Using a suite of methods, Assistant Professor of Public Policy Liz McKenna conducts research and teaching on social movements and the role of civic participation in democracies. Her own experience as a community organizer for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign and her academic training as a sociologist have driven her to study what makes some social movements succeed over time while others fail. We spoke with her about the relationship between movements and democracy, creative methodological approaches, and the reading that has inspired her.
Q: How does your research and teaching connect to solutions to pressing problems in the world today?
I received my PhD in sociology, and the main questions that I asked then and continue to ask now are about what helps us understand the health and functioning of a democracy. The moment we’re living in right now is one of global democratic erosion. Four of the seven largest democracies in the world are currently experiencing an authoritarian resurgence or democratic backsliding. And what’s puzzling about that is that it's not simply a function of people not participating. Authoritarian leaders are coming to power with a large amount of support from the populace. So, they’re winning at the ballot box and then implementing policies that are regressive in terms of excluding more people and rolling back the clock on progressive policies that had been passed. So that’s a puzzle—the fact that more participation does not necessarily mean more democracy. My research tries to understand what kinds of participation enhance the health of democracy and what kinds of participation, what types of civil society, undermine it.
The approach that I take in my research is to look at the institutions and organizations that link individuals to the state. What is their nature? Which serve as vessels of positive democracy for enhancing collective self-governance, and which undermine that process? Geographically, I look at Brazil and the United States, two large multiracial democracies—or aspiring democracies—that have both experienced significant political turbulence in the past decade.
In terms of teaching, I have two courses this year. One is MLD-370, “Social Movements: The Art and Science of Social Change,” on the historical arc of social movements—when they’re more likely to be successful and when they’re not—and how we even think about measuring success or failure in social movements. The other course is on mixed methods, which derives from my personal interest in using the methods that are best suited to a question rather than using the same method to answer a question each time: when does a quantitative approach make more sense, when does a qualitative approach make more sense, and when can they be blended?
Q: What is one thing that you want students to come away with from your teaching?
You almost never can measure the success of a social movement at a single point in time or using only one measure. You can’t only look at how many people showed up at a protest, or how many headlines, positive or negative, were generated by a protest. You have to look longitudinally. Social movements often operate over years, decades. The most successful ones build a resilient community or ecology of organizations that can shift power over time rather than an episodic mass mobilization. So, the idea is that protest is not the same thing as power. There are lots of different questions we can ask beyond how many people showed up at a protest to understand whether a movement is effective.
Q: Can you tell me a bit more about how you approach methodology in your teaching?
I started out as a purely qualitative researcher—conducting interviews, ethnography fieldwork—and then about halfway through graduate school, I took a computational methods course. That allowed me to see the advantage of both quantitative and qualitative research. I’m trying to incorporate a methodologically agnostic approach to asking research questions in both my courses. In the social movements course, we are going to use a generative AI tool called Code Interpreter to do some data visualization on social movements. What’s really exciting is that you don't need to know how to program. You can do data visualization using these techniques, and so it ends up democratizing data science in a real way. That’s something I’m really excited about incorporating in my teaching. Students will learn how to use generative AI to do more sophisticated analysis than they would be able to do otherwise.
Q: What research findings have been most eye-opening or surprising for you?
One book that I assign in the social movements course is Ziad Munson’s The Making of Pro-Life Activists. What is counterintuitive is that he finds through deep ethnographic research and triangulation of several other methods that many of the people who joined the pro-life movement started out as somewhat agnostic about abortion. They didn't join because they had a strong issue preference. Rather, it was their social experience inside a movement that then transformed their beliefs over time.
People most often will stay committed to a social movement because of the collective experience they have in it, far more so than because of their individual preference or how they feel about a particular policy. It’s about the relational ties that you have and whether you are building your own agency and effectively exercising power as part of a collective. All of this speaks to questions about democracy because in democracy, in its best form, you have organized people counterbalancing organized money. The inequalities that we’ve inherited over time undermine democracy, and perhaps the only antidote that we have is organized groups of people working together collectively to self-govern.
Q: Who or what has inspired you in your work?
Before I went into academia, post-college, I worked as an organizer. First, I was a political organizer in rural Ohio on the Obama campaign in 2008. We created these neighborhood teams—real civic infrastructure that didn’t exist before. So, I had an experience of what the power of organizing could generate. And then I also went to Brazil, which is where I had studied abroad as an undergrad, to work with a women’s economic cooperative. The women lived in favelas, which are low-income urban neighborhoods that have limited access to public services. It was so clear to me that their power came from their solidarity and the way in which they were organizing together. They had few monetary resources, but they had the ability to stand together and strategize as a collective.
Then I worked closely with Marshall Ganz, the Rita E. Hauser Senior Lecturer in Leadership, Organizing, and Civil Society, who was my original teacher in thinking about organizing. The lens that I got from Marshall and the organizers in his orbit is that leadership is about enabling other people. Typically, we think that a leader is the person who stands in the front of the room with a microphone. But in organizing, leadership is about how many other leaders you can develop for the purpose of enacting your shared values and exercising collective power.
My own experiences as an organizer, plus Marshall Ganz, plus the reading I did in graduate school have all inspired me in my work.
Q: Can you tell me about a book that has been foundational for you?
I’m trained as a sociologist, but perhaps one of the most foundational books for me was Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, which is by an economist, Albert Hirschman. His biography is inspiring in and of itself. He fled Nazi Germany, published initially as a development economist, and then wrote this book, among many others. Its puzzle was: what do people do when firms or organizations are in decline? They have one of three options. They can leave and take their business elsewhere. They can use their voice and speak up, to try to influence or change the organization. Or, the third option, they can stay quiet and remain loyal to the organization.
The reason this book was so inspirational, and has been applied in so many different settings, is that it helps us think through what citizens can do when, for example, their democracy is in decline, which is my major area of focus. And Hirschman himself, as I said, was trained as an economist but thought a lot about politics, about the state. It is a seminal work that really influenced me and helped me think a lot about the role of the organization in conceiving of people as agents and linking them to one another and to macro institutions.