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Laughing Saints and Righteous Heroes

Emotional Rhythms in Social Movement Groups

Why do people keep fighting for social causes in the face of consistent failure? Why do they risk their physical, emotional, and financial safety on behalf of strangers? How do these groups survive high turnover and emotional burnout?

To explore these questions, Erika Summers Effler undertook three years of ethnographic fieldwork with two groups: anti–death penalty activists STOP and the Catholic Workers, who strive to alleviate poverty. In both communities, members must contend with problems that range from the broad to the intimately personal. Adverse political conditions, internal conflict, and fluctuations in financial resources create a backdrop of daily frustration—but watching an addict relapse or an inmate’s execution are much more devastating setbacks. Summers Effler finds that overcoming these obstacles, recovering from failure, and maintaining the integrity of the group require a constant process of emotional fine-tuning, and she demonstrates how activists do this through thoughtful analysis and a lucid rendering of their deeply affecting stories.

256 pages | 4 line drawings, 4 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2010

Morality and Society Series

Psychology: Social Psychology

Sociology: Social Change, Social Movements, Political Sociology, Social Psychology--Small Groups


Laughing Saints and Righteous Heroes may well be the best-written book of serious social science you are ever likely to read. Erika Summers Effler puts you in the midst of the drama and humanity of people struggling for near-impossible ideals, simultaneously facing cold organizational realities and ironies and buffeted by the whirlwind of time. Alongside her moving account of two organizations with vastly different emotional styles, she condenses a theory into memorable aphorisms. Summers Effler comes closer than anyone yet to conquering a theory of time. Her book should delight and inform readers all the way from undergraduate students to sophisticated theorists to leaders of all kinds of organizations seeking a guide for riding the organizational storm.”

Randall Collins, University of Pennsylvania

“By alternating charming stories with hard-hitting theory, Summers Effler unravels the emotional intricacies of the Janus dilemma: saints turn inward to inspire transcendent joy and protect the purity of the group, while heroes storm out to vanquish foes and threats. Best of all are her accounts of her own reactions to the characters she encounters in the two groups she compares, a Catholic Worker community and an organization opposed to the death penalty. Both groups face unimaginable challenges as they struggle to survive.”

James M. Jasper, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York

Table of Contents



1 Introduction: How Do Chronically Failing Altruistic

Social Movement Groups Persist?

A Glimpse of the Catholic Worker House

A Glimpse of STOP

Organization of the Book

Overview of the Chapters

2 Thrilling Risk Attracts Involvement

Draining Helplessness and Chaos at the Catholic Worker House

Distress at STOP’s Monthly Vigil

Toward a Theory of How Thrilling Risk Attracts Involvement


3 Recovering from Failure Carves Paths to Action

A Catholic Worker Story of Failure and Recovery

A STOP Story of Collapse and Recovery

Toward a Theory of How Recovering from Failure Carves

Paths to Action


4 Evolving Emotional Histories Shape Styles of Persistence

A Catholic Worker Story of Persistence

A STOP Story of Persistence

Toward a Theory of How Evolving Emotional Histories Shape Styles of Persistence


5 Conclusion: Toward a Fluid Theory of Social Organization

High Speed and Uneven Tempo at the Catholic Worker House

Low Speed and Even Tempo at STOP

Organization Emerges When the Pull toward Expansion Meets Obstacles

Stability Eventually Undermines Itself

The Relationship between Culture and Social Actors

Dynamics of Influence Across Actors

The Role of the Observer in the Perception of Stability

Assessing Outcomes


Methods Appendix

Working within the Limits of Observation

Investigating the Emotional Rhythm of Social Organization

Representing the Emotional Rhythm of Social Organization

References Index

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