Editors’ note: This article is based on a chapter in Francois-Xavier Vaujany and Nathalie Mitev, eds., Materiality and Space: Organizations, Artefacts and Practices (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), pp. 157–78. It comes from the Nonprofit Quarterly’s Winter 2016 edition, “Social Media: The New Nonprofit Nonelective,” wherein it was titled, “Defending Underage Migrants across Free Online Spaces: Behind the Scenes of a ‘Non-Organization.’” It was first published online on February 8, 2017.

The most visible part of an open and widely based social movement relates to its mobilizing activities and framing processes to engender mass resistance.1 Yet a social movement is also characterized by a recursive (looping) relationship between mobilizing (front-stage) and organizing (backstage) activities.2 We are interested here in the creation and unfolding over time of the political agency of civil society organizations (CSOs).3 More specifically, we want to demonstrate that this political agency takes shape within the recursive relationship between the organizing and mobilizing processes. We study types of CSOs combining a strong organizational identity as perceived from the outside with a diversity of identities within. We claim that the political agency, which is viewed as a “distributed and plural agency,” is based on the organization.4 We therefore define a particular form of political agency, a “distributed political agency,” that is a specific trait of some CSOs. To more deeply understand the emerging process of this “distributed political agency,” we take the theoretical perspective on regulation elaborated by French sociologist Jean-Daniel Reynaud. We analyze regulation processes that may be control based (hierarchical) but may also be coproduced by members of the organization and therefore be autonomous (diffuse and organic). Such processes enable the relationship between mobilizing and organizing.5

We propose that this type of organization forms a distributed political agency by combining the two regulating processes. The latter (autonomous) emphasizes organizing processes, and shows that an organization shapes its own identity through its internal debates. This perspective highlights the importance of social interaction, as it is this internal debate that shapes the organization. Focus is placed on connections between actors and actions. The organization is viewed as a “distributed and plural agency”6 or as an “action net,”7 all contributing to the creation and nurturing of both the organizational identity and that of the actors.

The formal and structural components of social movement organizations are rather elusive and scant: their militants explicitly emphasize the egalitarian, horizontal, democratic, and transparent way of making decisions and taking action. They also pride themselves on not being similar to any other existing organizational form, and often vow to disappear when their mission has been fulfilled.8 Moreover, in this day and age, most social movements resort to easy-to-use online technology, and their members become online users. This online nature has reinforced the trend in social movements toward bare-bones formal organizational features and lack of formal rules.

These flexible organizations are highly responsive and can mobilize quickly. The quest for massive and far-reaching mobilization is a powerful strategy for advocacy and action, but it goes hand in hand with significant risks of losing control. Mission drift, the push for more-powerful governance structures, anarchic growth, controversies within the movement, the maintenance of pluralism among members—all are risks to an open social movement where almost anyone can become a member through online registration to any existing e-mail list.9 Yet, these self-proclaimed “no rules” organizations cannot thrive and stay true to themselves without rules, even if the latter are informal and invisible from the outside. Rules are essential in maintaining an organization’s fundamental core values such as pluralism, openness, agility, and resistance. Therefore, such organizations offer interesting organizational contexts for studying their underlying regulation processes, which cannot be understood through classic dual oppositions of formal/informal, effective/affective, local/global rules.

In this article, we describe an emblematic French organization whose actions sometimes border legality: a citizen’s movement defending undocumented migrant students. This organization, which we will call “ABCD” to preserve its anonymity, is a collection of different cells that continue to expand by adding newly formed local cells across the country. Every cell unfolds within social spaces of exchange and interaction of two different forms: e-mail lists and regular face-to-face meetings. We analyze how these face-to-face and online social spaces relate to the organization’s regulation processes. We focus in particular on how regulation processes contribute to defining communities (which can be considered as places of regulation in the organization), and, in return, how these processes are influenced by the existence of these communities. We explore the recursive interplay between mobilizing activities and organizing processes of this politically driven CSO. More specifically, we investigate how this so-called “non-organization” manages to balance its political dimension and agency both externally and internally. And, we demonstrate that the making of its political agency is both distributed across the organization and articulated to make up a consistent whole.

First, we show that this organization—with its bare-bones organizational features and populated by an array of local cells, each developing its own identity—preserves its global identity and develops informal control through a joint regulation process combining autonomous and control-based rules. Second, in analyzing the functioning of this organization—which relies on a set of tools revolving around the use of information systems and a set of social spaces—we argue that processes of regulation are also enacted through the material side of these tools and social spaces, and are not just the result of human agency. We then identify how human agency and material agency entwine with regulation processes, and we highlight in particular the role of “broker” played by specific actors at the interface of the different communities.

