Social movements, a global perspective

Keynote Address to the RC 47 by Michel Wieviorka at the ISA World Congress of Sociology in Yokohama in July 2014.

View of Ho Chi Minh City from Bitexco Financial Tower, Vietnam, by Diego Delso - CCI would like to thank Antimo Farro for all he has done for many years in support of the Research Committee 47, which has always been my RC, and for having invited me to give this lecture here. The question which brings us together is, in my opinion, whether we can, or whether we should continue to live together – by us, I mean researchers who come from different countries and different horizons. Do we, who are researchers interested in social movements, belong to a single academic group or should we admit that what separates us is more important than what unites us? Are we capable of thinking together about what we all call ‘social movements’ even if conceptually we may propose different definitions?

I will start from a specific and limited point with an observation which can act as a model. Two years ago, I was invited by an academic journal to reply to an article written by two colleagues whom I respect, Nasar Meer and Tariq Modood1), and which dealt with multiculturalism. I noted that the references of these authors, like the vast majority of those who write on the subject, were almost exclusively texts written in English and dealing with English-speaking countries, North America, Australia, the United Kingdom or Northern Europe, in particular the Netherlands and the Nordic countries. India, a country in which academic life is however to a large extent in English, is barely referred to in this literature whereas multiculturalism is an important reality there, and other parts of the world are simply non-existent. I have in mind in particular Latin America where nevertheless multiculturalism is hotly debated. This reveals a sort of Western arrogance, an unbearable intellectual ethno-centrism which begins in the Western world since no attention is paid to texts written in French, German and Spanish and becomes dramatic if one takes the rest of the world into consideration. Of course, what we have to ask ourselves is whether the same does not apply to social movements? Is this concept only valid for the small part of the world in which it was produced and uniquely for the restricted historical period in which it emerged and prevailed? Do sociologists who wish to study social movements elsewhere in the world and are content to simply duplicate the concepts developed in English-speaking or European research realise that these concepts – developed in a totally different context in space and time – may not be appropriate?

The first time I asked myself this question was when Alain Touraine engaged me to conduct a research study with him which was based on a historical challenge: at the end of the 1970s the aim was to demonstrate that a country like France was ceasing to be an industrial society and was becoming post-industrial. It should be possible to show this by observing the historical decline of the working-class movement, the central protest actor in industrial society, and the emergence of new social movements, such as student or anti-nuclear movements emblematic of post-industrial societies. A conceptualization and also a methodology were mobilized in this research programme which in reality could only be valid for a few Western societies. In practice, this sociology was based on a concept of social movement which had been conceived in a specific historical and geographical context for societies which see themselves as being central. Could this concept thus formulated be appropriate for societies which, for example, had never really been industrialised or were only beginning to be so?

Does this mean that we cannot agree on a conceptualisation of social movements which would have universal value? Does the refusal of all ethnocentrism or anachronism lead uniquely to relativism? I do not think so and to explain my position I will have to digress a bit from the actual idea of universal values or universalism. In the history of modernity, universal values usually appear as originating in three main sources: they come from the Greece of Antiquity and, with it, the Logos; they include a strong dimension of reference to reason. They come from the Rome of antiquity and with it, ideas of law and citizenship. They also owe a lot to Christianity, the idea that all men are equal in theory. Finally they were formulated conclusively at the time of the Enlightenment or Aufklärung. Social movements, no matter which classical approach is adopted, maintain a direct link with ideas of emancipation and reason and with the ideals on which universal values are based. If we consider the three major conceptual proposals which have dominated the analysis of social movements, they each offer a framework which corresponds to this idea that these collective actions are rational and emancipatory. This applies to the idea that it is a question of behaviour in answer to a situation of crisis and frustration, as in some types of functionalist sociology.

This also applies to the two main approaches to social movements which developed in the 1960s. On one hand, we have the various currents which fall under the theory of ‘mobilisation of resources’, as in the work of Charles Tilly, Anthony Obershall and since, many others, who are interested in the calculations and political strategy of the actors. On the other, we have the sociology of action associated with Alain Touraine which is concerned with the meaning of the action and its orientations.

