The Styles and Dilemmas of Advocacy: A Conversation with Paul Lichterman

By Andrew MalmuthJanuary 9, 2021

The Styles and Dilemmas of Advocacy: A Conversation with Paul Lichterman
THE HISTORY OF HOUSING in Los Angeles is a story of ruthless displacement, segregation, and speculation, but it is also a story of collective struggle and civic organizing. From the Arechiga family, in 1959, refusing to leave Chavez Ravine to, in 2020, housing coalitions pushing to extend eviction moratoriums, inhumane housing and land use policies in L.A. have met stiff resistance from residents, community-based advocates, and social movement organizations. This work is more vital than ever — the 2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count found that over 66,000 people in L.A. County are experiencing homelessness, a 12.7 percent rise from last year’s count. However, as Paul Lichterman, a professor of sociology at USC, demonstrates in his new book, How Civic Action Works: Fighting for Housing in Los Angeles, the work of housing advocacy in L.A. is not only a struggle against exploitative real estate practices, but an ongoing dilemma in coordinating civic action. How do advocates work together to try to tackle the housing issues that are rampant in Los Angeles and across the country? What does this form of activism look like on the ground? His book is an ethnographic attempt at addressing these questions. 

Where Lichterman’s book departs from many accounts of social movements is that it starts with asking how advocates establish what a given social problem is in the first place, then turning to how they consider strategy, and how they build solidarity. Each emerges from different “styles” of civic action. Drawing on cultural sociology — as well as the pragmatist philosophy of John Dewey — he views styles of action as “mostly taken-for-granted, shared expectations about how to do things together, and how to relate to each other and participate.” Those shared styles of civic action shape how advocates define the problem, as well as how they strategize and form solidary bonds. It is often assumed that advocates’ political beliefs or personalities explain how they carry out these tasks. By tracing styles of civic action separately from ideologies or personalities, Lichterman argues, we can better understand practical problems, such as why housing coalitions fall apart or why some advocacy groups are less interested in short-term wins than others.

While acknowledging that housing advocates make decisions in relation to the structural barriers they face (e.g., lack of resources or entrée with elite policymakers), the book focuses more closely on the streams of interaction that make up the day-to-day work of advocates. The community meetings with residents suffering displacement. The sometimes fraught work of coordinating separate organizations that have their own agendas. By tracing and finding patterns in these mundane actions, Lichterman offers an in-depth view of how advocates make decisions, build relationships, and imagine possibilities for the future.


ANDREW MALMUTH: You’ve spent a long time thinking about the idea of civic action. Why is this concept so important to your research, and why do you think it is important for both sociologists and the general public to understand?

PAUL LICHTERMAN: When I write about civic action, I am specifically talking about members of society working collectively to solve problems. It’s one of the core features of any democracy. It’s what Tocqueville was so concerned with in Democracy in America. The idea that there is a kind of collective, relatively egalitarian process of problem-solving that citizens — ideally — do together. I’ve been interested in civic action for a long time partly for those theoretical reasons — to understand how democracy works as an active process. Patterns of civic action are key to understanding many problems advocates face. At the same time, I think civic action as a concept offers an alternative to what usually happens in the social sciences, which is a division of the democratic process into different boxes. So, you have social movements that do problem-solving contentiously — the usual image is people marching and chanting — and then we might have volunteer groups that do charitable service — and, again, we often have starchy ideas about those groups’ work. What we tend to do is divide these groups up and just say: These are different animals.

