Book Review – Market Rebels

MR Hayagreeva Rao‘s book, Market Rebels – How Activists Make or Break Radical Innovations, presents a series of case studies of the ways social movements shape and influence markets by promoting certain products (like the car, in the late 19th century) or campaigning against them to the point of derailing their production (like some companies in the biotech industry).

This book is a very good example of the ways in which sociology should be treated more seriously by business because it has a lot if insights to offer when it comes to collective behavior, social movements, institutional realities and their complex relationships to other institutions and the larger social context.

What Rao demonstrates through a variety of case studies, from the early age of the car, to the emergence of microbrewing, through the birth and success of French nouvelle cuisine (is there a cooler sociological topic than that?), through the shareholder’s right movement, the anti-chain store movement to anti-biotech activism, is that market do not function magically on their own, making or breaking products based on market factors alone.

Businesses as diverse as brewing giants or biotech companies as well as chain stores of before the Big Box era (but not unrelatedly) all, at one point or another, have to integrate non-market factors in their analysis of the perception and reception of their product by society. Similarly, in the case of the new car industry, Rao shows that it is not the industry that promoted its new product (the car, that is) which was considered a barbaric contraption in some circles, but early car users. These users, through automobile clubs, were the ones who promoted the car as safe and reliability through (aptly named) reliability contests. In other words, these activists facilitated the cultural acceptance of the car. In another case, anti-biotech activists were able to influence cultural perception (negatively) against the biotech industry.

So how do social movements (be they automobile clubs or anti-biotech activists) manage to make or break products regardless of market mechanisms? Through what Rao calls hot cause and cool mobilization . These two concepts are at the heart of Rao’s book and they stand as major explanatory factors of the success of social movements, for or against the market. And in the process, it is nice to see a little sociological jab directed at economists:

"Since Adam Smith wrote his treatises in the late eighteenth century, economists have tended to see markets as guided by an invisible hand wherein individuals acting in their self-interest enhance collective welfare even if it is not their intention to do so. In this focus, economists have largely neglected to understand how the joined hands of activists and their recruits make or break radical innovation in markets. Ironically, although sociologists have pioneered the study of social movements, the bulk of their research concerns social movements directed against the state or movements designed to change popular culture, such as large-scale revolutions, civil rights movements, and the women’s movement. For the most part, students of technological innovation have treated them as shocks to a market rather than as the outcomes of collective action." (5)

What is largely ignored from the economic and also political scientific perspectives is the importance of activism’s capacity to mobilize for action through the production of identity. And identity is indeed central to Rao’s analysis. Here is Rao’s central thesis, in my view:

"Social movements are collective endeavors to initiate social change, and they arise to reshape markets when normal incentives are inadequate and when actors are excluded from conventional channels of redress to address social costs. The challenge for market rebels becomes how to forge a collective identity and mobilize support by articulating a hot cause that arouses emotion and creates a community of members, and relying on cool mobilization that signals the identity of community members and sustains their commitment." (7)

[Emphasis mine] For instance, to illustrate this, Rao uses the examples of the failure of the cochlear implant. In this case, this case, the hot cause was the re-definition of the implant as a tool of cultural genocide (the deaf culture) in attempts to "normalize" deaf peoples. The cool mobilization was the use of unconventional demonstrations and techniques to generate mobilization and public interest on the side of the activists.

What is central in this is emotion. For Rao, emotions are central in the definition of hot causes and shaping people’s beliefs on a given issue or regarding a particular product but they are also central in the shaping of a collective identity that will move people into cool mobilization and action. In Rao’s terms

"Hot causes promote unfreezing and change because they emit new cues that awaken new feelings that interact with the emotions tied to old but relevant beliefs and induce dissonance. Cool mobilization contributes to moving and refreezing because it promotes new behaviors, creating new social experiences and affirming new concepts, identities and commitments. Hot causes and cool mobilization overcome the "B2B" [belief versus behavior] dilemma; hot causes mobilize passions and engender new beliefs, and cool mobilization triggers new behavior and allows new beliefs to develop. Together, they foster the development of new identities and the defense of old ones." [8]

The identity component is central and partially explains, for instance, the success of the Toyota Prius and the miserable failure of the Segway.

Hot causes frame a certain state of affairs that triggers specific emotions:

  • high power emotions that give people a sense of power (that they can and should do something about it) as opposed to low power emotions that promote withdrawal;

  • reciprocal emotions (feelings of movement members for each other such as friendship and solidarity); and

  • shared emotions (feelings that movement members have toward an external object).

Cool mobilization foster the development of shared identities and commitments so that members are ready to engage in unconventional collective behaviors.