I shall leave the functionalist approaches to one side here. Should we abandon the two main modes of approach which I have just mentioned and the discussions which differentiate them but also bring them together in a same intellectual space.

It is true that the world has changed over the past fifty years. The concrete struggles are a response to new crisis situations and new frustrations. The calculations of the actors and the resources which they may be able to mobilise are no longer the same. The meaning and the highest orientations of action are now defined differently. But I consider that our discussions in the past are still relevant and that we can constitute a space for discussion which is still one and the same and on a basis which is not very far from that which I have just mentioned by differentiating the classical modes of approach.

We simply have to take some conditions into account.

Thinking globally

The first condition by which we are bound is to think globally; this is based on the globalisation of concrete struggles and therefore of social movements. The context of the action often remains local or national. But to analyse their action, the actors are themselves increasingly led to set it in a general context and to think globally. The most significant movements are those which give a universal, general scope to a localised struggle for emancipation which, in practice, only mobilises well defined actors in a restricted space: there is nothing new here. Marx and Engels had already told us that by freeing themselves from their chains the working class would liberate the whole of mankind. This universal reach does not necessarily remove the actor from his or her national context. Thus, recent struggles in the Arab and Muslim world included dimensions of social movement, calls for human rights, in particular in the face of dictatorships and corrupt regimes, without abandoning the framework of the nation-state and the regime which they are challenging. In Tunisia and in Egypt in particular and we have seen numerous national flags being waved by the actors at the beginning of these struggles. Similarly, movements of the ‘indignados’ type throughout the world have a strong national emphasis. But while these struggles have a restricted political and social context, they do appeal in some of their meanings to the universal values which are those inherited from the Enlightenment; in these instances, they demand an end to oppression, the recognition of human rights and an end to the corruption and misappropriation of the state by authorities which distort its rationale. In some cases it can be seen that actors have left the framework of the nation-state and the action itself is becoming global, as is the case with the anti-globalization movements. In this type of struggle, the actors know how to ‘be cosmopolitan’, and how to think and act in function of forms of domination or of risks which they know to be global. They even know how to organise protest at world level and how to articulate local struggles with the intervention of actors who function at global level, for example the humanitarian NGO’s.

Putting an end to evolutionism

By observing this type of actor we gain a better understanding of the second condition which is that we must reject any kind of methodological evolutionism which states that societies all go from a traditional, rural type to the next which is industrial and then to another, post-industrial. Thinking like this, is to consider that peasant struggles are the most archaic and the most traditional, that working class struggles are set in societies which are also on the decline and that the future is for struggles about new cultural issues, for example, a sustainable environment. In fact, new patterns enable us today to see the extreme modernity of actors who, though living in traditional contexts, peasants for example, are involved in struggles which present traditional dimensions but which also have totally post-industrial meanings. This is the case, for example, when the movements of Indians in the Amazonian forest or in the Andes, far from the centres of modern life are engaged in a struggle against classical forms of domination, against those who exploit them on the market for example, or take their lands. But they may also focus on environmental concerns, get in touch with NGO’s who are active on these issues or yet again meet movements of consumers who demand that we consume and produce differently to move into a new culture.

The refusal of technological determinism

A third condition is to refuse any idea of technological determinism while recognising the importance of information and communication technologies and of networks in present-day social movements. I shall not return here to Manuel Castells’ contribution; let me refer you to his work on the network society. But I would like to stress one point. Communication does not explain everything and it can lead in all sorts of directions. The social anti-movements, the fundamentalism, racist or xenophobic forces, and regimes including the most oppressive are all as competent as social movements at resorting to these technologies which can also be used to convey hatred, or calls for the worst forms of violence. When it comes to social struggles, the use of modern information and communication technologies is not sufficient to give the action its full force and often this can be extended when the actors know how to articulate virtual modalities, the use of networks, the internet and how to occupy a space on a territory affording the possibility of actual meetings, for example in squares or streets which become symbolic locations: the Place Tahrir in Cairo, the Place Taksim in Istanbul, the Place de Catalogne in Barcelona, the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, or Wall Street, etc. Throughout the world, communication and the virtual dimensions of action combine with territoriality and the practical, spatial opportunities for meeting to draw up the social movements of today.

