Qualitative Sociology

, Volume 42, Issue 1, pp 71–92 | Cite as

Legitimacy without Mobilization? How Social Justice Organizations Defend their Democratic Credentials

  • David ForrestEmail author


This article examines how and with what consequences social justice organizations defend their legitimacy as democratic representatives, especially in circumstances where their ability to organize and mobilize their constituents is sharply curtailed. Drawing on an ethnographic study of three organizations in Minneapolis, Minnesota, I argue that they do so by deploying four tactics, which I label magnification, description, identification, and projection. I explain how each tactic construes and “proves” their accountability to their constituents in the absence of mass engagement from these constituents, and I demonstrate that these tactics can help to legitimate their representational efforts. However, I also show that these tactics can simultaneously disempower their efforts by enabling organizers to neglect constituent mobilization. I conclude that, to best realize their egalitarian potential as representatives, social justice organizations must balance defending their democratic legitimacy in difficult circumstances with adopting routines that underscore constituent mobilization’s long-term importance for achieving their goals.


Interest groups Social movements Social justice Political representation Democratic theory 



Previous versions of this article were presented at the 2013 Meeting of the Western Political Science Association and to the Social Movements/Social Justice Workgroup at the University of California-Irvine. For their helpful comments, the author thanks Jennifer Garcia, Jennet Kirkpatrick, Sonia Kruks, David Meyer, Joe Soss, and Dara Strolovitch as well as Qualitative Sociology’s editorial team and anonymous reviewers. Funding was provided by the University of Minnesota Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, the University of Minnesota Department of Political Science, and the University of California-Irvine Center for the Study of Democracy.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Politics DepartmentOberlin CollegeOberlinUSA

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