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II. Development of Social Movement Studies
A. Early Approaches
C. Cultural Approaches
D. Political Opportunities
E. Comprehensive Overview
III. Empirical Research
IV. Future Directions
Social movements can be conceptualized as sustained and enduring challenges to political decision makers in order to achieve some form of social change. Although social movements most often are composed of one or various social movement organizations, various authors have emphasized that social movements should not be identified solely with those organizations. Individual actions, cultural manifestations, the activity of opinion leaders and other elements of cultural change, and consciousness-raising can also be labeled as elements of social movements. Although social movements are studied mostly within the field of sociology, they are also of crucial importance within political science. It can be argued that some of the most important political changes in the 19th and 20th centuries were brought about by the actions of social movements. Powerful examples are the civil rights movements in the United States, the green movement, and women’s organizations, but one could also think about organizations aimed at promoting gay rights or the protest against authoritarian regimes in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s. Social movements therefore are usually identified with contentious politics: They try to bring about political change by challenging the political elite. As such, they give voice to those who have been excluded from the political system.
Social movements can be distinguished from political parties as they do not directly compete in elections and they do not participate in exercising state power by means of elected officials. In various instances, however, there are examples of social movements that are linked quite narrowly to political parties. Social movements can also function as interest groups, but mass participation of citizens is usually considered as a defining element of social movements, and it is not necessarily a defining element of interest groups. This distinction from political parties does not prevent social movement organizations from trying to have a direct impact on political decision-making processes. Participation is thus an important element of social movements, and although social movement participation cannot be considered as a standard form of institutionalized political participation, most authors agree on the fact that social movement participation is or has become an important element in the political action repertoire of citizens in liberal democracies. Social movement organizations themselves use a wide array of activities (demonstrations, strikes, newsletters, lobbying techniques, print, etc.) to reach their goals of mobilizing their constituency and to have an impact on political decision making.
Within political science, the study of social movements has received considerable attention. Whereas in the first half of the 20th century, social movements were usually depicted as a potential threat to political stability, the idea emerged, in the 1960s especially, that social movement participation could be seen as a normal and even necessary element within democratic political systems. In the development of the study of social movements, scholars have successively emphasized the resources that are necessary to sustain social movement organizations, the cultural meaning of social movements, and the political conditions that facilitate the occurrence and the success of social movements. In the more recent literature, authors have highlighted the network structure of movements, the emotional motivations of participants, or the political and cultural consequences of social movement activity. From a review of the current literature, it seems clear that there is no longer one dominant paradigm in the study of social movements. Rather, it is acknowledged that in order to arrive at a comprehensive study of the phenomenon, organizational, cultural, and political insights should be combined.
II. Development of Social Movement Studies
A. Early Approaches
In the early 20th century, social movements were mostly studied as a form of collective behavior, and this line of research was heavily influenced by the insights of crowd psychology. It was feared that individuals would lose their rationality once they participated in crowds because they would give in to a propensity to follow crowd leaders. Collective behavior could easily lead to mass gatherings, mobs, riots, and even forms of collective violence. This kind of crowd behavior was considered a potential threat to the stability of the political system. This negative conception of social movements can be explained by two distinct elements. On one hand, it should be remembered that this era indeed witnessed a number of unruly forms of participation, leading to political violence, attacks, and other forms of social disruption. On the other hand, it was also clear that sociologists and political scientists apparently identified with the current political and social order, seeing attempts to change the structure of society as a threat to political stability. In other scientific disciplines, too, an elite distrust of mass behavior was quite clearly present during this period. This conservative outlook was especially present in the seminal work of the French social psychologist Gustave Le Bon (1841–1931). In his work published in English under the title The Crowd (1895/1977), Le Bon stated that participants in mass gatherings displayed a tendency to behave in a herd-like manner, blindly following their leaders. The stability of society was ensured by a rational elite that was able to oppose the claims of unruly mobs.
