Author Ahsya Ahmad - -

Sacrifice for cause:
Group processes, recruitment, and commitment in a student social movement

Eric L. Hirsch
Early analyses of protest movement mobilization emphasized the irrationality of movement participation and argued that marginal, insecure people join movements because of a need for social direction. This approach has lost popularity because many movement participants are socially integrated and quite rational. A popular current approach, rational choice theory, counters by suggesting that movement participation is the result of individual cost-benefit calculations. But even the most elaborate individual incentive models cannot fully account for the manner in the which group political processes influence movement participants to sacrifice individual interests in favor of a collective cause.

This article develops an alternative perspective on recruitment and commitment to protest movements; it emphasizes the importance of the developments; of political solidarity, that is, support for a group cause and its tactics. Mobilization can than be explained by analyzing how group based political processes, such as consciousnes raising, and group decison making, induce movements participant to sacrifice their personal welfare for the group cause. Empirical support for this perpective comes from a detailed analysis of Columbia University student movement that demanded that the university divest it self of stock in compaines doing business in South Africa.

Impact of Group Process

The best way to explain recruitment and commitment in protest movements is to reject both rational choice and social disorganization views and focus instead on explaining how groups create commitment to their goals and tactics. The following discussion builds on the work of movement theorists (Gamson 1975; Schwartz 1976; Tilly 1976; Gamson, Fireman, Rytina 1982; McAdam 1982, 1986. 1988b; Ferree and Miller 1985; Hirsch 1986, 1989; Rosenthal and Schwartz 1989) and conflict theorists (Simmel 1955; Coser 1956. 1967a; Edelman 1971; Kriesberg 1971; Sherif, Harvey, White. Hood, Sherif 1988) to provide an explanation of recruitment and commitment to protest movement that emphasizes how four group processes – consciousness raising, collective empowerment, polrization, and group decision making create a willingness to sacrifice personal welfare for a collective cause.


Potential recruits are not likely to join a protest movement unless they develop an ideological commitment to the group cause and believe that only non institutional means can further that cause. Consciousness raising involves a group discussion where such beliefs are created or reinforced. It may occur among remembers of an emerging movement who lealize they face a problem of common concern that cannot be solved through routine political processes. Or it may happen in an ongoing movement, whent movement activists try to convince potential recruits that their cause is just, taht institutional means of influence have been unsuccessful, and that morally committed individual smust fight for the cause. Effective consciousness raising is a difficult task because protest tactics usually challenge acknow ledged authority relationship. Predisposing factors, such as prior political socialization, may make certain individuals susceptible to some appeals and unsympathetic to others.

Consciousness raising is not likely to take place among socially marginal individuals because such isolation implies difficulty in communicating ideas to others. And it is not likelyto happen among a group of rational calculators because the evaluation of society and of the chances for change is often influenced more by commitment to political or moral values than by self interest calculations (Fireman and Gamson 1979; Ferree ang Miller 1985). Consciousness raising is facilitated in non hierarchical, loosely structured, face to face settings that are isolated from persons in power in such havens (Hirsch 1989), people can easily express  concern, become aware of common problems, and begin to question the ligitimacy of institutions that deny them the means for resolving those problems (Gerlach and Hine 1970; Rosenthal and Schwartz 1989).

Collective Empowerment

The recruitment and commitment of participant in a protest movement may also be affected by a group process called collective empowerment. While recruits may gain a sense of the potential power of a movement in consciousness raising sessions, the real test for the movement comes at the actual protest site where all involved see how many are willing to take the risks associated with challenging authority. If large numbers are willing to sacrifice themselves for the movement, to chances for success seem greater; a “bandwagon effect” (Hirsch 1986) convinces people to participate in this particular protest because of its presumed ability to accomplish the movement goal. Tactics are more easily viewed as powerful if they are highly visible, dramatic, and disrupt normal institutional routines.


A third important group process is polarization. Protest challenges authority in a way that institutional tactics do not because it automatically questions the rules of the decision making game. The use of non-routine methods of influence also means that there is always uncertainty about the target’s response. For these reasons, one common result of a protest is unpredictable escalating conflict. Each side sees the battle in black and white terms, uses increasingly coercive tactics, and develops high levels of distrust and anger toward the opponent (Kriesberg 1973:170-3).

Polrization is often seen as a problem since it convinces each side that their position is right and the opponent’s is wrong; this makes compromise and negotiation less likely (Coleman 1957). Since it leads each side to develop the independent goal of harming the opponent, movement participants may lose sight of their original goal. Finally, escalation of coercive tactics by those in power can result in demobilization of the movement as individual participant assess the potential negative consequencess of continued participation.

