Meetings, fast and slow: How efficient is decision-making in social movement organizations?

This paper belongs to Thematic Session 3 of the Gothenburg Meeting Science Symposium

Hans Jonas Gunzelmann, Scuola Normale Superiore (Institute of Human and Social Sciences)


Social movement organizations (SMOs) embrace democratic modes of decision-making in their meetings, using either consensus or majority voting. Unlike in bureaucratic organizations, no individual has the power to impose a decision; all members participate in the process. For a long time, it has been common sense in organizational studies that horizontal decision-making leads to endless discussion, fights among participants, and ineffective use of resources. This reflects the long shadow of Max Weber and his claim that bureaucratic organizations produce the most efficient results. This view is not exclusive to organizational studies, though. Research in social movement studies and political sociology sees democratic decision-making as valuable, but inefficient – an assumption encapsulated in the title of Francesca Polletta’s (2002) book Freedom Is an Endless Meeting. However, there is little empirical evidence for this claim. In a recent article, Darcy K. Leach (2016) shows that social movement groups can act quite efficiently: despite using consensus, they make most decisions in under 30 minutes. This paper goes even further and focuses on the relationship between conflict and efficiency. Drawing on ethnographic and audio recorded data I gathered in two housing cooperatives in Madison, WI (USA), I assess the claim that horizontal decision-making is slowed down by conflict. I find that controversial decisions take about 25 percent longer than those free from conflict. However, this difference appears to be marginal given the fact that cooperatives are generally quite efficient organizations. Moreover, they make most of their decisions without any controversies. Even when disagreement arises, it is seldom severe enough to block the decision-making. However, the scope of these findings is somewhat limited, because of the specific character of the organizations and the small number of cases. Still, this paper extends Leach’s work in two ways: First, while Leach only considers consensus, I examine democratic groups using both consensus and majority voting. Second, I use a more precise operationalization of efficiency: The audio recorded data allow to directly measure the necessary time for a decision without asking the participants.

Keywords: Decision-making; Efficiency; Meetings; Democracy; Social Movement Organizations

Leach, Darcy K. 2016. “When Freedom is Not an Endless Meeting: A New Look at Efficiency in Consensus-Based Decision Making.” The Sociological Quarterly 57(1):36–70.
Polletta, Francesca. 2002. Freedom Is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Notable Replies

  1. Yes, indeed, my paper builds largely on Leach’s article, but extends her argument in several ways.

  2. Hi Hans, this looks like a very interesting paper! Has it been published? I would love to see the full text, if you’re ready to share it. Best, Darcy (

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