"Together, then, hot causes and cool solutions power collective action, and collective action creates or constrains markets. Hot causes intensify emotions and trigger new beliefs. Cool mobilization also evokes emotions, but by engaging participants in new collective experiences that transform beliefs. Hot causes are highly defined, and their definition gives them emotional resonance. Cool mobilization has lower definition and requires conscious participation – indeed, participants have to "fill out" the experience through their actions and experimentation. Both underlie the formation of new identities." (13)

And the more hot causes and cool mobilization are aligned with cultural narratives, the more likely they are to succeed in generating new identities, experiences and commitments.

For each case he discusses, Rao then examines what were the hot causes and cool mobilizations with mention of lightning rod events:

  • In the case of the microbrewing movement, the hot cause was the bad taste of mass produced beer and the cool mobilization was microbrewery and small brewpubs using artisanal and authentic techniques, promoting a narrative of cultural authenticity and diversity. The identity of true beer aficionado was promoted.

  • In the case of the rise of French New Cuisine, the hot cause was freedom from Old Cuisine as represented by Escoffier tradition and the cool mobilization was the use of fresh and exotic ingredients combined in original, unconventional and improvisational ways. The identity of the chef as artist and creator rather than script follower was central.

  • In the case of the shareholder movements, the lightning rod events were a variety of scandals involved grossly overpaid CEO (such as Home Depot’s Robert Nardelli) despite poor performance. Investors’ rights then became the hot cause and the cool mobilization involved anti-management activism as well as unconventional forms of protests such as corporate blacklists and vote-no campaigns.

  • In the case of the anti-chain stores movements (its more recent iteration being the anti-Big Box movements as illustrated by Robert Greenwald’s films, Wal-Mart – The High Cost of Low Prices), the hot cause was the demise of small businesses and the loss of community identity (and therefore cultural diversity) and the cool mobilization involved non-market tactics such as using zoning laws and local / state legislatures to restrict chain stores.

  • In the case of the anti-biotech activism that started in Germany, the lighting rod was the discourse of the possibility of genetic engineering, portrayed as similar to Nazi eugenic. The hot cause was then the manipulation of life in a broad sense and damage to the environment. The cool mobilization involved a variety of tactics such as unconventional demonstrations and protests that were sure to attract media attention, use of state legislature where the Green party was strong to curtail the activities of biotech firms located there (which is why firms located in rural, more conservative districts where activism levels were lower were more successful than firms located in urban and more liberal districts… also, the bigger the firm, the bigger the target… smaller firms were below the radar of activists).

In all these cases, Rao finds recurrent dynamics:

"The detailed histories of several markets presented in this book show that collective voice shapes markets by activating new identities through hot causes that arouse emotions and create a community of members, and through cool mobilization that allows participants to realize collective identities. (…) Hot causes and coo mobilization overcome the B2B dilemma; hot causes mobilize passions and engender new beliefs, and cool mobilization triggers new behaviors and allows for new beliefs to develop. (…) Thus, both hot causes and cool mobilization are gut things. What makes a cause hot is the emotions it awakens and the beliefs it disturbs, and what makes mobilization cool is that it signals insurgency and a distinctive identity. Market rebels are not cool-hunters selecting the next cool thing; instead, they produce cool – out of shared emotions and actions." (172-4)

[Emphasis mine] The dilemma, then, for activists, is one of being able to select a cause and make it hot and find the appropriate cool mobilization techniques that will engender common identity and shared commitment. For that, Rao uses Saul Alinsky’s typology of what makes a cause hot (lightning rod issues are icing on the cake and make the cause all the hotter):

  • Pick a target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.
  • Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.
  • Never go outside the experience of your people
  • Whenever possible, go outside of the experience of your enemy.

And to determine what makes mobilization cool, Rao uses Charles Tilly’s WUNC typology:

  • Worthiness (mobilization technique that improves the sense of self-worth and identity of participants)
  • Unity (mobilization techniques that fosters common collective identity and share behavior)
  • Numbers (the more the merrier)
  • Commitment (mobilization techniques that elicit commitment from the participants… which might be the ultimate issue for the CauseWired movement, incidentally)

So, cool mobilization arises from the formula W x U x N x C.

There is no doubt that the twin concepts of hot cause and cool mobilization have powerful explanatory and predicting power when it comes to social movements. It is very clear that they can be applied to many more examples than the few cases presented in the book, as the diversity of these examples illustrates. Using these concepts, one understands definitely better why some movements succeed while other fail.

At the same time, the depth of analysis presented in the book also bring to the table the power of a variety of non-market institutions on market success or failure depending on how activists are able to use these institutions in the context of cool mobilization.

To be frank, I was not sure I would be interested in a book like that but I was completely taken in by the analysis and its implications.

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