This negative outlook toward mass participation was questioned strongly in the 1959 volume The Politics of Mass Society, by Berkeley sociologist William Kornhauser (1959/2008). Kornhauser radically reversed the Le Bon framework. He argued that individual and passive citizens normally feel isolated from the social order because they are powerless to bring about social change on their own. Their participation in social movements, on the other hand, leads to a feeling of empowerment because it allows them to reach collective goals and to bring about social change. As such, social movements actually contribute to the social order by providing a mechanism for social innovation and social integration. Without social movements, citizens feel isolated and alienated from the social order. While some social movements might aim to overthrow the social order, other movements are aimed at implementing reforms that could ensure the long-term stability of society and bring the functioning of society in line with its professed value preferences.
The civil rights movement and the student uprisings of the 1960s, however, clearly forced political scientists to reconsider their view on social movements in a more profound manner as it became clear that these movements did not recruit just alienated members of society, and it became equally clear that these social movements would have profound political and social consequences. For the first time, academics themselves started to participate actively in these kinds of movements. It has to be noted in this respect that the writings of social historians such as Charles Tilly, E. P. Thompson, and E. J. Hobsbawm can be considered as pioneering contributions to this line of study, with an influence that was present in various scientific disciplines. In 1964, for example, Tilly published his seminal study on the counterrevolutionary uprising in the Vendée in 1793, explaining this movement by stressing the economic and structural strains the population of that region of France experienced. Other historians also arrived at the conclusion that uprisings no longer should be seen as just an emotional reaction, devoid of historical or political meaning, but that they actually could be interpreted as the result of a number of structural social changes. English historians stressed the moral indignation over economic injustice that gave rise to protest behavior in the 18th century. The writings of these social historians also had a profound influence on the way political scientists came to regard social movements.
A first and crucial innovation was the introduction of the resource mobilization theory by sociologists John McCarthy and Mayer Zald (1977). They argued that social movements are not just a spontaneous reaction to grievances and forms of discontent. Like all other forms of collective behavior, social movements are also dependent on a supply of material resources, such as time, money, preexisting organizational structures, or organizational skills. This way of looking at social movements was heavily dependent on rational choice approaches to human behavior. The underlying idea was that participants in social movements do not take part just out of some frustration or discontent but that they will embark on participation only if they arrive at the conclusion that this investment (in time or energy or risk-taking behavior) can be considered worthwhile or will lead to some form of social or political change. If organizational resources are not present at all, it does not make much sense to take part in contentious behavior. During the 1970s and 1980s, this resource mobilization theory was very influential in the study of social movements as it allowed scholars to investigate movements as a rational form of collective action. It also provided them with a checklist of items that were considered essential for the occurrence of forms of collective action. Organizational structures, means of communication, and preexisting recruitment networks were all considered necessary to mount a successful social movement organization. Critics, however, argued that this approach neglected the specific character of social movements, as the same rational approach could be applied to any form of political behavior. They also argued that various movements succeeded in bringing about social and political change in the absence of material resources.
C. Cultural Approaches
While the resource mobilization theory was very influential in the United States, it never became the dominant approach in European studies on social movements. Like their U.S. counterparts, European political scientists were surprised by the rise of the new social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and they had to scramble to explain the phenomenon in a coherent manner. Most of them resorted to some form of strain theory: it was argued that rapid social change imposed strains on the functioning of society, and social movements were seen not just as a manifestation of those strains but also as a viable way to arrive at solutions for this kind of social pressure. Rapid industrial and population growth, for example, led to the occurrence of strains on the stability of natural ecosystems, and the newly emerging ecological movement not only focused attention on those strains but also developed possible solutions to arrive at a new environmental equilibrium. Social movements often were credited with playing a pioneering role because they succeeded in putting new challenges and new items on the political agenda. Within this approach, the term new social movements was used, in order to make a distinction between the classic social movements of the 19th century (e.g., trade unions) and the new social movements of the late 20th century (the women’s movement, civil rights, ecology, etc.). New social movements were seen as a very typical phenomenon related to a specific developmental phase of highly industrialized societies. That is, the new social movements marked the transition from industrial to postindustrial societies.
