Date of Completion


Embargo Period



Nancy Naples, Daisy Reyes

Field of Study



Master of Arts

Open Access

Open Access


Social movement scholars agree that leadership plays a crucial role in the emergence, structure, and outcomes of social movement organizations (SMOs) and is thus an indispensable area of research. The vast majority of theories of leadership to date have been developed in contexts where participants’ movement identities are relatively stable (e.g., gender, sexual, or occupational) and engagement in the site of contestation will be long-term (e.g., workplace or nation state). However, the recent proliferation of graduate student employee unions poses a challenge to this literature because graduate students’ employment is by its very nature temporary and variable; graduate assistantship appointments may be as short as a semester and they are almost never longer than the time it takes a student to complete their degree. That has not stopped graduate students at more than 60 universities in the U.S. and Canada from organizing labor unions. In this thesis, I address the question of how and why leaders emerge in movements that are mobilized around transient identities and/or temporary occupations. I use data collected during nine months of ethnography and participant observation of the formation of the graduate student employee union at a large research university in the Northeastern United States. I find that claiming the transient identity in these contexts makes potential movement actors less likely to be involved in movement leadership. Movement leaders draw on more stable external identities to explain their involvement.

Major Advisor

Mary Bernstein