History Of Social Movements Research Paper

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Social movements, according to sociologist Sidney Tarrow’s definition, are ‘collective challenges, based on common purposes and social solidarities in sustained interaction with elites, opponents and authorities’ (Tarrow 1998, p. 4). This definition, derived from studies of both historical and contemporary social movements, locates the earliest movements in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The emergence of social movements was contemporaneous with: (a) the increased centralization of national states that accompanied war and revolution in western Europe and North America; (b) the rise of the popular press and the circulation of notions of natural rights and liberty put forward by Enlightenment and revolutionary thinkers; and (c) particularly in England and the English-speaking colonies of North America, the rise of evangelical and nonconforming religions in which literacy and reading were cultivated and principles of human rights formulated. From that period and place, social movements have proliferated to the world.

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The chief focus of this research paper is the history of social movements in the West that have attracted most scholarly attention; it draws particularly on studies done in the years 1975–2000—a period in which the concept of social movement has been redefined and developed—for its theoretical framework and empirical base. The British movement for the abolition of slavery—an emblematic, and by some criteria the first social movement—serves as a concrete example of an early crusade that embodied many of the central features of the phenomenon.

1. The Abolition Of Slavery In Great Britain

The eighteenth and nineteenth century British abolitionist movement was distinctive in that it was aimed at an institution which had only a minor presence in Great Britain, whereas most social movements have been concerned with issues close to hand. Slavery nevertheless involved many Britons: British ships sailing from Liverpool were active in the slave trade carrying slavers to Africa and slaves to the Americas, and the ‘peculiar institution’ was common in Britain’s North American and universal in its Caribbean colonies. The question of the legality of slavery in Britain was raised as early as the 1720s, but it was not until 1772 that Lord Chief Justice Mansfield ruled that slavery was illegal under English law. English members of the Society of Friends had developed the earliest critique of slavery as contrary to Christian teaching, and local Quaker meetings first excluded slave traders in 1761 and later slave owners from membership.

Quakers then turned to political action to end British involvement in the slave trade, establishing in 1787 the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, commonly known as the London Committee. This organization welcomed non-Friends as members, and recruited both middle and working-class adherents. The political technique utilized by the Committee in this and later campaigns was mass petitions to Parliament. Thomas Clarkson, a gifted organizer, and other activists worked outward from London and local Friends meetings to form regional organizations, recruit members, distribute leaflets, and collect signatures on petitions to Parliament calling for the end of the slave trade. (Clarkson and his associates began their crusade with an exclusive focus on the slave trade, as less contentious than abolition.) Visual images portraying the horrors of the slave trade such as a print of the cross section of a slave ship with its tightly packed human cargo and Josiah Wedgwood’s medallion of a kneeling chained slave, inscribed with the motto ‘Am I not a Man and Brother?’ were highly effective in attracting supporters.

There was an outpouring of support, with about 60,000 male signers on the first petitions, including 11,000 men from Manchester, the center of the burgeoning cotton spinning industry. Parliamentary sympathy for the cause seemed strong up to 1792, when 519 petitions with up to 400,000 signers were collected. However, legislative support dropped with the slave revolt in Haiti, the contemporaneous radicalization of the French Revolution, and the outbreak of war against France. In 1794, the House of Lords decisively rejected the abolitionist resolutions presented to it.

Political opportunities for action on abolition reappeared in 1804, after Britain’s victories in the Napoleonic Wars and its seizure of the French Caribbean colonies. Clarkson and other organizers again canvassed the country seeking signatures; he also sought support from members of Parliament, in particular William Wilberforce, an Evangelical MP from Yorkshire who spoke eloquently about the evils of the trade and Samuel Whitbread, a nonconformist Protestant already known as a social reformer. Clarkson’s powers of persuasion and his Parliamentary allies combined to produce in 1807 a majority vote in Parliament to forbid British ships’ participation in the slave trade to both British possessions and foreign slave-holding colonies. The African Institution, founded in the same year, took as its task ascertaining the effectiveness of the British legislation.

Although British diplomats signed agreements eschewing the slave trade with other European powers, and indeed paid compensation when they did, the results were uneven. British activists resolved to continue their efforts, founding the Society for the Amelioration and Gradual Abolition of Slavery (known familiarly as the Anti-Slavery Society) in 1823 and the Agency Committee (1831), which demanded immediate and unconditional slave emancipation. The Agency’s professional organizers traveled around England, promoting local petition drives and pressure on candidates in the Parliamentary elections to declare their support of full abolition. Members of the House of Commons elected under the 1832 Reform Act were ready to vote for the abolition of slavery in British possessions, but the House of Lords was not. The outcome was a compromise Emancipation Act of 1833 that set August 1, 1834 as the date on which slavery would end, but stipulated a complex gradual process to complete freedom.