The problem with this approach, however, was that it failed to explain the continuities in various forms of collective political action. Microstudies showed that the challenges (with regard to recruitment, mobilization, building political influence, etc.) facing new social movements were not all that different from the challenges that the social movements of the 19th century faced. Research also revealed continuities, such as between the women’s suffrage movement of the early 20th century and the feminist movements of the 1960s or between the nature conservation movement of the late 19th century and the modern ecological movement. Furthermore, the direct causal link between structural social change and the occurrence of new social movements failed to explain why some social movements were more successful in some countries than in others. If, for example, the green movement should be seen as a direct reaction to the degradation of the natural environment, one would expect this movement to be present—and successful in mobilizing—in all highly industrialized societies experiencing environmental degradation. This, however, was clearly not the case. Since the 1990s, in fact, quite a few of these new social movement organizations had entered into a phase of demobilization, so it became increasingly difficult for this line of research to attribute new social movements with a structural role in processes of social change.
D. Political Opportunities
One of the crucial questions in the comparative study of social movements is why these movements are successful in some countries and not in others, given the fact that grievances can be considered as universal. A seminal study by Doug McAdam (1982) started from the observation that the American civil rights movement started in the 1950s, at a moment when racial discrimination in American society actually started to decline. According to McAdam, the civil rights movement could prosper as a result of growing divisions within the ruling White elites. This meant that the civil rights movement had the opportunity to exploit those divisions as it gained access to elite allies that were instrumental in furthering the policy goals of the movement. The important lesson from this study is that social movements should not be seen as a direct reaction to grievances or specific problems within society, but that they can be seen as reactions to changes in the political system. Social movement organizations respond to the opportunities created by the system.
This political opportunity structure approach was later systematically ordered mainly in the work of the Swiss political scientist Hanspeter Kriesi and his research team (Kriesi, Koopmans, Duyvendak, & Giugni, 1995). The main idea of this approach is that the chances for success and mobilization of social movement organizations are strongly dependent on the opportunities created and offered by the political system. These opportunities can be institutionalized and formal (e.g., freedom of assembly, openness of procedures), but they can also be informal (e.g., cultures of pluralism or corporatism). Authorities or political elites can also try to facilitate or to repress social movement manifestations, and this will have an impact on a movement’s chances for success. The political opportunity structure approach was successfully used in a number of comparative studies, demonstrating that the success of social movements in some countries was strongly dependent on features of the political systems in those countries.
Critics of the political opportunity structure approach argued that this way of looking at social movements limited the agency of these movements, as they were sometimes seen as a simple reaction to decisions being made by the political system. Proponents of the approach responded by introducing feedback loops into the model: Self-evidently, social movements can influence even basic characteristics of the political system (such as universal voting rights), so that social movement organizations in a later developmental phase will profit from the precedents created by earlier organizations.
E. Comprehensive Overview
What these three lines of theory building on social movements have in common is that they depart from a positive outlook on social movements and their effects on the political system. Participation in movements is seen as a rational act and a form of participation that is congruent with the prevalence of a democratic political culture. Other authors would even argue that social movements are necessary in order to bring about social change and a further democratization of contemporary societies. As a form of criticism, however, it has also been argued that each one of these theoretical perspectives offers a one-sided outlook on social movements. Self-evidently, material resources are important, but it is only if they can be used in an open political context, and if movements have access to a political and social culture that is conducive to their goals, that they will have an opportunity to succeed and to prosper and to have a profound impact on the political decision-making process.
