Laughing Saints and Righteous Heroes: Emotional Rhythms in Social Movement Groups

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Why do people keep fighting for social causes in the face of consistent failure? Why do they risk their physical, emotional, and financial safety on behalf of strangers? How do these groups survive high turnover and emotional burnout?

To explore these questions, Erika Summers Effler undertook three years of ethnographic fieldwork with two groups: anti–death penalty activists STOP and the Catholic Workers, who strive to alleviate poverty. In both communities, members must contend with problems that range from the broad to the intimately personal. Adverse political conditions, internal conflict, and fluctuations in financial resources create a backdrop of daily frustration—but watching an addict relapse or an inmate’s execution are much more devastating setbacks. Summers Effler finds that overcoming these obstacles, recovering from failure, and maintaining the integrity of the group require a constant process of emotional fine-tuning, and she demonstrates how activists do this through thoughtful analysis and a lucid rendering of their deeply affecting stories.

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Editorial Reviews

Randall Collins
Laughing Saints and Righteous Heroes may well be the best-written book of serious social science you are ever likely to read. Erika Summers Effler puts you in the midst of the drama and humanity of people struggling for near-impossible ideals, simultaneously facing cold organizational realities and ironies and buffeted by the whirlwind of time. Alongside her moving account of two organizations with vastly different emotional styles, she condenses a theory into memorable aphorisms. Summers Effler comes closer than anyone yet to conquering a theory of time. Her book should delight and inform readers all the way from undergraduate students to sophisticated theorists to leaders of all kinds of organizations seeking a guide for riding the organizational storm.”
James M. Jasper
“By alternating charming stories with hard-hitting theory, Summers Effler unravels the emotional intricacies of the Janus dilemma: saints turn inward to inspire transcendent joy and protect the purity of the group, while heroes storm out to vanquish foes and threats. Best of all are her accounts of her own reactions to the characters she encounters in the two groups she compares, a Catholic Worker community and an organization opposed to the death penalty. Both groups face unimaginable challenges as they struggle to survive.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226188652
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2010
  • Series: Morality and Society Series Series
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Erika Summers Effler is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame.

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Read an Excerpt

Laughing Saints and Righteous Heroes

Emotional Rhythms in Social Movement Groups

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-18866-9

Chapter One

Introduction: How Do Chronically Failing Altruistic Social Movement Groups Persist?

This book is an investigation of altruistic social movement groups. I studied the day-to-day interactions in two altruistic social movement organizations in order to understand how such groups maintain intensity of involvement. My focus was on the process of maintaining the energy required to do the work, a sense of responsibility for others, commitment to the work, cooperation among group members, and the ability to deal with failure. The purpose of this study is to understand the emotional dynamics of such groups, and how group dynamics either motivate the production of collective goods or drain participants of their feelings of efficacy and enthusiasm.

I conducted ethnographies within a Catholic Worker house and an anti–death penalty group. In this volume I compare findings from these ethnographic studies to develop theory about the role of face-to-face interaction in building group culture and generating group emotion. This research has significance for understanding the sources of emotional exhaustion or burnout associated with helping work, as well as the emotional dynamics and organizational patterns that support the continued efforts of charities, social movements, and other nonprofits dedicated to helping others. The findings from this research are also relevant to the recent and increasing focus on the role of emotions in social life within the field of sociology.

This book is based on three years of ethnographic research of two groups that were intensely involved in altruistic causes despite minimal success: a Catholic Worker community and STOP.3 The Catholic Workers sought to bring about a radical transformation of society by living in voluntary poverty and serving their neighbors. STOP, the anti–death penalty group, worked to change capital punishment laws and achieve a moratorium on the death penalty.

This book illustrates how these groups survived unfavorable political conditions, internal conflict, and fluctuations in their resources, through a combination of adjusting to their local environment and working on their local environment so that it adjusted to them.

As I indicated in the preface, my attempts to understand how these two groups persisted led me to a surprising conclusion: I could not find persistence when I looked closely. Indeed, I saw mostly change. Still, if someone asked me, "Did the Catholic Worker community and STOP persist?" I would answer easily and honestly, "Yes." Ultimately I concluded that the notion of "persistence" only made sense if I understood the groups not as solid "things" but rather as flows of activity—like rivers.

