Political Behavior, Vol. 25, No. 2, June 2003 ( 2003)
THE IMPORTANCE OF SOCIAL AND
POLITICAL CONTEXT: The Case
of AIDS Activism
M. Kent Jennings and Ellen Ann Andersen
We utilize a 1992 survey of approximately, 2500 AIDS activists to analyze their degree
of participation. Activity levels were affected by several traditional predictors, but the
inclusion of contextual measures indicating the activists’ connection with AIDS, espe-
cially the pain and loss incurred, led to a much fuller and more complex explanatory
model. We argue that a richer comprehension of political participation requires more
studies of issue-specific activists and the specification of contexual features that serve
to motivate more intensive degrees of participation.
Key words: political activists; AIDS; contextual features; survey research.
For every Martin Luther King, there are a plethora of Rosa Parks—foot
soldiers in a collective effort to achieve political change. Although Parks was
clearly more than a nominal participant in the Montgomery bus boycott spe-
cifically and in the civil rights movement more generally, she was not a key
leader. She did not play a major role in organizing the boycott, although she
participated in it throughout. Rosa Parks was, in sum, a rank-and-file activist,
distinguished from many other such activists in Montgomery in that her spe-
cific contribution to the civil rights movement garnered such enormous atten-
tion and had such great symbolic significance.
The attention accorded to Parks illuminates, paradoxically, the invisibility
of the vast majority of issue activists. Our knowledge of the contours of rank-
and-file activism in specific issue domains is relatively sparse, particularly in
comparison with our knowledge of the leaders and key activists in social causes
on one hand, and general (e.g., electoral and community affairs) rank-and-file
M. Kent Jennings, Department of Political Science, University of California, Santa Barbara,
Santa Barbara, CA 93106-9420 (firstname.lastname@example.org). Ellen Ann Andersen, Indiana Univer-
sity, Purdue University, Indianapolis.
0190-9320/03/0300-00177/0 2003 Plenum Publishing Corporation