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Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America (Polemics) Hardcover – August 17, 2006

ISBN-13: 978-0742515352 ISBN-10: 0742515354
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Editorial Reviews


Frances Fox Piven has written yet another terrific book. Building on her previous work with Richard Cloward, she scales new heights in uncovering 'the dynamics of disruptive power.' Theoretically profound, yet immensely readable, with enormous comparative as well as historical range, she shows how 'the people-out-of-doors' have effected progressive policy reforms at critical junctures in American history. The practical relevance of this for politics in the USA today is clear on every page. And so are the lessons it has to teach social movement theorists as well as institutionalist political scientists and sociologists. (Leo Panitch, York University)

Challenging Authority is itself a challenge to authority, contesting conventional interpretations of American history, from the Revolution to present-day protests against the interdependent global economy. It offers a compelling argument for the vital democratic role of 'disruptive power,' showing how successive phases of short-lived collective defiance culminate in progressive policy outcomes, but also how these are eroded and suppressed as democratic politics resumes its normal course. This is important reading for students of democratic politics. (Steven Lukes, New York Univeresity)

Frances Fox Piven here offers us a brilliant analysis of the interplay between popular protest and electoral politics. She challenges conventional theory as she explains, with stylistic clarity and sound historical evidence, the limitations of voting as a democratic tool and the power of disruptive action to achieve social change. (Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States and professor emeritus of Political Science, Boston University)

This quintessential Pivenesque book eloquently traces how ordinary people, whose efforts to advance their rights and interests are in normal times limited by our political system, have taken it upon themselves to correct injustices. Piven shows this to be true from the founding days of our nation and explains how and why this can continue to be so even in our new, globalized economy. (Susan Eckstein, Boston University)

Frances Fox Piven has done it again! With undiminished authority, she offers a sweeping examination of disruptive movements at key moments in American history, from the revolutionary period to the present. Her examination of the relations between disruption and electoral politics underscores an implicit criticism of both 'radical' visions and academic research that isolates social movements from politics. In their place, she reveals the intricate, contradictory, but ultimately democratizing impact of disrupting established institutional routines. This penetrating analysis offers sage advice for those who are discouraged by the current reversion of democracy in these times of imperial expansion and threats to civil liberties.Thirty-five years after the publication of her seminal Regulating the Poor, this is vintage Piven empowered with new insights. (Sidney Tarrow, Cornell University, author of Power in Movement and The New Transnational Activism)

Challenging Authority is like a Molotov cocktail in an elegant crystal decanter. Piven deploys meticulous reasoning and wide-ranging research to show that social change comes ultimately from the disruptive actions of ordinary people―strikes, sit-ins, riots. Challenging Authority challenges all of us to re-think our notions of who makes history and how. It may be Piven's best work yet. (Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America)

Piven's book is succinct and masterful. (Stephen Lendman)

Zooming in on the American revolution, the abolitionist movement, the early twentieth-century rise of the labour movement, and the Vietnam anti-war movement, she argues that these historical intervals of protest movements wield a form of disruptive power that leads to fundamentally egalitarian democratic reform. (International Review Of Social History)

Challenging Authority is a lively, timely, and illuminating account of moments of popular insurgency when those outside the mainstream have driven issues to the center of political debate. Piven has written a vivid reminder that ordinary people can change America when they find the true source of their power. Most importantly, when the people themselves rise up in anger and hope, all Americans get to witness real democracy in action. (Lani Guinier, Harvard Law School)

About the Author

Frances Fox Piven is Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the Graduate School at the City University of New York and past president of the American Sociological Association. She is the author of several books, including The War at Home: The Domestic Costs of Bush's Militarism (2004) and Why Americans Still Don't Vote: And Why Politicians Want It That Way (2000).

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 200 pages
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (August 17, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0742515354
  • ISBN-13: 978-0742515352
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 0.8 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #687,510 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Frances Fox Piven is Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology
at The Graduate Center, CUNY, and the author of the bestselling Poor People's Movements, Regulating the Poor, and Why Americans Don't Vote (with the late
Richard A. Cloward), as well as The War At Home, Keeping Down the Black Vote, and many other books. She lives in New York City.