Like a river, the groups were ever-changing and unpredictable. Even the most veteran members of the groups could not predict what would happen during any particular interaction. However, there were some aspects of the groups, like the physical limits of the spaces the groups moved within or their most basic ideological commitments, which changed more slowly than other aspects. These slower-changing patterns constrained the flow of day-to-day activity within the groups like riverbanks constrain the flow of a river. However, the relationship between face-to-face interactions and other slower-moving aspects of social organization—like physical space, ideological commitments, or local expectations—did not look like simple reproduction. Rather, it looked like the flow of a highly viscous fluid.

By resisting the flow of activity, physical, interactional, and emotional limits created a sense that events unfolded according to logic. As is the case with a highly viscous fluid, pressures against current physical, interactional, and emotional limits built up and then released as new limits were established. This cycle of constraining limits, building pressure, release, and formation of new limits created a punctuated feel to the flow of activity.

To return to the river analogy, the answer to the question "Is the riverbank or the water more powerful in determining where and how the river flows?" depends on the period of time with which we are concerned. If we want to know if a canoe trip will take us past a particular point, the answer is "the riverbank." If we want to know where the river will be located in 10,000 years, the answer is "the water." Similarly, the answer to the question "Are day-to-day activities or longer-term ideological commitments and political and material constraints more powerful in determining the flow of social movement group activity?" depends on the period of time with which we are concerned. Rather than assuming the importance of one timescale over others, the book will illustrate and explain the relationship between different timescales of social organization within the Catholic Worker community and STOP. In doing so, it will suggest a more general picture of the relationship between different timescales of social organization within social movement groups and groups more generally.

In response to their highly unstable conditions, the Catholic Workers counted on little, had modest goals, and kept their attention physically close to the group. In other words, the Workers became adaptable so that they shifted to accommodate environmental fluctuations. This resulted in rapid shifts in the meanings and an inability to maintain a consistent sense of time, both of which made it difficult for newcomers to become involved in the Catholic Worker community.

STOP, on the other hand, responded to a history of intense internal conflict and increasing access to steady resources and political opportunities by attempting to grow both their numbers and their political power. As STOP trained its attention farther from the group and further into the future, it became larger and more hierarchical. In other words, STOP developed a rigid form to resist environmental fluctuations. STOP's distant focus created more durable meanings, an emphasis on the historical development of the group, and a sense of time that coincided with standard clock and calendar time. Compared to the Catholic Worker community, it was easy for newcomers to move in and out of STOP's lower ranks, but difficult for lower-level office workers to break into the leaders' ranks.

The following chapters illustrate how involvement within these two groups unfolded in cycles of routine structured times and intense unpredictable times. Progressing through these cycles established a speed and rhythm of involvement in the groups. When the groups pulled their attention closer to their physical boundaries, their involvement sped up and became more chaotic. When the groups pushed their attention farther from their physical boundaries, involvement slowed down and became more predictable. The groups shifted their attention toward or away from their own boundaries in response to changes in their environment. For example, successful conclusions to concerted efforts, new political opportunities, or windfalls in resources allowed the groups to imagine more extensive influence and longer-term more ambitious projects. Alternately, disappointments, unfavorable political conditions, or a sudden loss of resources led to shorter-term and more modest expectations and projects.

Neither of the groups was particularly aware of the ways in which their shifts in attention influenced the speed and rhythm of involvement in their groups. Despite the groups' lack of awareness, both the speed and rhythm of involvement were critical for the groups' capacities to synchronize activity both within the groups as well as between the groups and other actors in their environment. This capacity for synchronization in turn affected the groups' capacities to take advantage of access to resources and political openings. Thus the groups' day-to-day and moment-to-moment activity within these groups was influenced far more by the speed and rhythm of involvement than the groups' ideological commitments. Indeed, despite both groups' ideological commitments to gender and racial equality, the temporal and rhythmic constraints on interaction contributed to the unintentional reproduction of gender and racial inequality. More specifically, the closer focus and faster speed of the Catholic Worker community obscured the importance of race in interaction. Alternately, the more distant focus of STOP's leadership and the slower speed of involvement for STOP office staff reproduced gender inequality within the group.

