Recruitment to High-Risk Activism: The Case of Freedom Summer

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Citation: Doug McAdam (1986) Recruitment to High-Risk Activism: The Case of Freedom Summer. The American Journal of Sociology (RSS)


Tagged: Sociology (RSS) NatematiasGenerals (RSS), participation (RSS), activism (RSS), recruitment (RSS), networks (RSS)


Why do people participate in activism? In Recruitment to High-Risk Activism, Doug McAdam argues that we need to account for the risk associated with activism when trying to explain why people participate in social movements, accounting for the individual and social factors that draw people to participate.

The study presents a quantitative analysis of recruitment applications to 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer project, examining the characteristics associated with choosing to participate in Freedom Summer after being accepted.

Theoretical Background

McAdam opens by posing one of the fundamental questions in the field of social movements: "why does one individual get involved and another remains inactive?"[1]. He outlines the various theories for this:

  • Personal Motivations:** ideological leanings** family background and childhood experiences
    • a sense of injustice or relative disadvantage
  • Social Factors, such as contact with a recruitment agent[2]

McAdam argues that this literature has several weaknesses:

  • Measuring "membership" in social movements (in contrast with membership organizations) is not feasible
  • Most of the research focuses on low risk or low cost activism, rather than higher risk or cost activism

McAdam argues that the resource mobilization perspective on social movements is largely focused on simple affiliation with organizations or what he would describe as low-risk/cost activism. He argues that high-risk/cost activism should be treated separately in analysis of structural effects on recruitment since the cost of recruitment is likely to affect the processes and effect of social structure.

McAdam offers a review of literature of low risk/cost activism, where "prior contact with a recruiting agent" is "the factor that has been consistently shown to bear the strongest relationship to low-risk/cost activism" (68). McAdam then explores the possibility that low risk activism *might* lead to higher risk activism, either because the budding activist gains a wider network that draws them into more activism or because their sense of self changes towards one that is compatible with activism. However, there are other factors that might be more important, such as "biographical availability" -- perhaps people join high risk activism because they're in a better position to manage the risk, with the right kind of resources and stability to participate. McAdam's study sets out to test the relative relationships of the following possible factors to high risk activism:* a history of activism* commitment to the ideology and goals of the movement* integration in activist networks* freedom from personal constraints that would make participation especially risky.


Most of the paper builds up to and focuses on a logistic regression model that looks at the likelihood of an accepted applicant the 'Freedom Summer' campaign of 1964, which placed hundreds of white college students in black families' homes in Mississippi. It was a very high risk action; in the first few days, three participants were kidnapped and killed, the start of a summer of violence towards participants.

McAdam investigates the archives of 1068 applications, out of which 720 participated, 239 withdrew, 55 were rejected, and 54 have an unclear status. By considering applications, he is able to consider what effected participation in advance of the campaign.

The researchers carry out a logistic regression on this dataset to predict the probability that someone would go through with participation in Freedom Summer or not, including variables reduced from the wider set of application questions and a 17-theme coding system, grouped by self-oriented and other-oriented motivations.

Since participants were asked to list at least 10 other people who they wanted to be kept informed about their summer activities, McAdam was able to carry out *network analysis* of participants, creating indices of "weak" and "strong" connections to:

  • other freedom summer volunteers
  • known activists
  • withdrawals from the project

Notably, participants supplied more names than withdrawals: "the differences are especially pronounced in the two strong tie categories, with participants listing more than twice the number of volunteers and nearly three times the number of activists as the withdrawals" (80).

The dataset also included information on all previous involvement in civil rights activities, which McAdam also coded.

McAdam also coded "biographical availability" through information on participants' current employment, marital, and educational status. McAdam worries however that the variation in biographical availability is small among those who applied compared to the wider population`, which may make it difficult to use this variable meaningfully.


The paper shows that there were not major difference between participants and withdrawals in terms of attitudinal differences. Applications were essentially all interested in supporting the civil rights movement. Strong feelings or "attitudinal affinity" were necessary, but not sufficient. "Biographical ability" (or the ability to go) was seen as similar. What he does find that participants belonged to more organizations and more politically-focused organizations than the withdrawals. He also saw that strong ties with other participants had a strong effect.


McAdam notes several limitations:

  • it's possible that participants in Freedom Summer were naive about the high risks
  • it's possible that attitudinal differences betwen participants and people who withdrew are actually related to prior experience with activism
  • the study doesn't include non-applicants

Theoretical and practical relevance:

The paper is reasonable well-known and has been cited hundreds of times, largely in the sociological literature on social movements. The work in the paper was expanded upon in Doug Adam's book, Freedom Summer.

  1. McCarthy, John D., and Mayer N. Zald. 1977. “Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory.” American Journal of Sociology 82 (6): 1212–41.
  2. Snow, D. A., Zurcher Jr, L. A., & Ekland-Olson, S. (1980). Social networks and social movements: A microstructural approach to differential recruitment. American sociological review, 787-801.