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This paper examines how existing social networks are transformed into political action in times of rapid social change. Social networks' potential as an important carrier and as driving force behind political protest has long been recognized by mobilization researchers. The idea recently experienced a revitalization through sounder empirical and theoretical work (see Diani 1997, Klandermans, Kriesi, and Tarrow 1988 as good recent examples).
While we strongly support the empirical and theoretical weight that is put on the relationship between social structures and political action, we find it often neglects other important relations between the social world and the political domain. More specifically, political action and protest can also occur in the absence of social linkages, and existing social networks can have barely almost no effect on the formation or prevention of political protest.
In this paper we aim toward an enhancement of the understanding of mobilization processes by introducing a more general, yet formally precise, model of the role of social networks in the processes. The proposed approach uses insights from diffusion research to account for different processes under a single analytical framework.
Research on the diffusion of innovations has demonstrated that social structures are an important variable in the overall explanatory equation. How a structure contributes to a diffusion process varies with different points in time and with every person involved in it (Coleman 1957). One of the oldest and most fundamental theoretical concept developed in diffusion research is the concept of exposure. The exposure model postulates that an individual engages into a collective behavior based upon the proportion of people in his personal environment that are already active. An individual's tendency to adopt a specific behavior is assumed to be a function of the behavior of others in his immediate social environment (cf. Granovetter 1978, Valente 1995).
Yet, the strength of a relationship may vary over time and is not equivalent with each individual involved in the process. More specific parameters, such as the amount of external contacts an actor has or individual attributes and beliefs (cf. Tilly 1978,p. 59-64), are often needed to specify the model and can account for the observed variations between individuals and over time.
Such an approach to dynamic processes - that combines structural and individual parameters - has proven to be a powerful theoretical and analytical tool in diffusion research and can fruitfully be adopted for mobilization processes. This combination directly translates into the research agenda we propose and we will exemplify it with one extremely interesting empirical case: the Petition Movement during the 1848/49 Revolution in a German town.
It is first necessary to determine to which extent the movement can be explained as a process that takes place within existing social structures. Then, when we know which parts of the overall process can be explained within such a general, structural model, the second step is to use additional information about the actors to identify mechanisms of recruitment and mobilization taking place beyond the scope of the general structural model. In combining both approaches we reach a maximum statistical and substantial explanatory power.
As said, the political movement studied here is the German Revolution of 1848/1849. The geographical focus is Esslingen a middle-size town in the southwestern part of Germany. In many respects, Esslingen stands for the rest of Germany and can serve as a prototypical example: At the time of the revolution it was dominated by craftsmen and small scale (family owned) industries that quantitatively outscored the existing industrialized production plants. At the same time Esslingen was embedded into a predominantly agricultural hinterland. In this blend of crafts, industries, and agriculture, we find all the social groups that had a crucial impact on the revolution. In fact, the relationships between merchants, craftsmen, workers, and vintners were often used as an explanation for the happening of the revolution. In this regard, we had to make sure that the events in Esslingen were representative of many of the local communities of that period: with a few exceptions mentioned in the analysis, Esslingen is a prototypical micro-cosmos, well embedded into larger society, which adequately reflects the most fundamental developments on the national scale.
One of the means used to express new ideas and to make claims to the different political agents during the Revolution of 1848/49 was the Petition Movement. Petitions, citing new political ideas, including the call for rapid changes, were addressed to the government, the monarchs of the State, and the National Assembly (Nationalversammlung) in Frankfurt. During the revolution more than 17.000 Petitions were addressed to the Nationalversammlung in Frankfurt alone and an additional 13.451 to the Assembly in Berlin. The fact that these petitions could have up to 10.000 petitioners stress the range and the importance of the phenomena for the revolution (Siemann 1985: 182). Although these petitions cover a broad span of subjects, they all have in common that they document active political involvement. In times of rapid social change the personal signatures on these petitions represent far more than a normal democratic interest: they express revolutionary practice.
This paper shows how the extreme rise of the petition movement observed during the years of 1848/49 can be explained within the proposed agenda. More specifically the following two questions will be used as guidelines: 1. What circumstances are generating the broad interest on new political ideas, and 2. who and what plays a central role for the diffusion of these new ideas.