A Glimpse of the Catholic Worker House

Three months after I started spending time at the Catholic Worker house, I took my habitual driving route to the neighborhood. A mile past the center of the city, the height of the buildings dropped off precipitously as high-rises became endless blocks of tiny row houses. The farther I drove, the more boarded-up houses and burnt-out cars I saw. Farther yet, increasing numbers of weedy lots where homes had been demolished made the city blocks look like smiles with missing teeth. I crossed a wide and busy street where most of the businesses had hung Puerto Rican flags over their storefronts. I drove under a banner in Spanish announcing the dates of a Puerto Rican festival and entered the fuzzy boundary between an African American and a Puerto Rican neighborhood. A few blocks up, I turned the corner at a neighborhood bar where a rotating group of racially diverse men usually could be found drinking, talking, and drumming outside.

The narrow street I turned on housed the Catholic Worker community that I had studied for three years. Amateur murals promoting cultural diversity and peace decorated the sagging four-story row house that served as the group's primary residence. To the side was a lot that looked like a tiny urban jungle. It brimmed with hearty-looking weeds that grew in defiance of the hard-packed earth that was littered with broken glass and trash. On the other side of the lot stood a converted garage that housed the Workers' after-school program for neighborhood children.

I knocked to announce my arrival and let myself in. Joan, a White community member in her early fifties, waved me in while she continued to talk on the phone. I threaded my way through the piles of recent donations and pulled out a chair to sit across from her at the dining-room table.

Before I could sit, she hung up and looked at me, saying, "That was someone named Gordy. He's offering us couches if we can get them this afternoon. You're the only one here who can drive. If you want to get them, you need to leave right away."

I had grown accustomed to the flash of irritation and disorientation that I felt in response to the chaotic demands of participating in community life. I knew I would somehow get the couches—I could not very well deny the neighbors the windfall just because coordinating the donation felt like too much of a hassle. I called Gordy and found out that he was a superintendent for a high-rise furnished apartment building. He needed to get rid of about thirty couches by the end of that day. He would rent us a U-Haul that we could reimburse him for later, but I needed to be at his building on the other side of the city in half an hour.

"You here for the couches?" asked a short White guy in his early twenties jangling his keys impatiently.

I told him I was, and he turned and gestured for me to follow. He led me to a basement room filled from top to bottom with small, worn, industrial-looking couches. "I need them out of here today," he said.

"Did you get the U-Haul?"

"Yeah, well, that didn't work out."

I forced a smile and called Joan to work out a new strategy.

"Let's see," Joan hesitated. "We'd have to be able to fill in for Linda during after-school ..." Joan muffled the phone for a few seconds, then said, "Linda will be there with a truck in an hour."

I went outside to wait on the steps for Linda, a White woman in her early twenties who, like Joan, was a member of the Catholic Worker community.

As the end of the hour drew near, Gordy came out to the front of the building where I was waiting on the steps. "Are you sure you're going to be able to get these out of here today?"

Before I could reply, Linda pulled up on the narrow two-way street in front of the building so that she was effectively blocking traffic. I ran up to the U-Haul truck and found her laughing as usual.

"Want a ride?" she said with a grin.

I climbed in the truck, and Gordy indicated that we should drive around the back.

"This certainly is an adventure! Did I tell you it took me three times to pass my driving test?" Linda asked, cracking herself up.

"They're in there," Gordy called out, and gestured to the back door, letting us know that he would not be helping us to load the truck.

We started carrying the first one to the truck and passed a man who appeared to be on Gordy's crew. He made a sound of disgust, shook his head, and walked away.

"Friendly place, no?" Linda laughed as we hoisted the couch into the truck.

When we returned to get another, we found the grumpy crew member plus four others standing around the couches. Linda and I slid past them to grab a couch, and one of the guys turned and told us brusquely, "It will go faster if you just let us do it."