Collective Decision-Making

Finally, collective decision making often plays an important role in motivating the continuing commitment of movement participants. Movement often have group discussions about whether to initiate, continue, or end a given protest. Committed protesters may feel bound by group decisions made during such discussions, even when those decisions are contrary to their personal preferences, )Rosenthal and Schwartz 1989). Participation in a protest movement is often the result of a complex group decision making process, and not the consequence of many isolated, rational individual decisions.

The Columbia Divestement Campaign: A Case Study

The importance of these four group processes consciousnes raising, collective empowerment, polarization, and group decision-making in recruitment and comitment in a protest movement is illustrated by the Columbia University divestement protest. In April of 1985, several hundred Columbia University and Barnard College students sat down in front of the chained doors of the main Columbia College classroom and administrative building, Hamilton Hall, and stated that they would not leave until the university divested tiself of stock in companies doing business in South Africa. Many students remained on this “ blockade” for three weeks. This was a particularly good case for the analysis of movement and commitment because the majority of the participant in the protest had not been active previously in the divestement or other campus protest movements.

Protest actions of this kind can create problems for researchers because the organizers need for secrecy often prevents the researcher from knowing of the event in advance. The best solution is to use as many diverse research methods as possible to study the movement after it has begun. I spent many hours at the protest site each day observing the activities of the protesters and their opponent, the Columbia administration. I also discussed the demonstration with participants and non-participants at the protest site, in classrooms, and other campus settings; and examined the many leaflets, position papers, and press reports on the demonstration.

During the summer off 1985, I completed 19 extended interviews, averaging one and one-half hours each, with blockaders and members of the steering committee of the Coalition for a Free South Africa (CFSA), the group that organized and led the protest. The interviews covered the protester’s political background, previous experience in politics and protest movements, her/his experiences during the three weeks of the protest, and feeling about the personal consequences of the participation. All quotes are taken from transcripts of these interviews.

I also analyzed responses to a survey distributed to the dormitory mailboxes of a random sample of 300 Barnard Columbia resident undergraduates during the third week of protest. The 28-question survey assessed attitudes toward those on both sides of the conflict, the extent of the respondent’s participation in the protest and in the campus politics and social organizations, the respondent’s general political values, and demographic information.

Of the 300 surveys, 181, or 60.3 percent, were returned. Given the situation on campus at the time and the fact that the semester was drawing to a close, it was difficult to increase the return rate through followup letters and questionnaires different in a significant way from those who did not, survey results would be biased. However, it wasn’t only divestement activists who returned the survey; a wide variety of opinions was expressed by respondents. Nine-tenths of respondents had not been active in the divestement movement prior to the blockade, and only about  favored divestement or left that blockade was justified when they first heard about it. A copy of the questionnaire and summary of the results are available from the author upon request.


The Coalition for a Free South Africa (CFSA) was founded in 1981 to promote Columbia University’s divestement of stock in companies doing business in South Africa. It was a loosely structured group with a predominantly black steering committe of about a dozen individuals who made decisions by consensus, and a less active circle of about 50 students who attended meetings and the group’s protests and educational events. The group was non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic, and had few resources other than its members’ labor. The CFSA tried to convince Columbia and Barnard students that blacks faced injustice under apartheid, that U.S.corporations with investements in South Africa profited from the low wages paid to blacks, that Columbia was an accomplice in apartheid because it invested in the stock of these companies, and that divestement would advance the anti-apatheid movement by putting economic and political pressure on the white regime of South Africa.

This Consciousness-raising was done in a variety of small group settings, including dormitory rap sessions, forums, and teach-ins. Coverage of the CFSA’s activities in the Columbia student newspaper and television reports on the violent repression of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa increased student consciousness of apartheid and encouraged many students to support devestement.

Even in this early period, conplict between the CFSA and the Columbia administration affected the views of potential movement recruits. At first, the CFSA tried to achieve divestement by using traditional avenues of influence. In 1983, the organization was able to gain a unanimous vote ror divestement by administration, faculty, and student representatives in the University Senate, nut Columbia’s Board of Trustees rejected the resolution. As one protester pointed out, that action was interpreted by many students as an indication that traditional means of influence could not achieve divestement:
I remember in ’83 when the Senate voted to divest. I was convinced that students had voiced their opinion and had been able to convience the minority of administrators that what they wanted was a moral thing. It hadn’t been bunch of radical youths taking buildings and burning things down, to destroy. But rather, going through the system, and it seemed to me that for the first time in a really long time the system was going to work. And then I found out that it hadn’t worked, and that just reaffirmed my feelings about how the system at Columbia really did work. 
The result of CFSA’s extensive organizing work was that many students were aware of the oppressed state of blacks in South Africa, the call for divestement by anti-apartheid activists, and the intransigence of the university president and trustees in the face of a unanimous vote for divestement by the representative democratic body at the university.

