The Centre on Social Movement Studies



The Centre on Social Movement Studies (Cosmos) is a network based at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences, Scuola Normale Superiore, Florence.

It focuses on social movements as part of broader contentious politics. It promotes theoretically-driven empirical analyses on forms, dimensions, causes and impacts of social movements, in established democracies as well as authoritarian regimes.

Particular attention is given to social movements as promoters of democratization processes.

COSMOS activities are organized within five main clusters:

A short description of each cluster is provided below.

Democracy and social movements

This cluster looks at the interactions between social movements and democracy, bridging social science approaches to both topics in both theoretical and empirical perspectives. From the theoretical point of view, a main innovation consists in addressing both structural preconditions as well as the actors’ strategies, looking at the intersection of structure and agency. In an historical and comparative perspective, the cluster aims at developing a description and an understanding of the conditions and effects of the participation of civil society organizations in the various stages of democratization processes.

Different questions linked to the broad question of social movement participation in democratization processes are addressed, among which: under which (external and internal) conditions do social movements support democratization processes? Under which conditions do they mobilize for democracy? Under which conditions are they successful in triggering democratization processes? What is the legacy of the participation of social movements during the transition to democracy on the quality of democracy during consolidation? How do social movements contribute to the deepening of democracy?

Addressing social movements not only in the North and the West, but also in the South and the East, this strives to contribute to a less parochial and more cosmopolitan vision of social movements in social movement studies. Social movements such as the global justice movements and anti-austerity protests are analyses as spaces of prefiguration of different conceptions of democracy, focusing on participatory and deliberative qualities. Research also focuses on the knowledge produced by social movements (in particular, those focusing on anti-corruption or refugees’ rights).



Socio-economic structures and contentious politics

Political economy and the sociology of social movements seemed to have successfully built their own theories, conceptual and analytical framework to study distinct aspects of social reality. On the one hand, political economy has centred its analysis mainly on who gets what and how, and thus focusing excessively on the state arena and historical evolution of institutions and coalitions of actors behind them. On the other hand, social movement studies have focused their attention on the processes of collective mobilization in the broader social arena, overlooking dynamics concerning economic structures. The recent economic crisis has put into question not only the main theories of both fields (Variety of Capitalism, political opportunities or resource mobilization theories) but also the sharp disciplinary separation between sociology of social movements and political economy, revitalizing a long standing criticism with these perspectives.

Several scholars have underlined the limitations of dominant theories of social movements. These theories are not completely effective in explaining the macro-structural factors that allow, sustain and constrain mobilization. The time seems ripe to bring back the study of the changing socio-economic structures to analyse and explain the recent episodes of contentious politics. Some social movement scholars have called for (re)taking seriously capitalist transformations in the study of contemporary mobilization. By calling for a (re)turn to political economist perspectives in social movement research we would like to underline the importance of bringing “capitalism” back in, and the analysis of the socio-economic structures. This, for example, means to reconsider concepts such as capitalism and social structure as factors or frameworks that explain societal transformations, as well as their relationships with the forms that collective action might assume.

This thematic cluster gathers projects and researchers focusing on topics such as financial capitalism and its resistances, urban conflicts and movements for the commons, student protests against neoliberal higher education, labour and union struggles, banks and anti-debtor movements, relationships between structural changes in economy, politics and culture, and social movements, social movement theories and their criticism, critiques of capitalism, alternatives to capitalism.



Communication in Political Participation and Mobilization

This research cluster focuses on the analysis of communication patterns, processes and practices in political participation and mobilization, hence investigating how a diverse range of political actors – institutional and grassroots; collective and individual – employ different types of media technologies to foster, sustain and diffuse political participation.

Our research aims at advancing the study of the nexus between political participation and communication dynamics both theoretically and methodologically, looking at several European and non-European countries, often in a comparative fashion and at the transnational level. We especially focus on the role that digital technologies have in the broad realm of politics, considering phenomena like disintermediation and reintermediation of political communication, the mediatization of societies, the production of knowledge on and through the media, the construction of cross-dimensional networks of action and resistance. However, scholars involved in this research cluster also adopt an encompassing view on the media systems, media environments and media ecologies in which political participation emerges and unfolds, thus taking into consideration the hybridization of media practices and the combination of different media logics that guide both institutional and grassroots political communication today. We study such phenomena through the triangulation of both quantitative and qualitative methods, also including the use of digital methods and social network analysis.