A Process Approach to Producing Rules

Rules are often considered as orders or injunctions prescribing behaviors in the workplace, and are viewed as somewhat immutable. From that perspective, rules enable collective action, since they provide stability and order actors’ conduct in the workplace. Yet another perspective on rules, originating from Reynaud, focuses on “social regulation”—that is, the process of producing rules. From this perspective, rules are considered “a guide for action, a standard enabling an informed judgment, a model orienting action.”10 A rule “advises the making of a decision as it often allows one to define the ongoing situation, to differentiate from different cases and to specify the meaning of the facts under review.”11 Reynaud argues that the production of rules defines both the actors supporting the rules and the communities that get formed around the rules and stabilize in time through their use. As a result, a rule is both an outcome, since it manifests the rationality and the logic of a community, and also the condition for building and maintaining this community, whose members accept this common rule.12 Viewed as a process, rule making fosters dynamism and initiatives in organizations, especially when rules are made “autonomously” and not hierarchically.

Three concepts are articulated in this theory of social regulation: conflict, negotiation, and rule.13 Conflicts are viewed as inevitable, since any actor promotes his or her own agenda and tries to make others accept it. Communities get defined through conflicts, and they may later oppose one another. Through negotiation, actors establish a community by discovering common interests, common ground, and areas of convergence. Once a rule is defined and accepted within a community, abiding by it produces both a belonging to the community and the resolution of the conflict(s), even if temporarily.

“Control-Based Rules” Versus “Autonomous Rules”

Reynaud demonstrates that two apparently contradictory and complex phenomena coexist in organizations—those of control and autonomy. He focuses on the interplay that fosters a dynamic creation of rules. The theory of social regulation originates from the study of industrial relations. This explains why Reynaud associates specific rules with categories of actors in an organization. He studies forms of control that spread across an organization, and his thinking sets control-based rules (which originate from management, are based on hierarchical power, and go from the top to the bottom of any organization) in opposition to autonomous rules (which are produced locally by groups of workers themselves). This approach goes beyond a dual perspective that would merely oppose global to local dimensions of regulation. Indeed, it shows that the combination of different forms of legitimacy—ones that would be rational–legal and others that would point to more specific and scattered forms of legitimacy—produces these local and more informal regulations. The distinction between control-based and autonomous rules is related to an actor’s strategic orientation and position within the organization. As argued by Reynaud, “[A] rule is not by itself a control-based or an autonomous rule. It becomes such only through the organizational place of the actor issuing it and through the way the rule is used in practice. Control and autonomy therefore point to the use of a rule, not to its nature.”14

Yves Lichtenberger also indicates that a control rule establishes a relationship of subordination, whereas an autonomous rule establishes a relationship of solidarity.15 An autonomous rule knits together a community of peers. It is an obligation that actors create for themselves, and implies the involvement and engagement of actors. As a result, forms of disengagement in organizations could endanger the existence of autonomous rules. More broadly, in order to understand regulation processes, it is paramount to identify the actors issuing a rule, their position within the organization, and, more important, the communities defined by the emergence of a new rule. This theoretical perspective on control and regulation that make way for both local emergence and global control seems rather appealing when undertaking study of a particular type of organization: those claiming both a hierarchy-free mode of organizing that limits as much as possible control-based rules (derived from a rational–legal form of legitimacy) and also their determination to grant their members maximum autonomy. Such organizations exist in particular in social movements.

Considering the Socio-Material Dimension of Rules

Combining the study of regulation processes and the materiality in organizations could prove a fruitful avenue of research. Organizations have different forms of materiality. Whether one considers an organization through its technologies or through its managerial tools,16 its written records or even speeches, materiality needs to be conceived of as a “material agency” that gets entangled with “human agency.”17 Indeed, objects, tools, and spaces are not neutral. They combine with human actions, influencing them and revealing qualities that shape and model collective joint action. Material agency can be defined as “the capacity for non-human entities to act on their own, apart from human intervention,”18 through their performativity.19 Materiality, then, is not just stand-alone decor, a mere element of context that can be observed from the outside. On the contrary, a managerial practice is defined through its entwinement with materiality. As a result, regulation viewed as a practice is also anchored in the material side of organizational life. And as regulation defines communities within an organization, we argue that the material dimension of communities (via the physical and online spaces) is also articulated by regulation processes. The organization we describe here is not structured by formal rules or hierarchy but around spaces of a different nature (online and face-to-face) that allow members of different communities of this organization to exchange and interact either within their own community or across communities. The definition of communities not only fosters the emergence of rules but also contributes to their strength and stabilization. As a result, we seek to address the following questions:

  • How does a community—both in its material dimension and as a purposeful project of collective joint action—participate in the process of regulation?
  • How do control-based rules emerge within a “non-organization,” where autonomous rules usually prevail? On what basis do these latter rules rely? 