What has interested me is that in working with what I’ll call “problem-solving organizations” — whether that is a social movement organization, a nonprofit that provides services, or a community-based organization — you can see that there are different kinds of action going on within the same organization. For example, a coalition that is working on housing problems in Los Angeles might look like your classic social movement from 9:00 to 10:00 in the morning. They’re going to a rally and chanting with other activists. And then at a different point in the day they’re more like a social service organization that provides counseling for tenants. And then, at the end of the day, they may do some city council lobbying the way you’d often see with a traditional interest group. These different kinds of action, traditionally, are covered by different academic theories. I wanted to be able to compare those different streams of action and ask: When does an organization decide to act like contentious activists in a social movement? Why does it decide to not go that route and to use a different means to solve the problem at hand? I also found several really different styles even inside the same social movement group. So, I’m saying let’s follow the action and look for patterns, instead of relying on categories like “social movement” or “nonprofit organization” and assume each goes with one kind of action. The concept of civic action gives us a bigger box of ideas to compare things that have too often been separated.

Part of your motivation for the book was dissatisfaction with the lenses that theorists of social movements generally use to explain activism. Where does your approach differ from how social movements are usually discussed?

For the past 40 years or so, a lot of sociologists have assumed that participants, especially leaders of social movements, act like strategic entrepreneurs. That they create a “market” for a solution to a problem. That they are on the lookout for opportunities to make good investments that require the fewest resources to produce the biggest gain. Now, I understand why we do that — it’s been a long-running reaction to an older understanding of social movements that treated them essentially like either irrational or criminal activity. The activity of violent mobs and crowds. That is where the study of social movements came from. Then in the 1970s sociologists decided, no, we should be able to think of social movement actors as rational, not irrational. Generally, to be “rational,” not just for social science but in the American cultural mainstream, means to be “business-like” — i.e., strategic in the way that a businessperson is strategic.

That is, in my view, a very narrow understanding of rationality and it neglects some of the core questions that I’m interested in asking in this book. First, it doesn’t help us understand how social activists go about defining the “problem” that they are trying to address in the first place. With any kind of social problem-solving, you have to define the problem in some way. What is the problem like? What are some of its potential solutions? Second, it doesn’t address one of the core features of social activism, which is that you have to build relationships with other social activists, constituencies, and allies. I learned from observation that neither the process of defining problems nor building relationships is captured well by the image of the strategic entrepreneur who maximizes “investments” in people or ideas.

You seem to be moving away from questions of rationality and more toward questions of how a person’s or organization’s cultural context affects the way they approach decision-making. 

Yes, the cultural embeddedness is really what’s important here. That’s what styles are: different cultural ways of strategizing. I’m not suggesting that social advocates are not rational. I’m suggesting that whatever we might consider to be rational is always bounded by how we think we should collaborate. Something else depends on culture too — what we imagine the problem to be and what we consider potential solutions. For example, when we think of housing affordability for low-income people, many activists would say that that’s a justice issue. However, when you start to talk about the sustainability of affordable housing, that starts to feel like an environmental, quality-of-life issue. To many social advocates, that starts to sound like a different problem. It starts to sound like an approach that detracts from the justice angle. But it is not a given that we should avoid talking about both the sustainability and affordability of housing in the same conversation. The book shows how a broader culture of political debate primes many advocates to see these as opposed. We need to think about this cultural context if we want to explain why there is only a relatively narrow range of debate around so many issues, like housing.

The book suggests that Los Angeles, while it has its particularities, is a useful site for understanding civic action. What can research in Los Angeles tell us about how civic action works elsewhere?

I would say that studying housing advocacy in Los Angeles can tell us quite a bit about how these processes work in other parts of the United States. Sure, different locales generate specific conditions, but, in general, you can think of styles of civic action as a kind of national cultural repertoire. For example, the style of problem-solving that, in the book, I call a “community of interest” has been operating in some form for the last 110 to 120 years. There are social advocacy groups that may not have a great deal in common (e.g., they work on disparate issues), but they discover one issue that they share and unite toward a common object or interest. They pursue a particular goal together but then go back to their offices and work on separate tasks. That’s a well-known style of problem-solving that social movements and nonprofits pursue all over the country.

You stress that ideas about what is “strategic” are never fixed but are rather socially constructed over time. Can you say more about what that process looks like?

