Abstract: Organizing without Organizations: Ideology and Organizational Form Among Environmental Justice Organizers in India (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Organizing without Organizations: Ideology and Organizational Form Among Environmental Justice Organizers in India

Friday, January 18, 2019: 6:15 PM
Golden Gate 6, Lobby Level (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
John Mathias, PhD, Assistant Professor, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Background and Purpose: The objective of this ethnographic study was to understand challenges faced by community organizers in pursuing radical environmental change in Kerala, India. In this presentation, I examine factors influencing the organizational form of the main institution through which these organizers connected and collaborated: a small-circulation magazine on environmental topics. During the study, community organizers seeking to unite those working on environmental topics attempted to form coalitions, communes, collectives, and political parties, but these initiatives failed to attract much participation and were short-lived. Nonetheless, the magazine performed many of the functions (such as community-building and the facilitation of strategic collaboration) for which these other institutions had been intended. This presentation asks why the magazine endured while these other institutions failed.

Methods: This presentation reports findings from twenty-five months of ethnographic fieldwork among environmental justice organizers in Kerala, India. For the bulk of this period (14 months), the Keraleeyam magazine was one of two major focuses of research. In addition to living with the magazine’s editor during this time and observing his work at the magazine office, I attended events organized by the magazine and conducted interviews with a stratified sample (N=28) of its readers. I also observed and conducted interviews with those who were attempting to unify the environmental movement in other ways as well as those who had been part of such initiatives in the past. Archival study of newspapers and magazines, together with oral history interviews (N=12), provided historical perspective. In-situ coding employed MAXQDA qualitative analysis software to identify emergent themes, which were iteratively refined based on further analysis of fieldnotes, recordings, and interviews.

Results: Environmental organizers stated that they were reluctant to join or form robust, durable organizations because they believed that strong organizations would inevitably pursue their own survival over and above social and environmental justice. These objections were raised within the broader context of opposition to the perceived coercive influence of Kerala’s Communist Parties in leftist politics. Beginning in the 1940s, small magazines emerged as key institutions for leftist intellectuals in Kerala who objected to the Communists’ insistence on ideological conformity—which they saw as valuing loyalty over justice, the party over the people. Then, as now, magazines were perceived as a tool for building community while also valuing dissent. Ironically, the lean, loose, organizational form of the magazine endured (though always on a shoestring) precisely because it was not understood to have the “survival instinct” of other organizations.

Conclusions and Implications: This study shows that ideology can influence organizational form. However, in this case, ideological factors unsettle the inside/outside dichotomy at the heart of the distinction between organization and environment. The ideological factors shaping the magazine were both external to the magazine (the ideology of the Communist Party) and internal (the ideology of the environmental organizers). Thus, rather than pointing to the need for consideration of an “ideological environment,” the role of ideology reveals the limits of this ecological metaphor.