An impressive effort to synthesize these approaches was published in 1996, when McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald tried to combine the insights from this research into political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and cultural frames. The guiding idea of this volume was that the various approaches had to be combined if one wanted to study the development of social movements in a comprehensive manner. Although this study has been very influential, one cannot state that it has led to a unification of the theoretical perspectives on social movements. Following all the elements that were brought forward in these approaches would amount to constructing a very long checklist of all conditions that are conducive to the success of social movement organizations, and this apparently was judged as not very practical. In reality, therefore, most of the researchers in this field continue to focus on either the material and organizational, or cultural, or political aspects of the functioning of social movements.
III. Empirical Research
It is difficult to develop a comprehensive account of currently available empirical research on social movements. Some studies focus on particular movements; others opt for a comparative approach (across issues or across countries); still others focus on issues of recruitment, organization, framing of issues, or political consequences (Walder, 2009). This section focuses on a number of recent influential studies that take a lifestyle approach, starting from the origins of social movements to their political impact.
In the 1960s and 1970s, some authors were still looking for an objective assessment of grievances and social demands that could lead to the foundation of social movements. It was claimed that a sudden deterioration of living conditions (e.g., with regard to the environment, gender, or racial discrimination), or on the contrary a gradual improvement in experienced living conditions, would give rise to social movements. An important insight was that it was not the actual quality of life that had an impact on grievances but rather the difference between expected and perceived quality of life. In the 1980s, this grievances approach was gradually replaced by the framing approach to social movement demands (Benford & Snow, 2000). The guiding idea of this line of research is that social movements make claims about society and about ways that society should and can be changed. Collective action frames are successful if they succeed in mobilizing a sufficient number of participants and if they convey the message that change is indeed possible. Frames are more likely to be successful if they resonate with preexisting concepts within public opinion about how society is managed or should be managed. Studying claim-making activities as a form of framing reality implied in practice that researchers no longer tried to link the occurrence of social movements to real-life conditions.
Cultural frames, however, are not sufficient to start a successful social movement. One also needs participants. Research has shown repeatedly that individual participants are not recruited in an organizational void. On the contrary, participants are mainly recruited in preexisting networks or in various contexts (schools, work environments, neighborhoods, etc.) that are conducive to recruitment. This form of group recruitment can be explained partly by cultural mechanisms as it is likely that citizens who are active in the same kind of context will share at least some political preferences or ideological options. It also facilitates mobilization because it makes clear that mobilization can be successful. Taking part, which means investing time and energy, in collective action does not make sense if one has the feeling that only a very limited number of people will take part in the effort. Within a micromobilization context, however, actors can assess the likelihood that others will participate and can even try to convince others that participation is a viable option. These networks and mobilization contexts, therefore, allow for a more reliable assessment of the chances of success of the collective action effort (Diani & McAdam, 2003). The embeddedness in preexisting networks also diminishes the propensity to act as a free rider, that is, to profit from the efforts of social movement organizations without sharing the burden of investing time or money in these movements.
Research has also highlighted the fact that mobilization efforts have to overcome various barriers simultaneously. First of all, it is necessary to build a general social support for the goals and ideology of the social movement. The cultural frames espoused by the social movements have to be accepted as legitimate by at least part of public opinion. Subsequently, however, social movement organizations also have to ensure specific movement support: From those who agree with the basic ideas of a movement, participants have to be recruited who are able and willing to take part in specific actions. Participants’ willingness to participate depends strongly on whether the participants think these actions can really contribute to achieving the general goal of the movement (Klandermans, 1997). Klandermans himself demonstrated the validity of this approach by a study on the peace movement: Although a vast majority of the general population would agree that peace is an important goal in society, a much more limited number actually took part in activities organized by peace movement organizations.
While resource mobilization theories emphasized the rational motives of social movement participants, in the more recent literature various authors have questioned this assumption by highlighting the emotional meaning of participation (Goodwin, Jasper, & Polletta, 2001). Participation in social movements often starts from indignation or rage about a lack of social justice, even if these pioneers cannot imagine that their actions will succeed. This kind of research highlights the fact that social movements are often pioneered by people who would not even think about taking initiatives if they were motivated solely by a rational calculation of costs and benefits.