Collective Empowerment: The Initiation of the Blockade

In the next phase of the movement, the CFSA sponsored rallies and vigils to call attention to the intransigence of the trustees. Few students attended these demonstrations, probably because few supporters believed they would result in divestement. Deciding that more militant tactics were necessary, the CFSA steering committee began to plan a fast by steering committee members and takeover of a campus building. The plan called for chaining shut the doors of the building and blocking the entrance with protesters; this, it was assumed, would lead to a symbolic arrest of a few dozen steering committee members and other hard-core supporters of divestement. The intent was to draw media coverage to dramatize the continuing fight for divestement.

Because they had worked hard on publicity, the steering committee of CFSA expected a large tumout for their initial rally, but fewer than 200 students gathered at the Sundial in center of campus on the morning of April 4. Speeches  were made by a local political official, a representative of the Africa National Congress, several black South Africa students, and members of the CFSA steering committee. Many of those interviewed had been at the rally, but none felt that the speeches were any more or less inspiring than speeches that had heard at previous CFSA events.

At the conclusion of the speeches, nearly all of those present agrees to follow one of the CFSA steering committee members on a march around campus. Most expected to chant a few anti-apartheid and pro-divestement slogans and return to the Sundial for a short wrap-up speech. Instead, they were led to the steps in front of the already chained doors at Hamilton Hall. The protesters did not understand at first why they had been led to this spot, and few noticed the chained doors.

The steering committee member then revealed the day’s plan, stating that this group of protesters would not leave the steps until the university divested itself of stock in companies doing business in South Africa. At least 150 students remained where they were; no one recalls a dignificant number of defections. Within two hours, the group on the steps grew to over 250.


Rational choice theories cannot explain why students joined and became committed to this protest action because group proccesses are not just the sum of individuals preferences or predispositions. Such frameworks cannot easily account for why participants felt willing to accept the personal costs associated with this protest; it is contradictory to argue that students stayed on the blockade to enjoy the selective incentive or self-sacrifice. Recruitment and commitment to the blockade can only be understood through the analysisof how group discussions, empowerment, conflict, and decision-making led participants to a willingness to sacrifice self-interest in pursuit of a valued collective goal using a noninstitutional tactic.

Collective behavior theory is right about the importance of group-level processes in the mobilization of noninstitutional movements. But its proposition that protest originates in disorganized unrest certainly does not apply here. Years of well-organized activities by the CFSA were crusial in raising consciousness about the apartheid issue and on the need for noninstitutional means of influence to achieve divestement. The blockade itself was initiated only after two months of careful planning by the CFSA steering committee.

The blockaders were not just isolated individuals with preferences for divestement nor a set of confused, insecure people; rather, they were people who had been conviced by CFSA meetings that apartheid was evil, that divestement would help South African black, and that divestement could be achieve through peotest. They joined the blockade on April 4th because it appeared to offer a powerful alternative to perviously impotent demonstrations and because of the example of self-sacrificing CFSA leaders. The solidarity of the group increased after the administration’s escalation of the conflict because group identification among the protesters was already strong enough so that they responded to the threat as a powerful group rather than as powerless individuals. Protesters remained at this long and risky protest partly because of the democratic decision-making processes used by the group.

This analysis of the 1985 Columbia University divestement protest indicates that useful theories of movement mobilization must include insights about how individual protesters are convinced by group-level processes to sacrifice them selves for the cause. This means asking new kinds of questions in movement research: What kinds of arguments in what kinds of setting convince people to support a political cause? Why do potential recruits decide that noninstutional means of influence are justified and necessary? Under what circumstances is the example of leaders sacrificing for the cause likely to induce people to join a risky protest? Why do some tactics appears to offer a greater chance of success than others? Under what conditions do threats or actual repression by authorities create greater internal solidarity in a protest? What kinds of group decision-making processes are likely to convince people to continue to participate in a protest movement?

Generalizing from case studies is always difficult. Some aspects of student movements make them unusual, especially the ability of organizers to take adventage of the physical concentration of students on campuses. But the important impact of group processes  on movement recruitment and commitment is not unique to the 1985 Columbia anti-apartheid movement. The development of solidarity based on a sense of collective power and polarization was also found in a Chicago community organization (Hirch 1986). And these same group processes were crucial in the mobilization and development of the Southern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Consciousness-raising occurred in black churches and colleges. The collective power of protest was evident to those who participated in bus boyscotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, and in Freedom Summer. The movement relied heavily on the creation of polarized conflict between the white Southern segregationist elite and black protesters to recruit participants, to gain national media attention, and ultimately to force federal intervention to redress the social and political grievances of Southern blacks (McAdam 1982; Morris 1984). Finally, two of the major mobilization in the 1960s student movement-the Berkeley Free Speech movement in 1964 and the Columbia conflict in 1968 and the Columbia conflict in 1968-developed in a manner similar to the 1985 divestement movement (Heirich 1970; Avorn 1968).


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