Peoples' movements and protests




Approaches in popular movement research



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By Jan Wiklund



Researchers, mainly sociologists and social anthropologists, began to take an international interest in popular movements in connection with the popular movement mobilisations between 1965 and 1975. Previously, this interest had mainly focused on condemning popular movements as irrational outbursts of stupid crowds. Eventually, the organised expression of popular movements was allowed to exist as 'interest groups'.

Historians were happy to portray popular movements, but mainly as the backdrop against which 'great men' could perform.

Since the more serious interest began, research has had different focuses over the years, i.e. there have been changing, partly fashionable, areas of interest for their research. One peephole after another has attracted interest and enticed researchers to describe popular movements according to what can be seen from this particular peephole.

The oldest was the so-called resource mobilisation school, which emerged in the 1960s. It focussed on the fact that popular movements, by definition, struggle from a disadvantage but still sometimes manage to win. How do they go about overcoming their disadvantage? What resources do they use to gain the advantage they need over those in power? Key concepts for them included alliances and networks.
Doug McAdam, John McCarthy, Mayer Zald and Charles Tilly have contributed to this tradition. Tilly's 1972 book From Mobilisation to Revolution is a worthwhile read, if somewhat dull.

Others have perceived that popular movements are a concept related to conflict, so what the other party does should also be important. They have focused on the fact that windows of opportunity sometimes open up that popular movements can exploit, for example in the form of disagreement within the ruling class, or that other popular movements arise at the same time that weaken the rulers and allow the popular movements to succeed. However, scholars in this school, commonly referred to as the 'opportunity structure' school, have rarely studied what popular movements themselves can do to create such disagreements and weaknesses; they are usually portrayed as reacting rather than acting independently. Peter Eisinger, and especially Sidney Tarrow, has been associated with this perspective; the latter's Power in Movement from 1994 is a fun and readable book.

Yet another starting point is what popular movements do when they act. Charles Tilly has coined the term 'popular movement repertoire' and shown that such repertoires tend to change very slowly and depend on how society is organised and what the conflicts are about. His 1984 book The contentious French is a lush and colourful account of five centuries that shows how repertoires change.

Still others focus on the movements' perception of themselves and their environment and of their self-constructed and always subjective motives for action. Such theories of identity and culture have been advanced in particular by Alberto Melucci and James Jasper.

Scholars in this tradition have tended to see a difference between the popular movements they have studied, for which identity and culture are important, and what they have called older popular movements, which they have assumed have been more economically focused. However, researchers such as Craig Calhoun have concluded that such differences do not exist.

A more interesting approach is that popular movements are what happens in people's heads, that you and I become a ”we” with a common interest. This is partly the starting point for Andrew Jamison and Ron Eyerman's Social movements - a cognitive approach. It went unnoticed in Sweden, perhaps because it was so theoretical. Rick Fantasia provides more empirical meat on the same bones in Cultures of solidarity.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are Marxist-influenced researchers who start from what the conflicts are about. They tend to ignore what the movements are doing because, in their view, conflict is so completely natural that one hardly needs to care how it is played out. This perspective is less popular now than it was fifty years ago -- which in a way is a pity because at least they touch on the energy that makes popular movements happen.

All these traditions, most of which have been developed in Anglo-Saxon countries, thus emphasise one part of the study while neglecting other aspects. The only person who, to my knowledge, has attempted to visualise some sort of whole is Veit Michael Bader, a German. The result, which is presented in Kollektives Handeln 1991 (without the Anglo-Saxon research seeming to have noticed it), is that popular movements are so chaotic and multifaceted that no unified theory is possible; the best one can hope for is partial theories. A detailed summary can be found in Carriers of Democracy, see Appendix.

However, we must not forget all those social historians who have tried to follow a particular popular movement or event and describe it as fully as possible. Their accounts are often as interesting as those of the more theoretical researchers.
The great pioneer of this type of research is E.P. Thompson, whose book The making of the English working class in 1963 describes how craftsmen and day labourers, in their struggle against an oppressive authority, form themselves into a working class with the help of successive trade union and political mobilisations. Other classics include John Womack's Zapata and the Mexican revolution from 1968, William Sewell's Work and revolution in France from 1980 and John Walton & David Seddon: Free markets & food riots from 1994. More books can be found here.

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