Studies focusing on the form of social movements and organizations have recently come to pay attention to the geographical scale of activism. In the 19th century, social movements tended to occur mainly within the framework of the nation-state, but this is no longer the case. As various forms of political decision making have moved toward international organizations or ad hoc gatherings of world leaders, social movements have started to focus on transna tional activism, uniting participants and social movement organizations from various countries (della Porta,Andretta, Mosca, & Reiter, 2006). The protest surrounding a meeting of the World Trade Organization in 1999 in Seattle, Washington, is often seen as the starting point of this kind of new transnational activism. Since that time, transnational activism has been strongly present on issues such as international trade agreements, sustainable development, greenhouse gas emissions, peace, and human rights. An innovating feature of transnational activism is the emergence of a social justice movement that aims to combine various topics, such as discrimination, human rights, and environmental degradation, into one comprehensive justice framework. International organizations, however, reacted swiftly to this new form of disruption, on one hand by allowing nongovernmental organizations to have a greater say in the preparation process of international gatherings, but on the other hand by tightening security or by even relocating summit meetings to conference sites that are difficult for protesters to access. Although at the start of the 21st century, various authors expressed high hopes about the future of transnational activism, a decade after Seattle it seems that expectations have sobered. It has become clear that this kind of activism is difficult to sustain, even as new information and communication technologies have made it easier to mobilize participants across borders. Furthermore, transnational activism itself is plagued by strong forms of inequality, in that participants from industrialized countries have more resources to participate in this kind of activism than do participants from developing countries. Nevertheless, it can be observed that the presence of nongovernmental organizations and protesters has become a fixed feature of many international conferences, and some studies have even documented the impact of this kind of social movement activity with regard to human rights, social causes, international trade agreements, and the protection of ethnic minority rights, among others. Within transnational activism, some organizations stress the fact that political decision makers should be targeted (whether at the level of international organizations or at the level of the nation-state), whereas other organizations try to circumvent political institutions by promoting lifestyle behavioral changes or by trying to apply direct pressure to international corporations (e.g., on environmental norms or child labor).
Not just on an international level, it is clear that social movements have had, and still have, strong policy effects. During the past decades, political systems have implemented profound changes with regard to civil rights, equal opportunity, peace, sustainable development, and other issues that are being championed by social movements. It has been argued, therefore, that social movements clearly matter in the political process (Giugni, McAdam, & Tilly, 1999; Meyer, 2006). Indeed, some of the major processes of democratization in the 20th century have been implemented partly as a result of the demands of social movements. From an analytical point of view, however, it is difficult to assess whether these policy changes really can be attributed to the activities of social movements. Or to phrase it in a counterfactual manner, would political systems have adopted the same reforms in the absence of social movement activity? It is almost impossible to answer this kind of question in an unequivocal manner. It is crucial, however, that social movements in any case have had a strong agenda-setting effect, bringing to the front of the political agenda topics that were considered not politically relevant. Some studies have clearly demonstrated this agenda-setting effect, such as with regard to abortion rights and children’s rights. There is less agreement, however, on the exact contribution of social movements to further phases in the policy cycle. Once an issue is accepted on the political agenda, the executive, the parliaments, and the political parties tend to take control of it, which renders it more difficult for social movement organizations to try to influence its further development.
Some studies have also highlighted the fact that “political success” in the context of social movements is not an unequivocal concept. As the issues that have been brought forward by social movement organizations are integrated into the policy agenda, movement organizations may be seen as superfluous and may become caught in a downward mobilization spiral. Although some organizations might react to this form of policy success by a process of radicalization that leads to new demands on the political system, the mainstream effect is usually demobilization and/or institutionalization. For the women’s movement, for example, it has been argued that feminist groups may no longer be as active as they were in the 1960s and 1970s, but that they are becoming increasingly intertwined with the state bureaucracy, leading to the phenomenon of state feminism (Stetson & Mazur, 1995).