I was not surprised by how put out the crew members were by helping us, despite the fact that we were not the recipients of the couches and their sacrifice was, by any standard, fairly inconsequential compared to Linda's years of living in voluntary poverty. I saw Linda watching the activity serenely and noted that I had never seen this common incongruity bother her.

Gordy was nowhere to be seen when his crew finished loading the truck. Even though they were still grumbling and doing their best to avoid us, I felt we owed Gordy's crew our thanks, so I shook their hands and I thanked them. The first few seemed startled, but they all softened in response.

Linda grinned and waved at them as she climbed into the truck and said, "Thanks so much! We couldn't have done it without you!" Four out of the five men waved back. Turning to me, she added, "We'd better watch out, or they might actually start liking us!"

Linda had trouble putting the truck in gear, and the momentary goodwill of the crew evaporated as they pantomimed disbelief at our unending incompetence.

"Do you want me to drive?" I asked.

"Absolutely not! How else am I going to get practice?" She wiggled her eyebrows and gave me an impish grin. "I told you about all of my failed drivers' tests, right?"

When we arrived back at the Catholic Worker house, we found many of the neighbors anxiously waiting for us. A married couple—Lucy, a Latino woman in her early forties, and her husband, Owen, an African American man also in his forties—climbed into the back of the truck and started handing down couches. Spirits were high, and no one seemed to pay attention to Jenna, a young Latino who was a mother of one but became a guardian to six after her brother went to jail and her sister-in-law abandoned her children. She kept repeating, "I need a navy blue one. We're doing our living room in navy blue, so I need a navy blue one."

Ten or so children burst through the door of the after-school building. "What's going on?" one boy asked.

"Where'd you get the couches?" asked a girl.

"Can I get one?" asked another.

The scene became loud and chaotic until the college-aged volunteers shepherded the children back into the building.

Blueberry—a forty-year-old intermittently homeless White woman from the neighborhood—showed up just as the last couch was handed off the truck. She grabbed Linda in a bear hug when she saw her, leaving Linda stumbling, breathless, and laughing. Then Blueberry turned to me and took my hands. "I remember you! Ooo! Girl, you need to get yourself some good gloves. Your hands are freezing!"

Blueberry was still smiling at me and holding my hands when Lucy came up behind her and hit her on the head with one of the cushions from a couch. Blueberry ran for cover behind Linda. "Please don't beat me. I've never done you any harm. Now everyone knows what a mean woman Lucy is. Isn't that right?"


Excerpted from Laughing Saints and Righteous Heroes by ERIKA SUMMERS EFFLER Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction How Do Chronically Failing Altruistic Social Movement Groups Persist? 1

A Glimpse of the Catholic Worker House 6

A Glimpse of STOP 11

Organization of the Book 14

Overview of the Chapters 17

2 Thrilling Risk Attracts Involvement 23

Draining Helplessness and Chaos at the Catholic Worker House 25

Distress at STOP's Monthly Vigil 42

Toward a Theory of How Thrilling Risk Attracts Involvement 59

Conclusion 67

3 Recovering from Failure Carves Paths to Action 69

A Catholic Worker Story of Failure and Recovery 70

A STOP Story of Collapse and Recovery 87

Toward a Theory of How Recovering from Failure Carves Paths to Action 106

Conclusion 126

4 Evolving Emotional Histories Shape Styles of Persistence 128

A Catholic Worker Story of Persistence 130

A STOP Story of Persistence 144

Toward a Theory of How Evolving Emotional Histories Shape Styles of Persistence 159

Conclusion 180

5 Conclusion: Toward a Fluid Theory of Social Organization 183

High Speed and Uneven Tempo at the Catholic Worker House 184

Low Speed and Even Tempo at STOP 186

Organization Emerges When the Pull toward Expansion Meets Obstacles 189

Stability Eventually Undermines Itself 190

The Relationship between Culture and Social Actors 191

Dynamics of Influence Across Actors 193

The Role of the Observer in the Perception of Stability 195

Assessing Outcomes 199

Conclusion 199

Methods Appendix 203

Working within the Limits of Observation 203

Investigating the Emotional Rhythm of Social Organization 205

Representing the Emotional Rhythm of Social Organization 209

References 213

Index 225

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