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Social Movements Now and Then: How People Make History

Sociologists have developed a variety of theories and empirical research on social movements that are closely connected with democracy. Why do people join and stay in social movements? What happens to them when participants achieve their goals? Benjamin Lind, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Sociology and author of the course 'History of Social Movements', explained what makes the subject relevant nowadays and shared his own experience with social movements in an interview for the HSE news service.

― Tell us about your course 'History of Social Movements'. What are your goals with the course?

― The course has two aims. The first is to review the history of social movement theory. In keeping with the field, this theoretical portion begins in the mid-1970s and continues to contemporary developments. The second aim is to instruct students on historical methods.

― How can media help social movements reach broader audiences? What role do social media play in this process?

― Like public relations firms, social movement organizations must actively engage in media work, and they often hire specialists to perform this task. Traditionally, the literature on this subject focuses on national newspapers and asks questions regarding coverage, as most movement organizations and protests go unreported.

Of course, social media is vital for movement actors to broadcast their claims widely, yet it is not a panacea for mobilization. Activists can use social media to announce when and where events occur, and their online accounts can serve as contact points for journalists. Basically, the role is comparable to organizational newsletters, fliers, telephone calls, etc., yet on a (potentially) much larger scale.

Despite the obvious benefits that can accrue from social media, let's not exaggerate its capabilities. First, movements have to compete for audiences’ attention. Second, Zeynep Tufekci has claimed that while social media makes organizing massive events quick and possible, it does so at the expense of developing lasting social infrastructure that can only be created through stronger, face-to-face forms of contact. Third, it's easy to forget that quickly organized, massive protests were indeed possible prior to social media and advanced telecommunications infrastructure. I am currently working on a project about a general strike across the U.S. in which 130,000 miners went on strike on the same day (April 21), agreed upon by their union just ten days earlier. That was in 1894.

Movement organizations that reach their goals (and even many that do not) always leave behind a collection of activists with more experience than they had before. Activists involved in movement organizations that achieve their goals are typically more useful for future movements than inexperienced participants are.

Benjamin Lind
Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Sociology


― What are main reasons people join and stay in social movements nowadays?

― Because it isn't useful to particularize movement participation as something different "nowadays" relative to the past, I will instead offer a few general explanations.

From the standpoint of individuals, recruitment generally boils down to a three-step process. First, the would-be activist must agree with a movement's goals. Second, he or she must be 'biographically available'. Having the time and means to participate, perhaps being free of parenting needs, having a flexible work schedule, possessing physical mobility, etc. Third, a person must have some form of contact with the movement of interest, through someone like a friend, family member, or co-worker, or perhaps a social media posting.

That said, focusing on individual recruitment is a considerable oversimplification. For starters, the particular movement must exist and be realized through one or more organizations. Effective and dedicated leaders can encourage more people to join a movement. Furthermore, movement organizations have relationships with other organizations. Some of these relationships are supportive and can lead to movement growth, while other inter-organizational relationships are adversarial. In the case of adversarial relationships and movement-countermovement dynamics, each side tries to prevent the other side from gaining membership.

Beyond personal and organizational issues, there are macro level considerations as well. These include political climate; movements excluded from the polity and those destined to lose or face repression typically have a hard time attracting members. There are also escalation and diffusion effects whereby the growth of members in the past (sometimes from nearby locations) can affect future growth.

As you can see, it's somewhat difficult to provide a parsimonious, general explanation without knowing the historical circumstances of the case.

― What happens to social movements when they achieve their goals?

― It's important to bear in mind that not all movements target the state. Many do, though many target schools, businesses, and other institutions. A movement's target affects its strategy, goals, and aftermath of goal attainment.

There are basically three possibilities and one certainty. First, if a movement organization achieves its goals, then sometimes they dissolve as their purpose has been fulfilled. Second, a movement organization can create new goals that speak to a common mission statement. Third, the movement organization may change its organizational structure. The organization may form political parties to become incorporated into the state, it may swell in members, or it might split into factions as some elements of the movement organization seek to address social change from within institutions while others stay outside of the institutions they seek to change. 

While any of the above three scenarios are possible, movement organizations that reach their goals (and even many that do not) always leave behind a collection of activists with more experience than they had before. Activists involved in movement organizations that achieve their goals are typically more useful for future movements than inexperienced participants are.

― Have you ever been engaged in any form of social movement activity?

― If I give you an honest answer and you publish it, will I be deported? Will my home be bugged? My visa not renewed? My social media accounts trolled? I kid.

Personally, I've participated in a few strikes and marches in the U.S., yet I have minimal organizational experience in them. As a scholarly observer and student of my new home country, I've attended a few protests in Moscow to witness their conduct and form. Of course, I'm relatively new to understanding Russian politics and society, so it's not entirely appropriate for me to actively engage in the country's politics.

Ekaterina Solovova, specially for the HSE News Service

Author: Ekaterina Solovova, April 30, 2014