Past investigations in this research area included: the communicative features of the 5 Star Movement in Italy; the nexus between gender and ICTs; the multifaceted roles of digital media resistance in Latin American countries; the methodological approaches to the study of online networks; the relation among media systems, news diets and political participation in Italy, Germany and the UK; the role of social media in contemporary political communication; and the relationship among media infrastructures, media imaginations and media practices in political participation in Spain, Italy and Greece.



Movement parties in time and space

This research cluster explores the theoretical implications and empirical relevance of movement party organizations. The concept of movement parties has been elaborated with reference to the Green parties spawning from left-libertarian movements during the ‘80s in Europe. A new wave of movement parties, the so-called “pink tide,” rose in Latin America at the end of the ‘90s as a reaction to a neoliberal turn in politics. Recently, the economic crisis has triggered the emergence of a new generation of movement parties in Southern Europe such as Podemos, Syriza and the Five Star Movement.

Surprisingly enough, however, and despite its potential to bridge two different fields of research, such a concept has been poorly discussed both in the party politics literature and in social movement studies. Although they represent transitional phenomena, movement parties are particularly salient as revealing the intertwining of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics, representing an exemplary case of (under-researched) contentious politics. Little is known about the conditions and causes of movement parties’ emergence, the changes they undergo when entering institutions and government, the dynamics of interaction with other relevant actors, the outcomes of their activity as well as their distinctive characteristics in terms of organization, forms of action, framing, and democratic conceptions and practices.

Moreover, a clear gap in the literature regards the extent to which such concept can be used to understand far right phenomena, in that emerging right-wing actors contest elections in order to gain representation in office, yet also use protest instrumentally to gain visibility and public recognition. Besides party politics, the cluster looks at other forms of participation of social movements in electoral forms, including “referendums from below”. The goal of this research stream rests in shedding light on all these aspects, comparing movement parties in time and space, adopting different methods based on research techniques developed both in social movement studies and in party politics.



Political Violence

Among its areas of expertise, COSMOS brings together social movement scholars working on different – yet often related – aspects of political violence, such as riots and urban violence, processes of radicalization and de-radicalization, ethnic conflict, guerrilla warfare, insurgency, terrorism, rebellion, and civil war. Within this cluster, political violence is not interpreted as a sui generis and isolated phenomenon, but as part of broader processes of political contention, and placed within the context of social, political, and cultural conflict. The cluster subscribes to methodological pluralism, placing emphasis on the inherent relevance and intersection of the international, the national, and the local, in the analysis of the breakout, evolution, and ending of political violence. The cluster hosts two main research streams:

The first one engages with topical themes in the research on far right politics, on the one hand addressing the processes of ideological and tactical radicalization/de-radicalization of ultranationalist collective actors in Western and Eastern Europe; on the other, tackling the ever-important question of trans-nationalization of their cooperation efforts with other allies, as well as the diffusion of their identities and repertoires of action beyond national borders.

The second research stream investigates the shifts from non violent action to political violence and vice-versa, as well as shifts within different forms of political violence across time and space (including research on civil wars). It grounds its research on the relational interplay between socio-political context (macro-level), organization dynamics (meso-level), and individual motivations (micro-level).





Prof. della Porta to lead VolkswagenStiftung-funded ECSEuro project

Reflecting the European challenge of transnational cooperation and multiple crises, this project asks how local political initiatives across Europe enact citizenship and solidarity and contribute to the vision of a more democratic Europe from below.


SNS announces 7 fully-funded PhD positions

The Faculty of Political and Social Sciences at the Scuola Normale Superiore announces 7 fully-funded PhD positions. Deadline for applications: 21 August 2021.


Four post-doctoral research positions on the pandemic

The Scuola Normale Superiore announces four post-doctoral positions to be activated as part of the research project “After the coronavirus pandemic: The effects of the health emergency on society and knowledge.” 


CFP Athens conference "Capitalism, Democracy, Contention: A Decade of Crisis" 13-15 May 2020

Aspiring to shed light on the Greek experience in the era of crisis in a comparative, inter-disciplinary perspective, the Laboratory on Contentious Politics (Department of Political Science and History, Panteion University, Athens), the Centre on Social Movement Studies (Scuola Normale Superiore, Florence) and the Hellenic Political Science Association are organizing an international conference to be held at Panteion University, on 13, 14 and 15 May 2020.


