Social movements - a short introduction

Bewegungsstiftung means as much as ‘movement foundation’. Its aim is to promote and support the work of social movements. But: what are social movements, what are they doing and what effect can they have? This text tries to give some answers.

Februar 15, 2003: about 15 million people in 600 cities in 60 countries crowded the streets to protest against the war in Iraq. Do these people pursue common goals? Do they have a common identity? Are they a social movement?
Yes, they are part of a movement, because it is the joined effort of citizen initiatives, action groups, trade unions, churches and hundred thousands of individuals against a war, and this is what shapes an international peace movement. And those groups can be of significance in the global interplay of forces.

But not every citizen initiative, not every campaign is a social movement. ‘Movements’ are only those networks of groups and organizations which want to change society together (or stand up against a change). For changing society it takes more than a small correction of legislation or criticism of a political representative. Nothing less than the fundamental structure of society and the general political and economic principles need to be changed; as well as the values that go along with them. If those changes happen in small moderate doses or in a big upheaval remains open. During the protest movement against the Iraq War the slogan »No War« evolved and the desire to find peaceful mechanisms for solving conflicts. For some activists this means that war needs to be overcome in general, in the same way as slavery was abolished. Other concerned people went to the street only against this specific war without rejecting war under all circumstances.

Network character of social movements

The structure of different parts of a movement can be formal or informal, egalitarian or hierarchical. In a movement, networks of groups and organizations are only loosely connected. The movement as a whole is not an organization. It does not have a programme that is valid for everybody, it does not vote for a board nor does it issue membership cards. A movement is held together not only by common goals but also by a feeling of belonging as well as by a collective identity. Collective identity shows in common actions, values, symbols (such as the peace dove), but also in common enemies. In the Iraq War the slogan »No War for Oil« became a connecting element.

Protest as a key element

Protest is the key element for social movements, because they – in contrast to conventional interest groups and established political parties – do not have access to the political decision making system, nor do they have political power or larger financial resources. Movements mobilize mostly people that commit to the ideas of the movement because of their political conviction, not because they get paid. Protest is a way of expressing criticism and resistance, a way to raise attention and make voices heard. Movements need public attention and approval. The success of protests cannot always be planned and sometimes the organizers are surprised by their own success, such as with the demonstrations of February 15, 2003. To the same degree as movements meet approval they can hope to gain influence on political decision makers, who cannot go unpunished if they completely ignore public pressure and the opinion of potential voters – at least in democratic systems

What do social movements do?

To change society, social movements collect signatures and write objections, they organize rallies and marches, form human chains and block streets, call for strikes and occupy buildings. Sometimes it happens that groups within social movements damage objects or even attack people. The majority of movements, however, hold the opinion that people – including the political enemy – should not be harmed. In the protest movement against the war in Iraq there were many different forms of actions: vigils, human chains, demonstrations, as well as different forms of civil disobedience (blockades, manoeuvre disruptions).

No movement is protesting all the time. Beyond public visible protests, people in social movements develop many activities. On one hand, those activities are connected with the protest practice and they are needed to prepare or follow-up an action, such as writing a text for a flyer, organize a press conference, register a rally, evaluate the media response. On the other hands, social movements are spaces for getting together, to realize oneself, for mutual learning, for exchanging information, for strategic debates. Also, they are spaces to create concrete alternatives to conventional solutions: Many pioneers of wind power stations came from the environmental movement.

Which effect do social movements have?

Social movements can achieve impressive successes or fail completely. More frequently it happens that social movements achieve partial successes, especially if they continue for a long time and attract many people. Examples for failed movements are, e.g., the efforts for a strict alcohol prohibition in the U.S.A. In many countries, however, movements succeeded which fought for the introduction of a free, general and equal right to vote. Significant partial successes were achieved by workers movements and their pressure for a social welfare system and for the right to form trade unions; the ecology movement which demanded legal measures for protecting the environment as well as the women’s movement which fought against gender specific discrimination.

The effects of social movements are hard to judge, because they have several dimensions and they can be of indirect and long term character. Movements that are not successful in the public perception can still develop great effects. For example, people can be politicized within a seemingly futile campaign against a nuclear power plant or they can be inspired to change their behaviour (conscious consumption, saving energy). The protests against the Iraq War were not able to prevent the war. But they kicked off a global debate about meaning and legitimation of this war. Critical governments were strengthened, a deployment in Turkey was prevented and the threshold for future wars has become higher.

Social movements are an expression of active civic commitment. Many organizations and institutions which we take for granted today – such as trade unions, welfare organizations, political parties – have developed from social movements. Social movements have continuously, often in small steps, contributed to social change or to a policy reform. Sometimes, however, they have also blocked positive developments. In extraordinary moments social movements have – in peaceful or unpeaceful ways – lead to revolutionary changes. Often they were laughed at or were even actively resisted, sometimes they were honoured long afterwards. We owe them the far-reaching abolition of peonage and slavery, and we owe them the progressive realization of democracy.


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