The former slaves would become ‘apprentices,’ working for pay three-quarters of their time for their ex-masters; one-quarter of the ex-slaves’ time was to be reserved for them to cultivate their newly-granted plots. Slave owners would be compensated by the state for the loss of their ‘property.’ The story did not end there, however. Disagreements about strategy between the Anti-Slavery Society (which had accepted the compromise Emancipation Act) and the Agency (which had not) continued, and the latter established yet another organization (the Central Negro Emancipation Committee) and sought to persuade Parliament that oppressive conditions still prevailed. In the end, the complex system based on the 1833 Act proved difficult to manage, and the planters themselves ended apprenticeship in 1838.

The international abolition movement matured in the 1830s, and began to hold annual congresses (which some American abolitionists attended) in 1840. The United States Civil War (1861–5) was the outcome of a series of legal and political disputes about slavery and state’s rights. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the Confederacy, and during the postwar Reconstruction the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Constitutional amendments (which completed abolition, made the ex-slaves citizens, and guaranteed their right to vote) were ratified. The abolition of slavery in Cuba (1886) and Brazil (1888) ended legal slavery in the West.

2. The Social Character Of Movements

Over the period 1975–2000, sociologists have begun to define ‘contentious politics’—confrontations of ordinary people with authorities and/or elites—as the building blocks of social movements. Sidney Tarrow defines the conditions under which contentious politics is triggered:

When changing political opportunities and constraints create incentives for social actors who lack resources on their own, they contend through known repertoires of contention and expand them by creating innovations at their margins. When backed by dense social networks and galvanized by culturally resonant, action-oriented symbols, contentious politics leads to sustained interaction with opponents. The result is the social movement (Tarrow 1998, p. 2).

The case of the British movement for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery illustrates this definition:

(a) the movement was collective and interactive, between authorities and the populace; it was conducted early on through organizations established for the purpose and spread by movement professionals;

(b) it was aimed at political authorities (in this case Parliament) which could take action to achieve the movement’s goal;

(c) each phase of activism on abolition began with an opening of political opportunity and ended when new political constraints closed off forward movement;

(d) the network of Quaker meetings was the first activated in the cause, but other church groups and local branches of the anti-slavery societies joined the abolitionist network over the period;

(e) interaction was contentious and drew on symbols that helped promote action;

(f) and participation in the movement came to be perceived by activists as constitutive of their identities.

3. Woman’s Suffrage In The United States

The formation of the United States woman’s suffrage movement was closely connected to the social groups and organizations that promoted the abolition of slavery there. For example, American woman’s suffrage activists Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton first met each other at the London World Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840, where they discussed the possibility of organizing an organization to promote women’s rights. Mott, a New Englander then living in Philadelphia and the senior of the two had founded the first Female Anti-Slavery Society in the United States; her home was a stop on the ‘underground railroad’ through which slaves escaped to Canada and freedom. The well-educated daughter of a judge, Stanton was born in western New York State, married an abolitionist leader, and eventually settled with her family in Seneca Falls, NY. Stanton and Mott renewed their acquaintance in 1848, when they and three like-minded women issued a call to a women’s rights conference in the summer. To their surprise, some 300 women and men came, applauded Stanton’s speech echoing the Declaration of Independence and passed a resolution on women’s suffrage: ‘Resolved, that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.’

The movement developed slowly through annual conferences, spreading primarily to the Middle West and East coast. In 1851, Stanton met Susan B. Anthony, then a paid organizer in the temperance movement. Anthony brought her organizational skills to women’s rights, beginning a drive in 1854 based on organizers in each county of the state of New York who recruited local women. These in turn collected signatures for a petition calling for women’s control of their own earnings, mothers’ guardianship of children in divorce, and women’s suffrage. The first concrete accomplishment—a New York state law granting women property rights—was passed in 1860.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, organizing efforts were temporarily suspended. Not for long, however, as Anthony and Stanton reactivated their abolitionist and women’s rights networks in 1863, issuing a call to a mobilization meeting in New York. The outcome was the National Women’s Loyal League that set to work gathering close to 400,000 signatures on a petition for the Thirteenth constitutional amendment that would free the slaves. Women also served on the Civil War Sanitary Commission, which raised funds and organized and administered nursing and support services for the military hospitals and convalescent centers.

The campaign for ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments (the first made male ex-slaves citizens and the second granted them the vote) split the former abolitionist movement colleagues between those who supported rights for the ex-slaves as a first priority, and those who supported universal suffrage. In 1869, two new organizations dedicated to women’s suffrage emerged from the split: the National Woman Suffrage Association founded by Anthony and Stanton which objected to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments because they specified male ex-slaves; and the American Woman Suffrage Association, founded by Lucy Stone, her husband Henry B. Blackwell, and Mary Livermore. These associations pursued the cause by different methods and separately for 20 years during which the westward movement was completed, the country industrialized, and new women’s associations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (1874) and the National Association of Colored Women (1895) were founded. In 1890, the National and the American Associations merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton as its first president; she was succeeded two years later by Susan B. Anthony who served to 1900.