The treatment of individuals

A fourth condition for our discussion on the definition and nature of social movements to be possible involves the recognition of what may seem rather remote from collective action and therefore from consideration of modern individualism including and especially in these dimensions of subjectivity. Over the past forty years, sociology has become much more open to the rise of modern individualism. On the whole, it has distanced itself from the structuralism which in the 1960s and 1970s required a consideration of instances, mechanisms and structures and which pursued the Subject to the point of announcing its death in extreme cases.

In this perspective in which individualism and a specific subjectivity are an integral part of the sociological argument, the theory based on the mobilisation of resources proposes focusing primarily on the calculations and strategies of the actors, seen from the angle of collective action. It is not difficult here to move from the individual to the collective level, for, usually, these are fairly coherent when it comes to weighing up the costs and benefits of action.

Similarly, and above all, it is not paradoxical to observe that there is a correspondence rather than an opposition between the subjectivity of individuals and their collective commitment. Indeed, the participants in a collective action are not obliged to do so by some form of belonging; they choose to be involved just as they also do to withdraw. Moreover being based on the personal subjectivity of their members, on their choices and their decisions, is a constant feature of present-day social movements. This is why we frequently observe considerable appreciation of this subjectivity in the forms of action: for example, the idea of ‘deferred gratification’ no longer exists and mobilization frequently includes cultural practices in which each individual can give free rein to their imagination, their emotions, their creativity and their desire to communicate with others, etc. Today’s social movements benefit from these features of cultural creativity and expression; they make room for the subjectivity of each individual whereas in the past they did tend to deny it and expect it to give way to the strategic or political demands of action. They are based on this subjectivity and are imbued with it.

A conceptional category

Any discussion about the social movement means referring to a concept, a scientific category and not to a concrete reality. For a sociologist, the social movement is one component of action amongst others with which it is associated in the struggle but from which it differs analytically. Some of us stress the political dimensions which shape what they refer to as a ‘social movement’. These may result for example in a collective actor endeavouring to enter a political system or remaining there or minimising the influence of other actors within this type of space. Their approach is usually based on the mobilisation of resources or something equivalent. Others would like to see in the social movement the sociological meaning which defines a high level of project, and the challenge of an actor who seeks to control the main orientations of collective life. This is the case with the sociology developed by Alain Touraine. In both cases, a specific dimension of the action is isolated which does not exclude others: the actors, while they do the same time represent a social movement may also convey an institutional pressure, religious feelings, a tendency to violence, reference to an ethnic or cultural identity, etc. What underpins all sociology of social movements is the idea that the concrete reality of a struggle must not be confused with its varied and possibly numerous dimensions and the specific meaning which can be called a social movement. The social movement is a concept, of which one can give many different formulations, as I have just recalled. But once we know what we are speaking about, I think that nothing prevents us from studying real-life experiences of struggles which are likely to include social movement dimensions in historical and geographical context very distant from one another. Social movements can be met in Asia and in Africa, as well as in Europe or either North or South America. They can be powerful or fragile; they may or may not be susceptible to being carried away and destroyed by other components of the action, by violence or fundamentalism – by what I have no hesitation in calling anti-movements. Similarly they may interact with elements which, while not destroying them, may weigh on their capacity to have an impact, for example when they turn to populism. The fact remains however that I do consider it possible to maintain the idea that the concept of social movement – or rather, the concepts – is applicable all over the world, and not only in the small part of the world in which they were invented.


  1. Modood, T. &Meer, N. (2012) ‘Assessing the Divergences on Our Reading of Interculturalism and Multiculturalism’, Journal of Intercultural Studies, 33(2). (Reply to P. Werbner, W. Kymlicka, G.B. Levey and M. Wieviorka. []

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