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Cosmos

The Centre on Social Movement Studies

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Geoffrey Pleyers – “Conceptualizing Social Movements”

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Is “#MeToo” a social movement? Is Nuit Debout a social movement or just an event? Are trade unions still social movements? Local food network who dedicate most of their time and energy to local food distribution to their members. Does it mean that they are not a social movement but a self-help network?

“Is it a social movement?” PhD students have raised the question about their research object in each seminar and course on social movements I have taught. Over the year, I have seen many of them struggling for months with this question and its underlying normative stances. I had myself been trapped by this question and the inevitable analytical dead ends it entails.

  1. First, such a question cannot have a simple answer, as concrete social actors are never as simple as a concept. Dealing with the question require us to discuss the use of concept and in particular the relation between concrete actors and the concept of social movement.
  1. Second, the question puts social scientists on a pedestal. S/he delivers a judgement on an actor, strengthening or challenging social legitimacy by asserting it is or it is not a social movement. Is it the role of social scientists to attribute good or bad points to social actors based on their correspondence to the criteria they consider in their definition of a social movement? This stance has led to long but little insightful debates on ongoing struggles (e.g. Touraine et al., 1996). The question “Is it a social movement?” inevitably leads to discuss (and challenge) the stance of the researcher towards its object that it entails. Beyond a particular definition, I would like to defend an analytical approach, a way of dealing with social reality that allow us a better understanding of social actors and their contribution to social change.
  1. Third, every leading sociologists of the field comes up with her own definition of the concept. Before asking “Is it a social movement?”, we need to provide an answer to the question “What is a social movement?”.

The problems raised by these three set of epistemological and analytical dead ends and the strong normative assertion that have been associated to the concept by some scholars have led most of scholars of the field to abandon the concept of social movements, replacing it by “collective actions”, “protests”, “contentious politics”, “resistance” among other alternatives.

In this adverse context, I would like to make a plea for the concept of social movement. It is certainly not a good timing to defend the concept, as it is currently under harsh criticisms by all sides of the research field, from resource mobilization theories to resistance studies and the epistemologies of the South. A talk at COSMOS, the main center of social movement studies in Europe, is however the best occasion to start the discussion and make the point that to remain insightful in social sciences and society, the concept of “social movement” requires an update, based on elements that are already present in the literature as in the way researcher and actors use the concept and experience social movements in the 21st century.

In my presentation, I will argue that considering the concept of social movement as a specific meaning of action allows us to get rid of these analytical dead ends and opens an insightful and comprehensive approach of contemporaneous social movements that need to be understood beyond the classic dichotomies between individual or collective, public or private, political or cultural. I will illustrate this definition and the analytical approach it entails by applying it to two cases: local food movements and indigenous movements.

News

21/06/2019

Call for papers: "The Nation and the Radical Left - Practices and Discourses of National Identity in Left-Wing Politics"

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The call for papers is now open for a conference on national identities and left-wing politics.

18/06/2019

Call for papers: “Class without consciousness” – The Politics of Fragmented Class Identities

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The call for papers is now open for a two-day conference on class and identities at the Scuola Normale Superiore on 14-15 November 2019

05/03/2019

A dialogue on labour, trade unions and conflicts

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On the 22nd of March, from 4pm to 7pm, Donatella della Porta (Scuola Normale Superiore) and Maurizio Landini (Secretary General of CGIL) will discuss about labour, trade unions and conflicts.

Publications

Journal Article - 2019

Ballots and barricades enhanced: far‐right ‘movement parties’ and movement‐electoral interactions

Andrea Pirro
This contribution enhances our understanding of the contemporary far right by focusing on the neglected links between movements and elections within the broader context of contention.

Journal Article - 2019

From the Rainy Place to the Burnt Palace: How Social Movements Form their Political Strategies. The Case of the Six Federations of the Tropic of Cochabamba

Leonidas Oikonomakis
Exploring the case of the cocaleros of the Chapare, this article argues that more emphasis should be placed on mechanisms that are internal to the movements, such as: (a) the resonance of other political experiences at home and abroad, (b) internal struggles for ideological hegemony, and (c) the political formation of their grassroots.