Direct action is a method and a theory of confronting objectionable practices and/or effecting social change using readily available means. Such action is usually contrasted with indirect forms of social and political participation such as voting. Protest demonstrations, mass rallies, strikes, boycotts, workplace occupations, and riots constitute examples of such action.
The first mention of the term is in the realm of labor struggles. In his book Direct Action (1920), William Mellor defined direct action as “the use of some form of economic power for the securing of ends desired by those who possess that power” (p. 15). Mellor considered direct action a tool of both employers and workers. Accordingly, he included within his definition lockouts as well as strikes. Since the late twentieth century, however, direct action has come to be increasingly associated with challenges to established societal practices and institutions by marginalized groups.
The power of direct action depends largely on its contentiousness, or the extent to which it bypasses or violates the routine conflict resolution procedures of a political system. Whereas such action can be used by recognized actors employing well-established means of claim making, substantial short-term political and social change more often emerges from the congruence of newly self-identified political actors with innovative forms of claim making. Most campaigns for social change—notably those seeking to expand the suffrage, protect civil rights, and improve working and living conditions—employ direct action repertoires.
Direct action outside of the political process is usually juxtaposed to institutionalized, routine, and/or regularized forms of social and political participation. Accordingly, one of the most commonly drawn distinctions is whether such action is carried out in a peaceful or forceful manner. Violent direct action, it is often assumed, is more contentious than nonviolent direct action because the former exhibits a high threshold of social transaction costs. Nonviolent direct action, on the other hand, has proved effective in highly repressive settings due to its unpredictability and transformative power.
Nonviolent direct action has been developed into a theory of civil disobedience by civil movements around the world. Pioneered by the American author Henry David Thoreau in his 1849 essay Civil Disobedience, it encompasses the active refusal to obey the laws of a government or an occupying power without resorting to physical violence. It has been used effectively by nonviolent resistance movements in the fight for independence in India, in South Africa in the fight against apartheid, and by the civil rights movement in the United States.
The mechanisms that make direct action contentious are then complex. First, there are social actors who are limited in the forms of action that are available to them, and expressions of discontent that are strictly bound to specific social or economic groups. Secondly, the political opportunities that countries make available and the resources that citizens bring to bear on this form of politics vary greatly around the world.
As of 2005, more than half of the world’s nations held regular multiparty elections, more than at any time in history. As societies democratize, political opportunities increase, making direct action more routine. With the spread of democratization, some have argued, the protest demonstration has become a modular form of direct action available to multiple groups.
SEE ALSO Civil Disobedience
Bond, Douglas, J., Craig Jenkins, Charles L. Taylor, and Kurt Schock. 1997. Mapping Mass Political Conflict and Civil Society: Issues and Prospects for the Automated Development of Event Data. The Journal of Conflict Resolution 41 (4): 553–579.
Carter, April. 1971. Direct Action and Liberal Democracy. New York: Harper.
Mellor, William. 1920. Direct Action. London: L. Parsons.
Sharp, Gene. 1973. The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Boston: Porter Sargent.
Tarrow, Sidney G. 1994. Power in Movement: Social Movements, Collective Action, and Politics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
José A. Alemán
"Direct Action." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/direct-action
"Direct Action." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved October 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/direct-action
direct action, theory and methods used by certain labor groups to fight employers, capitalist institutions, and the state by direct economic action, without using intermediate organizations. Political measures, such as arbitration, collective bargaining, and trade agreements, are rejected as ineffective. According to the theory, workers, acting as a class, are in a position to exert pressure on capitalist institutions to secure rights. Such measures as the strike, the general strike, the boycott, and sabotage—frequently accompanied by physical violence—are the preferred methods for labor disputes; propaganda and agitation are employed against the government. The specific reforms gained are seen as steps toward the ultimate revolution and toward abolition of capitalism. The theory was developed with the rise of the labor movement in the 19th cent. and was formulated as a definite policy in the early 20th cent. by anti-Marxist radical groups, notably proponents of syndicalism. The method was used in France and spread to other European countries. In the United States the Industrial Workers of the World advocated it.
See W. Mellor, Direct Action (1920); L. L. Lorwin, Labor and Internationalism (1929).
"direct action." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/direct-action
"direct action." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved October 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/direct-action