Led after 1900 by Carrie Chapman Catt, a gifted organizer the National American Association continued its strategy: seeking constitutional change state by state. Catt resigned in 1904 to play an active role in founding the International Woman Suffrage Alliance launched that year. There was little activity around the woman suffrage (‘Susan B. Anthony’) amendment to the United States Constitution for over 10 years. New tactics appeared in 1913, devised by the more militant new movement recruits Alice Paul and Lucy Burns who were appointed to the National American Suffrage Association’s Congressional Committee. They promptly organized a demonstration of some 5,000 women who marched in Washington in support of a constitutional amendment the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration for a second term. Despite the organization’s permit for the parade, the police were unprepared for the crowd reaction and the women were mobbed and jeered. Later that year Paul and Burns established the Congressional Union, and their organization eventually became independent of the National American, which continued to pursue its state-by-state strategy, with only slow progress.

In 1915, Carrie Chapman Catt agreed to lead the campaign for women’s suffrage in New York State, and once again became president of the National American Suffrage Association with a newly energetic board committed to her plan for a renewed campaign for a national constitutional amendment. (The Congressional Union and its successor the Woman’s Party did not join the effort. The Woman’s Party nevertheless contributed to the process by courting arrest through disruptive and provocative action, which made the National American’s actions look reasonable.) At its convention in late 1917 the latter warned that if Congress did not approve the suffrage amendment before the next election, it would adopt the British suffragette method: opposing the election of Congressional candidates who opposed the federal amendment, no matter what their party. The amendment passed in the House of Representatives by the required two-thirds majority in January 1918, the Senate in 1919, and ratification by the requisite proportion of states was completed in 1920.

4. Twentieth Century Social Movements: Italian Fascism

In the early twentieth century, several movements demonstrated unequivocally the adaptability of the social movement to regressive ends. The Italian Fascist movement serves as an example.

After the end of World War One late in 1918, Italy was swept by waves of contentious politics: demobilized troops demanded jobs; peasants and agricultural laborers agitated for land; consumers called for price controls; and workers struck for higher wages. Among the groups engaging in collective action were the fasci di combattimento founded by Benito Mussolini (formerly a revolutionary socialist) who convened the first fascio in Milan on March 21, 1919. At a public rally two days later the national program was only vaguely described (it was not fully formulated and publicized until months later). The program called for integration of all Italian ‘national’ territory into the nation, and pledged to oppose all neutralist politics no matter the party involved; other radical social and political demands included universal (male) suffrage, a constituent assembly, a republic with local autonomy, the eight-hour day, worker participation in factory management, land to the peasants, elimination of the Senate and all noble titles, and an end to conscription, expropriative taxes, speculation, and monopoly.

The Fascists’ first public action (April 15, 1919) was a counter-demonstration together with students, World War veterans, and revolutionary syndicalists which attacked an anarchist socialist march protesting repression in Milan. It ended with the sacking and burning of the headquarters of the socialist newspaper A anti! In the next two years most Italian popular contention was dominated by socialists and organized social Catholics (represented by the newly-founded Popular Party) who both sought to control and lead the strikes in northern industries and large-scale agriculture in the Po Valley, the land occupations, and eventually in fall, 1920, the factory occupations. These struggles all occurred in northern Italy, where socialist and Popolari strength was concentrated. The Fascist counterattack from its urban bases (again in the north) began in the same period: physically assaulting unionized farm workers on strike, the headquarters of peasant leagues, cooperatives, and unions, burning left wing newspapers’ offices and printing plants, and breaking up meetings of the socialist communal councils as well.

Socialist and Popular Party organizations crumbled as Fascist membership and attacks both increased. The Fascists had become a political force to be reckoned with and their success went hand in hand with the demobilization of the left. In August 1921, Mussolini signed the so-called Pacification Pact with the socialists and Popolari, promising to eschew violence, but his followers forced him to back away from the agreement and he publicly renounced it later in the year. He also announced the formation of a political party, which he described as a rival to the state, outside traditional politics. Violent clashes between socialists and Fascists continued into 1922, when the Fascist threat to seize the state forced the cancellation of a general strike planned by an ad hoc group of unions; by then the entire Po Valley, and much of North and Central Italy was in Fascist hands.

