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social movement

  Social movements are the organized efforts of multiple individuals or organizations, acting outside formal state or economic spheres, to pursue political goals within society. They may be organized around either particular groups — e.g. the working class — or particular goals — e.g. access to health care. Their demands may be focused on the state (e.g. the passage of new laws), on economic actors (e.g. wage demands), on society as a whole (e.g. the changing of norms relating to race or sexuality), or on any combination of these. Social movements present methodological difficulties because, as informal, voluntary associations, they are inherently mutable objects of study. Moreover, it is difficult to measure their effects, or to predict whether, when, and how one will arise from a given set of social contradictions or problems (Rochon and Mazmanian, 1993; Peet and Watts, 1996).

Social movements are best understood within a broader framework of social analysis. Thus, social movement theory understands them as phenomena within civil society — one of the three major arenas of action and conflict in modern societies, alongside the state and the economy. Classical political economy began to conceive of civil society as a sphere distinct from, but complementary to, the state and the market. It is thus a concept inseparable from the evolution of capitalist liberal democracies and the modern nationstate, and corresponding ideas of citizenship. After Hegel and Marx, civil society came to be understood as the sphere of reproduction, and of the informal norms and institutions necessary to the ongoing reproduction of the economy and the state. It also became a catch-all category to refer to forms of social participation and difference not strictly tied to economic class or legal citizenship status, such as voluntary associations and race, ethnicity, gender, religion, etc. (see Urry, 1981).

For much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most social sciences focused on the state and market, and paid relatively little attention to civil society. As a result, most theories of social movements developed before the mid-twentieth century were largely derived from theories of the state and the economy: social movements were understood as expressions of conflicts rooted in those spheres, and were believed to be composed of and for already-given groups within society. Thus, the labour movement was believed to be a direct result of the structural conflict between capital and wage workers; the latter pursued their evolving interests through conflict with other groups in society. Similar interpretations were applied to agrarian social movements and others. The discipline of sociology was an exception: it made civil society and collective action central objects of study from the early twentieth century on. Sociologists attempted to explain social movements in terms of the need for individuals and groups in the rapidly shifting geographies and economies of modern capitalist societies to continually rebuild informal norms and institutions, to create new relationships, and to bring their material existences and expectations into alignment. All of these theories were broadly functionalist (cf. functionalism).

By the mid-twentieth century, the continued failure of Marxist theories of revolution to fulfil themselves in practice led social theorists to look beyond the state and market, in order to understand how consent and hegemony were both created and resisted in modern societies. This heightened attention to the operations of culture and ideology, led by the work of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci in the 1930s (Gramsci, 1971), made civil society and social movements central to post-war social theory.

The first major new approach to theorizing social movements in the post-war period was resource mobilization theory in the late 1960s and 1970s (Olson, 1965; Oberschall, 1973; Tilly et al., 1975). It argued that the successes and failures of social movements were best understood via reference to what resources — both material and symbolic — they were able to mobilize for their cause. It treated social movements as the products of rational individuals acting in their self-interest, and thus drew more from neo-classical than Marxist theory (cf. Marxian economics; neo-classical economics). Resource mobilization theory has been heavily criticized for incorporating methodological individualism and liberal models of public action: in short, it is extremely unclear whether and how rational individuals would ever make the requisite calculations regarding their participation in social movements.

Since the 1960s, a variety of what have come to be known as new social movements (NSMs) have appeared and grown around the world, first in advanced capitalist countries and subsequently in the \'Third World\'. They include modern environmentalism, feminism, and the peace movement, among others. NSMs seemingly defy much existing social movement theory, and so new theories have been developed to account for them. Most begin with attempts to specify what is new about NSMs. A consensus has developed that, compared with \'old\' social movements such as organized labour, NSMs are more issue-specific, cut across class lines to represent larger segments of the populations, use a wider variety of unconventional tactics, contain elements expressive of meaning and identity beyond purely instrumental goals, and often focus on issues that cannot be understood in terms of zero-sum conflict models of society, such as the threat of nuclear war (see Buttel, 1992). NSMs also operate more outside the organized political sphere, being less likely than previous social movements to turn to established political parties and channels to achieve their goals.

These new elements in the composition and functioning of NSMs may be indicative of broader shifts in the functioning of post-war civil society. Some authors have argued that their emergence is functionally related to the breakdown of many Fordist, corporatist institutional arrangements in advanced capitalist countries and the resurgence of neo-liberalism since the mid-1970s (Scott, 1990; Buttel, 1992). Others have argued that NSMs represent a positive recognition of the complexity of modern society, demonstrating that individuals cannot be reduced to a single subject position dictated by their place in society, but instead may participate in multiple combinations of social movements, reflecting different facets of their shifting social Identities and concerns (Laclau, 1985). These analyses are valuable but risk reverting to functionalism in the first case, and underestimating the continued relevance of class politics to NSMs in the second.

Attention to social movements has grown rapidly in recent years. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union and widespread democratization in the Third World, civil society has emerged as a critical arena for contemporary social change and social theory. And social movements are perhaps the major institutions or modes of action within civil society, particularly when organized into networks of Non-Governmental-Organizations. The growth of social movements in the contemporary neo-liberal climate is often interpreted as a response to diminished state capacity or legitimacy: many of the regulatory and social welfare functions of the post-war state are now being shunted to civil society. In this light, recent celebrations of NSMs in the Third World as offering \'alternatives to development\' (e.g. Escobar, 1995), need to be greeted cautiously (see Watts and McCarthy, 1997). (JMCC)

References Buttel, F. 1992: Environmentalization. Rural Sociology 57/1: 1-27. Escobar, A. 1995: Encountering development. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Gramsci, A. 1971: Selections from the prison notebooks. New York: International Publishers. Laclau, E. 1985: New social movements and the plurality of the social. In D. Slater, ed., New social movements and the state in Latin America. Amsterdam: Centro de Estudiosy Documentación Latinoamericanos (CEDLA). Oberschall, A. 1973: Social conflicts and social movements. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. Olson, M. 1965: The logic of collective action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Peet, R. and Watts, M. 1996: Liberation ecology: development, sustainability, and environment in an age of market triumphalism. In R. Peet and M. Watts, eds, Liberation ecologies: environment, development, social movements. London: Routledge. Rochon, T. and Mazmanian, D. 1993: Social movements and the policy process. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 528: 75-87. Scott, A. 1990: Ideology and the new social movements. London: Unwin Hyman. Tilly, C., Tilly, L. and Tilly, R. 1975: The rebellious century: 1830-1930. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Urry, J. 1981: The anatomy of capitalist societies: the economy, civil society, and the state. London: Macmillan. Atlantic Highlands. Watts, M. and McCarthy, J. 1997: Nature as artifice, nature as artefact: development, environment and modernity in the late twentieth century. In R. Lee and J. Wills, eds, Geographies of Economies. London: Arnold.



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