The Case Context: Defense of Underage Migrants in France

As we introduced earlier, ABCD is a CSO defending undocumented migrant students in France. Its members advocate an egalitarian, horizontal, and transparent way of making decisions internally (no spokesperson, no hierarchy, anyone may become a member through open, online registration to existing e-mail lists, and so on). This approach goes hand in hand with the constitutive and founding choice of developing social spaces online (such as an informative website and dozens of autonomous and loosely coupled e-mail lists hosted on a server lent by an independent media organization). When dealing with an undocumented migrant student under threat of deportation, ABCD’s militants resort to diverse and far-reaching mobilization activities: writing, mailing, and taking to the streets. They pursue national coverage, give primacy to on-the-ground activities and to their collective ability to respond to quickly evolving situations, trigger blitz and symbolic operations, write open letters to politicians, and develop strategic uses of media (they have a taste for staging resistance actions with high media impact). They then contribute to two complementary objectives: rolling out massive mobilization at specific and crucial moments to increase pressure on governmental authorities and their representatives, and resisting the political rhetoric relayed by public authorities justifying their administrative actions in the name of the law.

The Underage Migrant’s Story That Started Everything

Founding members of ABCD are known for their strong militancy. When ABCD was founded, in 2004, one could already perceive the beginnings of these far-reaching mobilization activities that today form the most visible part of this organization. Several local mobilization activities were simultaneously performed back then, in high schools in Paris and its suburbs. One of ABCD’s founding members, who we will call “Interviewee B,” described how it all began. At the time, she was the elected representative of a parents’ association in one of the high schools. She discovered that her son had given his canteen card to a Congolese girl who could not afford to pay for meals because she had been left alone in Paris—although under the supervision of a friend of her parents—with no financial resources or official documents. The parents’ friend had taken unsuccessful action to obtain free access to the canteen for the student. The student explained that she had received a deportation letter—“Obligation to Leave French Territory”—because she had recently turned eighteen (marking the end of her protection from deportation) and did not have the documents that would permit her to stay in the country. Mobilization at the high school prompted a quick response from the local authorities, who overturned the decision.20

Her situation was sorted out. We threw a party at the high school, as the headmaster supported our efforts, to celebrate her legalization. And during the party, eight other students came to see me. They said they were in the same situation. And we realized that if there were eight other undocumented students in that high school, there must be situations like these in every high school. This was indeed true, but we had just discovered it. (Interviewee B)

Another founding member, “Interviewee R,” described a mobilization activity in the name of undocumented migrant students in his high school, and concluded:

We told ourselves that what was happening more and more frequently in our high school could not be an isolated situation and must be happening everywhere. We wrote up a call for action. Then, we got in touch with other people, some of whom are still members of our network.

As a result, in June 2004, teachers from various high schools created ABCD. These teachers had all had to deal with situations in which an underage migrant student came of age and therefore was liable to be expelled if he or she did not possess the required documents. Over the years, the effectiveness of ABCD’s advocacy of undocumented migrant students has continued unabated, and ABCD expanded the fight to make sure the students’ undocumented migrant parents would not be deported, either. The following story demonstrates how ABCD draws attention to specific cases, gets press coverage, and pressures state representatives:

In the summer of 2005, two young people from the town of Sens, “Rachel” and “Jonathan,” ran away from home because their mother was being held in detention. They came into contact with a man, who, upon discovering their illegal status, did not bring them to the police but instead called us. We hid them for a while. There were press conferences and we got media coverage because journalists wanted the story. We moved the kids from one place to another many times over. We made various appointments with journalists, and brought them to meet the kids. (Interviewee B)

The fact that no undocumented migrant student and no migrant families with students enrolled in intermediate or senior secondary French schools have been deported since ABCD was formed proves the effectiveness of this social movement. ABCD pushed very hard, and even got politicians to issue an administrative circular:

The Minister for Home Affairs issued a circular dated October 31, 2005, saying that no kids enrolled at schools, or their parents, would be expelled until June 2006. In fact, he made a big mistake when he specified a deadline to this moratorium. We campaigned against it, declaring that starting July 1, kids were going to be hunted down. It led him to issue a circular legalizing both students enrolled at French schools and their parents. We call it the “Rachel and Jonathan Circular.” (Interviewee B)

The group was determined to fight for all cases and to use all means at their disposal to do so. For example, at one point, a migrant student who was being deported and had already boarded a plane was retrieved at the last minute, following pressure put on state representatives (they didn’t want the negative publicity). ABCD members accompany all migrant students to the préfecture (official headquarters) when the latter receive notification to appear, and provide them with legal and administrative assistance. They have also adopted proactive tactics, building a case before a migrant student comes of age in order to amass all the documents they will need to later win a case in court. History of their stay in France, report cards, letters of recommendation from their teachers, school attendance sheets, signed petitions—all become part of the evidence they will display at the préfecture and, if necessary, in court in order to obtain legal status for the student. Later, they guide the student through the administrative steps to acquire French citizenship. They organize sponsorship days, when high-profile politicians agree to sponsor a migrant student and vouch for him or her. Thus, the group seeks to act before any migrant student under their supervision even receives a deportation letter, as they know their actions may dissuade public authorities from beginning the deportation process, understanding that they will be given a hard time otherwise. 