When we use the term strategic, a lot of us assume, going back to my earlier point, that we mean acting like an investor that is maximizing resources for the greatest gain. And, clearly, that is one way to be strategic. However, we gain a lot when we use an older understanding of what strategy means — one going back to John Dewey and the philosophical school of pragmatism. We can think of strategy as any set of means that we develop to address a problem that we might also redefine at a certain point as our efforts grow. The idea of developing a “set of means” opens us up to the idea that there isn’t just one economic, or “rational,” calculus going on when we are devising strategy.

It also allows us to pay close attention to an important factor in strategies: time. For example, in one housing coalition, advocates assumed they were going to be working on housing problems — as they understood the problem — for decades to come. There was never going to be a short-term solution to the problem of affordable housing in Los Angeles. Another coalition, however, was working on a campaign to convince City Council to adopt affordable housing mandates. That’s on a pretty short timeline. The people working on that campaign may recognize — privately — that housing is a long-term problem, but the outcome of the campaign is the identifiable end. On the other hand, when your campaign is fighting back against exploitative property developers in Los Angeles, that’s never going to be accomplished in a two-year fight with City Council. If you define the problem as: We have systematically exploitative relations between low-income communities and developers — that’s a decades-long fight. Each short-term win may matter less in this case.

So, those are two different ways of talking about success and two ways of thinking about strategy. Each has different means for achieving goals. Each is “strategic.” But the larger political culture attunes us to see short-term, tangible wins as more effective. However, that’s not a given — it’s an issue with how we understand what makes people rational in the American cultural mainstream.

A really valuable insight in your book is the distinction between a “community of interest” and a “community of identity.” The former is a style of problem-solving where people and groups come together to tackle a shared issue like housing affordability. The groups may not have much in common, but they agree on marshalling resources to push for a particular shared interest. For a community of identity, the advocacy work is rooted in a shared collective identity of acting on behalf of the “community.” Community solidarity is inextricable from the activism. How did these distinctions show up in your fieldwork?

When I was trying to identify different styles of action, one of the things I started looking for was: Where are there breaches? In other words, when do advocates make mistakes — in how they discuss an issue, interact with a resident, etc. — and how does that get policed? Any public group sustains togetherness this way; social advocates are not different. But I noticed some real stark differences in the types of “mistakes” that advocates were sanctioned for in the various organizations in the book.

Looking at the style of problem-solving that I call a community of identity, it was really important for advocates continuously to affirm their identity with what they viewed as the community. Community solidarity with other tenants’ groups or labor organizations, for example, was an end in and of itself. I noticed during meetings that advocates needed to keep identifying strongly with the community — not simply care about housing affordability and gentrification as an issue. In most cases, the “community,” implicitly, was lower-income Black and Brown neighborhoods. A “good” participant, or a good representative from another organization, would be someone who could affirm the community as defined by leaders of that particular coalition. Advocates who didn’t engage in that kind of expression could be sanctioned or sidelined. To some advocates this seemed restrictive, pushing away potential allies who cared about the housing issue too. But others would say fighting for the community, not just an issue, was what mattered. This was a dilemma.

In a community of interest, things looked very different. The members of the organizations did not need to identify with each other so much as they needed to agree to focus narrowly on their shared interest. If the interest they shared was legislation to produce mandated affordable housing construction in Los Angeles, then that was the basis for solidarity. It didn’t matter if the groups had different agendas in general — in fact, bringing in disparate groups made the coalitions seem broader and therefore more legitimate. In a community of interest around housing, the “breaches” would happen when a housing advocate would say something like: We really need to deal with police violence because so many of my constituents are concerned about policing in their neighborhood. For the leaders of the community of interest, that’s a different issue. So, in one coalition with this style, for instance, those comments got sidelined and pushed off the table. To other advocates, that could look disempowering — or racist. But these advocates would say it was a matter of staying focused on one winnable issue.

