Semantically, “activist” and “activism” are convenient descriptors for participants in social movements and are commonly used by social movement scholars. This study demonstrates, however, that these labels obscure the complex decisions participants make in negotiating their involvement. Few researchers examine the importance of deconstructing traditional assumptions of activist identities and the nuances in activist negotiation and identification. Using qualitative research methods, this paper explores whether social movement participants engage in complex identity negotiations wherein they interactionally situate and critically assess their involvement. This research draws on in-depth interviews conducted with 58 social movement participants from two local-level, contemporary social movements: The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street Movements. Respondents provided complex narratives about their activist and non-activist identities, which became apparent through analyzing the interviews using thematic coding. The findings show that respondents do negotiate their identities along a spectrum from activist to non-activist through interaction with other participants and critical assessment of their own involvement. These findings also reveal that the process of differential activist identification has short- and long-term implications for participant involvement and collective identity where disagreements over the activist label can fracture the organization and sustainability of a movement. By assessing the ways movement participants identify with activism and how they use their identification through interaction to promote or deconstruct group solidarity, we can begin to explore the consequences of this type of identity politics for contemporary social movements.


differential activist identification, political participation, social movements, Tea Party Movement, Occupy Wall Street Movement

Author Bio(s)

Jesse Klein, Ph.D. is the Social Sciences Research and Data Librarian at Florida State University Libraries. She has subject expertise in social movements, political sociology, and research design. In addition to conducting various research projects in the academy and the community, she currently serves as the data librarian for the social sciences and provides reference, instruction, and consultation services to students and faculty across campus. Please direct correspondence to jrklein@fsu.edu.


I would like to thank Dr. Lindsey Lennon, Dr. Daniel Lanford, and Phil Lennon for help with conducting interviews in the Tallahassee Occupy Movement. I would also like to express my appreciation for Dr. Trevor Harris who helped with filming and recording the meetings for the Tallahassee Occupy Movement. Many thanks to Dr. Deana Rohlinger for including me as a researcher on the Tea Party Movement project. I am also incredibly grateful for the helpful comments and discussions with my advisor Dr. Daniel Tope.

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