Former Notre Dame Sociology graduate student Emmanuel Cannady has received the “Best Dissertation Award” from the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) section devoted to study of Collective Behavior and Social Movements. All dissertations defended in 2022 were eligible for the award. The title of his dissertation is Black Lives Matter University: How Activist Knowledge Affects Organizational Sustainability. Cannady, who is now an assistant professor at Bucknell University, wrote the dissertation based no his experiences as co-founder and participant of South Bend’s chapter of Black Lives Matter. He had initially intended to use BLM-South Bend to analyze factors contributing to a failed social movement, because the organization disbanded fairly soon after its initial launch. However, external events provided an opportunity to revive the movement and Canndady’s focus shifted to studying (from the inside) the trajectory of a social movement operating within a rapidly changing environment.
In a fascinating analysis, Emmanuel considers how social movement participants draw on different sources of knowledge when engaging a struggle and when trying to make sense of what they are up against. On one level, there is experiential knowledge vs. theoretical knowledge, and on another level there is local knowledge vs. global knowledge. Through his work, Cannady notes the importance of working to draw all participants into the center of something like a Venn diagram in which all members have access to each of the knowledge sources. This involves teaching as well as learning and listening. He argues that the organization initially failed because leaders (mostly from the university) focused too much on global theoretical knowledge, leading them to alienate supporters from the community and to fail to take advantage of the knowledge that other participants brought to the table.
Cannady shows how external events (COVID, the racial justice movement--including protests of George Floyd’s murder, and the presidential campaign of the local Mayor (Buttigieg) created a context that made it easier to draw participants together into that circle where they could draw on local, global, experiential, and theoretical knowledge as they mobilized. This led to a moment of strength within the movement, as membership swelled and the work they were doing was more effective as it gained external recognition and support.
The ASA section devoted to collective behavior and social movement’s is one of the largest sections in the Association. The section selects just one dissertation per year for its prestigious “Best Dissertation” award. Cannady is currently working on transforming the dissertation into a book.