Prof. Donatella Della Porta to Be Awarded Honorary PhD

On Friday 13, 2019, the University of the Peloponnese (PSIR) will award an honorary doctorate to Professor Donatella Della Porta, Dean of the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at the Scuola Normale Superiore.


Protest for a future: international report on #FridaysForFuture and the climate strike

Composition, mobilization and motives of the participants in Fridays For Future climate protests on 15 March 2019, in 13 European cities. A multi-country collaboration report, with contributions from COSMOS researchers Lorenzo Zamponi, Donatella della Porta, Martín Portos, Niccolò Bertuzzi and Daniela Chironi.


Edited Volume - 2021

Varieties of Populism in Europe in Times of Crises

Manuela Caiani & Paolo Graziano
Populism is booming across all the nuances of the political spectrum. It occupies relevant positions in national parliaments, in governmental coalitions with mainstream parties or as successful challengers of the political status quo. This volume sheds new light on the topic from different methodological and theoretical angles and offers evidence from a variety of cases on the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions on populism’s emergence and consolidation in Europe over the past 30 years.

Journal Article - 2021

European populism before the pandemic: ideology, Euroscepticism, electoral performance, and government participation of 63 parties in 30 countries

Paul Taggart & Andrea Pirro
This contribution is conceived as a resource on the state of European populist parties before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. It reports on cross-national comparative findings generated by data collected from 30 European countries as to the state of populist parties in one calendar year (2019) and provides an extensive qualitative overview of the national cases.

Journal Article - 2021

Forging, bending, and breaking: Enacting the “illiberal playbook” in Hungary and Poland

Andrea Pirro & Ben Stanley
We first argue that illiberal changes are ideologically founded and identify how both populism and nativism figure in the policymaking of illiberals in power. We then show how these practices emerge from a common “illiberal playbook”—a paradigm of policy change comprising forms of forging, bending, and breaking—and elaborate on the notion that illiberal governments are using legalism to kill liberalism.

Edited Volume - 2021

Contentious Migrant Solidarity. Shrinking Spaces and Civil Society Contestation

Donatella della Porta & Elias Steinhilper
Building upon social movement and migration studies, this book maps the two sides of ‘contentious solidarity’: a shrinking civic space and its contestation by civil society.

Journal Article - 2021

Learning from Democratic Practices: New Perspectives in Institutional Design

Andrea Felicetti
Drawing from literature on democratic practices in social movements and democratic innovations, the article illustrates three ways to advance institutional design in the wake of the systemic turn.

Journal Article - 2021

Populism between voting and non-electoral participation

Andrea Pirro & Martín Portos
The article focuses on a neglected aspect of populist mobilisation, i.e. non-electoral participation (NEP), and elaborates on the extent to which populist party voters engage politically outside the polling station. While challenging common understandings of populism as inherently distrustful and apathetic, and protest as an exclusive practice of the left, the study critically places NEP at the heart of populism in general, and populist right politics in particular.

Monograph - 2021

Migrant Protest. Interactive Dynamics in Precarious Mobilizations

Elias Steinhilper
This book explores the interactions and spaces shaping the emergence, trajectory, and fragmentation of migrant protest in unfavorable contexts of marginalization.

Journal Article - 2020

We protect the forest beings, and the forest beings protect us: Cultural resistance in the Ecuadorian Amazonia

Leonidas Oikonomakis
The inhabitants of Sarayaku have forged an anti-colonial, anti-extractivist, and anti-capitalist resistance culture. How did that culture develop? How is it articulated? Moreover, how is kawsak sacha positioned in the discussion over the rights of Nature in Latin America? Based on three months of ethnographic research in the community of Sarayaku and more than twenty-five interviews with community members, this article addresses those important questions and argues that securing legal protection may not be a long-term resistance strategy.

Monograph - 2020

The Contentious Politics of Expertise. Experts, activism and grassroots environmentalism

Riccardo Emilio Chesta
Based on mixed-methods research and ethnographic fieldwork at various sites in Italy, this book examines the relationship between expertise and activism in grassroots environmentalism. Bridging the sociology of expertise and contentious politics, the book shows how conflict transforms, rather than inhibits, expertise production into a ‘contentious politics by other means’.

Journal Article - 2019

Alliance building and eventful protests: comparing Spanish and Portuguese trajectories under the Great Recession

Martín Portos & Tiago Carvalho
Social movement research has shed light on the relationship between processes of alliance building and multiple factors related to political opportunities, framing, identities, networks and resource mobilization. However, less is known about the impact of eventful protests on coalition building dynamics.