Furthermore, however, it has to be remembered that the impact of social movements does not remain limited to changes in legislation and policy. It has also been argued that social movement activity is associated with strong cultural change, such as with regard to more attention to the environment or biodiversity, or with stronger sensitivity to injustice, such as in race or gender relations. Some feel that the women’s movement in particular succeeded in bringing about important cultural changes, leading to stronger support for equal gender roles throughout society. Survey research makes clear that issues that were pioneered by the social movements of the 1960s are now accepted by a large part of public opinion in Western countries. Some research has even pointed to a totally different form of consequences of social movement activity. For the participants themselves, participating in social movements has profound biographical consequences, leading to a pattern of continued involvement and a strengthened sense of empowerment and efficacy. Even decades after their initial involvement, social movement participants are still characterized by significantly higher levels of participation, knowledge, and efficacy (McAdam, 1988). The impact of social movements goes even further in this respect, as participants’ activities allowed for the development of distinct social identities, based, for example, on a feminist identity or a homosexual or transgender identity.
IV. Future Directions
Since the 1970s, social movement studies have grown into a fully mature subfield straddling the boundaries of sociology and political science. It is interesting to note that social movement studies have also established links with the disciplines of social psychology, communication, international relations, and gender studies. Social movement participation is now fully accepted as an integrative part of the political action repertoire of ordinary citizens. Within the academy, social movement studies has become an accepted subfield, with numerous courses on social movements and two well-established journals. Mobilization. An International Journal (established in 1996) and Social Movement Studies (established in 2002) continue to publish state-of-the-art research on social movements. Whereas the former journal tends to emphasize U.S. studies, the latter is more strongly rooted in the European tradition.
From a theoretical perspective, too, it can be argued that social movement studies have become a fully established and consolidated area of study. The main theoretical approaches that were developed in the 1970s and 1980s are still clearly present in the current scholarly work, and although the original insights have been qualified to a large extent, it is difficult to pinpoint any major theoretical innovations that have occurred in the past decade.
It has been quite clearly documented that social movements tend to follow a protest cycle, with peak periods of mobilization, followed by longer periods of demobilization. Generally, the 1960s and 1970s are considered a very intensive mobilization period, but this kind of protest behavior seems less predominant in the early years of the 21st century. To cite but one example, the war starting in Iraq in 2003 led to some mobilization by peace movement organizations, but in no way can these protests be compared to the intensive mobilization against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s. For social movement scholars, the challenge is to demonstrate that their field remains theoretically and socially relevant, even in periods when mobilization remains at relatively low levels. This challenge has led, for example, to a call for a renewed link between social movement studies and social theory. Walder (2009) has argued that social movement studies have tended to focus too narrowly on the process of mobilization, thus limiting their focus on the structural social change that is considered conducive for the rise of social movements. According to Walder, a wider focus would allow social movement scholars to relate their work to basic theoretical questions of social order and social change.
In the absence of major theoretical innovations, the focus of current research projects (which should lead to some major publications in the years ahead) is rather to apply current insights to new places and movements. Leftist and progressive movements in western Europe and the United States have been well documented by now, but if the theoretical approach to social movements really is comprehensive, it should also apply to other organizations. First of all, the scope of organizations has widened. In recent years, a number of scholars have tried to apply the insights of social movement studies to movements that thus far did not receive all that much attention in the field. Conservative or right wing associations in principle should be confronted with the same problems of mobilization, framing, and gaining access to the political decision-making process. Although a number of studies on extreme right activism are available, however, it still remains to be investigated whether the framework that has been developed for social movements in general can also be successfully applied to this kind of social movement organizations.
