Geography Of Social Movements Research Paper

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Social movements, like all social relations, are geographically constituted. What one means by ‘social movements,’ however, is open to a wide range of interpretations. Here, social movements are defined broadly as collective mobilizations of people seeking social or political change.

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While social movements necessarily take place somewhere, their geography involves considerably more than an inventory of their locations. Geography is not a background onto which aspatial social processes are mapped. Rather, it is a fundamental aspect of the constitution of all social processes, affecting their evolution and outcome directly. It is part of the explanation of social processes, as well as an outcome (Massey and Allen 1984).

While a variety of geographic concepts can be employed in the analysis of social movements, three core geographic concepts are particularly important: space, place, and scale. Each of these concepts has its own evolution, which can be seen in the ways in which analyses of the geography of social movements have changed over time.

1. Evolving Geographic Concepts And The Analysis Of Social Movements

1.1 Spatial-Analytic Analysis Of Social Movements

The spatial-analytic paradigm that dominated geographical analysis in the 1960s and 1970s worked from a conception of space that was based, by and large, on measures of distance. In this paradigm, social phenomena are described and explained in terms of absolute (e.g., with reference to a fixed grid such as latitude and longitude) or relative (e.g., transportation costs or travel time) location. Virtually all social phenomena have been shown to possess a ‘distance decay’ function as interaction costs increase with distance from the activity center. The spatial diffusion of information, as well as barriers to such diffusion, became a common theme in much spatial-analytic research, including that addressing social movements. The growth and mobilization of social movements is clearly dependent upon flows of information, as demonstrated by Sharp’s (1973) analysis of the spatial diffusion of US postal strikes, and Hedstrom’s (1994) work on the spatial diffusion of Swedish trade unions. Most spatial-analytic work on social movements, however, examines the co-presence of specific social conditions within clearly delimited places. Adams (1973), for instance, examines the colocation of factors promoting urban protests, while Cutter et al. (1986) consider how characteristics measured at the state level are associated with support for nuclear weapons freeze referenda. In the 1970s, attempts to explain the occurrence of social phenomena in terms of distance or co-location came under heavy criticism for ignoring power relations, and in particular, the relation between ‘the social’ and ‘the spatial.’

1.2 Contemporary Conceptions Of Space And The Analysis Of Social Movements

Influenced by the work of Henri Lefebvre and others, contemporary conceptions of space emphasize the mutual constitution of ‘the social’ and ‘the spatial.’ Space is seen increasingly as a necessary component of the constitution of power relations. Equally significant, space is no longer conceptualized primarily in terms of the physical location of material objects. Instead, both material spatial practices, as well as symbolic or representational spaces, are examined.

As political economy approaches swept through the social sciences in the 1970s and 1980s, the spatial constitution of material interests was linked explicitly to the geography of social movements. The relationship between the geography of political and economic conditions, and the incidence of protest is demonstrated in detail in Charlesworth’s (1983) atlas of rural protest in the UK. Bennett and Earle (1983) show that the failure of socialism in the USA can be linked directly to geographic patterns of wage and skill differentiation; where differentiation was substantial, working class solidarity was undermined. Similarly, Massey (1984) argues that the spatial division of labor affects directly the material interests that underlie political movements. Markusen (1989) makes a somewhat different point: a region’s stage in the profit cycle shapes the types of movements that are likely to emerge in it. Environmental movements are more likely to emerge in economically booming regions where rapid growth places stress on the environment, while pro-growth politics are common in regions of decline.

Geographically differentiated state systems also shape the geography of social movements. Kitschelt’s (1986) comparison of the political structures of France, Sweden, West Germany, and the USA shows that differences in central state structures are related to national-level variations in anti-nuclear mobilization. Other studies link local-level variation in social movement mobilization and success to differences in political opportunity structures among local states (Duncan et al. 1988, McAdam 1996, Tarrow 1996). In the USA many social movements began as highly localized movements in politically opportune places, then spread nationally.

Symbolic or representational spaces affect the geography of social movements as well. The symbolic codings of spaces, i.e., the often subtle and unacknowledged signs that shape people’s reactions to spaces, may indicate belonging for some groups and exclusion for others, empowerment for some groups and repression for others, safety for some groups and danger for others. Such codings can foster or hinder social movement mobilization. The creation of symbolic space is intertwined with the process of collective identity formation, as Marston (1988) shows for ethnic identity, Rose (1993) demonstrates for gendered identity, and Ruddick (1996) illustrates for interlocking ‘race,’ class, and gender identities. Such identities are crucial to the formation of solidarity necessary for movement mobilization. The dominant symbolic codings of space are open to contestation, and counter-representations are often constructed by insurgent groups. Representational spaces, and their internalization, relate directly to the ways in which social movement messages resonate in some places, and not in others.

1.3 Place And The Analysis Of Social Movements

Many geographic analyses emphasize the place-based constitution of social processes. Place is best understood as a multidimensional concept entailing ‘locale,’ i.e., the geographical setting of everyday social relations, ‘location,’ i.e., geographical position vis-a-vis wider scale interactions; and ‘sense of place,’ i.e., the esthetic and emotional bonds to locale (Agnew 1987). The concept of place stresses the unique ways in which social processes may interact in specific milieus, calling our attention to the ‘situatedness’ of all human action and institutions. At the same time, place is not to be equated with ‘the local.’ Place implies the articulation of localized processes, with other processes operating at broader scales.

