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).





15 fully funded PhD positions

The Faculty of Political and Social Sciences at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence, Italy is pleased to announce 15 PhD fellowships beginning on November 1, 2023. The deadline for applications is April 13, 2023.


Applications now open! Fourth Edition of the ECPR-COSMOS Summer School on Methods for the Study of Political Participation and Mobilisation

Applicants must send their application materials no later than March the 17th 2023.


SNS announces 14 fully-funded PhD positions

The Faculty of Political and Social Sciences at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence, Italy is pleased to announce 14 PhD fellowships beginning on November 1, 2022.


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.” 


Journal Article - 2023

Reflective Inclusion: Learning from Activists What Taking a Deliberative Stance Means.

Andrea Felicetti, Markus Holdo
We propose to adopt a principle we call “reflective inclusion,” which allows us to engage abductively with new actions that might expand and deepen our understanding of what deliberation may look like.

Monograph - 2022

Resisting the Backlash: Street Protest in Italy

Donatella della Porta, Niccolò Bertuzzi, Daniela Chironi, Chiara Milan, Martín Portos & Lorenzo Zamponi
Drawing interview material, together with extensive data from the authors’ original social movement database, this book examines the development of social movements in resistance to perceived political "regression" and a growing right-wing backlash.

Journal Article - 2022

Populists in power and conspiracy theories

Andrea Pirro & Paul Taggart
Looking at three cases of populists in government – Orbán in Hungary, Trump in the United States, and Chávez in Venezuela – we examine the definition of conspiring elites (who), the circumstances under which conspiracy theories are propagated (when), and the ultimate purpose of conspiratorial framing (why).

Journal Article - 2022

The mobilization for spatial justice in divided societies. Urban commons, trust reconstruction and socialist memory in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Chiara Milan
The article contributes to the urban studies literature and the study of social movements in divided societies by disclosing the distinctive features and mobilizing potential that the notion of urban commons retains in a war-torn society with a socialist legacy.

Journal Article - 2022

(Water) Bottles and (Street) Barricades: The Politicisation of Lifestyle-Centred Action in Youth Climate Strike Participation

Lorenzo Zamponi, Anja Corinne Baukloh, Niccolò Bertuzzi, Daniela Chironi, Donatella della Porta, Martín Portos
This article explores the forms of action adopted by participants in two Fridays For Future (FFF) strikes, focusing on the repertoires of action of (young) climate justice protesters. Drawing on protest survey data, it shows demonstrated that young protesters do not participate less in claim-based action than older cohorts. Furthermore, a process of politicisation can be seen to be unfolding that leads to increased commitment in both lifestyle and political forms of participation – at least among active milieus.

Journal Article - 2022

Performing (during) the Coronavirus crisis: The Italian populist radical right between national opposition and subnational government

Andrea Pirro
The first year of COVID-19 confirmed the standing of the populist radical right in Italy. While sitting in opposition at the national level, Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy and Matteo Salvini's League shared common criticism of the Conte II government but experienced diverging trajectories in terms of popularity. These changes can be partly attributed to the different agency of their leaderships. Overall and collectively considered, the Italian populist radical right broke even during the first year of COVID-19, but the crisis exposed the first cracks in Salvini's leadership.

Journal Article - 2021

Far-right protest mobilisation in Europe: Grievances, opportunities and resources

Pietro Castelli Gattinara, Caterina Froio & Andrea Pirro
In this article, we bridge previous research on the far right and social movements to advance hypotheses on the drivers of far-right protest mobilisation based on grievances, opportunities and resource mobilisation models. We use an original dataset combining novel data on 4,845 far-right protest events in 11 East and West European countries (2008–2018), with existing measures accounting for the (political, economic and cultural) context of mobilisation.

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.

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.