THE Historical past OF HOUSING in Los Angeles is a story of ruthless displacement, segregation, and speculation, but it is also a tale of collective wrestle 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 procedures in L.A. have met rigid resistance from people, neighborhood-based mostly advocates, and social movement organizations. This get the job done is additional very important than ever — the 2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Depend located that about 66,000 individuals in L.A. County are dealing with homelessness, a 12.7 percent rise from last year’s depend. Nonetheless, as Paul Lichterman, a professor of sociology at USC, demonstrates in his new guide, How Civic Motion Will work: Fighting for Housing in Los Angeles, the work of housing advocacy in L.A. is not only a battle in opposition to exploitative true estate practices, but an ongoing predicament in coordinating civic motion. How do advocates function jointly to test to tackle the housing issues that are rampant in Los Angeles and throughout the region? What does this sort of activism look like on the floor? His e-book is an ethnographic endeavor at addressing these thoughts. 

The place Lichterman’s ebook departs from lots of accounts of social actions is that it commences with asking how advocates build what a supplied social issue is in the initial area, then turning to how they think about strategy, and how they establish solidarity. Each emerges from different “styles” of civic action. Drawing on cultural sociology — as properly as the pragmatist philosophy of John Dewey — he views designs of motion as “mostly taken-for-granted, shared expectations about how to do things jointly, and how to relate to each individual other and take part.” Individuals shared kinds of civic motion condition how advocates define the challenge, as perfectly as how they strategize and form solidary bonds. It is often assumed that advocates’ political beliefs or personalities demonstrate how they have out these duties. By tracing types of civic motion independently from ideologies or personalities, Lichterman argues, we can superior recognize practical issues, this kind of as why housing coalitions slide apart or why some advocacy groups are considerably less interested in brief-phrase wins than other individuals.

Whilst acknowledging that housing advocates make conclusions in relation to the structural barriers they confront (e.g., deficiency of assets or entrée with elite policymakers), the e book focuses much more carefully on the streams of interaction that make up the day-to-day operate of advocates. The community conferences with people suffering displacement. The occasionally fraught function of coordinating separate corporations that have their personal agendas. By tracing and acquiring patterns in these mundane actions, Lichterman gives an in-depth check out of how advocates make choices, make relationships, and consider prospects for the future.


ANDREW MALMUTH: You have spent a very long time contemplating about the concept of civic motion. Why is this notion so vital to your research, and why do you assume it is vital for the two sociologists and the standard community to recognize?

PAUL LICHTERMAN: When I create about civic motion, I am exclusively talking about users of society operating collectively to address challenges. It’s a person of the core features of any democracy. It’s what Tocqueville was so anxious with in Democracy in America. The strategy that there is a form of collective, rather egalitarian process of problem-resolving that citizens — ideally — do jointly. I have been fascinated in civic motion for a extended time partly for all those theoretical explanations — to have an understanding of how democracy works as an lively course of action. Patterns of civic motion are important to understanding many challenges advocates confront. At the very same time, I imagine civic motion as a idea presents an alternate to what usually occurs in the social sciences, which is a division of the democratic process into distinctive containers. So, you have social actions that do issue-solving contentiously — the regular picture is persons marching and chanting — and then we could have volunteer teams that do charitable support — and, yet again, we usually have starchy thoughts about these groups’ work. What we are inclined to do is divide these teams up and just say: These are different animals.

What has intrigued me is that in working with what I’ll call “problem-resolving organizations” — whether that is a social movement organization, a nonprofit that supplies services, or a neighborhood-centered corporation — you can see that there are various kinds of motion likely on inside of the same business. For illustration, a coalition that is functioning on housing complications in Los Angeles may seem like your vintage social motion from 9:00 to 10:00 in the morning. They’re heading to a rally and chanting with other activists. And then at a distinct issue in the working day they are far more like a social assistance group that delivers counseling for tenants. And then, at the conclusion of the day, they may well do some metropolis council lobbying the way you’d generally see with a common curiosity team. These distinct forms of action, customarily, are coated by diverse tutorial theories. I required to be equipped to review these different streams of action and check with: When does an group make your mind up to act like contentious activists in a social motion? Why does it make your mind up to not go that route and to use a diverse signifies to resolve the issue at hand? I also observed various truly various variations even inside of the exact social movement group. So, I’m indicating let us comply with the action and appear for patterns, instead of relying on categories like “social movement” or “nonprofit organization” and believe each and every goes with just one sort of motion. The concept of civic motion gives us a bigger box of strategies to compare points that have way too normally been divided.