In both cases, these groups drew boundaries around permissible ways of acting and speaking. How they drew the boundaries is the question I am interested in. And, in this case, I noticed that communities of interest and identity drew boundaries around “we” in very distinct ways, with different dilemmas and trade-offs.

I’m interested in the emotional character of these different styles of activism. In the book, you discuss a meeting held by a housing coalition that was trying to push for a mixed-income housing ordinance (MIHO) at the city level. For the meeting, the coalition reached out to advocates that were operating more in line with the “community of identity” style and who, during the meeting, felt put off by the way the coalition approached strategic questions as more practical exercises — i.e., how do we get this done? — than deeply felt issues of racial or community solidarity. This felt like emotional dissonance. Did you see that in your work? 

I noticed emotional dynamics all the time because, when we’re talking about styles of civic action, were really talking about ways of working together, which becomes emotional for the same reason that any relationship does. Importantly, ways of engaging in civic action are not just stratagems that advocates can put on and take off at will. For too long, we social researchers underestimated how emotionally as well as culturally involved advocates are.

When people are operating as a community of identity, the basis of working together is partly this assumption that we’re committed to a long-standing community that is being imperiled by external threats, so, of course, people are constantly feeling that emotionally. Developers might price us out of our neighborhood, upend our lives! The community of interest style also comes with emotions, but they operate differently. You can think of the kind of emotion that comes near the end of a major campaign that has gone on for months. People get extremely tense and emotionally involved right near the finish line, because so much has built toward that and, because of the short timeline, there is going to be a declared success or failure. With a community of identity, I found an ongoing sense of indignation, anger, and frustration, whereas with the community of interest there were more crescendos during different segments of action.

How do you think about the role of racial identity and racial ideology in shaping civic action? It seems that being embedded in a community of identity is deeply tied to histories of racial exclusion and solidarity — i.e., a community of identity is inextricable from racialized subjectivity. But you are careful to not tie styles to particular racial ideologies. Why is that?

The way that groups engage in civic action never fully reduces to the social background of the people who are working together. There are several different styles — different sets of understandings of how we should work together — that many of us vaguely recognize even if we don’t name them as such, and that we either have an affinity for or not. But those don’t necessarily map onto racial identity. The reality is messier. This complexity however shouldn’t suggest that race doesn’t matter — the experience of racial subjugation is central to advocacy in the United States. What the complexity does mean is that there are different ways that people of color work together to address problems produced by racial subjugation. Those different styles can cross racial and ethnic boundaries. Advocates don’t always emphasize racial identity when they address problems that racism produces.

The conclusion of your book focuses on how the analysis and conceptual tools you use might help advocates doing this work on the ground. For example, by pointing toward reasons that coalitions dissolve. What can activists and others involved in civic action take away from this book?

First, I would say that in the world of social advocacy, when participants are arguing over strategy — about the best way to address housing problems, for instance — quite often they are going to focus on the importance of ideology. For example, one group will say that another is not radical enough — they don’t have the right critical ideology. Or, in many cases, advocates will point to difficult personalities and say, well, this person is just difficult to work with. I would strongly suggest that advocates focus on the style in which we work together. Styles of action have real, practical consequences, and I think the book has some vocabulary for talking about the sources of tension — as well as the sources of joy — that come from different styles of working. By discussing styles, we may be able to get past some of the inevitable tensions that arise from ideological disagreement. Ideological tensions need to be addressed, but they may not lead to the breakdown of a coalition if there are open discussions about how a group wants to work together and discuss ideas. Second, we have to recognize how different approaches to civic action aren’t necessarily “good” or “bad,” but, rather, they represent different trade-offs and dilemmas, whether that’s pushing for a MIHO or organizing for tenants’ rights. It becomes easier to build coalitions when those trade-offs are acknowledged and discussed openly, rather than immediately moralized.


Andrew Malmuth is a writer and a PhD student in the UCLA Department of Sociology.

LARB Contributor

Andrew Malmuth is a writer and a PhD student in the UCLA Department of Sociology.


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