“Building the Plane While Flying It”: Membership, Structure, and Tensions in an Emergent Hybrid Organization
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“Building the Plane While Flying It”: Membership, Structure, and Tensions in an Emergent Hybrid Organization

  • Author(s): McClelland-Cohen, Avi
  • Advisor(s): Myers, Karen K
  • et al.

As institutions decline and digital networks take frontstage in activist efforts, the role of formal organizations is changing in ways that implicate the sustainability and success of activist involvement. Historically, formal organizations have played a critical role in activism and social movements by helping to overcome the free-rider problem (Olson, 1965) and by serving as breeding grounds for civic leaders (Skocpol, 2003). One way they accomplished these aims was through the use of transformational repertoires, or “deep organizing” activities aimed at cultivating bonds among participants and developing novice activists into leaders. Today, however, involvement in formal civic organizations has declined and movement activism is increasingly organized through distributed networks. Networked movements rely more heavily on transactional repertoires, or activities rooted in cost-benefit analyses aimed at increasing participation through relatively shallow strategies. As a result, they can be fleeting and do not necessarily produce seasoned leaders who become stewards of their communities. In this changing landscape, the organizations that do persist often incorporate hybrid strategies, engaging members through a combination of both formal and informal structures (such as bureaucracy complemented by a distributed network). Existing research suggests that hybrid organizations may present interesting opportunities for negotiating oppositions (Jay, 2013). Thus, in addition to incorporating multiple structural types, hybridity may enable members to negotiate other oppositions such as the tension between transactional and transformational repertoires and the tension between volunteer and professional leaderships. I explore these possibilities through a two year long ethnographic study of an emerging hybrid grassroots organization, Resistance United (RU). Findings suggest that tensions relating to structures, repertoires, and leaderships intersect and influence the structuration process in RU, including the ways members constitute their involvement in the organization and reflexively adapt structures to meet their needs and goals. Though RU follows some patterns that have previously been observed in civic and social movement organizations, such as the tendency toward formalization and professionalization (which in turn pull toward transactional repertories), I also illustrate new possibilities relating to hybridity including the potential for volunteer resistance to punctuate the cycle of increasing professionalization and the possibility that intersecting tensions afford unique opportunities for negotiation. I discuss the role that formal organizations continue to play in cultivating civic leaders even in a networked society and present considerations for both grassroots organizations and their members.

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