality has been largely
neglected in the study of social movements and peace action.
Given the prominence of 'creative action' that we discovered in
the lives of activists and the work of their organizations, it
should be of major concern for future studies of persistent
activism. Attention to that creative element could ultimately
enhance movement effectiveness. Cultivating the creativity and
life management skills of activists could serve to offset the
serious power disadvantage that normally constrains challenge
The peace movement may now be coalescing with movements for
human rights, democracy, civic development, and environmental
protection into a transnational metamovement against violence.'
If so, knowing how to encourage activist conunitinent would be
essential for building a strong and lasting coalition. In that
event, creativity and other factors that keep members in the
movement could be of particular interest to activists and
Our model of sustained commitment is a step toward
understanding why people become active in peace work and how they
maintain their commitment to it. We are hoping that others will
refme and expand our model by conducting similar studies in other
parts of the world. Such studies of persistence should be of
special interest to peace scholars and to movement organizations
with their constant challenge of attracting and retaining
1. For a thorough treatment of the three groups--persisters,
shifters and dropouts--see Downton & Wehr (1997).
2. Availability and opportunity are concepts explored in Downton
(1973, 1979, 1980).
3. Becker (1960) abandoned the then prevailing view of commitment
as a subjective state of mind in favor of a behavioral
definition of the concept as 'a consistent line of action'.
4. Our thinking in this article is based, in part, on our earlier
theoretical work of peace commitment as a process of bonding
to leadership, ideology, organizations, rituals, and
friendship groups (Downton & Wehr, 1991).
5. Inventiveness and tactical imagination in the Italian peace
movement are explored by Ruzza (1992).
6. Of particular relevance are two goal changes noted by Colwell
& Bond (1994:41-42): the expansion of US peace organizations'
goals beyond simply opposition to war and the increased
prominence of commitment to nonviolence.
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