As the constitutional parties called for a new government, Mussolini threatened to march on Rome to seize power. The march never happened; instead, Fascist Black Shirts occupied provincial government and party headquarters, post offices, and police stations (again in the north, where socialist power had been concentrated) sometimes without resistance. Fascist threats and his own concerns led the king to refuse to sign the declaration of martial law which the prime minister had drawn up, and Mussolini’s first government (based on a coalition of center and right parties) was formally constituted on October 31, 1922. Mussolini used nationalism wreathed in patriotism as a weapon against the left, and he continued to be a master of language and image once in power.

Although there had been social movements in the European colonies (and in China, as well) before the outbreak of World War I in 1914, there were many more non-Western movements in the twentieth century; they ranged in principal concerns from nationalism to widow burning and female circumcision (in India and Kenya respectively). Nationalists sometimes rejected Western notions of modernity and connected customs that seemed unacceptable to Westerners to colonial cultural authenticity. Two examples are Mahatma Gandhi in his representation of himself with a spinning wheel and in his advocacy of khadi (handspun and woven cotton cloth which he himself wore in his later years), and Kenyan nationalist Jomo Kenyatta who defended female circumcision on behalf of the Kikuyu Central Association, a pre-independence nationalist organization. More recently, televised news reports and rapid communication by telephone, fax, and e-mail have made possible the almost instantaneous transmission of news not only in print, but of visual images as well. To what extent can we speak of transnational social movements?

5. Transnational Social Movements

The above discussion of anti-slavery and women’s rights as social movements notes the international dimensions that were integral to social movements even in the late eighteenth century; similarities and connections of social movements across borders are not new. Sidney Tarrow offers a more restrictive definition of a transnational social movement:

sustained contentious interactions with opponents—national or nonnational—by connected networks of challengers organized across national boundaries … What is important … is that the challengers themselves be both rooted in domestic social networks and connected to one another more than episodically through common ways of seeing the world, or through informal or organizational ties, and that their challenges be contentious in deed as well as in word (1998, p. 184).

Tarrow discusses three movements that fit his definition: the contemporary ecological and environmental movement, the European and American peace movement of the 1980s, and Islamic fundamentalism.

The ecological/environmental movement, which mounted coordinated worldwide Earth Day demonstrations in the late 1970s and early 1980s, provides the example discussed here. Some of its social movement organizations and their coordinated activities across borders do qualify as transnational organizations, as Tarrow demonstrates. Greenpeace, for example, has been a genuinely transnational social movement organization, with professional organizers and offices in many countries, and supporters who share a common world view and are willing to support its advocacy. Founded in Vancouver, Canada, according to its 1992–3 report it had over five million supporters (contributors), 43 offices, and over a thousand paid employees. It developed out of domestic movements that had similar goals, organized advocacy networks, and conducted contentious politics that cross national boundaries. Its members and sympathizers demonstrated against French nuclear testing in the Pacific and against abusive fishing for whales by Japanese and Soviet whalers.

Nevertheless, most international connections are less sustained and less professionalized than Greenpeace. Not all issues can attract support across the varied conditions of world polities, and most political, social, and economic international movements continue to work within states and national-level private institutions like large business organizations or labor unions rather than through transnational voluntary associations which represent individuals’ world views directly.

6. Overview: Social Movements From The Eighteenth To The Twentieth Century

Sidney Tarrow’s definition of the social movement (quoted in the opening sentence of this research paper) posits its applicability to the entire period since the first appearance of social movements in the late eighteenth century up to the present. His definition is based on the premise that although the issues and tactics of social movements have changed over the two centuries in which they have proliferated the defining form of social movements—their collective nature, common purposes, and shared base in social solidarities with roots in the social structure in which they occur—have remained relatively unchanged. Not all social movement scholars agree with this premise; among European sociologists and political scientists in particular the concept of ‘new social movements’ has been developed since 1985.

Kriesi et al. (1995) argue that a new type of social movements which address similar issues yet vary significantly in form according to the national political context has emerged in Western Europe since 1968. Kriesi and his colleagues emphasize contemporary cross-national variation in domestic politics and corresponding differences in the timing and other characteristics of social movements. The examples that they discuss under the rubric of new social movements include ‘the ecology movement (with its antinuclear energy branch), the solidarity movement (with the Third World), the contemporary women’s movement, the squatters’ movement, as well as various other movements mobilizing for the rights of discriminatedagainst minorities’ such as gays (1995, p. xii). The new type of social movements discussed by Kriesi et al. (1995) is classified according to the chief constituencies of the movements and the connections among them. Tarrow’s definition of social movements leaves open the characteristics of their members and their goals and stresses the movements’ longstanding form. Two alternatives present themselves: in terms of their political concerns and context then, recent social movements may herald changes in some aspects of movement politics and require redefinition of the concept. Alternatively, the broad definition with which this research paper begins argues for stability in the form of social movements even as the issues that bring them into the public arena change. Whether either one of these alternatives will contribute to understand contemporary and future social movements better is an empirical question that can only be determined with a longer span of observations.


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