Second, there has been a tendency to expand into the domain of political parties and other forms of political involvement. Political parties increasingly experience difficulties in mobilizing new members and in activating their existing members. Parties too are typically confronted with the organizational dilemma that it is extremely difficult to develop an internal organization that is coherent with their ideology. Whereas in the 1970s and 1980s, social movement participation was still seen as an innovating feature of the political action repertoire of citizens, this is no longer the case. New forms of participation have now come to the front, posing a new challenge to the theoretical study of participation behavior. Internet-mediated forms of participation, emotionally driven protest activities, transnational activism, symbolic challenges, and “spontaneous” or instantaneous forms of participation still need further investigation, and it has to be assessed whether these new forms of participation would have the same dynamics as social movement participation. Although it is clear that these new forms of protest succeed in mobilizing a large number of people, we do not know yet how successful they will be in exerting political influence, or in making sure their issues lead to a real policy output. This kind of initiative is often characterized by a rejection of traditional and hierarchical organizations, preferring more loose-knit networks or other egalitarian ways of organizing. This preference, however, could also make it more difficult to obtain real political leverage.
These new forms of participation clearly pose a challenge for mainstream social movement theory. This theory is focused rather strongly on the role of social movement organizations, and all these new developments could actually lead to a reduction of the role of organizations in the mobilization process. If protesters get mobilized by mass media or new communication technologies, the central role of organization is less evident. It remains to be investigated, however, whether challenges to the political system can be sustained in the absence of a solid organizational structure. Mass media might be very effective in mobilizing large numbers of people, yet it is also well-known that media tend to lose attention for issues after a limited time, moving on to the next issue at hand. Also, with regard to the biographical consequences of activism, we do not know whether socialization effects of involvement are just as strong in the absence of organized movements. Theda Skocpol (2003), for example, has expressed concern that social movement organizations are increasingly becoming professionalized. They no longer rely on the routine participation of a huge membership base but are increasingly being run by professionals who are paid by contributions of members. The involvement of most members will remain limited to paying dues and occasionally reading a newsletter or taking part in a professionally organized activity. The democratic idea of grassroots involvement in policy-making processes therefore seems more and more out of reach.
Third, recent studies have also witnessed a growing geographic spread of the movements under consideration. Already in the 1980s some studies had appeared on social movements in the (then still authoritarian) countries of Central and Eastern Europe, but more recently studies have addressed social movements in Latin American, Egypt, Iran, and China. These studies have forced us to examine whether the concepts that were developed for liberal industrialized societies can be applied meaningfully to other kinds of society. They have also led to new challenges for empirical research because this kind of research entails new risks, both for researchers and for respondents in the research.
It could be argued that social movement studies are less innovating in the current development phase than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Simultaneously, however, there can be little doubt that social movement studies will remain an integral part of sociology and political science. On one hand, they allow political science to connect to the theoretical debate about major changes with regard to the social and political structure of society. Issues such as global justice, gender equality, environmental degradation, and sustainable development have received increasing attention in political decision making, and it can be argued that social movements at least have been instrumental in bringing about this change. For political science, too, social movement studies have created an opportunity to keep in touch with these social and cultural changes.
Second, however, it is now taken for granted that full political participation is a hallmark of any well-functioning democracy. This kind of participation is no longer limited to electoral participation but encompasses various forms of participation, and participation in social movement organization is clearly one of them.
Social movement studies can be considered an important subfield within political science. They almost inevitably depart from a view of society in which social conflicts are seen as an integral part of the social structure. Movements also allow for a further democratization of society, enabling grassroots activism, and they are instrumental in bringing new topics onto the political agenda. Social movement theory has highlighted the role of resources and cultural and political conditions for the success of social movement organizations. The most recent decade has been characterized by efforts to integrate and consolidate these theoretical approaches. It seems clear that social movement activity in the current age is lower than it was in the heyday of the 1960s and 1970s, and the main challenge for social movement theory is to demonstrate that this subfield remains relevant for “mainstream” political science in periods of reduced social movement activity.
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