Part of your enthusiasm for the guide was dissatisfaction with the lenses that theorists of social movements generally use to demonstrate activism. Where does your solution vary from how social actions are usually mentioned?

For the past 40 years or so, a ton of sociologists have assumed that individuals, especially leaders of social actions, act like strategic business people. That they produce a “market” for a resolution to a challenge. That they are on the lookout for prospects to make superior investments that need the fewest means to generate the largest obtain. Now, I have an understanding of why we do that — it’s been a extensive-running response to an older knowing of social movements that dealt with them essentially like possibly irrational or felony exercise. The action of violent mobs and crowds. That is the place the examine of social actions came from. Then in the 1970s sociologists determined, no, we must be equipped to imagine of social motion actors as rational, not irrational. Generally, to be “rational,” not just for social science but in the American cultural mainstream, indicates to be “business-like” — i.e., strategic in the way that a businessperson is strategic.

That is, in my watch, a quite slim comprehension of rationality and it neglects some of the core queries that I’m interested in asking in this book. 1st, it doesn’t support us realize how social activists go about defining the “problem” that they are attempting to deal with in the very first location. With any form of social problem-resolving, you have to determine the problem in some way. What is the trouble like? What are some of its potential solutions? Second, it doesn’t tackle one of the main characteristics of social activism, which is that you have to construct interactions with other social activists, constituencies, and allies. I acquired from observation that neither the method of defining challenges nor building associations is captured very well by the impression of the strategic entrepreneur who maximizes “investments” in individuals or thoughts.

You look to be going away from questions of rationality and much more toward inquiries of how a person’s or organization’s cultural context impacts the way they method conclusion-generating. 

Indeed, the cultural embeddedness is really what’s critical listed here. That’s what designs are: diverse cultural techniques of strategizing. I’m not suggesting that social advocates are not rational. I’m suggesting that whichever we may possibly take into account to be rational is always bounded by how we feel we should collaborate. A thing else is dependent on culture way too — what we think about the challenge to be and what we take into account probable remedies. For instance, when we believe of housing affordability for minimal-income people today, several activists would say that that’s a justice situation. On the other hand, when you start to chat about the sustainability of inexpensive housing, that starts off to sense like an environmental, high-quality-of-everyday living problem. To several social advocates, that commences to audio like a different problem. It commences to seem like an tactic that detracts from the justice angle. But it is not a given that we need to stay clear of chatting about each the sustainability and affordability of housing in the exact same conversation. The e-book reveals how a broader society of political discussion primes several advocates to see these as opposed. We need to have to consider about this cultural context if we want to explain why there is only a comparatively slim vary of discussion all around so many concerns, like housing.

The e-book implies that Los Angeles, although it has its particularities, is a useful website for knowledge civic action. What can analysis in Los Angeles tell us about how civic action operates elsewhere?

I would say that studying housing advocacy in Los Angeles can notify us really a bit about how these procedures function in other pieces of the United States. Sure, diverse locales deliver distinct situations, but, in general, you can believe of designs of civic motion as a variety of national cultural repertoire. For instance, the design of issue-solving that, in the ebook, I simply call a “community of interest” has been functioning in some sort for the previous 110 to 120 decades. There are social advocacy teams that may not have a great offer in frequent (e.g., they get the job done on disparate issues), but they discover a single situation that they share and unite towards a popular object or interest. They go after a specific purpose alongside one another but then go again to their workplaces and get the job done on independent responsibilities. Which is a properly-recognized design and style of difficulty-resolving that social actions and nonprofits pursue all over the place.

You strain that thoughts about what is “strategic” are hardly ever mounted but are somewhat socially built around time. Can you say a lot more about what that process seems to be like?