The Recursive Relationship between Mobilizing and Organizing

These mobilizing activities are the most visible part of the organization. However, other, far less visible activities relate to organizing processes that enable effective mobilization and at the same time deliver organizational flexibility. ABCD is a relatively unstructured organization. Members do not engage in routine work that could make them predictable, they do not accept any financial contributions, and they refuse “experts.” There is no hierarchy, formal rules can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and there is no screening procedure for registering new members to any existing e-mail list. The organization qualifies as a “non-organization” in the sense that its members reject hierarchy, formal rules, official leaders, and the like. (This does not mean that it is an organization in waiting.)

This “non-organization” keeps expanding by adding permanent new cells to its loosely structured network across French territory. Each new cell covers a new geographical area and joins the organization by adopting its brand name and linking its own e-mail lists to other existing e-mail lists at different territorial levels (national or local). The analysis of this organization shows that there are both a set of e-mail lists and a set of periodic meetings associated with each of those lists—network members communicate through the lists and during physical meetings. Having studied ABCD’s organizing process through the lens of its underlying regulation processes, we believe these social spaces can be viewed as communities in the sense given by Reynaud: each group of actors is a community that is related to a given social space and defines its own rules of joint collective action.

The Methodological Approach

To undertake our research, we used an interpretive case study approach, gathering multiple sources of evidence. This included interviews, activity observation, and e-mail list analysis.

First, we conducted eight in-depth, semi-directed interviews with key members of ABCD, covering different geographical areas and levels of responsibility (national, regional, local). These interviewees are considered by many to be founding members. Some questions probed the members’ use of and opinions on e-mail lists. Interviews lasted between one and two hours, and the interviews were then recorded and transcribed.

Then, we studied the operating mode of several local cells both in and outside Paris. We conducted two interviews with volunteers in each cell, and attended various meetings and participated in events organized locally—for example, we attended a party that took place in a high school’s faculty lounge to celebrate a staff member’s legalization brought about by the local cell. These observations were helpful in understanding ABCD’s internal organization and also facilitated our interpretations of the formal interviews.

Finally, a large part of our analysis was based on data extracted from our participation in several e-mail lists. Each researcher signed up on different lists (national, regional, local) as a participant. (We did not have access to some of the more confidential e-mail lists.) We had access to a number of open lists, but each of us focused on one list in particular. It was a way for us to develop an empathic approach and to take into account the intrinsic nature of each online space. By discussing our experiences, we were able to analyze controversies popping up on the e-mail lists and reflect more specifically on what might be the right “brokering” between online spaces in such instances. On a practical level, content analysis of the lists was a way for us to stay in touch with ABCD’s daily round and to have direct access to regular exchanges between members.

An Organization Made Up of a Set of Local Communities

One of the most important achievements of ABCD over the years has been its ability to maintain a diversity of political sensibilities and reasons for engagement across its membership, and at the same time a strong consistency in the ways operational actions get done effectively on the ground. Preserving a pluralist membership—ranging from Christians to far-left activists—while at the same time delivering effective mobilizations, is no mean feat. To address this issue, ABCD members have adopted specific organizing processes that cannot be analyzed through traditional lenses. Members readily admit that ABCD is a “non-organization”: as described earlier, there is no hierarchy, no legal structure, no financial means, no spokesperson, no official positions or roles, no formal rules, no screening or recruitment processes, no accounting practices, and so on. This organization also displays a dynamic growth that has developed in a rather anarchic way. In this next section, we describe the nature of ABCD and how the rules allowing for both its functioning and its growth get articulated.

The Relationship between ABCD’s Global Identity and the Specific Identities of Its Local Cells

As we learned from the interviews, ABCD has a global identity. ABCD is supported by members’ shared values around the defense of undocumented immigrants. It is also linked by its operating modes, as some members have expressed. For instance, participation in the e-mail lists and their uses are at the heart of the members’ sense of belonging to the same organization.

What unifies everyone are methods and e-mail lists. (Interviewee R)

However, the identities and operating modes of local cells can differ from one other. ABCD gathers members from all walks of life and political sensibilities, and promotes engagement. Every local ABCD cell gathers members having similar views as to how to do things—but, needless to say, there are different opinions and views of the world across cells. Members act und