Much of the geographical literature on social movements stresses the ways in which identities and allegiances are shaped in place. Thrift and Williams (1987) analyze the ways in which consciousness and identity are produced through place-specific social practices and the time–space paths of individuals’ everyday lives. Katznelson’s (1981) work can be interpreted as a place-sensitive analysis of US workplace and community politics, stressing how distinct places shape identity in distinct ways. Savage’s (1987) analysis of British working-class politics demonstrates how the interactions of workplace and life-world spaces have effects on identity that vary from place to place. Recent work on identity construction stresses the place-specific interplay of spaces of production, reproduction, and the state that produce multiple, fragmented, and sometimes contradictory identities, all with direct implications for social movement mobilization (Ruddick 1996, Cope 1996, Brown 1997). Place itself can be a primary basis for collective identity construction. The defense of places associated with specific collective identities is a common theme of many new social movements (Melucci 1994). Increasingly, cities find themselves in competition with each other for capital investment; in response, placebased identification and coalition building has often taken precedence over class and other axes of social identity (Hudson and Sadler 1986, Swyndegouw 1989).

Identity is not all that is shaped in place. Agnew (1987, p. 59) observes that ‘different places produce different degrees and orientations of organizational capacity.’ Routledge (1993), for example, shows that social and environmental movements in India faced opportunities for, and constraints to, mobilization that relate to place-specific social networks, systems of meaning, and patterns of political repression. Miller (2000) shows how a variety of place-specific characteristics, including political opportunity structures, avail- able resources, material interests, and attachments to place, shaped the strategies and effectiveness of peace- organizing differentially in several Boston area municipalities.

1.4 Scale And The Analysis Of Social Movements

The concept of place clearly carries within it issues of geographic scale. Geographic scale has commonly been thought of as a fairly straightforward technical issue relating to the telescoping frame of geographic analysis (from local to global), but such a notion of scale as pre-given or unproblematic is increasingly challenged.

Most analyses of social movements assume that the appropriate scale of analysis is that of the nation state, but such an assumption overlooks the often critical subnational, as well as international, constitution of social movement processes. Moreover, rather than being seen as an ‘external fact awaiting discovery,’ scale should be viewed as a ‘way of framing conceptions of reality’ (Delaney and Leitner 1997, pp. 94–5) that is employed by social movement organizations and their opponents as a way of gaining political advantage. As Smith (1993, p. 90) explains:

The construction of scale is not simply a spatial solidification of contested social forces and processes; the corollary also holds. Scale is an active progenitor of specific social processes. In a literal as much as metaphorical way, scale both contains social activity and at the same time provides an already partitioned geography within which social activity takes place. Scale demarcates the sites of social contest, the object as well as the resolution of contest.

2. Geographic Tactics And Strategies Of Social Movements

Given that all social movements are geographically constituted, all social movement organizations must make decisions regarding the geographic tactics and strategies they employ. Sometimes these decisions are explicitly considered, often they are not.

Social movements frame their messages in particular ways that they hope will resonate with particular groups. Given a highly differentiated geography of culture, symbolization, and interests, the resonance of any given frame will depend in substantial measure on the geographic targeting of the message. Similarly, the recruitment of social movement members is intertwined inextricably intertwined with the geography of mobilization activities (Harvey 1985, Miller 2000).

While identities constructed in place and place-based identities frequently are central to social movement solidarity, the absence of such bases of solidarity can be rectified through efforts to construct new places of group interaction and identity. Castells (1983), for example, details how the growth of gay bars, businesses, and gathering places was crucial to the construction of shared identity in the San Francisco gay community. Castells also shows how, in the case of the Madrid citizens’ movement, the construction of a community center in the Orcasitas shantytown was essential to breaking down social walls and building broad, place-based bonds around which the movement organized.

The tactics and strategies that social movements employ to challenge the existing social order are rooted in an often-unexamined normative geography. Cresswell (1996) makes a compelling case that spatial structures and systems of places provide ideologicallyloaded schemes of perception. Dominant conceptions of what is ‘normal’ and ‘appropriate’ is defined ‘to a significant degree, geographically, and deviance from this normality is also shot through with geographical assumptions concerning what and who belong where’ (p. 27). He illustrates his argument with several examples, including that of the Greenham Common women’s peace camp that challenged British participation in the nuclear arms race through ‘out of place’ behavior that ‘denaturalized the dominant order [and] showed people that what seemed natural, could, in fact, be otherwise’ (p. 125).

Indeed, social movements can be mobilized and social conditions can be changed through a resymbolization of existing spaces or through a reterritorialization of existing symbolization (Pile and Keith 1997). Harvey (1989, p. 233) makes a case for the re-symbolization of space when he argues:

If workers can be persuaded … that space is an open field of play for capital but a closed terrain for themselves, then a crucial advantage accrues to the capitalists … power in the realms of representation may end up being as important as power over the materiality of spatial organization itself.

An example of the re-territorialization of existing symbolization can be found in the recent work that has been done in several US metropolitan areas to recast the ongoing political battles between central cities and suburbs. In several metropolitan areas this common conception of territorial interests is being replaced with one that aligns the central cities with the inner ring suburbs, creating a far more powerful territorial alliance behind the movement for a more equitable metropolitan distribution of affordable housing, school funding, and tax revenue (Orfield 1997).

Many of the efforts of social movements to redefine the spaces of struggle involve attempts to ‘jump’ to a more favorable geographic scale (Smith 1993). In addition to changing symbolic geography, altering the scale of material processes can be central to social movement strategy. Examples include shifting from regional to national-scale labor bargaining (Herod 1998), and seeking out more favorable political opportunity structures at a different level of the state, e.g., local rather than central (Miller 2000).

The geographic tactics and strategies adopted by social movements and their opponents play a powerful role in the nature of social movement mobilization and the degree of success or failure social movements achieve.


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