When we use the term strategic, a good deal of us think, heading back again to my earlier issue, that we indicate performing like an trader that is maximizing sources for the biggest attain. And, evidently, that is one particular way to be strategic. Nevertheless, we get a lot when we use an older comprehension of what method usually means — 1 going again to John Dewey and the philosophical college of pragmatism. We can imagine of method as any set of implies that we establish to tackle a difficulty that we might also redefine at a specific stage as our attempts mature. The strategy of creating a “set of means” opens us up to the concept that there isn’t just a single financial, or “rational,” calculus likely on when we are devising system.

It also lets us to pay back close focus to an critical variable in strategies: time. For instance, in just one housing coalition, advocates assumed they had been going to be performing on housing issues — as they comprehended the difficulty — for a long time to come. There was hardly ever heading to be a shorter-phrase resolution to the dilemma of very affordable housing in Los Angeles. A further coalition, even so, was operating on a marketing campaign to persuade City Council to adopt reasonably priced housing mandates. That’s on a quite brief timeline. The men and women performing on that marketing campaign could realize — privately — that housing is a extended-phrase issue, but the end result of the marketing campaign is the identifiable conclude. On the other hand, when your campaign is fighting back in opposition to exploitative house developers in Los Angeles, which is never ever going to be completed in a two-yr combat with Metropolis Council. If you define the challenge as: We have systematically exploitative relations among very low-income communities and builders — that’s a many years-long fight. Every single brief-expression earn may well matter considerably less in this case.

So, individuals are two unique means of talking about good results and two techniques of pondering about tactic. Each individual has different suggests for achieving plans. Every single is “strategic.” But the larger sized political society attunes us to see limited-term, tangible wins as much more powerful. Having said that, that is not a supplied — it is an challenge with how we realize what helps make men and women rational in the American cultural mainstream.

A actually useful perception in your book is the distinction in between a “community of interest” and a “community of id.” The former is a design of problem-solving exactly where people and teams arrive collectively to deal with a shared challenge like housing affordability. The groups might not have substantially in widespread, but they concur on marshalling sources to force for a unique shared fascination. For a community of identification, the advocacy get the job done is rooted in a shared collective identity of performing on behalf of the “community.” Local community solidarity is inextricable from the activism. How did these distinctions clearly show up in your fieldwork?

When I was striving to discover different models of action, just one of the issues I started out wanting for was: Where by are there breaches? In other words and phrases, when do advocates make faults — in how they explore an challenge, interact with a resident, etc. — and how does that get policed? Any public group sustains togetherness this way social advocates are not diverse. But I observed some genuine stark distinctions in the forms of “mistakes” that advocates were sanctioned for in the various businesses in the guide.

Searching at the design of dilemma-resolving that I connect with a group of identity, it was seriously crucial for advocates continually to affirm their identity with what they seen as the local community. Group solidarity with other tenants’ teams or labor companies, for instance, was an stop in and of alone. I discovered through conferences that advocates needed to keep identifying strongly with the community — not basically care about housing affordability and gentrification as an issue. In most situations, the “community,” implicitly, was reduce-income Black and Brown neighborhoods. A “good” participant, or a superior representative from yet another firm, would be an individual who could affirm the group as defined by leaders of that particular coalition. Advocates who didn’t have interaction in that type of expression could be sanctioned or sidelined. To some advocates this appeared restrictive, pushing away possible allies who cared about the housing issue also. But some others would say fighting for the local community, not just an issue, was what mattered. This was a problem.

In a community of fascination, matters seemed really different. The customers of the organizations did not need to have to identify with each and every other so considerably as they needed to agree to focus narrowly on their shared interest. If the fascination they shared was legislation to make mandated inexpensive housing construction in Los Angeles, then that was the basis for solidarity. It did not matter if the teams had distinctive agendas in typical — in reality, bringing in disparate groups made the coalitions seem broader and as a result a lot more legitimate. In a neighborhood of curiosity all-around housing, the “breaches” would materialize when a housing advocate would say something like: We truly will need to offer with law enforcement violence mainly because so quite a few of my constituents are worried about policing in their neighborhood. For the leaders of the community of interest, that is a diverse problem. So, in just one coalition with this type, for occasion, those people feedback obtained sidelined and pushed off the desk. To other advocates, that could look disempowering — or racist. But these advocates would say it was a issue of remaining concentrated on a person winnable situation.