Customer Reviews

4.1 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

41 of 44 people found the following review helpful By James R. Tracy on April 23, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Too often, discussion about the viability of change sprouting from the electoral system is shrunk to fit bumperstickers. Even harder to find is nuanced analysis when the politics of protest--direct action, and mob action become the issue of the day. Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America by Francis Fox Piven offers readers a history lesson of the ways in which progressive change has in the past, actually happened--a complex dance between disruptive populist forces and the formal electoral system.

Piven is one of the Left's preeminent Political Scientists. Others in academia have done their best to delete the role of protest in social change; she has made a career of writing the common person back into the history. Best known for the groundbreaking Poor People's Movements: How they Succeed and Why the Fail she asserted over twenty years ago that reform moves best when the action remains direct. Challenging Authority expands on this theme.

The book asserts that disruptive politics have always forced electoral/representative; as well as regional coalitions splinter and realign, making reform possible. This is in stark contrast to the dominant model of party building--unite a large enough mass around a platform common enough to hold--a culprit commonly referred to as the Lowest Common Denominator. For Piven, it is dissensus, not the consensus that is the engine of progressive reform.

The mass direct action of the Civil Rights movement plied pro-segregation Dixiecrats to split from the Democratic Party making it possible for a portion of movement demands to be satisfied. Spot-on is the understanding that one day's movement victory might become tommorow's liability.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Paul Hosse on July 3, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Not an especially volumious book at only 139 pages,including the Epilogue. Frances Fox Piven has written the definitive primer for those looking to organize and fight back. The book starts off with a brief introductory of the history of social movements and clarification of terms. Ms. Piven then dives in deep to explain how movements are started, and more importantly, maintained.

While the book was written from a decidedly Left perspective, it can easily be adapted for any movement, political or not. I strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in making a difference. It's also great for those interested in social movements or American history. Buy it now while it's still legal!
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By janiceb on September 11, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America (Polemics)Professor Piven reminds us that we can't depend on elections alone to bring about progressive change. Change happens in response to disruptive action. As soon as people stop disrupting the interdependent relationships that structure our society, elected officials start reversing the democratic changes they had previously allowed. Prof. Piven could have told us that if we were expecting a President to bring us "Hope and Change," we were looking in the wrong place. In fact, ". . . all of our past experience argues that the mobilization of collective defiance and the disruption it causes have always been essential to the preservation of democracy."
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By P. Troutman on February 3, 2013
Format: Paperback
When reading this, I couldn't really think of any reason why this was written beyond repackaging the author's ideas in a form that would make a textbook that wouldn't break an undergraduate's budget. The ideas don't seem particularly new (or well argued) and aren't as inspiring as the subtitle suggests.

The book is making nuanced arguments in social movement theory that are likely to only be of interest to a small number of sociologists. The larger points that the book promises aren't really handled in a satisfactory way. The book loosely takes the structure of a lit review of social movement theory, arguing that other theories of social movement breakthroughs are unsatisfactory and that `something else' is necessary to explain to the bursts of reform. The book, however, doesn't make as a compelling case as I would have anticipated that popular disruptions are in fact that `something else'. Instead, they're treated more as the only obvious thing missing from the other theories.

And then the end of the book largely degenerates into an anti-George W. screed typical of 2006 (the year of publication). That part isn't terribly analytical or connected to the rest of the book for that matter, though it is a reminder of how dark that time seemed in so many ways.

The quality of the prose is also uneven and gets acutely clumsy in chapter two, where sentences like the following are common: "The actualization of the power capacities inherent in interdependent relations is always conditional on the ability of the parties to the relationship to withhold or threaten to withhold their cooperation, and this capacity depends on other features of these relations beyond the fact of interdependence." Does that makes sense? Yeah, if you think about it, but it's not hard to imagine a better way of saying it.
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