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Popular movement theory





What makes a popular movement? How do they work? How do they win? These are questions that have gained increased interest after the movement wave of the 60s-70s – unfortunately without having been answered very well.

The reason is that popular movements are chaotic, like the weather. While their opponents, states and capital, follow easy rules: states aim at order, capitals aim at profit. This is easy to build theories around. While theories about chaotic popular movements also tend to be chaotic.

Not even the simple question ”what is a popular (or social) movement?” has a self-evident answer. But the editors of this website sympathise with the German Joakim Raschke, who states:

” A social movement is a mobilising collective actor that, with a certain continuity and grounded in a high symbolic coherence and weak role specialization, through different organisational and action forms work for the realisation or prevention of fundamental societal changes, or reestablishing earlier societal conditions”

The more role specification into professions, the less mobilization and action, and the less societal changes, the less it is of a movement.

There are also a few other things that are reasonably sure.

1. Popular movements emanate from the civil society: They are not ruled by super- and subordination or profit, but of peoples’ ”social responsivity”, their ability to answer eachothers’ appeals, and by reciprocity.

2. Popular movements express conflicts between groups, and are there to protect people at the receiving end of an unequal relation. If there is no conflict – which is of course extremely hypothetic – then there is no peoples’ movement. The conflicts are economic, political and cultural, simultaneously. No peoples’ movement can be reduced to a pure ”interest”; it is simultaneously a worldview and a way to think and feel.

3. Popular movements are dissolvable into a successive process, a sequence ranging from the existence of a group at the receiving end of an inequality relation, through the development of a collective attitude and a habitus, development of a collective identity, articulation of interests linked to the formation of alternatives and programs, organizing of mobilizations for these alternatives and programs, mobilizations of resources, building of alliances and relations, acting in conflict, and to managing the result of the actions. Neither of these are simple to achieve, and mistakes are more common than success – which is a natural result of the chaoticness. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and the only way of dealing with it is constant reassessment and keeping a door open to renewal.

4. Popular movements can degenerate into something else. Movements have degenerated both into business and into government agencies – because they have forgot any of the characteristics: weak role specification, mobilization, conflictive action, or societal change. This is not always a fault – but it is good to know what one is doing, and not lie about it!

Veit Michael Bader, Kollektives Handeln, Leske & Budrich 1991
Sidney Tarrow, Power of movement – social movements, collective action and politics, Cambridge University Press 1994
Charles Tilly, From mobilization to revolution, McGraw Hill 1978
Ron Eyerman & Andrew Jamison: Social movements – a cognitive approach, Polity Press 1991
Rick Fantasia: Cultures of solidarity, University of California Press 1988
Daniel A. Foss & Ralph Larkin: Beyond revolution: a new theory of social movements, Bergin & Garvey 1986
Randall Collins: Sociological insight, Oxford University Press 1992


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