Social Movements

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Social movements are forms of collective action that emerge in response to situations of inequality, oppression and/or unmet social, political, economic or cultural demands. They are based on informal engagements that arise more or less simultaneously in different places without official leaders, though spokespersons may be recognised and links between groups may be formed. Social movements are products of ‘society’, formed ‘bottom-up’ rather than ‘top-down’ at the behest of governments. Social movements can be viewed as collective enterprises to establish a new order of life. They have their inception in the condition of unrest and derive their motivating power on the one hand from dissatisfaction with the current way of life, and on the other from wishes and hopes for a new scheme or system of living. For Sidney Tarrow, social movements are "those organized efforts, on the part of excluded groups, to promote or resist changes in the structure of society that involve recourse to non-institutional forms of political participation". For Doug McAdam, “mass movements mobilize people who are alienated from the going system, who do not believe in the legitimacy of the established order, and who therefore are ready to engage in efforts to destroy it. The greatest number of people available to mass movement will be found in those sections of society that have the fewest ties to the social order”. Anyway, rather than focused on violence, social movements are based on common purposes, social relations and solidarity. Thus, social movements are directed to action, so their members are designated activist. According to the kind of demand made, social movements can be divided into those linked with economic necessities, with ethnic or nationalist political demands, with the vindication of human rights or the claims of social groups related with excluded people such as ethnic minorities, women, workers, young or gay people.


What have been called ‘old’ social movements arose in western Europe in the XIXth century and during the first half of the XXth century. The revolutionary wave of 1848, the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the movement for university reform in Córdoba (Argentina) in 1918 are emblematic examples of old social movements. Their social base was defined by concrete borders of class, nation and social condition. They were often local, but occasionally involved revolutionary or reform processes at national and international levels. ‘Old’ social movements stressed economic-political protest: the primary claims are material, but may also be political and moral: democratisation, the right to vote and the equality of rights. The strike and the demonstration were the most visible actions in the repertoires. Although many of the participants were young, old social movements were not conceived as youth movements but rather as adult struggles. The cultural features of these movements involve verbal language (the meeting), an aesthetic of struggle (‘life is a struggle’), and cultural production situated in the Gutenberg galaxy (newspapers, brochures, books). The dominant organisational model is best represented by the metaphor of the band given that old social movements were usually based in local groups with strong internal cohesion as well as signs and symbols of identity that clearly differentiated insiders from outsiders. The so-called ‘new’ social movements arose in North America and Europe after World War II (1950–1970). The student movements in Berkeley in ‘64 and in Paris, Rome, New York, and Mexico in ‘68 were the foundational moments. The social base of these movements moved away from class, emphasising other identity-based criteria: generation, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity, particularly marginalised communities (Blacks, Chicanos, Native Americans, etc.). The territorial base of the new social movements moved away from the local toward the regional and transnational. Environmentalist, pacifist, feminist, gay-lesbian and counter-cultural movements were characteristic examples. The most visible action repertoires had a playful dimension (sit-ins, happenings) although traditional activities, including demonstrations and assemblies, also had a role. Although some participants were older, new social movements were often conceived as youth and gender-based movements, as they stressed youth emancipation and sexual liberation. The participation of young people gave rise to myriad youth micro-cultures, often with a transnational dimension that, nevertheless, took diverse forms in each country. New social movements have been widely analysed by social scientists, including works of great importance (Touraine, 1978; Melucci, 2001).

Contemporary Social Movements

The contemporary social movements straddle the frontier of physical and virtual space at the turn of the new millennium. They highlight the transformations and social conflicts associated with the consolidation of informational capitalism. Seattle ’99, Prague ‘00 and Genoa ‘01 are key symbolic moments, but are rooted in organisational processes initiated more than a decade earlier. The social base of these movements crosses generations, genders, ethnicities and territories. Their spatial base is no longer local or national, but is situated in globally networked space, like the neoliberal system these movements oppose. However, their decentralisation constitutes a localised internationalism (glocality). These social movements emphasise both economic and cultural dimensions: their basic grievances are economic, but no longer exclusively revolve around self-interest; they also include solidarity with those who are marginalised by globalisation. The struggle also takes place on the terrain of cultural identities, highlighting the right to difference. As with the new social movements, action repertoires involve marches and demonstrations, but calls to action are distributed through the Internet, while mass marches and actions meet with multiple forms of virtual resistance. They are organised around informal networks facilitated by new ICTs. Second, they are global in geographical reach and thematic scope, as activists increasingly link their locally-rooted struggles to diverse movements elsewhere. Finally, they involve non-traditional and highly theatrical forms of direct action protest. Younger activists are also characteristically drawn to more non-conventional forms of direct action protest, involving creative, expressive, or violent repertoires of action. In addition to their utilitarian purpose, mass direct actions are complex cultural performances that allow participants to communicate symbolic messages to an audience, while also providing a forum for producing and experiencing symbolic meaning through embodied ritual practice. They are organised as networks which are constituted by loose, decentralised groups and identity markers and involve both individualisation and non-differentiation. These transnational ‘movement webs’ (Alvarez, Dagnino and Escobar, 1998) comprise a wide field of individuals, organisations and structures with a strong but flexible core, a periphery that is not as active but is very diverse and nodes of interconnection where resources and knowledge continuously flow. One of the novelties of the contemporary social movements is to foreground economics, a characteristic of traditional social movements, but also to add the cultural and individualistic dimensions characteristic of the so-called new social movements. These attributes combine the “right to have” and the “right to be”, which include solidarity among the groups already marginalised by globalisation.