In both of those cases, these groups drew boundaries all over permissible strategies of acting and talking. How they drew the boundaries is the problem I am interested in. And, in this scenario, I recognized that communities of desire and identification drew boundaries all around “we” in incredibly unique techniques, with diverse dilemmas and trade-offs.

I’m fascinated in the emotional character of these unique variations of activism. In the reserve, you talk about a conference held by a housing coalition that was seeking to press for a blended-earnings housing ordinance (MIHO) at the town degree. For the meeting, the coalition reached out to advocates that ended up working extra in line with the “community of identity” type and who, during the meeting, felt put off by the way the coalition approached strategic concerns as far more functional physical exercises — i.e., how do we get this finished? — than deeply felt challenges of racial or neighborhood solidarity. This felt like psychological dissonance. Did you see that in your operate? 

I discovered psychological dynamics all the time since, when we’re talking about types of civic motion, were truly conversing about ways of doing the job with each other, which gets emotional for the similar rationale that any partnership does. Importantly, means of engaging in civic motion are not just stratagems that advocates can place on and get off at will. For as well lengthy, we social scientists underestimated how emotionally as very well as culturally concerned advocates are.

When persons are functioning as a community of id, the foundation of functioning alongside one another is partly this assumption that we’re fully commited to a extensive-standing community that is becoming imperiled by external threats, so, of class, men and women are consistently sensation that emotionally. Developers may possibly value us out of our community, upend our lives! The neighborhood of desire model also comes with thoughts, but they function in another way. You can imagine of the type of emotion that will come around the finish of a big marketing campaign that has gone on for months. Persons get particularly tense and emotionally associated right close to the complete line, due to the fact so considerably has created towards that and, because of the quick timeline, there is going to be a declared achievements or failure. With a community of id, I identified an ongoing feeling of indignation, anger, and annoyance, whereas with the community of interest there were far more crescendos all through distinct segments of action.

How do you feel about the job of racial identification and racial ideology in shaping civic action? It looks that becoming embedded in a local community of identity is deeply tied to histories of racial exclusion and solidarity — i.e., a neighborhood of id is inextricable from racialized subjectivity. But you are cautious to not tie designs to unique racial ideologies. Why is that?

The way that groups engage in civic motion hardly ever thoroughly decreases to the social track record of the people today who are performing alongside one another. There are a number of distinct models — different sets of understandings of how we must function jointly — that a lot of of us vaguely identify even if we don’t name them as these, and that we either have an affinity for or not. But all those do not necessarily map on to racial identification. The truth is messier. This complexity having said that should not propose that race does not matter — the practical experience of racial subjugation is central to advocacy in the United States. What the complexity does necessarily mean is that there are distinct means that people today of coloration perform jointly to address problems created by racial subjugation. Those unique designs can cross racial and ethnic boundaries. Advocates do not generally emphasize racial id when they handle challenges that racism generates.

The summary of your e-book focuses on how the investigation and conceptual applications you use could possibly assistance advocates doing this function on the floor. For example, by pointing toward factors that coalitions dissolve. What can activists and other folks associated in civic action take absent from this e book?

Initial, I would say that in the planet of social advocacy, when participants are arguing around system — about the finest way to handle housing difficulties, for instance — quite often they are going to concentration on the great importance of ideology. For instance, one particular group will say that yet another is not radical more than enough — they really do not have the proper crucial ideology. Or, in a lot of conditions, advocates will level to complicated personalities and say, properly, this particular person is just complicated to perform with. I would strongly propose that advocates focus on the style in which we work with each other. Kinds of action have authentic, useful penalties, and I think the e book has some vocabulary for conversing about the sources of stress — as nicely as the sources of joy — that come from various variations of doing work. By discussing models, we might be in a position to get earlier some of the inescapable tensions that come up from ideological disagreement. Ideological tensions will need to be addressed, but they may well not guide to the breakdown of a coalition if there are open discussions about how a team wishes to get the job done jointly and focus on ideas. Second, we have to acknowledge how various techniques to civic action aren’t automatically “good” or “bad,” but, alternatively, they characterize various trade-offs and dilemmas, whether that’s pushing for a MIHO or arranging for tenants’ rights. It gets to be a lot easier to create coalitions when those trade-offs are acknowledged and talked over brazenly, alternatively than right away moralized.


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