Why do activists choose the organizational forms they do? Social movement scholars have tended to focus on activists' instrumental assessments of organizational forms' costs and benefits or on activists' efforts to balance instrumental calculations with a commitment to ideological consistency. Neither explanation is adequate. Organizational forms, like strategies, tactics, and targets, are often appealing for their symbolic associations, and especially, their association with particular social groups. The article fleshes out this dynamic through a case study of the rise and fall of participatory democracy in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Contrary to standard explanations for SNCC activists' repudiation of consensus-based and nonhierarchical decision making in the mid-1960s, I show that participatory democracy was abandoned when it came to be seen as ideological, oriented to personal self-transformation, and—no coincidence—as white. That was not the case earlier on, when participatory democracy was seen as practical, political, and black, and I account for that shift. Once established, however, participatory democracy's social associations shaped subsequent activist generations' view of the form's strengths and liabilities.

This content is only available as a PDF.
You do not currently have access to this content.